Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Colonsay GC - Course no 639

For any readers who find airport security an occasionally tiresome necessity, try the 25 minute trip to Colonsay from Oban Airport. Check in 30 minutes before take off is standard, but since this consists only of telling the pilot you're here so that he can tick your name on the passenger list, checking in is over before you know it.  One passenger was late so the pilot just waited a few minutes, hoping she'd turn up, as she subsequently did! My golf bag, complete with a change of clothes, camera, book and toilet bag was just over the 10kgs limit but since some of the 6 other passengers were under their limit, I was OK - Ryanair etc. please note! The BN Islander 2 plane is cosy at best and although Oban was cold and overcast, the weather was warm and sunny when we landed on Colonsay.  The airstrip is right in the middle of the golf course, so your only problem will be finding the 1st tee - the highest point on the course and a good 15 minute walk uphill to the Honesty Box, as shown here.  You might want to rest a while here and take in the outstanding scenery.  If you're travelling to and from Colonsay by plane on a day trip, you'll have around 7 hours in which to play the course so there's no rush. Indeed, chances are you'll be a handful of people on the course that day! If, like me, you're staying on Colonsay overnight, you'll have all day, so relax, take your time and enjoy. The only serious problem I had was that the weight limit on the plane meant I could only carry a small bottle of water.  (Tip - take a large empty plastic bottle with you when you fly in and ask the friendly groundstaff to fill it from their tap in the small airstrip building!)  You'll certainly need some water and food on the course, since it's a long walk - and the island's only hotel is the thick end of an hour's walk away along a twisting single track road.  

I've taken the liberty of quoting the following extracts from, the island's community-based website, which provides extensive background information on the course

"The 18-hole course is situated on indigenous machair, shortish grass growing in sandy soil, typical of the finest Scottish links golf courses.  When you arrive at the first tee, you will be struck by the beauty of the course’s setting.  Two beautiful, sandy Hebridean bays form the western fringe of the course: the first is called Traigh an Tobair Fhuair (“Bay of the Cold Well”).  The second is called Port Lobh (which, unfortunately, means “Malodorous Bay”).  Two burns traverse the course from east to west. From many points on the course, you can glimpse the sands of Ardskenish peninsular to the southwest.  The course is fringed to the northeast by the rugged, craggy Beinn nan Caorach (“Hill of the Sheep”).  20 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean (next stop, Canada), in most weathers, you can spot Dubh Hearteach lighthouse.  The panorama is completed by Dun Ghallain, a cairned headland where a mediaeval fort once stood.

To help you to visualise the course, think about the Masters course at Augusta, where every blade of grass appears to be meticulously manicured; then, picture the polar opposite!  Colonsay’s unique course is completely natural, having been designed by the Supreme Architect of Golf.  The greens are mown and rolled during the season by local golfers, with some help from the sheep and some hindrance from the rabbits.  In the winter, they are joined by the cattle of nearby Machrins Farm.  As a consequence, you may have the unusual task of having to clear some livestock from your line of fire before playing your shot.  Fear not, though: local rules allow preferred lies on all fairways and a free drop for balls disappearing into rabbit-holes or taken by the ravens.  More good news: there are no bunkers!  In keeping with the “primeval golf” theme, however, you will come across the occasional sheep-scrape in the sandy ground, which some believe to be the origin of the modern bunker.  At all times, if irked by the ruggedness of the course, you can find comfort in remembering that you’ll not find a lower green-fee anywhere.  You could also ponder the following verse, seen on a plaque on a memorial bench at Glencruitten Golf Course, in Oban:

“Getting somewhat crabbit?
Scoring over par?
Have a look around you:
See how lucky you are!”

