David McLay Kidd's new Machrihanish Dunes golf course worth the trip - if you play Machrihanish G.C. too

By Larry Olmsted, Special Contributor

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.

Machrihanish Dunes golf course - hole 4
David McLay Kidd's new Machrihanish Dunes golf course is set on linksland as authentic as any in Scotland.
Machrihanish Dunes golf course - hole 4Machrihanish Dunes G.C. - hole 10Machrihanish Dunes - beach
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Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club

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Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club, which opened in 2009, is the first golf course to be built on a Site of Special Scientific Interest since the days of Scottish golfing pioneer Tom Morris. The golf course is also the first 18-hole links course to be built on the west coast of Scotland in 100 years

18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 7082 yd. yards | Book online | ... details »

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.

Larry OlmstedLarry Olmsted, Special Contributor

Larry Olmsted has written more than 1,000 articles on golf and golf travel, for the likes of Golf Magazine, T&L Golf, LINKS, Golf & Travel, Men's Health, Men's Journal, USA Today, and many others. He broke the Guinness World Record for golf travel and wrote Getting into Guinness, as well as Golf Travel by Design. He was the founding editor of The Golf Insider, and the golf columnist for both USA Today.com and US Airways Magazine. Follow Larry on Twitter at @TravelFoodGuy.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Pioneering

    Charles Stewart wrote on: Jan 26, 2010

    I make the assumption that anyone travelling to Machrihanish is a golf afficianado - there's simply no other reason to visit Cambeltown! And possibly making a once or twice in a lifetime trip to Scotland. If that is the case then let me suggest a visit to a "neighbouring" course, mentioned by Mr Wallach in his comment. It's "The Machrie" on the Isle of Islay, a great classic links course, and much better Machrihanish, which has only a few interesting holes. From Machrihanish drive up the Mull of Kintyre to Kennacraig, take the ferry to Islay, and then stay at the Machrie Hotel (on the course). You'll have to book all this in advance. Time - 4 -5 hours (2.5 on ferry). Or even easier from Glasgow, don't go to Cambeltown at all; stop at Kennacraig on your way down the Mull of Kintyre and catch the ferry. Hotel mediocre; the food, good, the drink, well it's Islay, the home of malt whisky, the course glorious. On a fine summer's day you'll believe you've gone to heaven. Avoid end of July and first week in August, the only time there are enough visitors to make the course busy. Very moderate prices.


    • RE: Pioneering

      david Worley wrote on: Mar 11, 2010

      For what it is worth, even though I live in Melbourne Australia, I have played EVERY links course in the UK and Ireland at least once.
      I would rate Machrihanish as one of the very best. Greens are superb and the front nine is especially engaging.
      I was also interested to see how much Dunaverty (at nearby Southend) had improved.
      As for Mach Dunes -I liked the greens but the front nine is one hell of a long walk.
      David Worley.



    HUGH SINCLAIR wrote on: Oct 25, 2009

    The Larry Olmsted article is inaccurate where it references that David McLay Kidd's father was a greenkeeper at Machrihanish Golf club. Jimmy Kidd was never a greenkeeper at Machrihanish.



      JIMMY KIDD wrote on: Nov 29, 2009

      Thank you for correction regarding my percieved previous position as Superintendent of the Links at Machrihanish where I have been a member for many years and raised my two children David and Tracey on the beach adjacent to the first hole.
      For many years David and I while playing the "Old" Course at Machrihanish, we would look over the fences and dunes at the 3rd, 7th and 8th holes and fantisise about another course alongside with more exposure to the wild Atlantic
      NEVER believing our team at DMK GOLF DESIGN would ever be awarded such a magnificent challenge on such a protected and natural golf site.
      We certainly hope all who play appreciate the course, the sensitivity of the "construction" works and the on-going maintenance of a fine superintendent Keith Mitchell



        HUGH SINCLAIR wrote on: Dec 27, 2009

        Mr Kidd,
        I must congratulate DMK design for the design of Machrihanish Dunes. I must say I believe it will become one of the best links in Scotland. I can remember many years ago that one of the ex captains of Machrihanish (Dan Mc Kinlay) prophesized in the Machrihanish clubhouse one evening that their would be a second course at Machrihanish. How right he was.


  • Macrihanish Dunes

    Jeff Wallach wrote on: Oct 23, 2009

    Way to go, Larry-- an honest description of what could easily be an over-hyped new golf course. I visited the site just over a year ago, when the routing had been completed and many of the course features set. Our group of visiting journalists had a difficult time seeing what the real excitement was, about either the site or the course, and especially having just come from the real Macrihanish, the Machrie, and several other classic old Scottish links courses. Just because a course is new, Scottish, and designed by David Kidd is no reason to rave about it. We need to ignore the press releases and marketing campaigns and let new courses earn our praise. Thanks for the realistic appraisal.
    Jeff Wallach
    Executive Editor, theAposition.com


    • RE: Macrihanish Dunes

      Kevin Hogan wrote on: May 16, 2012

      Great to see that your writers gave it another shot and that Machrihanish Dunes are rightfully earning their praises: http://theaposition.com/Articles/29/646/1/Machrihanish-Dunes-The-Way-Golf-Began-and-Should-be-Going.


    • RE: Macrihanish Dunes

      michael mcvey wrote on: Jan 17, 2011

      is every one missing the point!! this cousre is only 2 years old. the old course is over 130 years old and im sure it was no where near as good as the dunes was after 2 years. as for the walk, whats the problem? golf is all about walking.
      i played the course in nov 09 and i have booked to play it again in feb 2011. if you want to play easy golf go somewhere else. this course is for golfers who like a challenge not the prawn sandwich brigade.
      golf courses grow and mature so i only wish i could play the dunes in 130 years


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