What we say
Machrihanish Dunes isn't easy to get to, but those willing to make the journey will find a fantastic links course that's one of the best examples of golf as it used to be.
Just after the turn of the Millennium, David McLay Kidd cast his eye over a patch of land he knew intimately, one that had not changed since the days of his childhood when he built sand castles beside it.
The beach at Machrihanish was the playground over many summers for McLay Kidd after his father Jimmy – greenkeeper at Gleneagles and a golf nut – chose this remote finger of western Scotland as the location for family holidays. Its proximity to Machrihanish’s ancient links was hardly a coincidence.
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Further along the unspoilt coast lay more dunes, and their propriety for golf had not gone unnoticed by father and son.
Three decades later, McLay Kidd was looking over the sand hills again, this time purposefully rather than wistfully. A course was being proposed there – initially by Australian Brian Keating but eventually by American firm Southworth Development – and to his delight, McLay Kidd had been chosen to design it. Remarkably, within 18 months it was open.
“Mach Dunes was the most minimal build ever,” he tells Golf World from his home in Bend, Oregon. “Even Old Tom would have been impressed!
“It took a mere six months to ‘build’ but I’d say it was more of an amendment to the existing land than a true build. The land is so sensitive that even driving heavy equipment over the ground in some places would damage the precious orchid bulbs just under the surface. What I did was start the golf course; time will slowly move it forward, as it does on all great links – the Old Course is still being tweaked after 600 years.”
McLay Kidd’s final sentence is noteworthy, for while Mach Dunes was an admirably quick, minimalist ‘build’ – McLay Kidd summarises it as ‘part build, part mow’ – one could reasonably argue it opened too early, given environmental sensitivities meant its early days offered a seriously raw experience.
Created on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, only seven of the 259-acre site were disturbed, which translates to tees and greens being shaped and fairways largely left alone. With fertilisers forbidden, it was authentic, gloriously wild... but extremely exacting. Even very strong players found it tough.
Nevertheless, it was sufficiently impressive to enter Golf World’s GB&I Top 100 at No.99. Inexorable rises have followed, our GB&I panel recognising the cerebral, sensitive polishing of the initially rough diamond.
The conditioning is still not amazing, relative to many of the impeccably-manicured courses in the Top 100. It cannot be – fertiliser is still used sparingly rather than lavishly – and it is not intended to be by the Southworth firm. Mach Dunes is always going to be more Sean Connery than Hugh Grant, and all the more distinctive and impressive for that.
It is almost unrecognisable, however, from those rough-hewn days of 2009 and as a result, very few will now travel to Machrihanish Dunes and not enjoy the experience immensely. That is just as well, because getting there does not happen without a bit of effort.
Mach Dunes is located on the Kintyre peninsula off Scotland’s west coast; it’s not on an island, but travelling there must almost be considered in such terms.
Your three routes in are: fly to Glasgow then fly to Campbeltown and be picked up by Mach Dunes’ minibus; take an impossibly scenic car journey around Loch Lomond and down the peninsula (all but three hours from Glasgow); or take the ferry from Ardrossan either directly to Campbeltown or, my personal favourite, via Arran (and its many appealing golf courses, led by Shiskine).
So getting there needs some application, but a lot less than was required by Old Tom Morris when he travelled to Kintyre to turn the existing Machrihanish course into an 18-holer in 1879.
“The Almichty Maun hae had gowf in his e’e when he made this place,” the great man is reported to have uttered on surveying the linksland around the eponymous hamlet, and it is not difficult to see what motivated his proclamation.
Yet while Machrihanish and Machrihanish Dunes sit just a couple of hundred yards apart on the same coastline and on the same undulating, springy linksland, you would not mistake a hole on one for a hole on its neighbour. The 130-year age gap is somehow discernible even if they both offer the same kind of glad-to-be-a-golfer entertainment; creativity and craft over smash and grab.