Colonsay Golf Course is reputedly over 200 years old, having first been played on in 1775.  It remained unchanged for nearly two centuries.  In the late 19th Century, the Misses McNeill, who ran the Hotel at the time, used to arrange for the greens to be mown and the tees maintained.  In 1909, local author Murdoch McNeill, wrote that Machrins was the best-known locality on the island: “that stretch of undulating machair that holds such a fascination for the golfer”. After the First World War, the holes were named by David Todd and fellow-visitors, collectively known as The Colonsay Thiefs, who sound like they might be suitable candidates for the Draught Export Golfing Society (DREGS).  Machrins Farm, at that time the thatched home of Mrs McPhee, was used as the clubhouse.  The course was mapped by JS Williamson, of Troon, in 1935.  Having been home to a small military base during the Second World War, the course wasn’t re-opened until 1978.  The airstrip, formerly an integral part of the course, was tarmacked in 2006, necessitating some modifications to the course layout.

The only time the course is really full is on the third Saturday in August, the date of The Colonsay Open (possibly) International All-Comers Golf Championship.  Weather-permitting, this is always a memorable day.  Informality is the order of the day: some wear wellies, others carry rapidly-emptying hip-flasks. The “Nearest the Hole” competition often becomes the “Nearest the Green” Competition.  As in all Colonsay golf, judges play alongside mechanics, ministers play alongside builders, women play alongside men and the young play alongside the less so.  At the ceilidh in the evening, there are prizes for pretty much everything but Pitchmark Repair of the Day.

The course measures 4,752 Yards and comprises four par 5s, eight par 4s and six par 3s.  Yardage-wise, the four par 5s, measuring between 341 and 391 yards, should be par 4s; however, they have been accorded par 5 status by dint of the degree of difficulty involved.  The 7th hole, The Fank, demands that you avoid the out-of-bounds airstrip, a large area of potentially fatal rough, a ball-eating burn, a fank (sheepfold) and a tight out-of-bounds fence at the back of the green.  The 14th, ominously named The Rushes, involves negotiating a large area of heavy rough that is every bit as ball-hungry as the burn.  The 16th, is birdie-able but the last of the par 5s, the 18th has caused many an eleventh-hour scoring collapse.

The par 4s measure between 238 and 317 yards; on the whole, they demand a good drive, followed by anything from a 5-iron to a wedge (depending on the wind) into smallish greens.  The first five par 4s are fairly hazard-free, as long as you can keep your ball out of the burn at the third.  The 8th hole, Ardskenish, is nearly driveable, on dry ground and with favourable wind conditions. The next Par 4, the 11th, is called Sand Dunes and it is the eponymous topographical feature, on the left, which presents the main hazard, along with the airstrip on the right.  The last of the par 4s, the 12th, is seen by many as the finest hole on the course: your drive will seek to avoid the rushes and rocks on the left, and the numerous rabbit-holes on your right; having safely negotiated these, you are faced with an approach shot to an elevated green, beyond which the Atlantic Ocean stretches to the horizon.

Your heart may have lifted on hearing that there are as many as 6 par 3s.  However, beware: only in one case (the 16th, at 120 Yards) is the green easily hittable.  Indeed, a hole-in-one has been recorded here: Colin Titterton, the late husband of islander Netta, aced it on 5th October 1986, thus earning a glittering prize from the Johnny Walker International Hole-In-One Awards. 

On the other hand, the 199 Yard 5th hole can demand anything from a driver to a 6 iron, depending on wind conditions.  The 9th and 10th holes  again feature the burn as a hazard.  The 13th a136 Yard Par 3  often involves crosswinds and it takes a fine tee-shot to get on in one.  The 160-Yard 15th, also often involves crosswinds and the green is not easy to hit.

To play a round of golf at The Old Course in St Andrews or at The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’ course at Muirfield will cost you £130 and £190, respectively.  The green fees at a typical course in Scotland are between £20 and £50 per round.  At Colonsay Golf Club, you will have to part with £25, but it’s important to point out that this sum will be your annual joining fee!  Day tickets are priced at £5. You can pay either at the Hotel or in the General Store, where you’ll be issued with a tag to display on your bag (and to brag about back at your home club).  You can also pay at the Honesty Box at the first tee.  You can neatly foreshorten your round by playing holes 1-6, then the 15th to the 18th."

