Machrihanish: The Long and Winding Road to Golfing Paradise

I remember growing up in central Scotland listening to people wax lyrical about Machrihanish and thinking it must have been a glorious figment of their imagination. “It has the best opening hole in the World”, they would say. “The stretch of holes between the 3rd and the 8th are the finest I have ever played”, another would add. “And the people, the people are the friendliest and most welcoming you will ever meet”

When I finally made my first trip to Machrihanish as a teenager I realised just why this was a place that ardent golfers talked about through misty eyes while sporting thousand yard stares. The course was just as they had described, an absolutely inspiring links golf experience. The 1st was indeed the best opening hole I had played. I laugh to myself now when I see people standing on that tee with their mouths wide open, staring incredulously at that view for the first time, because I still remember doing exactly the same thing myself! The stretch of golf between the 3rd and the 8th is in my view unparalleled as a continuous run of seaside holes which rise and fall majestically through the dunes providing endless vistas and a relentlessly fun challenge. It is incredible to think that these holes are almost a century and a half old and yet- despite the advances in construction and design technology- they still maintain their position as one of the best examples of natural golf course architecture anywhere in the world. And the people…it immediately became apparent that my friend from Crieff had been right, these people were the friendliest and most welcoming that I had ever met and having settled here permanently five years ago I am happy to report that, given more time to assess my view, I still believe that to be the case.

So why then did so many of the older people I knew from “up the road” talk about Machrihanish with such fondness when they very rarely seemed to actually go there? What was stopping them from visiting on a more regular basis, or from staying down there for longer when they did? When they did go, why did they leave at ridiculous times in the morning to make exhausting day trips to this golfing nirvana when they could have stayed for longer and enjoyed the hospitality of the local people who would undoubtedly have been so pleased to see them? Someone very closely related to me summed up the answer to these questions in one sentence, when he told me “it takes forever to get there, and when you do finally arrive there is nowhere decent to stay or eat. And there is only one golf course”.

Fast forward 35 years, and things have changed dramatically. Fortunately the fabulous links of Machrihanish Golf Club retains the same aura that it always had. Nobody has messed about with it, because it was so good to start with that it didn`t need changing. The turf still has that inspiringly positive spring to it, the condition of the greens is better than ever and the general topography still rolls relentlessly from high point to low point and back again, creating a golfing rollercoaster that never ceases to inspire. The members are still as welcoming as they always were, and the club facilities provide a relaxing environment that compliments the course perfectly. There has been one very welcome addition to the area, however. The derelict hotel that somewhat detracted from the view on my first visits to Machrihanish has however now been returned to and beyond its former glory in 2012, and forms part of the internationally acclaimed resort complex known as “the village at Machrihanish Dunes”. Along with the refurbished Ugadale hotel which contains 22 luxurious rooms and suites, a fitness room, a well-appointed spa and a highly regarded restaurant, the “village” comprises a large block of sumptuous self-catering cottages and a historic pub which serves the very best bar meals in front of a roaring open fire. This resort development provides potential visitors to Machrihanish with everything they need to complement a visit to the famous links, but there is another major draw which tempts golfers to Machrihanish more than ever, and that is the neighbouring links at Machrihanish Dunes.

That iconic 1st tee at Machrihanish Golf Club, flanked by the pro shop, the clubhouse and the new resort which includes the fabulous Ugadale Hotel which takes centre stage in this image.
That iconic 1st tee at Machrihanish Golf Club, flanked by the pro shop, the clubhouse and the new resort which includes the fabulous Ugadale Hotel which takes centre stage in this image.

The new course opened to much acclaim in 2009, heralded as a bastion of environmental stewardship. The first seaside links ever to be laid out over a site of scientific interest, Machrihanish Dunes was created almost entirely without the use of heavy machinery and only 7 acres of the 200 acre site were disrupted during the construction of the course. Ten years after its opening, the advantages of not breaking the ground are clear to see, as the natural humps and hollows formed over thousands of years make the course brilliant fun to play. It would be all but impossible to create such a perfect golfing landscape with a bulldozer. Now that the playing surfaces have reached maturity, many people have been urged to wonder which of the Machrihanish courses is their favourite. Given the undoubted quality and iconic status of the original links at Machrihanish, surely no higher compliment could possibly be paid to David McLay Kidd’s layout at Machrihanish Dunes.

The view from behind the 3rd green on the new links at Machrihanish Dunes. Exciting contours and endless vistas help make this course a worthy neighbour to the brilliant old course next door.
The view from behind the 3rd green on the new links at Machrihanish Dunes. Exciting contours and endless vistas help make this course a worthy neighbour to the brilliant old course next door.

And what of the bigger picture, what of Campbeltown and beyond? Looking at the town now it is hard to believe that some people from the previous generation to mine viewed it from afar as a place in decline. A first time visitor who drove into the place today having heard them describe it as such might question their sobriety! The ongoing regeneration of large buildings in the centre of town, along with the recent renovation of iconic landmarks such as the Town Hall, the art-deco Picture House and the Royal Hotel, complement fresh new builds such as the Aquilibrium and its neighbouring 3G football pitch while also drawing the eye to the fabulous examples of Victorian architecture that have been there all along. The whisky industry that provided the funding for so much of the development of the original town is thriving once again, while the well-designed marina bustles with privately-owned pleasure boats, adding to the enjoyment of a walk around a well maintained town centre where friendly local people mix happily with visitors from all nationalities. Golfers who choose to stay in either the newly-developed village at Machrihanish Dunes or at one of the well-appointed hotels in the town itself have become more aware than ever of the other golfing options that are available in the area. A short break that understandably centres around games at Machrihanish and Machrihanish Dunes can be extended with a visit to Southend to play the brilliant miniature links at Dunaverty or to venture up the east coast for 9 holes at Carradale. What more could a visitor possibly wish for?

Of course it is true that it still does take a while to get to Machrihanish from just about everywhere, but it is an enjoyable journey regardless of whether it is made by land, sea or air. And the rewards for making that trip now massively outweigh the effort involved! The old arguments for not visiting despite the brilliance of the links at Machrihanish simply cannot now be considered valid. There are places to stay and eat, and truly excellent ones at that. There is more than one golf course, and they are all worthy of a visit in their own right. The town is a vibrant example of a regeneration project that gathers pace once people with vision and enthusiasm set that project in motion. And of course, the people are just as friendly and welcoming as they ever were. Luckily for all of us, some things never change!

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