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Mach Dunes is probably more aesthetically pleasing, its flow to and from the sea offering six greens and five tees alongside the beach. These visual highlights are shared across both nines, the course being arranged in two loops that have been swapped twice since opening but still both return to the intimate clubhouse.
With three holes right along the coast, most will prefer the spine-tingling nature of the back nine. I happen to favour an opening half of high calibre.
A gentle dog-leg to an angled, partly-hidden green hits a pleasing opening note and is followed by two holes of a more exacting nature in the same southerly direction running down the inner edge of the site.
Then comes a fabulous loop: a terrific sporty par 4 to a secluded green; a short hole towards the sea, with Machrihanish village and the original links in the background; then another fine par 3 played away from the beach.
Blind shots on stout holes then characterise the closing trio of what is a splendid outward half of variety and fun.
The second nine opens with a different feel, a downhill drive from an elevated tee that offers unimpaired views to Islay and Jura, home respectively to the revamped Machrie and brand-new Ardfin courses that will from this year make this area such an adventurous golf break.
The 10th green is in its own amphitheatre and on even the most blustery of days offers total seclusion; it is a tranquil moment before the thrills of the oceanside holes are devoured.
The 11th was originally a problem as it was in a key part of the SSSI and so necessarily offered a chillingly-narrow fairway that also sloped right to left (away from the sea). Time has allowed prudent pruning and it is now a fine hole along the beach to a small green.
Strong 4s dominate this half with just one par 3 and one par 5, a beast of a hole at 16 that is set in a dune corridor.
That is followed by a stiff two-shotter that comprises a blind tee shot over a dune to a bumpy fairway and an approach over a gorge a la Kingsbarns’ 18th. On a scoreable course of sporty 4s, these back-to-back holes are as tough as it gets.
The 18th is a little disorientating, one of the few cross-site holes on the routing, and one of the few where, despite the myriad blind shots, you aren’t totally sure of what you are being asked to do.
Such a minimalist build made blind shots inevitable and there are certainly plenty of them, but the marker posts are genuinely good guides and thus they are only disconcerting to the fussy visiting golfer. And if you’re the kind of links connoisseur who’s found yourself in this seaside outpost, you are surely more likely to be enthused than troubled by them.
The terrain is never anything other than rippling and often arresting, so it is a stiff walk. “It is not a walk in the garden but a full mountaineering expedition,” says McLay Kidd.
The rugged terrain means that even on short shots there is often lots going on, with green complexes comprising distinct slopes, tiers, mounds and gullies. While the greens run at a sensible pace to account for contours that invite use of the ground game, the slopes are so pronounced you must be accepting of the odd bounce that takes even a well-executed chip off in the wrong direction or at the wrong speed.
It’s golf as it used to be, which is exactly what Machrihanish Dunes was intended to be.
- Costs -
- TG Rating
- Players Rating
- Address Machrihanish, , CAMPBELTOWN
- Tel 01586 554411
- Website www.machrihanishdunes.com
|Course Length||7,082 yards (6,476 metres)|
- Course has: Bar
- Course has: Buggy Hire
- Course has: Driving Range
- Course does not have: Practice Green
- Course has: Pro Shop
- Course has: Restaurant
- Course has: Trolley Hire
- Course does not have: Dress Code
- Course has: Club Hire
- Course does not have: Handicap
After hearing comments about Machrihanish Dunes I decided to try out this new links. I was very impressed by the standard of the greens and tees for such a new course. The fairways were also of a very high standard. I read comments about too many blind holes, but a golf hole is blind only for the first time. I believe Machrihanish Dunes in a few years time will be a course all the top players will wish to play as it is a golfer's course where every club in the bag will need to be utilised. With the 5 sets of tees to each hole golfers of all handicaps will enjoy this course which is as how golf was meant to be played by the early pioneers. The golf enthusiast who comes to play here also has to try the esteemed Machrihanish Golf Club which is home to arguably the greatest opening hole in world golf.