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Survival Course
John Garrity
July 26, 1999
On Gigha, a tiny island in the birthplace of golf, the game appears headed for a bad end
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July 26, 1999

Survival Course

On Gigha, a tiny island in the birthplace of golf, the game appears headed for a bad end

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The recent grudge match between Alistair Brown of Scotland and Graham Miller of Northern Ireland had its moments of drama. On the 4th hole of the Gigha Golf Club, a nine-hole track improbably located on a pinprick of an island off Scotland's west coast, Miller couldn't find his ball in the rough along a one-lane road, prompting Brown to shout, "Tick...tick...tick," a clear allusion to the five-minute search allowed by the Rules of Golf before a penalty shot is assessed. On me 6m fairway Miller's ball went hiding again, camouflaged by a carpet of daisies, buttercups and clover blossoms. "Tick...tick...tick," yelled Brown. "The alarm's going off!"

The match turned on the 231-yard par-4 7th, where Brown yanked his tee ball into the 8th fairway. It was Miller's turn to go "tick...tick...tick," as Brown, two caddies and an American tourist tramped through ankle-deep grass looking for the ball. Miller, a retired businessman and yachtsman who bears a certain resemblance to Mark O'Meara, save for his 18 handicap, grinned and said, "I would hate to win a match on a lost ball."

Brown would've been forgiven had he muttered an oath or two and questioned the ancestry of the greenkeeper. The fairway grass was three inches deep and covered with a layer of matted clippings. The rough was a mix of dense turf and wispy stalks topped by brown seed heads. The really deep stuff, behind the greens and along the course boundaries, was waist-high and impenetrable.

But the greenkeeper at Gigha is none other than Brown himself, and there he was, the week before the Open at Carnoustie, contemplating the almost unthinkable: the death of a golf course in the birthplace of golf. "Sometimes I don't want to say I'm a part of this," he said after the match while having a drink with Miller and some friends at a picnic table outside the Gigha Hotel. "I see somebody playin' the course, and I want to go and hide."

That drew derisive snorts from his friends. Brown, 56, can be called garrulous, devilish or mischievous, but never shy. He is, in fact, as visible as a piece of the landscape on tiny (seven miles long and two miles wide) Gigha (pronounced GEE-ah), the southernmost isle of the Inner Hebrides chain, off Scotland's Kintyre peninsula. If you are one of Gigha's 120 full-time residents, you call on Brown to fix your loo (he's a plumber by trade), mend the underwater cable (he works for the hydroelectric company) or check the water mains (he works for die West of Scotland Water Board). Brown also maintains the graveyard at the Kilchattan church ruins and takes care of the course, which he and gamekeeper John Wight laid out in a sheep meadow 13 years ago. "Aye, I'm now down to about five jobs," Brown says. "I don't know what to do with my time."

On Gigha, time is as plentiful as full-time jobs are scarce. The only commercial properties are the 13-room hotel with its restaurant and bar; the J&M McSporran general store with its post office; and a knitwear shop in a cottage, a mile from the hotel. Sheep roam the hills, and cattle graze in the lowland crofts. In good weather tourists straggle off the car ferry from Tayinloan, on the peninsula, 2½ miles away, to stroll the Achamore Gardens, the island's main attraction. They do not, as a rule, come to play the shaggy par-33 Gigha course—not with the glorious links of Machrihanish a mere 21 miles farther down the peninsula.

Brown knows about Machrihanish. He has been a member there since 1957 and regards it as "a rare beauty and as tough a test as you will get anywhere." Old Tom Morris, upon viewing the original 12-hole course, allegedly said that Machrihanish was "specially designed by the Almighty for playing golf." The flattery got him the contract to build the final six holes, which were completed in 1879. "They say the 1st at Machrihanish is the best 1st hole in the world," Brown says. "You have to hit it clear across the bay with your first shot."

If Brown sounds enchanted with Machrihanish, it's because he's disenchanted with his own course. The club's main mower broke in the spring, forcing him to cut the fairways with a rotary-bladed grassland topper designed for cow pastures. The topper's lowest cut is about 2½ inches, and it had been used to mow the rough. It still is, according to the few bewildered tourists who have played the course this summer. "I lost 12 balls today," said Craig Henderson, a young mainlander who came to Gigha on a golfing double date. "That's the most balls I've lost in my life." The club secretary, John Bannatyne, said the grass got so long recently that some other holiday golfers went to the farmhouse across the road to demand a refund of the £10 greens fees they had put in the club's honor box. "The man had to hide in his house and lock the door till they left on the ferry," he said.

The villain in this melodrama is the club's Huxley TR84 hydraulic reel mower, which changed overnight from a mowing machine to a chopping and gouging machine. "It's either that the main pump's gone or the wee pumps are bad," says William Howden, staring warily at the three-cylinder apparatus outside the hotel's work shed. "It just stops cutting, and there's no manual to help with repairs."

Howden, who manages the privately owned island for Holt Leisure Parks, Ltd., and his wife, Sandra, care enough about the course, which Holt Leisure Parks leases to the club for £1 a year, to volunteer to spend long hours in a tractor cab cutting daisies with their pathetic grass topper. "It's a good excuse to get out of the office and enjoy the sunshine," says Howden.

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