As with many of the other island courses that we've played on our travels, the Colonsay course is pretty rough in parts and far removed from the manicured conditions to be found on courses maintained more intensively, where sheep and cattle don't feature on the list of local wildlife.  The greens are small and hugely difficult to putt on, due largely to the rough nature of the ground, the occasional hoofprints and liberal quantities of sheep droppings and other natural hazards.  This is golf in the raw and scoring on this course will always be difficult, even in the kind of calm sunny conditions that I enjoyed when I played here on 3 June 2014 (Happy Birthday, Kirsty!!)  However, if you can watch where you're putting your feet, don't mind sharing the course with livestock from the local farm, and just want a fun round, this is a great course.  The layout is tremendous, making excellent use of the topography.  There are outstanding views all around the course and the course map on the scorecard is pretty accurate.  This is important, since in windy conditions the flags are likely to be blown out of the holes - and when I played it, the 12th flag had been blown away by an overnight storm.  This is a view of the 2nd green.  The 3rd tee lies at the top of the mound behind the green, a simply outstanding viewpoint across the course and out to sea - you'll want to linger a while there, I guarantee it.

The 7th was, for me, the most difficult hole on the course.  It's only 391 Yards but even if you hit a great drive, you'll still have to face this hole's greatest challenge, namely the swamp and stream in front of the green, hidden from view by a fold in the ground level, as shown here. If you under-club, you'll be re-loading (which is why I took a double bogey 7!) and if you over-club, chances are you'll be OOB.  A par on this beast of a hole is a great score.  The 8th green is the furthest point from the Honesty Box - where you can safely leave any other luggage etc.  From there, the 9th goes downhill, as a 206 Yard Par 3.  Don't be long off the 9th tee as anything beyond the green will be lost in rough and/or another patch of swampy ground.

This is the 13th, a 161 Yard Par 3.  You might want to take some time out to explore the rock formations behind the green and wonder at the collection of large pebbles that have been carried a few hundred yards ashore by past Winter storms. Sail west from Colonsay and your first landfall will be Canada, so the golf course is pretty exposed to wild weather.  The Stroke Index 1 hole is the 376 Yard Par 5 14th Hole.  You might think that a 376 Yard Par 5 would be pretty easy but you'd be wrong.  The drive looks easy enough, but you might struggle to find your ball amongst the various rabbit holes, patches of really rough ground and wild flowers (mostly white!) Your next shot will be either to lay up or try to carry a large area of swamp in front of the green, avoiding some rocky outcrops.  I got lucky, in that my drive finished on an upslope and a great launchpad for a my 3 wood.  Even then, I missed the small green and had to scramble my way to a good par.  This is a view of the 14th green from the 7th tee, highlighting the rocks and swamp that make this hole so daunting.

The closing holes work their way back up towards the Honesty Box and are mostly relatively easy. However, the 18th is an absolute brute of a hole.  There are no defined fairways on the course, just tees, greens and areas of grass in between, festooned with patches of rough, animal droppings, swampy areas and rocky outcrops.  The Stroke Index 2 18th hole is the most extreme example of this terrain on the whole course.  This 370 Yard Par 5  goes very gently uphill for the first 200 Yards, then very steeply uphill for the remainder. Your second shot will be completely blind, played over clumps of long maram grass and rocky outcrops to a tiny green nestling in a hollow.  There's no marker post to offer you a clue about the location of the green.  I got lucky as a 3 ball of visitors had played the first 6 holes and cut across to do 16-18, so I was able to follow their "progress" up the 18th.  If you ever play here, take a wander over to the right of the 1st tee for a look at the 18th green and try to remember where it lies in relation to that tee.  Doing so might just save you one or more lost balls and a few strokes on your closing hole.

Playing here isn't really about scoring well.  It's about enjoying a natural course in beautiful surroundings.  Colonsay is almost as remote as it gets and your travel and accommodation options will be limited, but making the trip will be worth the effort.  And the beer from the micro-brewery down by the ferry pier is also worth seeking out!

My score?  82 gross, net 71, only 1 over par, with 29 putts.  I strongly recommend you put this course on your bucket list and savour the slow pace of life that attracts so many to visit this little island each year.


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