Machrihanish Golf Club
Argyll, Scotland

John Smart’s first at Machrihanish, circa 1889.

Fun. That is a telling adjective when applied to a course, yet how many times do we hear it used? Too many architects and owners remain preoccupied with building a ‘championship course’ with ‘ eighteen signature holes.’ Instead, everyone should remember the fundamental principle of golf: enjoyment.

Why not emphasize what Alister MacKenzie somewhat suggestively referred to as ‘pleasurable excitement’? Such courses are the ones that remain closest to players’ hearts. Rarely do you hear a player enthusiastically discussing what his rounds at Doral have meant to him. No, it is courses such as Cypress Point, Jasper Park, Royal West Norfolk, and Cruden Bay that stir such emotions. Machrihanish is another such romantic course.

Part of Machrihanish’s appeal lies admittedly in its remote location on Kintyre in the extreme south-west corner of Scotland. However, it is not a course that people rave about merely to justify going out of their way to play there. The course’s reputation is well-earned as Old Tom Morris once again made the most of a spectacular property, and mercifully, earth moving equipment has never been allowed to mar the landscape. Unlike some of his other courses, the greens don’t play second fiddle to the surrounds. Far from it – these greens are collectively some of the most imaginative and unique to be found and give the course a sophistication that elevates it above most links.

The rolling fourteenth.

The outward half is exhilarating, with one excellent hole after another. The visitor is justified to expect a let down on the back nine but is apt to be pleasantly surprised, particularly with the quality stretch of holes from the 12th -16th.

Holes to Note

First hole, 420 yards; Many call this the best starting hole in the world. With the heroic tee shot over the beach on this cape hole, it certainly has the best opening tee shot in golf. Because the second shot is relatively flat, they might be wrong — but not by much. Many clubs in the British Isles play the beach as out of bounds so as to ensure that the difference in the tide does not play a key (and lucky) role in determining the outcome of a stroke play competition. However, Machrihanish has wisely left the beach as a lateral water hazard, thereby relaxing the players on the tee and tempting them to be more bold with their tee shots as being on the beach is not worse than being in one of the right bunkers.

Second hole, 370 yards; The green immediately grabs the player’s attention. While it is a modified punchbowl with a pronounced valley running through the spine of the green, the player’s first thought is that he has never seen anything like it before. His second thought is ‘Why not?’ At first there might not appear to be enough hole locations, but the left side is more usable than one might think. The gathering green fits the hole well, with its uphill, sometimes blind approach shot.

Third hole, 385 yards; After the blind tee shot across the rear of the sixteenth green, a most appealing hole unfolds for the player. With the Irish Sea visible beyond the dunes behind the green and the wonderfully old-fashioned sunken green set at a slight angle to the fairway with the revetted bunkers dug into the hills near the green, this hole perhaps best embodies Machrihanish. First, it is visually appealing from both the natural perspective and the architectural one — it is a well-designed hole in a beautiful setting. Second, in relatively calm conditions, it is not that difficult of a hole – it offers a birdie opportunity for the player who thinks his way round the hole. A drive down the right opens up the green for a straightforward pitch, but the real fun of the hole comes into play with a tee shot down the left side. The thinking player will then use the bank to the right of the green to bounce his ball left toward the hole. It is a pity such greens are not built these days. While the agronomic merits of a sunken green are minimal for reasons such as drainage, surely the architectural elements can, every now and then, take precedent over turf concerns.

Fifth hole, 370 yards; The authors’ favorite hole. From the tee the player has the choice of banging a driver toward the narrow neck of the fairway or laying back with a fairway wood to the wider section of the fairway. While the daunting aspect from the tee would seem to make the decision an easy one, the knowledge of the difficulty of the approach shot nevertheless tempts the player to seek that distant twenty-yard stretch of fairway with the driver. The long, narrow, sloping green would be much easier to find with a 9-iron than with a 6-iron. This hole has wrecked many cards of players off to a good start in stroke play and is a terrific match play hole.

Eighth hole, 360 yards; A wonderfully natural hole where all that was needed was to have a tee flattened, a fairway mown and a hill leveled for a green. The fairway is generous for a hole of this length, but the approach is most precise. If the shot goes long, the player faces a fifty-yard pitch back up the hill, while an approach that is just short will likely roll back thirty yards toward the player. Familiarity makes the hole seem harder the more you play it.

Twelfth hole, 510 yards; Proof that a good green complex can save a three-shotter from two dull first shots. The slightly raised green runs most noticeably away from the player, requiring the player to think a good deal about where he wants to position his second shot. Also, the bunkers and dip in front of the green force the long player either to be sure he can get home in two or to lay up as there is nothing but trouble for being in the no-man’s land short of the green. The openness at the rear of the green does encourage attacking play and lets the golfer putt back up the hill.

Thirteenth hole, 390 yards; The key is the putting green with its abrupt three foot rise at the front followed by its front to back pitch. To get the approach shot close to the hole when it is on the front just beyond the rise, requires a tremendous amount of skill and imagination.

Fifteenth hole, 160 yards; A fetching short hole that is probably a Morris original. Players can easily volley from one side of the table top green to the next and back again. Once you have seen it done, you begin to appreciate that this may be the most exacting shot on the course.

Absent a brisk breeze, Machrihanish is not too difficult a course, given it barely stretches past 6,200 yards from the championship tees. There are several birdie opportunities and a handful of key shots that the player must execute properly to score to his handicap. Otherwise, the golfer feels he might be able to ‘take’ the course. This rarely happens, but it is this feeling mixed with the sheer fun of playing here that keep bringing players back from all parts of the map.

Machrihanish is one of few courses in the world that would have the player, after playing 54 holes in one day, checking his watch against the setting sun to see if there is still time for a few more. Is there any greater compliment to be paid to a course?

Machrihanish is indeed special.

The End