Machrihanish: Worth whatever it takes to get there, and a whole lot more

Machrihanish: Worth whatever it takes to get there, and a whole lot more

Rough and Ready -- A view back toward the 1st tee from the elevated 2nd green.

Rough and Ready -- A view back toward the 1st tee from the elevated 2nd green.

It’s fitting that my first review on this shiny new blog is of my favorite links course on the planet. I’ve had the very good fortune to play Old Tom Morris’ gem innumerable times, making an annual pilgrimage there every May since 2002.

Most American golfers who traverse Scotland on the big tour buses never venture this far south or west since it tends to eat up too much of their precious travel time. Completely understandable. But as I see it, your tutelage in the fine art of links golf is woefully incomplete until you figure out a way to get here.

What’s so special about this place?

So many superlatives, such limited reader attention span. But force me to limit my list and I’d go with these four attributes:

A Bell Ringer -- Lets players on the 3rd tee know that the blind fairway ahead is clear and ready for takeoff.

A Bell Ringer -- Lets players on the 3rd tee know that the blind fairway ahead is clear and ready for takeoff.

  • The remoteness—Anything, a links golf course included, that plays hard to get is far more satisfying once you reel it in. And, trust me, Machrihanish is no floozy.
  • The opening tee shot—Considered by many to be the best in all of golf. It’s similar in flow to the 18th at Pebble Beach, with fairway right and ocean left—set at an angle. But instead of the last hole, when you know exactly how much game you have that day, it’s the first—when anything (both good and bad) are possible. So, how much of the beach do you have the courage to cut off to increase your chances of opening with a par or better? And, if you fail, will your first swing send your round into a tailspin from which you’ll be unable to recover? That’s the beauty (and the beast) of golf, in a nutshell.
  • Complete one-off holes, one right after the other—Virtually every hole is a set piece. Unless you’re looking for them, you probably won’t notice the adjoining holes. That’s not true of most links courses. As such, playing Mach is akin to falling headlong into an alternative reality. When you’re out there, especially along the opening run through the 8th hole, you’re outta here. It’s a beautiful thing.
  • Stunning natural beauty—The first time you work your way around, you’ll likely be tempted to grind away to post a score. My suggestion? Let that false ego-driven pursuit go. Instead, take time to look around and soak in the scenery. On a good day (and even on some nasty ones) your soul will be filled. To quote that Men’s Wearhouse dude: “I guarantee it.” 

How does it play?

Islay-k It! -- The 3rd hole, also known as Islay for the Hebrides island of the same name, visible in the distance.

Islay-k It! -- The 3rd hole, also known as Islay for the Hebrides island of the same name, visible in the distance.

With the wind at your back, it’s entirely possible to post a low score on the outward nine. But that same wind will be mostly in your face all the way home, so don’t be surprised if you proceed to give those shots back. At just under 6,000 yards from the yellow markers, you’d think a birdie fest would ensue. But it almost never works out that way. So bring your A game and be prepared to use every club in your bag.

19th Hole -- Visitors are welcome to indulge in the hospitality offered by Machrihanish's cozy clubhouse.

19th Hole -- Visitors are welcome to indulge in the hospitality offered by Machrihanish's cozy clubhouse.

After all the times I’ve played it, I’ve yet to be bored. I’m quite certain I never will.

What’s the best hole?

The obvious answer is the 1st, also known as Battery. But my personal favorite is the 8th, or Gigha, in part for its excellent views of the island of the same name—one of the Hebrides. The tee shot is fairly straightforward, as long as you’re not tempted to take the Tiger line down the left over a yawning hollow. But the approach? One of Mach’s trickiest with the green perched atop the tallest dune on the course. Come up half-a-club short and your ball will roll right back at you, perhaps all the way to your feet. Crank it half-a-club long and your ball will bound down the other side of the dune, setting up an even tougher shot coming back. But pull off a Goldilocks and hit it just right and you could walk away with a birdie—one you’ll not soon forget.

Oh, and no matter what happens, don’t forget to take advantage of the panoramic vantage point—the best on the links.

How do I get there?

This might be the biggest challenge of all. By car coming out of the Glasgow Airport, find your way to the A82 and head north toward Loch Lomond. Continue until it becomes the A83, then stay the course up and around Loch Fyne, through Tarbert and on to Machrihanish, west of Campbeltown.

Another option: head more directly west of the airport and cross two lochs on ferry boats (the first at Gourock, the second at Portavadie), sparing you some time behind the wheel. Either way it’s going to take three hours, minimum. But if the sun is shining, the journey to get there is practically its own reward.

Alternatively, the regional airline Flybe has limited flights from the Glasgow to the Campbeltown airports each weekday. But if you ask me, that’s cheating.

Is it worth the trek?

Oh yeah. I’m never been much of a Nike fan. But in this instance, the Swoosh boys are right: “Just do it!”

Overall Rating (Ace high to Double-Bogey low): Ace

Golf in the Kingdom: The truth seeker’s guide to the game's mystical qualities

Golf in the Kingdom: The truth seeker’s guide to the game's mystical qualities