The small village of Machrihanish is situated on the western side of the remote Kintyre Peninsula; this is where the sky is big, the sunsets are dramatic and the air has been warmed by the Gulf Stream. Nearby Campbeltown was once the whisky capital of the world, but today only the Springbank distillery remains in full operation.
In 1876, the Kintyre Golf Club was founded; and in November of that year, Charles Hunter, the Prestwick professional, rearranged the course and extended it to twelve holes. Old Tom Morris then left his stamp on the links in 1879. The members felt that Kintyre was too ordinary a name for such a special golf course, so they changed it to the resonant Machrihanish in 1888.
The course was modified again in 1914 by J.H. Taylor and Sir Guy Campbell made further alterations when several holes around the turn were lost due to development work at the Campbeltown airport site next door.
This links must be one of the most natural, romantic and most enjoyable places to play golf in the whole of the British Isles. It’s not long, grand or a championship course, but it is sheer fun. It’s got an outstanding front nine and a thrilling start. The first, called “Battery”, is one of the best opening holes in golf, a teasing 423-yard par four with an elevated tee on the edge of the shore. The fairway hugs the beach and we must drive diagonally across it. How heroic can we afford to be with our very first tee shot? The beach is in play, not out-of bounds. But dare we play our second shot from amongst the seashells?
Machrihanish is not just about one great opening hole – the front nine is exceptional and the entire experience is magical. The greens are firm, fast, true and are positioned in the most varied of locations. Some are sunk in punchbowls whilst others are on a raised plateau or flattened dune tops. There are blind tee shots, fabulous sea views, undulating rippling fairways and exciting rugged dunes.
You have to make an extra special effort to get to Machrihanish, but it is worth it. The welcome is extraordinarily friendly and the golf is extraordinary. Expect to leave this place with a broad smile on your face... additionally, the results of a Top 100 survey suggest that Machrihanish is one of the best value golf courses in Britain.
Machrihanish is a pure delight of old classic links golf. The club is very welcoming. It's not often that your dreams of playing a fabulous course are inspired by its first hole. Three times I have knocked near perfect drives on that first and finished with 3 pars. There are many very good holes here. The conditions are exacting to providing hard fast conditions. It feels like you have been transported back a hundred years when to walk these grounds. It takes a lot of commitment to get here but it is so very much worth it.
Machrihanish has always felt like a fairy-tale golfing destination to me, mainly due to the complexity with travelling to the lower Kintyre peninsula. And as our rotten luck would have it, due to a covid associated cancellation of the ferry crossing and a collapse of the road within the “Rest and Be Thankful” region west of Loch Lomond, a four hour drive from Troon did nothing to quell those preconceptions. But that long, scenic journey to this beautiful part of the world was ultimately well worth the effort.
The opening nine holes of Machrihanish play across dunes almost foreign to most Scottish courses, for the contours across both the fairways and greens here are big, bold and wild. And rather than playing between the dunes, at Machrihanish you’re climbing right through them.
The marketing of Machrihanish’s course annoys me though, the 1st hole literally gets all of the attention whilst information and photos on the rest of the course is scant. Whilst I’d be in agreement that Machrihanish probably has the best opening tee shot in golf, controversially I do think there are better opening holes elsewhere, the 1st at Royal Aberdeen being one. But the main reason I’m frustrated about the 1st hole hogging all of the headlines is after playing it, I found that the best was yet to come.
The 2nd feels like the odd one out as it connects the lower ground with the higher duneland, but it’s a tough challenge as it plays to a lofted and handsomely shaped green. The 3rd is a blind tee shot ahead of a green that’s the most strategically bunkered across the course, and from that point on we have lift-off. This is the start of a most incredible sequence of holes and why Machrihanish has one of the best front nines that I’ve played. The 4th hole is the entrance to the most rugged and raw duneland where you’ll play across the most violently undulating ground. Other than the short 4th, the front nine is made up of a clean sweep of par fours, but the various lengths of holes in combination with the extreme land that paves the way to several proud and wavy greens means that the front nine never feels repetitive. In truth, the front nine is bordering on a sensory overload where it’ll be unlikely that you’ll be able to take it all in on a single visit. My host even informed me that many moons ago, a Himalayas-style bunker used to be in existence in the large dune on the 7th but over time, grass has taken root and grown over this sandy patch. So as good as the front nine currently is, exposing and restoring some of these wild dunes as big and natural sandy waste bunkers would really make it phenomenal.
The bunkering around Machrihanish is in general infrequent in number, but what it does have can be deep and punishing. Pot bunkers on the 2nd, 5th and 12th are placed in troughs at the bottom of some brutal slopes so if you’re unfortunate enough to find these little monsters, I’m sure you’d be doing well to avoid them wrecking your scorecard.
Whilst not at the same calibre as the front, the back nine has some highlights too, and I’d extend my praise as far as the 12th hole since two excellent but reachable par fives come in quick succession at 10 and 12. The 10th is at the far end of this out-and-back layout and has you bordering the air field as well as the sister course at Machrihanish Dunes. The second shot is the making of this hole as all but a fairway-splitting drive will have you needing to launch your second shot over some low dunes. Conversely, the excitement at 12 comes around the green where a rough and untidy swale protects this hole from being an easy reach in two, instead a large rolling green provides a big target for those taking the more comfortable three shot option.
