Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club, Scotland

In 2009 I was at Turnberry Resort in Scotland, tromping from hole to hole on the Ailsa Course and watching as Tom Watson took the lead on the first day of The (British) Open. The Brits are very fond of the five-time Open champion, and they stood to clap enthusiastically–but decorously, with no whistling and shouting–as he sank his putt on eighteen.
Four days, four ferries and four golf courses later, I watched Watson on the “telly” in the clubhouse of the 130-year-old Machrihanish Golf Course. The fairytale story ended as it had begun, with a putt on eighteen—but this time it was a missed 10-footer that led to an inglorious and sad-to-watch playoff.jpegmacdunessignWatson’s loss to Cink was my only disappointment during a spectacular week of classic links golf, Scottish hospitality and single-malt whiskies. It culminated in the grand opening of the Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club, near the old Machrihanish Golf Course on the coast of the Kintyre Peninsula, a remote and beautiful part of Scotland. What a treat it was to play creations by “Old Tom” Morris and “New Kidd” (David McLay Kidd) in the same day.

The location of Machrihanish Dunes is stunning, with views of mountains to the east, the coast of Ireland, the Atlantic Ocean, and great deserted stretches of beach. The roar of the surf and susurration of the wind through tall, waving grasses are perpetual, so the course resembles a creature in constant motion, with a voice of its own.
In the past, most visiting golfers have missed playing Old Tom Morris’ Machrihanish Golf Club, a perennial in the world’s top 100, because it’s a three-hour (albeit beautiful) drive from Glasgow. There are other transportation options now—private commercial flights into nearby Campbeltown Airport, which has the longest runway in Europe. There’s also seaplane and helicopter service into Campbeltown. A high-speed ferry makes the crossing to the Ayrshire coast (near Turnberry, Royal Troon and Royal Prestwick) in 65 minutes. It’s about the same distance to Ireland’s Royal County Down and Royal Portrush.
This means golfers can stay in Machrihanish Dunes’ new village and have easy access to six of the worlds Top 100 courses—as well as lesser-known gems like Shiskine and The Machrie.

Bagpipers play at opening of Machrihanish Dunes

Bagpipers play at opening of Machrihanish Dunes

The Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club (“Mach Dunes”), a project of Boston-based Southworth Development, is the first course built on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (An SSSI is an area with rare flora and fauna.) in Scotland in a century. It’s also the first new course built on Scotland’s west coast in more than a century.

“Built” is the wrong word. There are new courses in Scotland that are the result of massive bulldozing—but this isn’t one of them. Because Mach Dunes is on an SSSI, the holes were dictated by the lay of the land, the presence of rare moths and orchids, and the clever eye of Kidd. There was minor earth-moving to shape the tees and greens, but you’d never know it. It feels as if it’s been there 100 years and evolved the way the old classics did. Valleys between the dunes created natural walking paths, and the fairways are simply mowed red fescue. The greens are wavy and very quick, thanks to a fine course management team.

Old Tom Morris (actor David Joy)

Old Tom Morris (actor David Joy)

Old Tom Morris (well, actor David Joy) said as much in his lilting Scottish accent. Joy was superb as Morris–eerily so—and I teared up when he talked about the death of his son, Young Tom. It was the evening before the Mach Dunes opening, in The Old Clubhouse pub that Southworth Development had restored. Gathered there for dinner were David Southworth and crew, his partner Brian Keating (who first envisioned the course years ago), several jolly members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, local politicians and members of the international media. We’d enjoyed a preview round on the course in beautiful weather–fortunately, because rain and wind would pelt the grand opening the following day.Kidd, who grew up playing at the Machrihanish Golf Club, had this to say about the site of Mach Dunes: “To historians of the game, Machrihanish Dunes may give us an insight into how golf looked and felt to my Scottish forebears years ago, as our intention was to create a course as ‘Old Tom’ would have done in centuries past.”

The 259-acre site had 23 natural hole locations, so Kidd chose 18 he liked best and linked them in a 7,175-yard loop with six greens and five tees near the ocean’s edge. Many of the greens are set down in bowls surrounded by grassy dunes, so the approach shots are blind. In fact, there are a lot of blind shots, beginning with the first hole. It takes too much time and energy to walk up for a look, so we put our trust in the directional markers and yardage books and hit away.jpegmachdunesThis is truly golf the way it began, and a far cry from our manicured home course, with its GPS carts, marked sprinkler heads and clear sight lines. We were happy to be playing the forward tees at 5,815 yards, which was difficult enough with Mother Nature as a capricious opponent. The wind demanded good club selection and bump-and-run shots to the greens.

The third hole, a par three ranging from 186 to 138 yards, is a tricky shot over a bunker to a large but severely sculpted green. A par here is tough. The green of the par-four eighth is also wickedly wavy, and protected by a long carry over wetlands and a monster bunker. This may be the hardest hole on the course. The par-four 13th hole is short (314-184 yards) but success depends on the pin placement on the bowl-shaped green. Fourteen is a pretty par three next to the ocean. The three closing holes are long and exacting, coming at the end of an exhilarating battle of wits, stamina and skill. Tired as I was, I wanted to start over at number one.

"Old Tom Morris" hits out of bunker with a hickory club

“Old Tom Morris” hits out of bunker with a hickory club

Because of the sensitive nature of the environment at Mach Dunes, walking is required. You can walk with a caddie, carry your own bag or use a trolley. Greens fees range from 47 to 95 pounds, depending on the season. Caddies are $35 per bag, plus tip.

The opening of Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club, Southworth’s restoration of the Ugadale Hotel in Machrihanish and the Royal Hotel  in Campbeltown, and the creation of the Ugadale Golf Cottages (for rent and fractional sales) has boosted the local economy without altering the area’s rural character. Fishermen set out to sea in the pre-dawn mist. Sheep graze in sprawling fields bordered by stone walls—and on the golf courses. Sleek black-and-white Friesan cattle mosey across the roads at milking time, urged on by ruddy-cheeked farmers. The locals who make their living off the land and sea always find time to have a round on courses most of us feel fortunate to play once in a lifetime.

This is what life is like on the “Mull of Kintyre” Sir Paul McCartney immortalized in song. He still lives there. Small wonder!

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About Dale Leatherman

In the course of her life she has exercised racehorses at New York’s Belmont Park, showed jumping horses on the A Circuit, driven a race car with the late Paul Newman and played the world’s most famous golf courses.