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Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club

Opened this summer, the first new links on the west coast of Scotland in more than a century will offer golfers 18 pure reasons to visit the remote Kintyre Peninsula

By: Anthony Pioppi

Appeared in Fall 2009 LINKS

The drive from Glasgow, Scotland, to Campbeltown on the Kintyre Peninsula is 130 miles of twisting, rising and falling asphalt ribbon. The route along the A83 presents distracting views of mountains, glens and islands. If traffic and weather are cooperating, you might make the journey in three hours.

This is the long and winding road, perhaps literally.

According to most, “The Long and Winding Road,” on the Beatles’ album Let It Be, is Paul McCartney’s take on the dying days of the band. But many in the southwest corner of Scotland will tell you that the song is McCartney’s homage to the A83 and the trip he has made since purchasing a house in Campbeltown in the 1960s.

For most golfers, the road ends just after the village of Kilchenzie. That’s when they turn right onto a sliver of bumpy road that winds its way around Campbeltown Airport and into the village of Machrihanish and the legendary Machrihanish Golf Club, an Old Tom Morris links layout from 1876.

For those who have made the excursion, the experience is an unforgettable one, starting with the most exhilarating opening tee shot in golf, over the ocean to a swath of firm linksland. The journey continues with some of Morris’ most audacious greens on a layout that often finds tees and greens atop dunes affording views of Machrihanish Bay, while fairways descend, nestling into natural corridors created by those same dunes.

It has been many a golfer who has stood on one of those tees and peered northward, remarking that surely another course of equal character could be located in dunes stretching into the distance.

The vision has become reality in the form of Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club, which opened in July. The first 18-hole links built on the west coast of Scotland in more than 100 years, Machrihanish Dunes offers as pure a golf experience as its older neighbor.

The designers of record are David McLay Kidd and his associate Paul Kimber, but Mother Nature and Father Time are just as responsible for this 7,175-yard layout. For this is no ordinary golf course. Machrihanish Dunes is the first and only course that the government has allowed inside of Scotland’s environmentally protected areas, which are known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Working with representatives of the Scottish Natural Heritage, Kidd and Kimber, who also designed the Castle Course in St. Andrews, determined which areas of the property were off-limits for golf due to protected fauna, flora and landforms. The Early Marsh orchid and lime-rich sand fore dunes, rare on Scotland’s west coast, had as much to do with the routing as Kidd did.

In the end, the architects disturbed just seven of the 250 acres on the site. Theresult is a course that is as natural as they come. Even the bunker placement is a throwback, although the hazards were formed not by sheep but by the scratchings of giant hares that inhabit the property.

Unlike its acclaimed neighbor on which only the 1st hole runs along the water, many holes at Machrihanish Dunes hug the sea so closely that intense winds drive salt spray onto the course. Kidd also routed many holes through natural grass-covered dunes that materialize as soft rolls or as jagged waves of pale green.

The putting surfaces are massive, and while some are harmlessly flattish, others are wildly undulating. Similarly, the holes themselves provide great variety.

There are short holes like the 329-yard 5th and 314-yard 13th that invite birdies, along with brutish ones like the 483-yard 11th and the trio of closing holes, the 457-yard 16th, 618-yard 17th and 443-yard 18th.

Because the routing is essentially a relaxing walk along naturally made paths, the course flows easily to the dunesland and then back. Every hole affords views of Machrihanish Bay and sometimes beyond to the islands of Islay and Jura, home to nine malt whisky distilleries.

It would be easy to forgive superintendent Keith Martin if he carried a flask of whisky as he made his rounds. The environmental regulations at this SSSI mean the course may never be in as good a shape as visiting golfers, especially Americans, may expect.

“There’ll be weeds in the fairway,” he says with a chuckle. “There’s nothing we can do, as long as golfers are educated.”

Martin is using some unorthodox techniques, including grazing sheep that have free run of the layout. His goal is to keep the course as firm and fast as possible—nearly as firm and fast as the runway at bordering Campbeltown Airport.

Now that the area has two worthy layouts, Machrihanish Dunes also has taken steps to make the Kintyre Peninsula a true stay-and-play destination. In addition to refurbishing the old Ugadale Hotel, the club has built eight two-bedroom cottages on the property that can be rented or purchased as fractional shares. There are plans for 30 in all.

Once settled at Machrihanish Dunes, golfers will find it difficult to leave, calling to mind the chorus from McCartney’s 1977 hit “Mull of Kintyre”:

Mull of Kintyre
Oh mist rolling in from the sea,
My desire is always to be here
Oh Mull of Kintyre

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