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Set in the south of the Kintyre Peninsula, it would be tough to find a more remote, mainland setting for a golf course in Scotland than Machrihanish Dunes.
At other high-end golf destinations, you’ll find grand entrances and grass that is mown to within an inch of its life. At ‘The Dunes’, as locals call it, you’ll arrive via a cattle grid and a single-track road.
That’s not a criticism. The team at Machrihanish Dunes say they have the most natural golf course in the world and they’re probably not far off.
The sheep in the greenkeeping team outnumber the humans and the designation of the land as a site of special scientific interest means that irrigation and pesticides are nowhere to be seen.
Ground was only moved here for the greens and the tee boxes, and it’s all the better for it.
Old Tom Morris set out the neighbouring Machrihanish in the 1870s and you’d be forgiven for thinking he went five minutes along the road and did Machrihanish Dunes, too. He didn’t, though. Instead, the Dunes came in 2009, making it the first links course in this part of the country to be built in a century.
If you are playing there for the first time and don’t have a knowledgeable pair of eyes guiding you around the course, you are going to be left wondering where you’re going on several occasions. There are plenty marker poles around the course but ,with several tee boxes on every hole, it’s rare that your line is directly over the pole. A good caddie will certainly earn their money.
If you’re looking for a playing partner, you’ll do well to get course record holder and honorary member Bob MacIntyre in your group. Bob shot a 67 there in 2015 and he uses the links to keep his game in check when he’s on home soil.
It’s a gentle opening to the round with a short par-4. While you won’t see your ball land over the hill in the fairway, this is a blind shot where anything following the lines of the fairway will find the short grass. From here, you’re left with a short approach to a heavily contoured green. You had better get used to this quickly.
The fourth is a tremendous hole. At 216 yards off the member tees, you will feel silly laying-up but rarely will a player going for the green be putting for a two. If you’re going to hit the green from the tee, you’ll need a shot that shapes from left to right and avoids any bad bounces. It’s another long, narrow green where you really need to consider what side of the hole you leave your ball on to avoid a slippery putt.
From here, the course begins its loop, which, from above, resembles a figure of eight. You head away from the coast until you reach the tenth, and you turn to face the sea once again. This is probably the best view on the course and, to your left, you’ll see most of the front nine that you’ve just negotiated. This is another hole where local knowledge is invaluable. The punchbowl green is hidden away amongst the dunes and you won’t see the pin from the fairway, so it might be worth a walk to the top of the hill to see where you’re going.
The final short hole comes at the 12th. Once again, you’re faced with a massively undulating green. In the summer, when conditions are firm and if you miss this green in the wrong place, you’ll find yourself facing a challenge to keep your ball on the putting surface with your second shot.
The final three holes at the Dunes are perhaps the most memorable.
The par-5 16th is probably the best framed tee shot on the course. The fairway is set between two huge dunes and, if you take out the big stick, you’ll need to be left of the marker pole to find a narrow portion of fairway that has endless bumps and hollows. If you do find the short stuff, you’re rewarded with a chance to hit another huge green and putt for eagle.
The penultimate hole is one that will catch you out if you’re here for the first time. From the member tees, you have nothing but a marker pole in the rough to guide you and if you hit your driver on this line, you’ll probably not see your ball again. The hole is bisected by a 50-yard-wide marsh that you need to stay short of with your tee shot and cover with your approach. The hole has undergone changes in its short history but this dog-leg to the left is still a serious challenge.
The 18th is another short par-4 that dog-legs to the left. If you can avoid the rocks in the left rough with your tee shot you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting on in two here.
Whatever you do, though, don’t find the pot bunker to the right of the green. It is nasty and the members in the adjacent clubhouse will watch on with pity as you are probably forced to go out sideways.
This is how golf should be played. It’s not a game of perfect, and Machrihanish Dunes is not a perfect course, but that is the appeal of it. You won’t get a nice lie every time you hit the fairway and sometimes you’ll get a frankly unfair bounce into the rough. Don’t take it personally. This happens to everyone.
There are some truly stunning views in Kintyre and the golf course just adds to them. You’ll want to get the camera out on virtually every tee and probably on a few greens, too. It all adds to what is golf at its simplest, but most enjoyable form.
It’s almost unbelievable that this course has only been here since 2009. The rough is thick and the bunkers look like they’ve been here since the days of clubs made from wood and balls filled with feathers. It plays like a course from the 1800s and that’s exactly what Machrihanish Dunes is all about.
As with most links courses, the difficulty comes in the conditions. Get it on a calm day and you’ll likely not find Machrihanish Dunes too punishing. With a four-club wind, you’ll really need to plot your way around and, at times, ride your luck.
As mentioned before, the 16th has one of the best tee shots on the course but the most enjoyable hole to play is the fourth. It’s a par-4 but really that doesn’t matter; under most conditions, it’s reachable off the tee.
The green sits at an angle to the fairway, and despite the water being only around 100 yards away, when you bend down to read your putt you’ll be sheltered from the elements by the dunes.
A superb risk-reward hole, if you miss the green in the wrong spot you could face a pitch that’s impossible to stop. Judge your tee shot right and you’ll have a chance at making a two.
Did you know?
The course is built on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), meaning the land around the fairways and greens are protected by the Scottish Government. For this reason, the course has been designed with the lightest touch possible. Only seven acres of land were disturbed in the construction process.
And another thing…
On a clear day, look west over the water and you’ll see Northern Ireland. The golf course is only around 12 miles from the Emerald Isle. You can also spot the isles of Islay and Jura on the horizon, both of which have golf courses of their own.
Machrihanish Dunes offers a discount for members of Scottish golf clubs, local residents and members of the neighbouring Machrihanish Golf Club. If you don’t fall into those categories and you’re playing in the summer, a round will cost you £75. In our opinion, that’s well worth it.
Saying that, if you’re making the journey to Kintyre, you’ll probably want somewhere to stay and to play Machrihanish too. For the best deals for this, head to bunkeredgolfbreaks.com. The team will get you great value to match the quality golf.
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