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GOLF: The Sublime Askernish. Deal W. Hudson Wins the Askernish Open

By Deal W. Hudson
September 13th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

All golfers are familiar with fear -- the fear of failure to make a good stroke, hole a putt, compete under pressure. Golfers are also well aware of the fear facing them by an out of bounds, a lake, a creek alongside the fairway, a sand trap. But these fears are not drawn from an encounter with the sublime, such as the view from the 6th tee at Askernish.

SOUTH UIST, Scotland (Catholic Online) - I had just finished, for the second year in a row, the Askernish Open held on the restored 1891 Old Tom Morris course in the Outer Hebrides on the island of South Uist in Scotland.

"Why does this course seem one of a kind, so very unique?" I was asking myself. As in the previous year, I was completely exhausted but also completely exhilarated by three days of walking, climbing, trudging the fairways, greens, rough, and dunes of that rugged course.

Thanks to friends, I have been fortunate to play many of the top 100 golf courses, but for some reason Askernish stands out to me among courses like Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills, Cypress Point, The Old Course, Royal County Down, Winged Foot, Seminole, Pebble Beach, Sand Hills, etc.

Bear in mind, I am not alone in wondering about the greatness of Askernish. It was the advocacy of noted sportswriter John Garrity that helped to draw me there in the first place by naming Askernish the #1 golf course in the world.

Then I recalled, having taught philosophy for many years, an essay written by Edmund Burke in 1757. Burke is best known for his defense of political liberty, but this essay is one of his most original. Burke distinguishes between the experience of the beautiful and what he calls "the sublime." The beautiful, according to Burke, is simply what pleases our senses. But the sublime is something more: It has beauty, for sure, but also imparts an element of fear. The sublime is the beautiful that feels dangerous -- it over awes us leaving a reminder of our fallibility and human fragility.

All golfers are familiar with fear -- the fear of failure to make a good stroke, hole a putt, compete under pressure. Golfers are also well aware of the fear facing them by an out of bounds, a lake, a creek alongside the fairway, a sand trap. But these fears are not drawn from an encounter with the sublime, such as the view from the 6th tee at Askernish.

A 574 yard par 5, "The Runway", starts from an elevated tee overlooking the ocean on the right and down onto a fairway that sweeps upward from left to right towards a green, barely visible in the distance, set between two dunes. The gradual, and deceptively steep, rise and the sensual bend of the fairway look as if the lines were drawn by an artist's hands. Its length intimidates; into the wind it can paralyze, and the golfer knows that by going across any of its edges the ball will likely be lost or, if found, moved only by the blow of a savagely descending wedge.

Once on the fairway, the green comes into view with a front edge as round and smooth as a bowling ball. It must be cleared, but then the pin appears to be sloping away: What to do? How to clear the edge but keep the ball on the green? Into the wind, the problem is clearing the edge; downwind the problem is stopping it, because the "deep stuff" lies just behind.

The 6th fairway is wide by any objective standard, but half the times I've played it I've landed either to the left or the right. The visual sublimity of the hole incites even the most grooved swing to go awry. Even the slightest miscalculation of a well-struck shot can catch the rough on the right or bound into the rough on the left where the fairway near and below the green slopes away along hard ground.

The 6th hole is typical of the Askernish layout, not because of its length but because of the challenges posed by what, at first glance, should be a fairly easy hole. The fairway is wide and, except for the imperious green position, should be reachable in three shots by most golfers. The pitches, undulations, and subtle humps of the fairway and greens can send the ball, well-struck or not, into harm's way.  Once past the first cut, balls are rarely found.

Add to these elements a factor that players of links golf don't need to be reminded of -- weather -- the 6074 yard Askernish can leave you feeling as if you've played 7000 yards, or more. Weather on the links becomes as important to the striking of the ball as any other consideration, affecting everything from club selection and line to the intended ball flight. It wasn't until I started playing the links of Scotland and Ireland, some fifteen years ago, that I found out what kind of golf game I really had, and what the challenge of the game really was.

I'd suggest there is another factor, not just inherent to links golf but to all golf, that golfers usually fail to take into account, namely, the pressure they feel, or the anxiety, created by the sheer beauty of a golf hole.  At an unconscious level a golfer would no more want to ruin the beauty of a golf hole with the white tracings of a duck hook than he would ruthlessly drag a key across the side of a jet black BMW. 

Golfers may become aware of this when they carefully place their, often oversized, divots back into the gash they created on a pristinely green fairway.  "I sinned against the beauty of this hole," I will sometimes say to my fellow players after an errant tee shot. Some get it, some do not, at least consciously.

But the sublime golf hole imparts to the senses an even greater challenge: The 6th at Askernish, like the labyrinthine par-5 12th, the  "Piobaireachd", brings the danger into the conscious thoughts in a golfer's mind: He or she knows such a hole is dangerous, possessing a seductive and potentially deadly beauty.

Perhaps what I have learned from playing Askernish is a lesson in how to deal with that seductiveness and fear of losing my confident stroke in the face of such attractive grandeur.

I will return to the Askernish Open in 2014 to have the opportunity to stride once again over those 18 sublime holes, be overcome by their awe, and make shots that, with a little luck, will trace a faithful line toward their proper end, the cup -- because of this hope I will return to Askernish.

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Deal W. Hudson, the winner of the 2013 Askernish Open is a contributing editor to Catholic Online.

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