With holes bearing such evocative names as Islay, Jura, Gigha and Rorke’s Drift, how could a round at Machrihanish be anything other than a romantic and timeless experience? This is a course that was discovered rather than created and even now its greens and fairways are maintained by a modest staff of four with work kept to a bare minimum. Away from the mown areas, it remains untouched by man and this is what lends a wonderfully wild, unkempt quality to the surroundings.
When Old Tom Morris travelled across from St Andrews to extend the original 10 holes that were opened in 1876, he is said to have remarked: “Providence assuredly designed this part of the country as a special earthly paradise.”
Since then fellow Open champion JH Taylor and, following large areas of the course becoming part of of the nearby airport during the Second World War, Sir Guy Campbell have bequeathed what is here today.
As Michael Bamberger writes in his book To the Linksland: “Like the artist who discovers the sculpture buried beneath a slab of granite, the early Machrihanish golfers unearthed the ambrosial course hidden within the great Machrihanish linksland. I was there in the memorable summer, when the links were sweet with the scent of wild orchids and thyme, commingling with the brackish breath of the ocean and the sweat of a golfer trying to conquer himself.”
This most natural and quintessentially Scottish links is located near the tip of the Kintyre peninsula, relatively close to Troon. Close, that is, as the crow flies – as the car drives, it is a four-hour journey.
The only route is to drive north to Glasgow then follow the shoreline of Loch Lomond before eventually heading south down the Atlantic coastline and towards Campbeltown, famed in the past for its thriving whisky, fishing and coal industries. Gloriously, Machrihanish remains unconstrained by the tenets of modern architecture.
The first provides an intimidating prospect, the tee is one side of the beach – or sea, depending on whether or not the tide is in – and the rest of the hole the other.
Too short to hold a men’s championship, there are several blind shots. One is at the 7th, which remains a fearsome par four where the green is concealed beyond a massive dune that forms the right half of the fairway. On the back nine there are – horror of horrors – successive par threes, although to call them both short holes would be misleading as the second of them, Rorke’s Drift, measures fully 230 yards.
Slightly disappointingly, it ends with something of a whimper, a pair of medium-length par fours where the neighbouring nine-hole course is out of bounds on the left. Bamberger believes that one day the club will unearth another hole in the spare duneland that separates the front nine from the beach then perhaps join the last two holes together to make a closing par five.
Then again, they might just leave that well alone because this is a club that does not seek either perfection or worldwide acclaim. If fame has reached Machrihanish, and it remains a badge of honour among enthusiasts to sail, drive or fly here, the club remains gloriously unaffected.
The golf course is the community; the clubhouse a focal point for social activity. Even the pro shop, positioned across the lane by the 1st tee, has a rustic quality that makes it feel more like a farm out-building than anything else.
It also makes the opening drive an even more intimidating prospect than it would normally be. The tee is one side of the beach – or sea, depending on whether or not the tide is in – and the rest of the hole the other. Many rate it the finest opening hole in the world, including the authors of the 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes.
Highlights elsewhere include the delightfully simplistic 4th, where the tee and green are separated by a valley, and the strategic par-five 12th, where position is the key to setting up the following shot. But whatever your tastes, you’ll find Machrihanish is the kind of place that demands a return visit – there’s just too much to absorb in one go.
Knowing what awaits, perhaps the second time you’ll be willing to accept the expense of catching a plane into nearby Campbeltown from Glasgow. Just make sure you leave the date for the return journey open if you do. Flying visits are fine in one sense – but Machrihanish seems to have its own ideas on how time passes and is truly an experience not to be rushed.