After the extreme highs over the first twelve holes, I think the first-time visitor is always going to have their experience tinged with a little disappointment through the last few holes, and I think this is why some people walk away with less than glowing opinions of the course. Whilst still sandy and linksy, the ground here is much less turbulent, but what doesn’t let up is the superb green contouring. A shelf at the front of the 13th green repels anything short whilst the 14th green is protected by a shallow swale that cuts across the end of the fairway. The mid-iron 15th is probably the best of the closing holes, this is an excellent par three with steep shaven run-offs on all sides of the green. Admittedly, the closing holes don’t hold the same appeal as what’s come before although I had read that there was talk a while back of finding another par three in the dunes which would then allow the club to create a brutal closing par five combining the existing 17th and 18th holes. I’d personally welcome such a change as it would help take Machrihanish to the next level, although I have the impression that the window of opportunity for this to occur may now have passed.
Machrihanish seems to be short on love from reviewers recently so I hope I’ve gone some way to redressing the balance on what I think is a brilliant course. The closing holes shouldn’t overwhelm one’s overall judgement and I’m sure that if the weaker holes were interspersed between the stronger ones, or if they came at the start of the round rather than the end of it, more visitors would, as I do, hold the course in the highest of regards.
After that great first hole, I too was disappointed. Some patches of rough were penal and for me, there were too many blind shots. When you reach an advanced age in life, some of the holes were also tad too difficult to be honest. Not quite what I had hoped for...
I have to be honest and say I was a bit disappointed after playing Machrihanish. I went in with quite high expectations and to be brutally honest the course didn’t meet them. Not to say it is a bad course. Far from it. The first is world famous, I liked the 3rd and the 7th. I also enjoyed the 2 par 5s on the back nine. Overall though I came away slightly underwhelmed. The finish was quite poor and the condition of the course was really not great when I played it. If the course was in East Lothian or Fife then I don’t think it would be rated as highly as it is. Controversial I know!
The original course at Machrihanish is still the best course in the area but benefits from the relationship it has with the new Mach Dunes and the beautiful hotels they own. I recommend staying in the Ugadale hotel which is only 100 yards from the first tee on the old course.
Machrihanish is a very remote and beautiful little village at the end of the Kintrye peninsula. Although you can fly there, I recommend taking the 3 hour drive from Glasgow, it is beautiful and part of the adventure. If you make the trip over there, you should also play the other 3 courses in the area. Machrihanish Dunes is well known but Dunaverty and Carradale are little hidden gems.
The first tee shot starts on the edge of town and the golfer hits over the sea to the first fairway. I had read about how great this first hole was in magazines through the years, but other than the novelty of hitting over the sea, the hole is bland and void of much character. The course really starts to ramp up as you play the approach up the hill into the second green. This is where you meet the beautiful dunes of Machrihanish and the very contoured and natural green sites are like something from a bygone era. From the second green onward, you are treated to arguably the best stretch of holes in the country, with short and quirky holes galore all the way to 9th. Holes 10-16 are all very good holes, although they do not occupy best of the dunes. Teeing off the 17th brings you back down to the flat land around the clubhouse and other than the last hole bing a fun drivable length, they are relatively boring.
When I play Machrihanish, I get the feeling like I’m stepping back in time and I’m playing a course that probably hasn’t changed a lot since Old Tom designed it. I get more enjoyment out of playing a short and fun course like this than I do the big Open Championship courses. I highly recommend anyone visiting Scotland to make the journey here, you will not be disappointed.
Far and True! Machrihanish is not somewhere you just happen to come across in your travels! It is remotely located near the tip of the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland's west but it's one of the most natural golfing links in the world.
With a nine holes out, and nine holes in format, it is the front nine that really captures the imagination as it moves through a dramatic dunescape by the sea.
The back nine has some fine holes, but generally is sited in less undulating land and most holes head in the same direction...back to the clubhouse!
However Machrihanish is not the sort of course to appeal to everybody. In my opinion there are too many blind shots and hidden bunkers for this to be considered a great course, but it sure is fun!
The opening hole is known as one of the best starting holes in golf, and for good reason. With the tee shot angling over the beach and surf, working out what angle to hit, and then implementing is not necessarily the soft starter we sometimes need with tired, stiff old travel weary bodies. But remember to take a picture- it is a memorable moment and It is also a very picturesque hole!
Other holes of note include:
- the short par 4, third hole (called Islay). It has a blind tee shot but then the hole plays down a valley to a longish valley green.
- the short par 3 at hole 4 (Jura) with a table top green in a lovely setting
- the short par 4, eighth hole (Gigha) is also a ripping hole with a challenging drive and then a short iron over heavy rough to an elevated green.
In fact the entire front nine is quite memorable. It's classic rolling links golf with never a dull moment along the way. The front nine does remind me of the rolling dunescape at Barnbougle Dunes in Australia, one of my favourite courses
The back nine never reaches the same level of excitement but there are no bad holes. Of these the par 5 twelfth hole (Long Hole) with its quirky green was the most interesting...
