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Proof in the Purpose

Golf changed the status of Machrihanish Dunes from threatened to thriving

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His sideburns stretched to the corners of his mouth, and he wore a heavy kilt of green and black. As he lifted his knife over a plump, grey tube of meat, I recognized the man from the golf course; I never would have guessed that in a few hours he would be gutting a sausage for a room full of Americans.

“‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!’” he proclaimed with thick Scottish tongue as he drew his blade across the belly of the meat, its innards spilling forth across a silver platter. He stood over our dinner and recited another seven stanzas of Robert Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” in a dialect indiscernible to most of us, yet we felt the triumph in its closing lines: “‘Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware that jaups in luggies; but, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer, give her a haggis!’”

As bagpipes blared, we raised our hands and cheered the mighty pudding, convinced yet again that on the Mull of Kintyre, we had arrived in a place where old mingled with new in a way to make you want to lift your arms and yell.

It was beside the 16th tee that I had spotted our bard that afternoon, dressed in mud-splattered coveralls instead of wool, the lamb chops on his cheeks unmistakable. He was yanking yellow weeds out of the dunes—ragwort, he explained, that was poisonous to local livestock. It had to be weeded by hand, as pesticides were banned on this stretch of fragile duneland, and as I eyed the hundreds of acres around us and spotted flecks of golden weed everywhere, I thought, “This is a job I would not wish on my enemy.” Yet Simon Freeman, head greenskeeper, smiled as he worked, probably practicing that evening’s poem in his head as he went.

They do things differently here, and that was why we came. With chemicals prohibited on this linksland where golfers share space with orchids found nowhere else on the planet, they mixed a safe, homemade fertilizer of grass clippings and seaweed from the beach. Without gas-powered machinery at their disposal, they employed a flock of black Hebridean sheep to nibble down the fairways, and they cut the greens by hand. They didn’t position bunkers—instead, they let them exist where weather had worn scrapes into the hills—and they didn’t shape the fairways. They found places for tees and greens and called it a golf course, the way Old Tom and James Braid and Willie Park designed layouts more than a century before. The miracle was that they were doing all of this today; after a week in Kintyre, we would understand why.

It’s not easy to make this place happen; everyone does a little bit of everything here on a water-locked finger at the edge of the U.K. Our waitress at breakfast pulled pints in the evening in the pub next door; the director of golf made our dinner reservations and sent our kids to a castle; the head greenskeeper led a haggis ceremony for a group of tourists in this corner of Scotland where all hands chipped in, because providing purpose takes effort, and at Machrihanish Dunes, the purpose is plain.

*

The village of Machrihanish has been known to golfers since the 19th century, when Old Tom Morris finished the final holes on a layout that still lands on world top-100 lists, but it remained a rare pilgrimage for the most earnest golf soul-seekers. A short distance from Glasgow as the crow flies, its location at the end of the Kintyre peninsula meant it was a three-hour drive down a serpentine trail that most golfers eschewed for the ease of itineraries in Ayrshire or East Lothian or St. Andrews. 

As the village hotel fell into disrepair and traveling Scots sought out warm beaches versus vacations on their native soil, Machrihanish may have retreated into further obscurity had new life not come to the dunes by way of a Scotsman who once climbed its hills of sand as a child. David McLay Kidd spent his boyhood summers in Machrihanish with his grandparents, running the beach and pretending the waves were warm. Son of renowned Gleneagles superintendent Jimmy Kidd, he grew up learning what made golf courses special from his father and rose to acclaim as a designer for his breakthrough work at Bandon Dunes. Bandon brought him fame and a steady stream of assignments, but it was in Machrihanish where he would meet a task to define a career, a chance to challenge everything about modern golf construction: Build 18 holes without building them. Make possible the impossible golf course.

The dunes in Machrihanish had been deemed a Great Britain Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and in the history of SSSI, a golf course had never been built on one. It would take patient years to win approval, and doing so required that all traditional design paradigms be exploded. No chemicals anywhere. No bulldozers, no earthmoving, no shapers. Kidd’s team could not use gasoline-powered anything; if they disturbed a patch of native fescue, they had to replace it with turf that grew in precisely the same direction. They could not threaten a single orchid, and their rare blooms were everywhere. It was a project unlike anything Kidd had experienced, or imagined.

“In my world,” Kidd explained to me one afternoon, “conventional golf construction requires that you take down all the vegetation, take up all the soil, regrade everything how you see it, build up the tees, put drainage in, put very extensive irrigation in, build greens, plant lots of plants. What did we do at Machrihanish Dunes? We did almost none of that.”

Without breaking a blade of grass, Kidd identified 23 hole routings that already existed in the dunes, then selected 18 of them for the course. Of the hundreds of acres that would compose the 7,000-plus-yard layout, only 7 were touched in creating the tee boxes and the greens. With Scottish Natural Heritage looking over their shoulder and enforcing the most stringent restrictions a golf course architect had possibly ever faced, there was reason to persist. Old Tom knew why when he eyed the dunes of Machrihanish and said, “The Almighty had golf in his eye when he designed this place.” The rare linksland held room for dozens more holes, and as Kidd saw it, they desperately needed them.

“When I went back [to Machrihanish] more and more, it was still beautiful, but because everyone in Scotland was buying cheap flights to Spain, the place was changing in the wrong direction,” Kidd said. “It was going backwards, so I wanted to be a part of the solution and show people the absolutely stunning beauty of their own country. 

