The marketing bumph that surrounds Machrihanish Dunes is unashamedly nostalgic and blatantly wistful. It suggests true links courses aren’t created, rather they are born. To prove it, the brochure evocatively notes that the original site of the new 7,300-yard course consisted of 23 “natural” holes. It informs us that the course was the first to be ‘born’ on Scotland’s West coast for 100 years and the 259-acre plot is one of the country’s last remaining natural links sites. Intriguing stuff, especially if you like your golf with a helping of coastal wind.
Standing on what will be the 10th tee as the late spring sunshine casts shadows across the 401-yard untouched fairway, the sentimental rhetoric seems to ring true. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the first golf course ever built. Stretching out in front of you lies the dramatic undulations of a classic stretch of links land with the steady Atlantic breeze whipping up white-tipped waves that crash along the deserted beach beyond the dunes.The turf is thick and the air is laced with salt, but the land appears untouched bar some temporary fencing that protects putting surfaces and tee boxes.
The defined and manicured look that we’ve all grown accustomed to is noticeable by its absence. In its place, a wild landscape promises a golfing experience that many had thought lost. This is a place for purists looking for a historical fix of blind tee shots and awkward lies. Sheep wander across the loosely cut fairways giving them an extra trim. Bunkers have a natural, unkempt finish.This is an experiment in resurrecting the past.
It’s remarkable, enthralling and daunting, much like the opening drive of the original Machrihanish course which borders the southern extremities of this new upstart. It has attained an almost mythical status among golf’s diehards, and with good reason. Shaped by wind, sea and sand, the land is smooth and treeless. Fast-running fairways and brick-hard greens create a bracing concoction of links elements that test the nerve and fire the imagination.The intoxicating combination of scenic beauty and challenging golf has ensured Machrihanish regularly appears in the top echelons of golf’s nobility.
Old Tom Morris said this remote Scottish coastline had been created with “gowff” in mind, and who would argue with such a legend? He came here to extend the original 10- hole course in 1879 – three years after it first opened – and by doing so created a remarkable test of golf.The course was redesigned in 1914 by J. H. Taylor and was later used for the Scottish Ladies’ Amateur Championship in 1990 and 2000. Other tournaments have been held here but the place has remained off the beaten track for most, until now.
An audacious £30 million investment by an international business consortium has sparked renewed interest in this remote and wayward spindle of land. Brightside Leisure Development has bought two hotels in the area as well as the remarkable stretch of land that will become Machrihanish Dunes. Its plans include luxury residential developments as well as a spectacular club house and, of course, the links course which is being designed by David McLay Kidd, the architectural mind behind the new Castle Course in St Andrews.
Kidd fought to be involved in the project in order to fulfil a childhood dream which was hatched on Machrihanish beach when he played there as a child during family holidays.
While there he caddied for his father and grandfather as they tackled Old Tom’s original masterpiece dreaming of creating a second course along side the original. Coming back to make his mark in these precious and fragile dunes is a dream realised.
He was also instrumental in bringing Euan Grant to Kintyre, a greenkeeper who Brian Keating, founder of Brightside Leisure Development, described as the world’s leading Keeper of the Green. It would take something special to prize Grant from his leading role at the Old Course in St Andrews, but the lure of working alongside Kidd on the purist of golfing builds was just the thing for Grant.
“After having done an Open in 2005, I’d pretty much realised my greenkeeping goals,” he recalls. “I was in a comfort zone and I felt I needed to push myself and the opportunities to do that weren’t in St Andrews. At the end of my time there, I was responsible for a big team with a seemingly empty pit of money. We cut grass, raked bunkers and changed holes, but I wanted more. I wanted to make an impact.”
At that time Kidd and his right-hand man Paul Kimber had started work on the seventh 18-hole course at the Home of Golf. “David and Paul were aware of my feelings and suggested there could be some possible opportunities,” says Grant. “When I heard they’d gained planning permission at Machrihanish, I got myself over there for the first time in my life. I heard the news at 4 pm and was booked in my hotel in Campbeltown by 9 pm. At 7amthe following morning, I was walking the site and fell in love with the project.”
With his experience at the Old Course and work at Marriott Forest of Arden Golf & Country Club in Warwickshire where he set up two English Opens, Grant had his pick of greenkeeping jobs but chose Machrihanish Dunes.His decision was perhaps swayed by the minimalist approach adopted by Kidd, although this was not so much a homage to the past but a product of necessity.
“It’s the first 18-hole course completely constructed within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI),” Grant explains. “Basically Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) objected to the building unless a list of stipulations was met, and one of those stipulations was that we worked closely with an ecologist who we funded. In terms of construction, it meant we couldn’t do much. To create the greens and tees, we took turf off predetermined areas, shaped and seeded them in consultation with the ecologist and, in some cases, the head of SNH for Argyle and Bute. Outside of that, we had to work with what we had.”
The gulf between the Machrihanish Dunes approach and conventional methods of design and construction wasn’t lost on Grant, although he argues the restrictions created a unique opportunity to shape golf holes as they were done centuries ago. “If you can imagine a modern architect sitting in his office designing a golf course to fit into a piece of land, they’d move hills and mountains to make it work,” he says. “We couldn’t do that.The green sites were identified, rabbit damage became the bunkers and tee positions were shifted within reason to make the bunkers hazards. David routed the golf course through the natural landform, which is how it used to happen.”
In fact, 75% of the 42 bunkers on the course were created from rabbit-damaged areas.
The SSSI classification had other implications. “When we were removing lines of turf from the greens with a turf cutter, as you’d expect, we were left with little strips between the lines,” says Grant. “Those slithers of turf had to be used. There was now a stage allowed.
Typically you’d have a handful of wastage which you’d throw in skip. We weren’t allowed to bin anything – nothing was allowed to leave the SSSI site and nothing was to be brought on to it.” Even the grass seed, which was used to fill bare and rabbit-damaged areas, had to be native to the west coast of Scotland, and with only one supplier, going green was often a costly exercise.
Expense aside, the challenges of creating a golf course within a SSSI site were utterly absorbing and often meant the team were required to complete tasks by hand rather than use heavy machinery. Labour intensive and intellectually testing, the project forced the team to reassess their approach to building a golf course. “We’ve really had to have two hats on,” says Grant. “Paul and I knew exactly what we wanted to do golf wise but you couldn’t do any of that without thinking about the SSSI. In almost every occasion it was a happy medium.”
It is immediately apparent that Grant feels a real sense of achievement from the work he and his team have completed at Machrihanish Dunes pointing out that despite the intense restrictions and often-inclement weather, he can genuinely say he did things correctly. This in itself is something of a personal triumph but it also shows that golf courses can be created without purging the land of the essential ingredients that made it wonderful in the first place.
The real winners in all of this are you and me. The golf course created by Grant, Kidd and Kimber has stopped time partly by default and partly by design. The upshot is a place where the raw essence of our game has come to life by truly respecting the virtues of the land rather than trying re-create them.