Crossing Every Ocean*

Machrihanish Old 5th

All these named storms hitting our shores reminds me of a trip I took to Scotland last year. It was in the wake of ex-hurricane Dorian and while that usually wouldn’t be a problem… I was catching a ferry. And when I say ferry, I mean a small 12-seater boat that takes 90 minutes to travel between Ballycastle and Campbeltown on the Kintyre Peninsula.

It was a trip I had been planning to take for years – the destination of Machrihanish has a mystical allure – just not when winds are whipping the sea channel into a fury.

As I boarded the Kintyre Express, watching as my golf clubs disappeared into the hold, the captain told us that the ferry had almost been cancelled because of the weather. It didn’t instil any of the passengers with confidence.

And so began 90 minutes of hell. A small boat on a big angry sea has little chance at a relaxed crossing. The thrill of being on such a small craft and being tossed about like a stir-fry wears off very quickly… but once you’ve started it’s not like you can get off. We arrived alive and still able to walk (you are required to wear a seat belt!) in a straight line.

I played Machrihanish in 2004 and had always vowed to return. The added incentive of doing so in 2019 was that there is now a second course here: Machrihanish Dunes. It was designed by David McLay Kidd and opened in 2009, and makes this somewhat inaccessible part of Scotland (it is a 3 hour drive from Glasgow, or you can catch two ferries to jump from Troon to Arran to the peninsula) a serious golf destination. My 90 minute ferry ride from Ballycastle seemed like a doddle by comparison despite Dorian’s best endeavours.

Here’s the thing: this is a small destination and if you’re smart you can get away without a car. There are B&Bs and the like, but if you stay at the Royal Hotel in Campbeltown, or the Ugadale Hotel in Machrihanish itself, you have an enormous advantage over other travellers: they are owned by the same people who own Machrihanish Dunes… and complimentary shuttle buses are provided to transport you between the hotels and the golf course. Add to this that Machrihanish Old is mere yards from the Ugadale Hotel (and its self-catering ‘Residences’) and you have everything you need without need for a car. The distance between Campbeltown and Machrihanish is just five miles, straight across the peninsula.

Machrihanish Old was established in 1876 and owes much of its design to Old Tom Morris. The holes in the heart of the course are what set this course apart. The rolling terrain, the zigs and zags, the blind shots that start at the 3rd and run to the 9th are captivating. Holes 4 to 8 run parallel with the coast, lost in deep dunes. The back nine possess some beauties too and the consecutive par threes (15 and 16) can wreck your head and your card.

The 1st has a sign on the tee that claims it is the best opening hole in the world. It isn’t – the similar opener at Ardglass is far superior – but you do get to drive over a beach and the sea. There was no clubhouse when I played – it was burned down in December 2018 – but a smart new two-storey replacement will be built this year.

Is the Mach Dunes experience any different? It sits right next door after all. What stands out here is that the design of the course had to be exceptionally sensitive to the environment. Unlike Trump’s bulldoze-it-and-be-damned approach in Aberdeen, the owners and McLay Kidd embraced the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designation and the resulting limitations. Hardly any ground has been moved and only natural fertilisers can be used. Of the 259 acres on which the course sits, only seven were disturbed during construction. Only the tees and greens were shaped. There’s even a limitation on the machinery that can be used on the course. As a result, Mach Dunes is a modern masterpiece that feels every bit as old and natural as its immediate neighbour.

It is a considerably bigger course both in terms of length (7082/6349 yards, par 72 vs 6226/5956 yards, par 70) and the length of walks to tees but similarities are there nonetheless, especially with both links having such adventurous greens.

Of the two, Machrihanish Dunes is the stronger, from holes 1 through 18, but holes 3 to 8 on the Old course are an exhilarating adrenaline rush. You’d be mad to come here and not play both. There is also a third links nearby – Dunaverty –which is on the south tip of the peninsula.

Having a service like the Kintyre Express makes this remote golfing outpost highly accessible to Irish golfers. Yes, our journey over was rough but you can park your car in Ballycastle for free, the Royal Hotel is 100 yards from the pier where the ferry docks in Campbeltown, and the shuttles are frequent and can be ordered as required. From a logistical point of view, it makes it so easy to cross this particular stretch of ocean to sate your golfing hunger.


* A lyric from OMD’s 1984 hit, Locomotion.

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