Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Fair Isle Lighthouse Keeper's Golf Course - Course no 581

Fair Isle is a tiny island mid-way between Orkney and Shetland in the far north beyond the Scottish mainland, with 67 human inhabitants and unknown numbers of sea birds and visiting migratory species as well as whales and dolphins etc.  For much more information on the island itself, see  We'd heard through internet research in 2012 that there was a golf course on the island and sure enough, we subsequently learnt that one of its residents, Tommy Hyndman, had resurrected the 6-hole course formally used by the keepers of the South Lighthouse on Fair Isle, long before operation of the lighthouse became electronically controlled. Tommy, his wife Liz and their son Henry are originally from Saratoga Springs, New York, USA.  The island is owned by the National Trust For Scotland, a charitable body that looks after important aspects of Scotland's rich heritage and the Trust rents out properties on the island, and a few years ago, news that the Trust was advertising a croft for rent reached the Hyndman family (isn't the power of the media amazing sometimes?) Within months of hearing a radio item inviting folks to "get away from it all" the Hyndmans were on their way and have never looked back, having made Fair Isle their new home.  Tommy is an artist (and also now hat maker, golf course operator, bed & breakfast owner etc. etc. !) by profession who by his own admission became fascinated by the history of the island and its wildlife - see his own blog at  Tommy doesn't class himself as a golfer, but made determined efforts to re-establish the former Lighthouse Keeper's Course, primarily as another attraction for  the many tourists, wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers who visit Fair Isle during the Summer months. He now rents the course land and has, from his own pockets and with the help of donations from far and wide, re-created the old course.  If by any chance you have a spare set of lefty clubs you don't need, Tommy would be eternally grateful!
Although there's only 6 holes it's still a golf course in our eyes.  One person who claims to have played every golf course in Scotland takes the view that a golf course must have at least 9 holes, one or more of which has to be a Par 4 (or a 5).  We think that's far too narrow a definition and that anywhere that has fixed tees and greens, irrespective of the number of holes, intended for the purposes of playing golf, is de facto, a golf course, even if its privately owned, rarely played or does not appear on the few so-called fully comprehensive listings of Scottish golf courses.  If particular people don't accept that the course on Fair Isle is a golf course, that's up to them.  Equally, if they want to talk about their own golfing achievements, they should be saying that whilst they've played every golf course in Scotland, they've only played those with 9 or more holes and have not played all of the courses where the sport is actually played  such as those with less than 9 holes and par 3 pitch and putt courses etc. Craig, Stu and I are happy to recognise Tommy's efforts in support of our cherished sport by recognising the Fair Isle Lighthouse Keeper's Course as a Scottish golf course.  Indeed, we'd go so far as say that it's the most remote course in Scotland.
There are 2 ways to get to Fair Isle, by ferry (not recommended unless your sea legs are very strong) and by plane.  We chose the latter.  For readers used to the formalities and potential hassles of air travel these days it may come as a considerable surprise to note that for Fair Isle flights, you simply phone Lynn at DirectFlight and give your name for a particular flight.  No advance payments, hassles or add ons.  You just turn up, pay on the day and Hughie your affable pilot does the rest, with his trademark grin and thumbs up when its time to take off.  Mind you, the plane only takes 7 passengers and is pretty cosy.  If you're lucky and the plane is full, you might get to sit up front with Hughie, if you promise not to touch the controls. Here's the 3 of us on arrival at Fair Isle and the view from the front seat that I had on the way back, when we visited Fair Isle on 10-11 June 2013.



Fair Isle hit the headlines worldwide in February 2013 when the island was hit by a huge storm.  See this link to damage reports When we played the fair Isle course on 10 June 2013, it was obvious that the damage would take years to repair, even if considerable funds and labour could be applied.  The wall surrounding the South Lighthouse is around 4 feet high and 2 feet thick.  Tommy filmed all of us sitting on a half-ton section of the wall that finished up in the middle of the 1st/6th fairway, 150 feet or so from its original position and around 70 feet above sea level.