Machrihanish is hard to get to, but worth the effort when you do. Having made the journey, stay a few days and play more than once if you can. It's a lovely place and a joy to play!
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
The Old course at Machrihanish (Championship) is lovingly described by members as "quirky, rolling, blind shots, uphill, downhill, goes this way and that way and all in all its magnificent and great fun." Then when asked about the Dunes course they say it is "quirky, rolling, blind shots, uphill, downhill, goes this way and that way and is rubbish."
I have yet to play the Dunes course (will plan it for 2020) but I have played the Old course and I loved most of it for the description from the members that I know.
The self-described first hole as the best opening hole in golf over the curvature of the beach to the second longest par 4 on the course at 424 yards is a good hole, even a great hole, but probably not the best opening hole in golf. But you will remember it.
Then the next nine holes take you into the dunes and rolling hills and you do go up and down and play into some very tiered greens that are a delight to try to navigate.
The course loses a bit to a lack of length and the back nine is not nearly as good as the front side.
On a windy day, the lack of length of the golf course becomes less of an issue for the good player. On a windless day the course is a bit of a pushover.
The Old course gets a bit too easy beginning on 10, a short par 5 followed by a long but less interesting par 3, followed by another short par 5. The par fives are well designed, but with today's technology they are too short. The 14th is likely the best hole on the inward nine, the longest par four on the golf course at 437 yards with a good green followed by the longest par 3 at 232 yards where par is an excellent score.
The final two holes are forgettable, both short par 4's and with the last being pinched by the road.
But all in all, make the journey to play Machrihanish Old. But more importantly, don't do what I did and play only the Old because if the descriptions by the members are correct, you will want to play the Dunes and it is a long trip! The Old course is worthy of all of the praise given it as fun, quirky, and interesting. Its not the challenge of other links courses near the sea, but those first nine holes are pure joy. You will be very happy after you have played it.
As pure and perfect a links experience as you will find (assuming you get a lovely May day as we did!) - and yes I have played Cruden Bay. From the magnificent opening drive over the beach and ocean (we took on the tiger Blue Tee for this one, otherwise whites), the course just gets better and better. The front 9 goes out into the heartland of the magnificent dunes, with no gorse but the machair grass to gobble up your ball. The greens here are beautifully contoured, presenting a puzzle on every hole. The back nine moves away from the sea and as the dunes recede, expect raised greens with front troughs as protection and shaved run off areas in the modern championship style. The course conditioning is magnificent at the moment, easily the best for a links I have experienced, and then there are the magnificent views across to Islay and Jura. Well out of the way, but worth every mile and fantastic value (just £45 for a twighlight ticket). A must play course.
The clubhouse at Machrihanish was completely destroyed by a fire the week before Christmas last year – though I was told firefighters somehow managed to salvage most of the club’s medals, trophies and memorabilia – so it goes without saying the club has endured a really tough start to 2019.
I’m happy to say I’ve seen the plans for the new 2-storey building that will replace the old clubhouse and this modern design will completely transform the club’s fortunes when work is completed by the end of next year. In the meantime, it’s business as usual with temporary changing facilities and offices operating from the car park.
Two recent staff appointments will also stand the club in good stead going forward into a bright new era: Jennie Dunn is one of the few female Head Professionals currently working in Scottish golf and Craig Barr is an experienced Head Greenkeeper who’s already making his mark on course conditioning.
Out on the course, a few of the greens on the front nine have to be seen to be believed, especially those at the 2nd, 3rd and 6th – but it could be said the heaving contours of the putting surfaces merely match the turbulent undulations of the fairways leading to these greens!
The playing corridors on the outward half lie closest to the coastline and they constitute the best sequence of holes on the card – and don’t expect anything like an even lie on any of the fairways from the 3rd to the 8th as they rise and fall dramatically across a fabulous dune landscape.
Onto the back nine, and it begins with a couple of really strong par fives which are played either side of a rather nondescript par three. Both fairways on these 3-shot holes pinch in severely between the tee and the green, placing a premium on accuracy with the second shot.
The march for home continues with back-to-back par threes at holes 15 and 16 before the tee shot at the 17th brings play down from the sand hills onto flatter ground adjacent to the 1st and 2nd. I can understand if some feel it’s a bit of an anti-climactic finish (especially after what’s gone before) but you can only route the course over the landscape that’s available.
My away day to Machrihanish was made complete by a chat with the legendary Belle Robertson, British Ladies Amateur Champion in 1981 and 9-time Curtis Cup representative, who’s now in her 84th year and looking as sprightly as ever, I might add.
She told me the Championship layout was in as good condition as she’d ever seen it but she also reminded me visitors shouldn’t overlook her original home course at Dunaverty, located a 20-minute drive away at Southend, on the tip of the Kintyre peninsula.
Good advice (which I sadly failed to heed on this occasion) from a woman that can still easily beat her age with her score on the golf course.
Truly wonderful course with an iconic first tee shot ...and 17 great holes to follow.
It is a long way to get there but it is well worth the trip if you love your links golf as this is a classic to cross off your list.