KINTYRE PENINSULA, Scotland - Would it be sacrilegious to call a links course in the birthplace of golf the Bandon Dunes of Scotland? In many ways, that's exactly what Machrihanish Dunes is.
I'll start with the obvious: they are both called Something Dunes. They are both the work of architect David McLay Kidd. They are both on remote, hard-to-get-to sections of coastline that otherwise do not support tourism or industry, but attract golfers for one simple reason: towering sand dunes.
They even have similar catch-phrases. Bandon goes with "Golf As It Was Meant To Be," while Machrihanish Dunes counters with "The Way Golf Began." Just the fact that they both have catch-phrases is interesting. My guess is the only reason the newer course did not borrow Bandon's logo is because Bandon had already copied - in golf parlance we call it a "tribute" or "replica" - the logo from the old Machrihanish Golf Club, which abuts the new.
Perhaps the most striking similarity of all is the effect the courses have had: Suddenly there is a reason for golfers to go out of their way to play neoclassic links golf.
The big difference is that in pre-Kidd Bandon, Oregon there was nothing, but the pre-Kidd Kintyre Peninsula was already home to one of the most fabled of all Scottish links, the Machrihanish Golf Club. That is where the story gets interesting.
In 1879 Old Tom Morris was up in St. Andrews winning Open Championships and tweaking the Old Course when he got word of a fabled swath of raw dunes begging to become a great golf course. He journeyed down to the very tip of the Kintyre Peninsula on Scotland's rugged west coast, previously the sole province of peat-loving whisky distillers, and redid the nascent Machrihanish Golf Club into something of a cult-like layout, best known for having what many believe is the finest opening hole in the world, a dramatic par-4 playing immediately over the wind whipped waters of the bay, a heroic risk/reward shot to be played cold by men with nerves of steel.
In the 130 years since, Machrihanish Golf Club has remained a site of pilgrimage for repeat Scotland visitors and architecture buffs (and notably, Mike Keiser, the visionary developer of Bandon Dunes).
In modern times it happened that David Kidd's father became greenskeeper of the Machrihanish Golf Club links, and young David grew up here, spending a childhood playing in the untouched dunes that would become a personal quest of his to develop. After his reputation was cemented with Bandon Dunes, and followed up with several high profile private efforts and the new Castle Course in St. Andrews for the Links Trust, Kidd had enough clout to get permission to build here, the first golf course permitted on the kind of protected environmental land that the Scottish call a Site of Special Scientific Interest in over a century.
Machrihanish Dunes more straight-forward than the Castle
Many early critics of Machrihanish Dunes derided the new design for an abundance of blind shots, but the truth is that it has less concealed features and is considerably more straight-forward than Kidd's more attention getting effort in St. Andrews, the Castle.
In one respect it is actually quite user friendly: unlike most links courses, Machrihanish Dunes employs two nine-hole loops, both of which start and end at the clubhouse, making it perfect for a quick nine on arrival day after flying all night, or when golfers need to beat a hasty retreat from the weather, which on this exposed peninsula, can be as raw it gets. Another unusual touch in these parts is the choice of five tees, varying from 5,234 to 7,175 yards.
Because Machrihanish Dunes' back nine is more sheltered and a shorter walk, the starter often recommends visitors try it first when the wind is howling. This makes even more sense when you consider that the back was actually the front until they flipped the nines, mainly because the new eighth and ninth are the most difficult holes on the course and they did not want golfers to finish with such despair.
These tweaks are not done, as they are changing a couple of tees to make the golf course even more "obvious," though the few blind shots are not really a problem.
Overall, Machrihanish Dunes' similarities to Bandon Dunes are worth revisiting. In both cases subtlety is the rule of the day, as a great effort was made to avoid earthmoving and use existing features, and in many cases at both, Kidd simply selected tee and green sites and did a little mowing. Here even the bunker sites were chosen in the old way, expanding holes made by elements and animals. That means they are not always in the "right" place, at least by computer, but there's something to be said for nature. To the degree that in the case of Machrihanish Dunes some blind shots and oddly shaped holes result, well that's real links golf like they have long embraced at Prestwick and Lahinch.
One notable feature is that it is a very long walk indeed, thanks largely to environmental protection. The routes from greens to tees are far from straightforward, not because of Kidd's malevolence, but rather the need to avoid trampling certain sections of the dunes. This adds to the perception of blindness, since the way to the next tee is often counterintuitive.
Machrihanish Dunes: The verdict
At the end of the day, Machrihanish Dunes is a perfectly fine links course, with nothing nouveau or tricked up about it (in fact, thanks to regulations, the fairways can't even be irrigated). On the other hand, even though it has nice natural dunes along the coast, it lacks the dramatic setting of Turnberry, just across the way on the mainland, or the do-or-die shotmaking of Royal County Down just across the Irish Sea in the other direction. If anything is lacking here, it's sex appeal.
I was warned that Machrihanish Dunes was a course that visitors would either love or hate, but I don't see how it could elicit either strong emotion, and I would deem it simply good. Add in the adjacent Machrihanish Golf Club, well worth visiting but previously hard to justify on its own, and the impressive new lodging and dining associated with the Dunes, and the whole package makes the leap to very good.
Getting to Machrihanish Dunes
Whichever Machrihanish golf course you are playing, and you should play both, at least once, the new course wins hands down on the lodging front over anything previously existing. Phase one of Machrihanish Dunes' quasi-resort includes an enclave of posh golf cottages, complete with flat screens, WiFi and modern kitchens, surrounding a full service pub and restaurant, with the golf shop out back. Despite the fact that the two courses are joined at the hip at the eighth hole of old, the first tees are a good 15-minute drive apart, and Machrihanish Dunes dutifully shuttles around its guests. In shoulder season some amazingly good deals abound, such as lodging and unlimited golf for under £100 per day.
The American investors behind Machrihanish Dunes also own two faded hotels, one right at the cottage enclave across from the first tee of the old course, and one in downtown Campbeltown, the peninsula's big city. Both are being restored to their former glory and will reopen in 2011 and 2012 respectively, complete with additional dining options. The one non-golf attraction not to be missed is the Springbank distillery in Campbeltown, one of the most famous in Scotland and the only one still in the hands of the original family owners.
FlyBe airline has two flights a day from Glasgow to Campbeltown, the best way to get here. Otherwise you drive down the peninsula from Glasgow (4 hours) or take two car ferries across to Troon via the island of Arran, a long trip.