Rocks over a foot across from the shoreline and from the lighthouse wall also litter other holes well over 150 yards away from the beach, so being realistic, this debris seems set to become features on the golf course for some time to come.  The course is rarely played but I suspect that Tommy might have to create a new local rule to the effect that you can replay a shot without penalty if your ball hits any storm debris and is lost.  Mere deflection by such debris simply adds to the fun, as we were to find out during our round. Tommy doesn't have accurate hole measurements yet, so we just guessed at hole lengths.  He didn't have any scorecards left either, as he's had a computer printer problem, so here's what I scored, together with some hole names that we thought up during our waits between flights on the way back to Aberdeen (well, it was either that, or the mind-numbing boredom of daytime TV in the Sumburgh Airport terminal).

Hole     Name                 Par              Score   Putts

1          The Point             4                  5          2
2          Shelf                    3                  3          1
3          Fish Drier             3                  4          2
4          The Rockies         4                  5          2
5          Gap                      3                  4          2
6          Lighthouse           3                  3         
Totals                             20                24         11

The course is well cut and fertilised by the resident sheep and other on-course inhabitants.  The course is built on natural links land and the grass is primarily fine fescues, with a liberal sprinkling of wild flowers and mosses.  A joy to walk and play on if you mind where you put your feet.  That care is particularly important on some holes, where sheer cliff faces and other hazards come into play.

The course starts with a tricky 330 Yard Par 4, that looks absolute miles from the tee such is the difficulty of reading distances in such a landscape.  The green is in the middle of this photo.  Just ignore the outcrop of land to the centre right with steep cliffs on 3 sides - that's the 6th, of which more later! The safe line on the 1st is between the hut and the cliff.  I hooked my very old Taylor Made 8.5 degree stiff shafted Driver left of the hut.  If ever that club suited my swing, it definitely doesn't now.  An 8 iron, pitch with a wedge and a couple of putts (temporary putting rules applying again - see The Knab blog entry no 578) and we were on our way.  Tommy was clearly making good use of some old yellow flags that we'd donated earlier in the year, courtesy of the greenkeeper at the Glen GC, my home course in North Berwick.  Thanks again, Des! 

The 2nd hole sits near the top of a small plateau.  Go too far and you're probably on the 5th green.  Too short, right or left and have fun trying make a par.  I scrambled one more by luck than good judgement.  You'll get some surprising bounces on these greens!  The 3rd is the shortest hole on the course, but there's boulder field in front of the green courtesy of February's storm and the shoreline and rocks start right behind the green.  Having seen Craig's lob wedge tee shot hit the boulder field and end up in the sea, I opted for a chip to the small grassy area front right of the green, chipped on to within a foot and had a genuine single putt for par.  Go me! We've named the 4th Hole "Rockies" in tribute to Tommy's US origins and to the extensive rubble swept onto the fairway by the storm.  This is the longest hole on the course and is played blind over a ridge (or in our case the 2 sheep watching us from on high!)  Too far right and you're over a wall into uncharted territory.  Too far left and when the tide is in, your ball is in the sea.  When the tide is out, as it was when we played, chances are you won't see where your ball bounces to when it hits the rocky shoreline. This is a view of the 4th green.  A bogey for me after a poor second shot, short of the green. 
The 5th is played over the road to the lighthouse to a green that sits on top of a small ridge.  Go short, left or right and par is tough.  Go long and it's almost impossible as there's a steep slope immediately behind the green down towards the island's helipad.  I just missed the green to the left and took the predictable bogey.  The 6th tee is in the centre of this photo, right up beside the remains of the lighthouse wall.  Tommy's created local rule for the 6th.  Play 3 balls from beside the 5th green towards the helipad.  Any that remain within the helipad circle entitle you to a deduct a stroke from your score on the 6th.  This might sound over-generous, but the 6th really is one of those holes that will stick in your mind for a long, long time. 

