David Kidd's new Machrihanish Dunes course in Scotland occupies a perfect piece of golfing terrain, but environmental restrictions made creating the course much tougher. Adam Lawrence attended the official opening.
Practically every golfer that has made the trek to the Kintyre peninsula and played at Machrihanish has had the same thought, on reaching the ninth hole and turning for home: “Wow – look at those dunes. Surely there’s room for another golf course?”
Golf architect David McLay Kidd certainly had: he spent many of his summer holidays as a child wandering through those dunes, and, after Bandon Dunes catapulted him into the public eye, hatched a plan for a development of his own on the land. Pioneering golf photographer Brian Morgan was another whose mind was captivated by the potential of Machrihanish. Morgan tried for many years to put together a deal to build a golf course in the dunes, coming to an agreement with the owners of the land. But his inability to raise the funds meant Morgan’s dream dragged on and on.
Now, that dream is a reality. Through the efforts of Morgan, Australian entrepreneur Brian Keating and American developer David Southworth, Kidd got the chance to build the course he had planned for so long. And the golfers who travel to Machrihanish need no longer wonder ‘what if?’ when they reach the ninth hole.
Like the Scottish weather – of which more later – the journey that led to the opening of Machrihanish Dunes was often rough. Sand dunes are delicate ecosystems and important habitat, and, quite rightly, are heavily protected, so winning permission to build golf on duneland sites is now very difficult. Plus, Machrihanish, though only a few short miles from the likes of Troon, Prestwick and Turnberry as the crow (or the private jet) flies, has always been tough to get to, requiring either a long drive down the peninsula or two ferry journeys. The area is economically depressed; in particular, Campbeltown, the main settlement in Kintyre, shows the signs of long decline. Shipbuilding and whisky, the town’s historic pillars, have disappeared or shrunk, and when the RAF airbase at Machrihanish closed a few years ago, tourism was left as the area’s only hopeful source of income and employment. Consequently, although the golf build itself must have been about as cheap as a modern course could be, raising funds for the rest of the planned development was tough; only when Southworth bought in during construction was its future secured.
Given the environmental sensitivity of the property – it is entirely classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest – it’s actually pretty remarkable, and perhaps an indication of how much Kintyre needed the economic boost the course might bring – that the project was ever actually granted planning permission. But the permission came with strings: to win consent to build Machrihanish Dunes, Kidd and the developers were required to sign up to some of the most stringent environmental constraints ever imposed on a golf course planning approval. Environmental consultant Carol Crawford was appointed to advise the developers by Scottish Natural Heritage, and substantial parts of the property were declared off limits for golf to protect rare orchids found in the dunes. Earthmoving – and even tilling of the soil – was permitted only for greens and tees, with fairways, in most cases, essentially only being mowed out. Only the greens and tees have been seeded, with a special mix of fescues selected by seed supplier Barenbrug. Turf stripped from dunes facing in a particular direction had to be replaced facing the same way, chemical use was heavily restricted, and no mowing of the rough areas would be allowed.
It’s unarguable that these restrictions have had a major impact on the golf course that has emerged. Blind shots abound at Machrihanish Dunes, and the protected areas compromise the routing in a number of places, forcing extended walks between holes and meaning that a three (or even four for many golfers) hour round will be a distant dream. To be frank, this is compounded by the length of the golf course; gloriously old-fashioned in many other ways it is rigorously modern in that respect, stretching to 7,222 yards off the furthest back of five sets of tees. For the golfer who chooses the yellows, at 6,400 yards, or the greens, a touch under six thousand, the course will naturally be more playable. But the walk won’t be any shorter.
The other issues caused by the planning constraints, while significant, are essentially short-term, and will be cured over time by careful management of the links. Because the fairways were mowed out, the sward is not yet the carpet of fescue one might expect on a course of this kind – notably, a surprising quantity of daisies and other weeds infested the fairways at the time of the opening. Also at that time, the inability to mow the roughs meant a ball hit off the fairways (which are, thankfully, wide) was likely to be lost. The management plan for the golf course calls for a flock of sheep to graze the links, keeping the roughs down to a sensible level, and, as an added bonus, helping to eliminate the weeds in the fairways (the impact of foot traffic from the golfers playing the course will also help in this regard).
I saw the course on two very different days in the week after the Open Championship. We arrived the day before the official opening to windy but sunny July weather, much as had been the case at Turnberry. The following day, as the guests gathered for the opening ceremony, the Scottish weather played its worst cards: constant, driving rain and a stiff wind made nine holes about as much as anyone could stand.
Rather than the out and back routing of the old Machrihanish course, Kidd has created a more winding journey designed to take players to the shore on more than one occasion during the round. The lack of earthmoving means the natural contours – and these dunes are big – dictate the holes, and there is more blindness than most golfers will have seen on any other course. It starts from the very beginning: the first green, set in a deep hollow (as are several others around the course) is entirely blind from almost everywhere on the fairway.
The greens are wild. Perhaps the most strikingly memorable is found at the short par four thirteenth hole, set, again, in a hollow. From the yellow tees only 223 yards (though into the prevailing westerly wind), the golfer sees only humps and hollows, as the green is blind. Driving the green is very possible, and to try is probably the best option, as no chip will be easy. The green itself is 36 yards long, but incredibly narrow, with steep slopes coming down from the surrounding dunes. My playing partner, Jock Howard of Golf World, hit a fine tee shot through the green and was faced with a terrifying shot over and across the slope. It was clear the only way to get close was to run the ball up the slope beyond the pin and have it trickle back down, but unfortunately Jock hit his shot, with a putter, a little too hard, the ball went up and over the slope, and rather than coming back to the pin, ran away to the back of the green, leaving a fearsome downhill putt. There are short game challenges aplenty to be found at Machrihanish Dunes!
It is ironic that the three highest profile new links golf projects in Scotland at the moment should all be so different. At Castle Stuart, a visionary developer picked a site that would enable him to retain control of the golfing experience, while still providing the sandy soil and great views that characterise the best of links golf. At Balmedie, near Aberdeen, the Trump organisation has a stunning natural site, but appears intent on forcing through its preferred model of development to build a large, real-estate driven resort (albeit that the golf course itself should be wonderful). At Machrihanish Dunes, though, the approach has been, perhaps, a little more challenging, both for developer and golfer alike. On a perfect site for golf, the kind where most in the industry felt planning consent would never be granted, a course has been built that, while compromised in many ways, has the potential to be both a special golfing experience and an economic engine for its home region. The modern idea of a new golf course is one that is perfect on opening day; well, Machrihanish Dunes is not that. Rather, just as a links course built in 1909 rather than 2009 would have been, it is a work in progress, and one that will take many years to show us its true colours.
This article was initially featured in the October 2009 issue of Golf Course Architecture