The views of Jack Nicklaus and Sir Paul McCartney on Scotland’s Kintyre Peninsula seem hard to argue with.
Jack Nicklaus described the first hole at Machrihanish Golf Club as ‘’the best opening hole of golf in the world’’.
The McCartney family has owned High Park farm overlooking Machrihanish Bay since 1966. When McCartney and Wings recorded their bestselling ‘’Mull of Kintyre’’, accompanied by local pipers, they dedicated the song to the area.
Once you have golfed at Machrihanish you may feel like McCartney in his song and acquire the desire ‘’to always be there’’. For golfers, the four-hour drive on ‘’the long and winding road’’ from Glasgow will return the time invested. A visit of three to four days will allow the golfing traveller to do justice to the peninsula.
From 1876 the primary attraction has been the Old Tom Morris course - The Machrihanish Golf Club - but from 2010 there has been further reason to visit. A new course, Machrihanish Dunes, was designed and built by David McLay Kidd on adjoining land. It was the first links course to be built in the West of Scotland for 100 years. Sheep still grazed the Club’s course until the 1970s and are still to be seen on the neighbouring Dunes course.
Both courses are ranked comfortably inside the United Kingdom’s top 100 (44th and 83rd). Interest in the two links courses at Machrihanish has been growing in the last decade. This is due in no small part to an American company, Southworth Development, who have invested heavily in the region.
The Machrihanish Golf Club – Par 70 – 6226 Yards.
Your round begins with check in at the small but surprisingly well-stocked pro shop owned and operated by ex-top golfer Jennie Dunn. There is no more friendly welcome in any pro shop in the world – nor can there be a better view from the 1st tee.
The 424-yard first hole, Battery, opens with a stunning vista. There is no way to escape the lengthy carry over the beach. The long hitter taking an aggressive line is gambling on a shorter approach to the green. On a fine day picnicking families on the beach can be off-putting for the opening tee shot.
Number four is a short 131-yard par three. The view over Machrihanish Bay gives the golfer the chance to take a breather before taking on the two cavernous bunkers that protect the green.
The next few holes are known as ‘’the gauntlet’’ and if you make it to the ninth green without losing a ball you are indeed having a wonderful day. The fairways wind through large dunes covered in knee-high fescue. The chances of recovering your ball if you miss a fairway are slim. Golfers also need to become conditioned to blind tee shots. It takes a special type of courage to aim, generally into the prevailing wind, at a distant post marking the middle of an invisible fairway. At the end of the outward nine, you have an enticing glimpse of the neighbouring Dunes course, and the remains of RAF Machrihanish also come into view.
The historic base was commissioned during the First World War, used by the Fleet Air Arm during World War II and later for training Korean War pilots in the 1950s. The 10,000-foot runway was one of the longest in Europe and could accommodate the delta-winged Vulcan bomber. Still visible are concrete structures (known as igloos) that were built for the storage of nuclear weapons during The Cold War. Then in the 1980s US Navy Seals used the base for training. From 1981 the base was certified as a potential emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. Campbelltown airport now has scheduled Loganair flights from Glasgow, bringing in mainly American golfers.
The back nine of the course does not disappoint. There are many fine holes winding through the dunes. Players emerge from the dunes onto the 16th tee, Rorke’s Drift, a 243-yard par 3. The friendlier, flatter landscape deceives. This is more of a short par 4 than a long par 3! The nerves are not helped by the fact that the distant small green is partially obscured by a dune.
The final hole ‘’Lossit” is only 314 yards but has an out of bounds along the left side. The fairway merges with the 1st and is protected by the same four bunkers on the right that the golfer has encountered on the first hole. The green is large but banked on all sides.
The round finishes with a short walk to the new clubhouse, completed in 2021 after fire destroyed the old clubhouse in 2018.
It is difficult to argue with the summary on the club’s website.
‘’Often described as spiritual, Machrihanish is a love affair of sport and nature - challenging but fair, charming, and thrilling. Golf as it was intended to be.’’
Machrihanish Dunes - Par 72 – 7082 Yards
The Dunes is a different experience to the Machrihanish Golf Club as it is not a club course with hundreds of members. It is the only course ever created on the site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The sensitive dunes are managed carefully in conjunction with Scottish Nature.