Difficult, beguiling and unique don't begin to do this great hole justice.  This view of the 6th green from the side of the 2nd fairway is a good indication of what your aiming at.  This little outcrop is about 40 yards long by 10 yards wide and it's a good 100 foot drop if you want to risk playing a ball that finishes close to the cliff edge. 
Here are some other views of the 6th.  First, from the tee.  Right, left or long and you reload.  But would you really spend £71 for a 23 minute return flight, plus an overnight stay, just to wimp out? You can certainly play short and hope to chip on, but factor in the likelihood of a strong crosswind and you might as well go for it. 
Next, a view from the 1st green, looking back to the 6th green and the lighthouse in the distance


I suspect that when I finally finish the challenge of playing every course in Scotland, I might add to the blog a feature on my 18 most memorable holes, or best Par 3s.  This little hole is surely set to feature on one or both such listings.  Take away the storm debris and place this hole on Turnberry's Ailsa Championship Course.  Would it look out of place?  It's only around 172 Yards off the only 6th tee at the Fair Isle Course, but make it around 180-190 in the kind of winds that sometimes plague our Open Championship Courses and this would be a severe test, even for the world's best.  Me?  I hit the green first time with my tee shot using a very old Howson 20 Degree rescue club that Polly had discarded several years before, finishing within 15 feet of the hole.  Understandably, this part of the course is regularly buffeted by the waves in even modest storms, making the surface of the green somewhat uneven, so putting is difficult.  I 3-putted from 15 feet, but using Tommy's local rule, I scored a par 3, having kept one of my 3 balls within the helipad circle. I finished with a gross 24, 4 over par with 11 putts.  Tommy reckoned we were the best golfers who had played his course since it was re-established and that Craig had set the course record with his 22 gross.  Indeed, we were apparently the first ever group to visit the island solely for the purposes of playing golf - another odd statistic recorded during our challenge to play every course!

If you crave for manicured golf courses, perfect fairways and fast true running greens and don't want to risk either the prospect of a bumpy flight in Hughie's plane or some wild weather and being dive-bombed by the occasional Skua, then the Fair Isle course is not for you.  However, if you're more adventurous and want to play the remotest course in Scotland, then this is the place and Tommy's your man.  If you do get the inclination, please say hello to my old clubs, the set of old Lynx Tigress ladies clubs that Polly donated and have a great time, just as Craig, Stu and I did.  Above all, please say a big hello to Tommy, Liz and Henry - Hughie the pilot and Lynn at Tingwall Airport.  Chances are you'll also eat far too much of Liz's legendary chocolate cake and ice cream, but that's a post-golf treat that I guarantee you'll enjoy. 

We'd noticed on our way round the course that each of the 6 greens could be approached from several different directions, so when we'd finished playing the "proper" 6 holes, we joined Tommy and Henry in tackling some "alternative" holes, such as this little Par 3 version of the 3rd, as played from the other side of an inlet that would normally lie behind the 3rd green.  This made a interesting 90 or so yard hole, one of a few others we invented before our excellent dinner with Tommy, Liz and Henry in their charming old croft house. 

One last comment.  Craig, Stu and I have been known to spend a post-golf hour or two in a local pub, sampling some local ales, just to be sociable you understand.  We did have the odd bottle or 3 with Tommy and Liz, but it would have been a great pity to miss out on other aspects of life on Fair Isle.  Accordingly, we were delighted when Tommy took us on a walk to the top of a nearby cliff to visit a large colony of puffins.  Now birdwatching isn't even remotely top of our list of thrill pursuits, but we really enjoyed seeing these cute little birds close up (no zoom lenses necessary!), even at nearly 2300 hrs, when there was still ample light for another round of golf.  For some, playing a new golf course is just a matter of turning up, playing and going home.  Play here and you take home much more than memories of a new course.  Our experiences of island golf run much, much deeper and golf in Scotland is all the richer for having little far flung courses such as this one to add to its diversity.  Put the Fair Isle Lighthouse Keeper's Golf Course on your golfing bucket list and enjoy.

Here's a link to Tommy's excellent Blog coverage of our visit.
This is a link to Tommy's hilarious YouTube video of our visit.

It would probably take a pretty determined and adventurous spirit to make the effort to visit Fair Isle to play this little course, but it's well worth the trip.  Tommy's a great host and would be delighted to see more folks on the course, so give it a try - and don't miss Whalsay GC when your up that way!  Another great golfing experience!


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