The Isle of Harris Golf Club
Scarista, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
United Kingdom

A game at the Isle of Harris Golf Club embraces the most laudable virtues of this ancient sport without the muss, fuss and expense that mars the modern game.

Man should not be without golf. That happy sentiment was held by the locals who built nine holes here around 1920. They had the permission of Lord Leverhume (William Hesketh Lever), who had purchased the isles of Harris and Lewis in the early 1900s. This English politician and philanthropist played one of the first recorded games at Scarista in the early 1920s. (The name ‘Lever’ ultimately became known world-wide as the world’s first multinational corporation, Unilever). G.G. MacDonald was the first documented champion of a club event here in 1939.

At 2,454 yards, this par 34 nine holer isn’t the Muhammad Ali of golf but rather Floyd Mayweather as it packs quite a punch for its size. A majority of the two shot holes (i.e. the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 9th) either drop or ascend more than forty feet from tee to green over the rambunctious terrain of the rock-strewn island. Incomparable views are regularly appreciated north along the craggy shoreline and south across the expansive Scarista beach to the distant Ciababhal mountains on Toehead peninsula. No course in the world trumps it for raw beauty – the unspoiled environment is that mesmerizing.

Two things stand out regarding the golf: First, how well and how varied the land is utilized and second, how much fun the greens create as a set of targets. It’s a pity that more isn’t known about who deserves credit for it as there are some appealingly fresh design attributes. As for the routing, drama is the only common denominator. Holes plunge downhill (e.g. the 1st, 5th, 8th), climb uphill abruptly (e.g. the 3rd), sometimes gradually (e.g. the 9th), twist through dunes (e.g. the 6th), over dunes (e.g. the 4th), or play sidehill (e.g. the 2nd, 7th). Beat that for variety!

In regards to the green complexes, they don’t let this special property down. A majority of them (e.g. the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 9th) feature tightly mown side banks that range upward to six feet. Figuring out how and when to use the banks in the various winds is at the heart of the challenge/fun. Look at the second green below –  wouldn’t your heart be lifted by the sight of a perfectly judged approach where the ball feeds off the high right, swooshes across the green, banks right, and settles near the back hole location – Pure magic! The others also engender creative challenge. For example, the sixth is one third (!) the size of the Postage Stamp, the seventh is Green Keeper James Dunne’s favorite and the eighth falls away from the golfer.

The bank along the left was built to help shelter the putting surface and enable good grass coverage. Though small, the fronting bunker plays large as all the high ground to the right funnels balls into it.

Great bunkering is the missing ingredient because the windy locale doesn’t lend itself to having sand particles stay stationary and loiter politely in a defined hazard. Indeed, only twelve bunkers dot the course and they are smallish. Similar to Royal Ashdown Forest, a lack of bunkers doesn’t diminish the playing experience but merely alters it. A round here is a novel playing experience, one that even the most jaded traveler is bound to savor long after his X rounds on mundane parkland courses blur.

The charm begins right away in the club’s diminutive parking lot, which can accommodate ~20 vehicles. Pulling in, you enjoy an uninterrupted 270 degree view across much of the course. What’s missing is … a clubhouse or for that matter any man-made artifice other than the fence and signage for the first tee. Splendidly done, the clubhouse is constructed of several shipping containers sunk into the hillside. Doing so was the brainchild of past captain Willie Fulton. From the early 1990s into this century, Fulton also helped drive a dramatic improvement in course conditioning, moving the course away from what was then described locally as ‘a patch of grazing land.’ As you open the gate and enter club property, you pass the honor box and step onto the first tee which virtually sits on top of the clubhouse. Indeed, the elemental glory of the Outer Hebrides in general and the Isle of Harris in particular is presented in an invigoratingly unfettered manner.

The clubhouse is out of sight, shrewdly sunk into the hillside. With no benches or ball washers, the course is free of clutter and the sense of man vs nature is exacerbated.

Golf is supposed to be a simple sport, one that adds joy to life and doesn’t complicate it. That basic allure of the sport is celebrated here in spades, as we see below.

Holes to Note

First hole, 260 yards, Borve; The exhilarating view from the first tee of the green below, near the water’s edge leaves no doubt that this is going to be a rollicking round. More times than not, the wind is left to right across the hole conspiring with the mound short right of the angled green to befuddle the complacent golfer. Conversely, everything can go your way: a hole-in-one was registered here in 2016, a cracking fine start to a round indeed. The mighty blow was struck by past Captain Hugh MacLean and even better, it was the inaugural shot of this playing season!

Set at an angle to the fairway, the first green is defended by the mound in front, another behind, and the angle of the putting surface to the fairway.

Second hole, 300 yards, Scarista; On the Isle of Harris, this is the hole the course is most famous for. And why not? It has everything: the tee ball plays on a diagonal across the rocky shoreline to a humpy-bumpy fairway before ending at a fascinating green complex. Much like the course, if the hole was 30% longer, it would be a household name far and wide.

The stuff of dreams – the tee shot at the second plays alongside the Sound of Tarensey.

The course’s best fairway contours are found at the second.

The course’s best fairway contours are found at the second.

The ground game rules on the approach but not in a typical links way. Instead, it’s the golfer who best utilizes the side banks who will triumph.

The rear of the green is eight paces across but the actual area for hole locations is a mere 25% of that (i.e. two paces across in the flat part of the trough).

Looking back down the second fairway to the defiant tee perched high on rocks that jut into the sea. The next stop west is Newfoundland!

Third hole, 310 yards, St. Kilda; This is a hole of two parts. The first is dispiriting – the golfer on the tee is confronted by a seemingly endless steep uphill slope. In actuality, at the 160 yard mark, the fairway stair-steps down ten feet before swinging left and climbing farther up the hill. The approach is to another one of Scarista’s appealing saddle greens.

The view from the third tee is daunting as the fairway rises at an abrupt 40 degree angle. Generally played into the wind, the fairway actually provides shelter to a well executed, boring tee ball. The Ciababhal mountains well in the distance provide a handsome backdrop.

This steep drop-off bifurcates the fairway. The green is up ahead to the left in the saddle.

What a start! The first three holes complete a triangle in which the golfer descends fifty feet to the shoreline,  traverses the coast and returns uphill.

Fourth hole, 145 yards, Ensay; The fourth crisscrosses the first hole to … where?! A directional marker at the crest of the hill provides a clue but directional markers and one shotters rarely go together. For a sense of adventure, one of the few courses in the world that can rival this one is found – not surprisingly – 65 miles to the south on the Isle of South Ulst  – Askernish Golf Club. Both clubs have a small green keeping staff. At Askernish four people look after eighteen holes and here it is the head Green Keeper James Dunne. That’s right, one man, who enlists help from the locals as required. Dunne had worked at several golf clubs on the mainland of the United Kingdom (including a stint at Walton Heath) before moving to the Outer Hebrides in 2012. As you can see, he does an outstanding job of maximizing the available resources. Additionally, he enjoys a keen sense of what constitutes good golf and he keeps the heavy beach grasses well back from play.

Only once the golfer is within 50 yards of the green does the vista of the bunkerless punchbowl green and the stunning Scarista beach greet the golfer. This beach continues as Northton beach creating a wondrous panorama of land, sea and sky. (Traigh Sgarastaigh in Gaelic) adds to the enchantment of being here.

This view from behind the fourth green captures some of the hole’s ground game aspects. The white directional marker is on top of the hill. A punchbowl green requires sandy soil to function properly, which is not an issue at Scarista.