Machrihanish Dunes

Words by: James Wilson
Photography by:Joshua Coates

The sheep run the show here, they make that clear from the outset. Dispersed around the small grey stone clubhouse are a collection of all too comfortable black wool Zwartbles sheep. Strolling from putting green to bench or lazing at the front door, their aloof interactions with the humans of Machrihanish Dunes lay down the pecking order as soon as you step out of the car.

The elements reign supreme on the Mull of Kintyre. Venture into the dense marram grass on the hunt for another errant drive and that becomes abundantly clear. David McLay Kidd, who laid out the course here in 2009 was eager not to topple that hierarchy.

Despite being situated across 259 acres of land, the course layout touches a mere 7 of them. A conscious effort to minimise the impact on the surrounding environment. The subtlest of touches are applied. The holes, therefore, are artfully woven through the towering dunes. The length of the rough depends on the appetite of the sheep. It seems that on this particular week, they were not hungry.

The par 3 5th epitomises McLay Kidd’s minimalist intentions. A short hole at the southern most point of the course, it comprises a bowl shaped green protected at the front left by two pot bunkers. Beyond the green and across the bay, sits the town of Machrihanish.

But for all of its beauty this golf course is no lullaby, easing the pampered golfer into a state of somnambulant comfort with manicured water hazards and perfectly even walk ways. No no. This course is a metal track and its on full blast. The wind whips in from the west, the marram grass grasps the hosel of your club like its trying to drag you towards the earth’s core, and the greens are so unforgivably undulating that escaping with only half a dozen 3 putts is no small feat. This isn’t a walk in the park, it’s an expedition.

And yet despite this chaotic voyage, there are constant reminders that you are in safe hands. Even with the absence of pesticides and fertilisers, the greens are consistently smooth. Whisky barrels for bins and hand crafted benches are littered around the course offering respite. Bells and windmill shaped marker poles act as guiding lights for those navigating the hollows between the dunes.

Machrihanish Dunes is more than a golf course, it is a pioneer in narrowing the ever widening gap between golf and the environment it lies within. Getting frustrated at your daisy laden lie in the middle of the fairway, or cursing at another lost ball in the sheep mown rough would be missing the point entirely. Embrace the land, embrace the icy wind on your face and embrace that shitty lie in the untouched fescue.

Most world class golf courses invite you to take in the spectacular surroundings from the comfort of your perfectly mown tee box: the crystal clear ocean in the distance, the mountainous backdrop. Machrihanish Dunes invites you into the core of those surroundings. To play there isn’t to observe over the beautiful garden, to play there is to get your hands dirty, to pull the weeds, prune back the fescue and turn over the soil.