Of the 259 acres the holes occupy, only seven were disturbed during construction. The tees and greens were shaped, and the fairways were found, not built. It is fair to say the lies may not all be perfect, and that placing is required. However, there is nothing wrong with the turf around the playing surfaces. Spectacular views of the sea are revealed on six of the holes.
The sensible tee selection is white, at 6,349 yards. It is unusual to face the challenge of the Dunes on a windless day and rain is common, so take good wet weather gear.
The 3rd hole is a lengthy par five close to 600 yards. This is balanced nicely by a driveable par 4 of around 250 yards on the 4th with an intriguing punchbowl green making for a fun second shot.
After the demanding par 4 18th hole it is time to swap tales from the day in one of the smallest clubhouses in Scotland. In the charming stone building you will find ever- present host Peter Stogdale dispensing sandwiches, home-made soup and golfing wisdom. A quick chat to Peter before you head off on the course may save the first-time visiting golfer from getting completely lost. (Peter caddied for Sir Bob Charles in 2010 on his visit to play The Dunes).
There is no cause for alarm if you are suddenly surrounded on the course by a small group of large black sheep with white faces called Zwartbles. (A Dutch breed) They are friendly, cheeky creatures, and are probably looking for the gingerbread that they are fond of– a weakness attested to by their girths. Many of the bunkers on the course were shaped by livestock creating natural bunkers while trying to find shelter from the wind.
The walking may not be easy, but caddies are available, as are decent quality electric carts. The designer David McLay Kidd summed it up accurately ‘’we are returning golf to how it should be played; no longer is it a gentle walk in the garden, it will be a full-fledged mountaineering expedition at this course’’. Minor modification to the course took place in 2011 to reduce long walks between holes and the severity of some greens. At Mach Dunes nature and golf seem in perfect harmony.
This is a unique golfing experience - in a rugged and dramatic corner of Scotland.
Dunaverty Golf Club – Par 66 – 4799 Yards
Having played the two main Machrihanish courses golfers may feel they need a second chance to master either or both layouts.
However, if the golfer feels like something completely different the short drive to Southend and the Dunaverty Golf Club will pay dividends.
This is a charming little course often referred to as ‘’a hidden gem’’ with truly spectacular views in most directions.
Accommodation and dining.
In its heyday Campbeltown used to sustain 34 whisky distilleries. Only three remain – Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia. As far as whisky is concerned, the town is now a pale imitation of what used to be known as the ‘’whisky capital of the world’’. However, the town won an award for Scotland’s Most Improved Place in 2020. A bronze sculpture of McCartney’s late wife Linda, holding a lamb, sits in her Memorial Garden in the town. Her ashes remain on the peninsula.
The standard of hotels in the area has improved dramatically since the time of my first visit, 30 years ago.
The Ugadale Hotel and Cottages are a short walk to the first tee at Machrihanish. The hotel has been restored to its former glory and the rooms are comfortable and large. It is a wonderful place to stay. The two-bedroom Ugadale cottages enjoy relaxing views of the Atlantic Ocean and have every amenity that the travelling golfer may require.
The Royal Hotel in Campbeltown has also been restored by Southworth Development. The Old Clubhouse Pub next to Ugadale dates to 1876 when it was originally the Machrihanish Golf clubhouse. It serves good casual pub food and is presented in a manner that the patrons may feel transported back to the time of Old Tom Morris.
Number 42 Restaurant and Kitchen in Campbeltown serves fresh seafood and is the area’s best restaurant. The nearby Harborview Grille is also highly rated.
Machrihanish, its unique golf courses, accommodation and other attractions may take an effort to access. It is a place for the serious golfer who is looking for something undeniably Scottish and authentic. The post-COVID golf tourist in Scotland faces greatly increased prices in the well-known areas around St Andrews, Carnoustie, Turnberry and the like. Machrihanish seems uncrowded and moderately priced in comparison to these more famous golfing hotspots.
My advice is to get there sooner rather than later.
Geoff Saunders writes for various golf and other publications and has been visiting Machrihanish for over 30 years.