Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland is the vision of Australian businessman Brian Keating, who fell in love with these windswept dunes while visiting the nearby Machrihanish Golf Club. Old Tom Morris, the patron saint of Scottish golf and a four-time champion of the British Open, played a role in designing the magnificent Machrihanish Golf Club that opened in 1876. He had no hand in Machrihanish Dunes, which staged its grand opening in July 2009. But those who make the pilgrimage to this dramatic, remote corner of Scotland are forgiven if they’re convinced he did.
The Kintyre peninsula is merely 35 miles as the crow flies from such hallowed golf destinations as Turnberry, Troon and Prestwick, and it’s within sight of Northern Ireland. Yet the drive by car on picturesque A83 from Glasgow spans nearly three hours, down the long and winding road that served as the inspiration for one of The Beatles’ most memorable songs. Although air is the quickest route, just 25 minutes from Glasgow, it can also be reached in one hour by ferry from Troon on the Ayshire Coast or from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland.
Machrihanish Dunes was gently molded by David McLay Kidd, recognized worldwide for designing Bandon Dunes in Oregon and the Castle Course. Morris was never faced with the environmental restrictions that Kidd and his associate, Paul Kimber, encountered while constructing the course. As the first 18-hole golf course to be built on a Site of Special Scientific Interest on the west coast of Scotland in more than 100 years, the architects were required to fashion a layout while barely altering the natural landscape. Since 1980, all important coastal sites are protected by the SSSI designation.
Machrihanish Dunes is home to a variety of rare orchids, as well as rabbits and oyster catchers. That meant building a golf course without upsetting the fragile ecological balance. No chemicals or pesticides were allowed on the dunes. No heavy machinery was utilized. All portions of the land considered important were deemed off-limits.
A mere seven of the approximately 275 acres on which the course sits were disturbed during construction. Only the greens and trees were shaped, using a backhoe. Holes were designed around the existing contour of the fairways. Bunkers were placed where rabbits had eaten into the ground. Eighty Hebridian black sheep were brought in to provide assistance maintaining the rough and fairways from October through April. A silhouette of the sheep serves as the course logo.
Pathways between holes meander for long stretches in a variety of directions, up and down hills, between the dunes, dictated by the lay of this precious, ecologically sensitive slice of land that sits hard by the Atlantic Ocean. There are extended, difficult walks, and course guides are essential if you hope to score.
The result is a links course with breathtaking views of the sea and the islands of Gigha, Islay and Jura. Six greens and five tees sit on the ocean’s edge.
From a golfer’s standpoint, this 7,175 yards of real estate will require every bit of imagination and skill to play well. The ever-present howling wind, the merciless rough, the blind shots and the severely undulating greens combine to present the ultimate test.
It’s an astonishing golf course that blossomed from the rugged dunes – a modern-day links creation that pays homage to a past and would leave Old Tom Morris feeling right at home.