Machrihanish Dunes – Environmental Battleground or Golf Course? Or Both?
by Scott Martin

One of the misconceptions about The Machrihanish Golf Club is that it’s remote. By car from Glasgow, it’s a longish drive, but by plane from Glasgow, it’s a 20 minute puddle jump and one of the many joys of visiting Machrihanish is said puddle jump in The King of all puddle jumpers, the Twin Otter, sort of a small tank/big SUV with wings; if, sorry, when, the weather is iffy, the passengers in the Otter (rarely more than 10) spend much of the flight looking at each other with a sort of end-of-the-world semi-panic. It almost seems like the pilot, in lieu of the safety talk (no permagrinning gin and tonic-wielding flight attendants in the Otter) should offer The Last Rites. When the plane bounces to a short landing on the long runway and the hands stop quaking and quivering slightly, everyone smiles with a wan glee.

The approach to the runway at Campbeltown Airport, if landing to the east off Machrihanish Bay, takes planes right over the ninth fairway. Those on the right of the plane get a view of the holes around the turn at Machrihanish while those on the left of the plane get a view of the vast acreage of pure and untouched linksland to the north of the ninth hole.

Even though a nascent David McLay Kidd course, Machrihanish Dunes, is now officially open on that broad swathe of land, the adjective ‘untouched’ still applies: during the funereal approval and construction phases of the new golf course, Kidd and associates only moved seven acres of dirt on a 276-acre site: if you want to see the zenith of minimalist golf course design, you’ll find it at Machrihanish Dunes.

Some 30 years ago, the government created a body called Scottish Natural Heritage. The government gave SNH broad powers to control beauty spots in Scotland and could designate a piece of property a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) if they felt so moved. The linksland between The Atlantic Ocean and the arable land to the west of Campbeltown in South Kintyre is SSSI land. Machrihanish Dunes is the first golf course in Scotland to be built on an SSSI site, and, quite honestly, it shows. Memo to Donald Trump: if you think you’re going to build something terrifically special on the land you own near Aberdeen (SSSI all of it), visit Machrihanish Dunes and take a look at what happens when those who value Pyramidal Orchids and Wild Thyme (but not a wild time, probably) start running the world of golf course architecture. If, Mr. Trump, you think you’re going to get what you want or what you think you want (or both) then you’re going to have to battle the bureaucratic might of those who want to protect slugs, sedge, and sacrosanct petals.

The day I visited Machrihanish Dunes to play the course for the first time, it was just a few days before the official grand opening and the staff were nervously busy getting the course ready. The big bosses were in town or about to get there; I met the greenskeeper and I saw some other golfers, all of whom looked a little bemused and I also saw a woman in a blue jacket who turned out to be a scientist/consultant (hired by the developer) to liaise with Scottish Natural Heritage; her responsibilities include counting orchids and insects and comparing annual growth yields and the like. There’s nothing wrong with orchids and there’s nothing wrong with black slugs and there’s nothing wrong with Wild Thyme, unless, of course, you’re trying to build a modern golf course. At Machrihanish Dunes, the greenskeeper can tend (water and fertilize) seven acres of the golf course (tees and greens). He can mow the fairways but no lower than 20 millimeters. Fertlizer? No chance. The introduction of turf-type fescues and bent? No way, pal…we’re au naturel here and while that means fairways comprising just about anything, that’s what you’re getting and you, links golfers of the world, are going to like it. If you want a traditional links-style small, sod-wall bunker, go elsewhere: that type of bunker is strictly verboten at Machrihanish Dunes.

It’s all very confusing. I’m not a botanist and I’m not an expert on black slugs but I know a thing or two about the rough at Machrihanish and, during June and July, it’s not only deep but it’s a riot of orchids, daisies, bluebells, thistle, and probably hundreds of other plant types, some of which, I would wager, have never been categorized. Play Machrihanish late in the day, as I have many times, and you’re fighting off the rabbits, hares, gulls, oystercatchers, and rare birds, some of which have migrated from Africa; with dusk fast approaching, Machrihanish is a live zoo that happens to have a golf course in the middle. And yes, it has real grass in the fairways and sod-wall bunkers and greens that have been constructed away from difficult parts of the dunes.

As with all things political, environmental, and golf-related, there’s ample irony. Before Kidd and the developers, the managers, and the money men, the land was used for grazing. Fair enough. But it was also a site for wild moto-crossing and, during construction, crews had to call in the Ministry of Defense to look at several items that the forces at the adjacent (now mothballed) air force base had literally dumped on this ‘pristine’ piece of land. The MOD carted off three unexploded bombs, among other items. And during summer months, campers regularly stole onto the land to camp, frolic, and generally carry on.  Nobody seemed to care much about use of the land, not even SNH, until somebody decided to build a golf course.

The original Machrihanish layout opened in 1876 with 12 holes that old Tom Morris designed. The course today is the work of J. H. Taylor and Sir Guy Campbell, primarily the latter. Those who have played Machrihanish will likely remember some of the more remarkable, yet natural and playable putting surfaces in links golf: the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 12th, and 13th, yet most of the remaining greens at Machrihanish are flattish and contrived even though they take little away from the charm and challenge of playing the course. The 4th, 8th, 9th, 11th, 15th, and 18th greens are clearly “man made” but are flattish table top greens and not overcooked or silly. I have to think that David McLay Kidd, when building the greens, would have opted for something relatively simple in lieu of having to follow the natural movement of the dunes. Every green at Machrihanish Dunes features swales, ridges, and deep hollows. If you like your greens with heaving movement, drop everything and head for Machrihanish Dunes immediately.

All of Sir Guy Campbell’s work took place well before SNH and SSSI, thankfully, so there’s nothing bizarre or, more importantly, borderline insane, about the greens at Machrihanish. Yes, few modern architects would choose to create something like the greens at the 2nd or the 12th but both greens, despite their eccentricities, are puttable and provide plenty of space for fair hole locations even when the greens get some speed.

All golf course architecture fans should visit Machrihanish Dunes and, to be fair, the course is very young. And Kidd admits that Machrihanish Dunes is not a modern version of an Open Championship venue; it’s nothing like, say, a modern links course in Ireland like Doonbeg. Perhaps, in 1876, Machrihanish looked like Machrihanish Dunes. Perhaps the “throwback” courses are going to be next great thing in golf course design. While the new course will bring some publicity to the area and has brought some development and much-needed money (about $20 million) the main attraction in the area remains The Machrihanish Golf Club and not the environmental battleground right next door. Perhaps this will change as Machrihanish Dunes matures but, for right now, as the plane lands to the east, I’m parachuting out to the south and spending my days greyhounding laps around the ‘old’ Macrhihanish. Golfers who love links course should applaud Kidd and the brains and money behind the effort at Machrihanish Dunes but they should seriously question the sanity of Scottish Natural Heritage and this silly SSSI “carry on” as the Scots would say. Is the ‘old’ Machrihanish a wasteland of chemicals and golf-related pollution? Of course not and nor, I would wager, is any other links course in the United Kingdom. Crazy environmentalists: 1. Golfers: 0.

The End