Iona is a small island, barely 3 miles long, to the west of the island of Mull and as such is pretty remote. Iona is world famous for its ancient Abbey and attracts thousands of tourists a year, either to visit the Abbey, walk its sandy shores and rugged hills or study its wild life etc. However, few appear to know that there's an 18 hole golf course on the west side of the island and that the highlight of the golfing year on the island is the annual playing of the Iona Open, organised by the Honourable Company of Iona Golfers. I'd heard about this tournament from internet research and after some investigation was put in touch with George Hillard III, an American academic who had been coming across to play this old course for many years and was clearly a devotee of the course, the HCIG and the island itself. Indeed, it seemed that this annual competition attracted amateur golfers from all over the world, as much for the general camaraderie and apres-golf as for the game itself. Accordingly, Craig, Stu and I were keen to play in the 2011 Iona Open and Bert and Jim, their fathers, were roped in to join in the adventure. Unfortunately, work and other pressures meant that only I could make the trip to play in the Iona Open on 12 August 2011.
To set the scene, we'd all stayed in a no-star hotel in the back streets of Oban and after a late night celebrating our games at Dragon's Tooth etc. it was with some difficulty that we mustered for breakfast at 06.30. I suspect that there might have been a choice, but the formidable waitress's advice that "you will have full Scottish breakfast, yes" appeared to be more of a command than a question. We weren't minded to argue and with a long day in prospect, I risked the cholesterol one more time, taking another hit for the team. We'd been dodging the rain the previous day, but the local weather forecast was grim, with heavy rain coming in from the West on an Atlantic depression. Iona is roughly west of Oban, with the Iona course facing the Atlantic, so at least I was safe from getting sunburnt.
The ferry from Oban lands on the east side of Mull and its a 35 mile drive from there to the west side of the island to get the ferry to Iona, on an often bumpy single track road with passing places. That drive is simply stunning, through forests and mountains, and past various sea lochs, so there was a real sense of expectation by the time I got to Iona. It's a 45 minute walk to the course along yet another single track road, but I'd missed the ferry I'd planned to take and was going to miss my tee off time as a result. I needn't have worried, as some other golfers stopped to give me a lift. This is me on the 1st tee, with George and Bibby, my playing partners and the lady starter, who's quiet board had "quiet please" on one side to help the serious golfers and "keep talking and don't watch" on the other, for the less serious competitors. Clearly we were in the latter category, but with the weather forecast already looking ominously accurate, we would not be letting the rain dampen our spirits. This would be a fun round.
The Iona course (4491 yards, Par 66) dates back to 1886 and was laid out on an area of rough grazing land set between some substantial rocky outcrops, reminding me in parts of the Barra, Solles and Whalsay courses. The sheep and cattle had been cleared off the course and 18 greens had been cut and tee markers laid out but otherwise the Iona course was completely natural, with the sheep and cattle keeping the course cut and extremely well fertilised. Preferred lies were in play, but given the amount of manure in situ, extreme care was necessary on some holes. This was a throwback to how I imagine golf began, on land that was a far cry from the manicured surfaces we all normally play on. Another curious feature at Iona was the depth of the holes and the flags themselves. George told me that various experiments had been made over the years to maintain holes that were at risk of damage from sheep etc the latest one being to make the holes over a foot deep and lined with piping. The sheep also ate any flags that had been blown over, so the individual flags were made out of old lurid pink plastic fishing floats. This was not Augusta and as the skies opened, it wasn't looking much like August either. This is the 3rd green. Normally you'd be able to see far out to the Atlantic, but the fuzziness of this photo is actually rain!
The Iona Open is played over an 18 hole course, but the competition itself runs over the first 11 holes, with the HCIG Match Committee discarding your worst 2 scores. National handicaps don't count, and the best scratch scores for 9 holes win. George was a past HCIG Captain and it was a real pleasure to meet Spencer Patrick, the current Captain and several other regular competitors on the way round. This is George negotiating his way up the 2nd fairway. Note the rocks. Hit these and be prepared to duck or gain/lose several yards!
My opening drive on the 320 yard 1st Hole was a classic 30 yard duck hook, but I did at least recover from that to get to the green in 4 blows. The greens at Iona are simply areas of rough grazing covered liberally in weeds, flowers and manure, cut marginally shorter than the rest of the land. You can't really make a normal putting stroke and even the shortest putt can bounce offline (and you simply can't remove every scrap of sheep dropping!) so single putts are rare unless you've missed the green and chipped to within a few inches. Downhill putts are a particular problem so how I finished the 1st with a bogey 5 I really don't know. I also bogeyed the 2nd, but there were encouraging signs that I might actually go on to hit the ball reasonably well. The 3rd is a hugely difficult and spectacular uphill Par 3 of 190 yards, dominated by a huge natural bunker (roughly 40 yards by 30 and several feet deep) that from the number of deep footprints etc. looked as though it might be used as a shelter by sheep in storms. Not the place to get into, far less get out of! There's also rocky outcrops behind the green that must be avoided. My 7 wood wouldn't reach the green and would be likely to put me into the bunker, so a choked down driver was the only option. That was OK, but landed on the wrong side of a 4 foot high livestock fence, so a 5 from there was a bit of a setback.
However, I settled down to some decent play after that hole, and actually parred 4 out of the next 5 holes. The Iona Open ends on this, the 11th, a hugely tricky 185 yard Par 3. The tee shot is completely blind, over the side of a hill. Anything left risks hitting one of the 50 foot high rocky outcrops that protect the small green, set in a hollow. Anything right might either hit another outcrop or go over a cliff and be lost. I'd hit my trusty 7 wood yet again and was lucky to stumble across my ball in heavy rough just short of the cliff, so I was happy enough to escape with a bogey 4 from there. I'd scored 39 for my best 9 holes over the Open course and really enjoyed the company of George and Bibby, both of whom hit some good shots. shot of the day went to George, for a miraculous second shot on the 11th from all of 100 yards to within inches of the hole for his closing par. I doubt whether 39 would be good enough for a prize, but I'd really enjoyed my first encounter with the Iona Open.
Although the competition had ended, I still had to complete the round. Only 7 holes, but since George had been so efficient in guiding Bibby and I around, I'd not realised just how tricky it would be to navigate those remaining holes successfully. To make matters worse, the rain became pretty bad from 11 onwards, rendering my gloves completely useless. It became a case of hitting the ball forward and walking on from where it landed to find a green and hope that you'd found the right one. That worked OK until the 15th, where I hit in completely the wrong direction, towards the 8th tee. This is where I also got a reminder that the Iona Open attracted golfers from all over the world. I'd asked some guys on the 8th tee for directions to the 15th. The answer came back in German to the effect that it was behind me, a long long way! I allowed myself the luxury of re-starting that hole and finally bogeyed it with my 5th successive single putt (after missing greens and chipping close). My final score round Iona was 83, net 73, or 7 over the course par of 66, with 27 putts. This is a final view of the course, the 18th green (and my by now very wet golf bag).
Bibby, George and most of the other competitors had long since left for shelter in the local pub, so I had a long walk back to the ferry slipway. I was thoroughly soaked by then, so thank you again to the local couple who gave me a lift for the last half mile. Thanks too to all of the people I met and who made me so welcome. The Iona golf course is a long way away, but there's something special about the place, a raw beauty in the landscape and a warm welcome for all golfers. The Iona Open is played every August and I hope I can get over there again sometime. It surely can't be that wet again.