Father, son & Scotland: Previewing Machrihanish Dunes

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Scotland |

Opened in 2009, it’s the only course we’ll play built after the 19th century

Three years ago, a writing trip brought me to Machrihanish, at the bottom of the Mull of Kintyre, traveling the long and winding road about which Paul McCartney sang.

In its isolation on the shore of the North Atlantic Ocean, Machrihanish is another of those golf outposts that is worth every mile you travel and more.

And it’s one of those places that is even harder to leave than to reach. You could spend a week here, a month. When Jason and I began planning our trip, a return to Machrihanish was a top priority, and I hope he loves it as much as I do.

There is a wonderful hotel here, the Ugadale Hotel, charming and welcoming. The hotel looks out over the historic first tee of Machrihanish Golf Club, designed by Old Tom Morris in 1879.

But the hotel operates another nearby golf course, Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club, which opened in 2009, the first new course in the west of Scotland in more than a century.

The course was designed by Scotsman David McLay Kidd, who created the original course at Bandon Dunes, and whose family vacationed in these dunes when he was young.

Kidd, who now is based in Bend, Ore., and who has gone on to design Gamble Sands and the second course at Sand Valley, among other prominent courses, worked through stringent environmental regulations to build Machrihanish Dunes, moving very little earth save for building greens, creating the course through the dunes with a mower.

In essence, he designed it the way Old Tom might have, working with the land instead of against the land, with the perspective that the course would soften over the years — meaning decades, and generations.

The result is a rough-hewn, still evolving course, perhaps not unlike a course of 130 years ago. Here is adventure — fairways with mounds that can truly become mountainous; blind shots followed by more blind shots; hikes through the dunes, from green to tee; ominous bunkers; challenging greens.

And here is true beauty, along the shore of Machrihanish Bay, the sound of the surf always in your ears, the waves rolling up on the beach often not far below the course itself.

With more freedom, Kidd has noted, he might have created another Bandon Dunes, the first course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the southern Oregon Coast that opened in 1999 and put Kidd on the map among the world’s most sought-after golf architects.

“I always knew Machrihanish Dunes would be a work in progress, but in Scotland, where golf has existed for 600 years, every course is a work in progress, either by man, by nature or often by both,” Kidd wrote three years ago.

“I needed to get the idea of golf onto that special piece of land first. The final product might be a generation away, at least. Of course I would have liked more freedom to do as I wished — just look at Bandon Dunes for confirmation — but … I had to play by the rules and let time and tide do much of the work for me.”

The story of Machrihanish Dunes begins with an Australian businessman, Brian Keating, who made his fortune with Apple, Inc., sought a new challenge in the early 2000s and was inspired by a friend, noted Scottish golf photographer Brian Morgan, to build a golf course. Keating decided he wanted a links course, there being fewer than 300 in the world, and found this dunesland abutting historic Machrihanish Golf Club.

Keating leased the land from a farmer and hired Kidd, to design the course, a course that Kidd had been waiting all his life to design, because he’d spent summers in these dunes as a youngster, and had played Machrihanish Golf Club countless times.

Along the way, Keating entered a partnership with David Southworth, whose company, Boston-based Southworth Development, would manage both the golf course and two hotels (and a pub) that Keating had also acquired, the Ugadale Hotel in Machrihanish and the Royal Hotel in nearby Campbeltown.

Green fees are 95 pounds ($127) for a day pass; 75 pounds ($100) for a single round and 85 pounds ($114) for a hotel guest.

When I played Machrihanish Dunes three years ago, it was truly “wild and woolly,” the blind shots challenging, the hikes between holes at times demanding. I shot 98, and only lost one ball, on a shot that deserved to be lost. It was a great golf adventure, and I look forward to another round.

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