“Machrihanish Dunes could be a great catalyst for that. It had one great golf course, but it was always sort of on the B-list, mostly because of the location and the fact that it was only one course. So I felt like if there were two courses, it could maybe start making the A-list, particularly for Americans who would see the drive as worth it for more than one course.”

We made that drive, and though the hairpins turned some of us green in the back seats, we would all board the bus again tomorrow for the chance to visit what is, for me, Scotland’s greatest golf retreat. With courses by the country’s oldest and newest designers winding through cavernous and unspoiled dunes, the golf is 36 offerings of the best links the sport can provide. Pure and remote, playing the two links of Machrihanish comes with a gratifying awareness known only by golf’s roamers: the soulful sensation of getting lost in your round, in surroundings so ancient and wild that you feel a touch of something timeless. It helps that your accidentally luxurious hotel is directly across the street from the first tee of the old Machrihanish course, beside a low-ceilinged stone pub where a fire and a pint await. You won’t need that bus for the rest of the week of 36-hole days and long evenings of replaying your rounds over a plate of haggis nachos (old meets new again even in the appetizers).

*

The addition of Machrihanish Dunes in 2009 has indeed planted the village on Scottish golf’s A-list, and the course and its reborn hotels have won dozens of awards in the golf glossies. Kidd’s course earned prizes and praise from the environmentalists as well—perhaps the most important recognition for this links lover. I have been to links courses in the British Isles that are losing holes to the sea, and I have seen wide expanses of seductive duneland that forever will be off-limits to golfers; the courses lost in this century seem likely to remain unreplaced. But what was done in the dunes in Machrihanish is hope, and an answer. New golf on old linksland was not only possible, but, if one wanted to save the geological wonder of the dunes, also necessary. 

“There was a lot of time spent wooing the environmental lobby to get them to understand that the best long-term protection for these dunes was to give them a purpose,” explained Kidd. “And a purpose would be their best defense. Without purpose, their defense was always voluntary. Their use was a farmer using them for grazing, or surfers driving their cars through them to find the beach. The land was always under threat because it never had a purpose. We managed to persuade the powers that be that we could create a golf course with minimum impact on the fragile areas of the dunes and give the area a purpose, which would be their best protection.”  

The dunes play as if the course has been protecting them for centuries. Being barred from touching 90 percent of the property has given newborn Machrihanish Dunes the illusion of having the same ancestry as its 150-year-old neighbor. Its kinks feel molded by millennia of wind and water; its quirks play like the eccentricities of age versus modern-day gimmicks. Void of paved paths, and with minimal signage to interrupt the landscape, the setting is undisturbed in a manner that is of the moment: As more golfers seek out unadorned, remote and pure golf experiences at places like Bandon and Cabot, and dream of soulful, rugged outposts like Askernish and Carne, Machrihanish fits golf’s new fixation on simplicity. Kidd explained that this inclination was not necessarily new among his countrymen, but was certainly catching on with mine.

“Americans took over the game 100 years ago and changed it to their own image, and that image, after World War II, became highly manicured, overfertilized, overwatered garden experiences,” he said. “It’s only been in the last 20 years that Americans have become more aware that golf can be this rugged natural experience, and it’s obviously appealing to them.”   

While the downturn in the real estate market threatened golf development around the world, Kidd noted that it has allowed remote, natural golf destinations like Machrihanish Dunes to flourish: “For the last 30 years, golf has revolved around real estate. Over the last 20, that has become less so, and in the last 10, it’s almost nothing about real estate anymore, and that has made a huge difference. Golf is loved for the sake of golf, and not for the joy of owning the house that backs the 18th green.”

*

When Kidd was a child hoping for July sun in Machrihanish, his grandparents would point to the white hotel at the end of the golf course and tell him, “That place is for the rich people.” In all his years vacationing there, he never set foot in the doorway of the Ugadale Hotel, located in a village that did not have many doorways to begin with. Today, after being overhauled by the owners of the golf course he designed, the David McLay Kidd Suite now sits upstairs in the corner of the hotel. It’s an American-dream story in Scotland, but I got the sense in speaking with Kidd that he was more gratified by making believers out of those who said the Dunes couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be done.

“I think the environmentalists really got it when, after we finished building the golf course, and after they had been involved with the golf course up in Aberdeen, the head of Scottish Natural Heritage wrote a very nice letter to the club and said that Mach Dunes was a poster child for sustainable golf development in fragile environments.”

The “golf course up in Aberdeen” was Trump International Golf Links Scotland, a construction project of legendary turmoil. Its heavy-handed development became the stuff of documentary film (You’ve Been Trumped) and won a “Scotsman of the Year” award for the holdout farmer who refused to sell his land to Donald Trump, a man Trump publicly compared to a pig after calling his family farm a slum. 

“Donald Trump took the opposite tack, where he went in guns blazing and used bully tactics to get what he wanted,” said Kidd. “But for us, that was not the approach that I, nor the partners on the project, wanted to take. We wanted to build community and trust, and we knew it would take many, many years.”

His partner at Machrihanish Dunes, David Southworth, developer behind the likes of Liberty National and Creighton Farms, had been labeled “Golf’s Anti-Trump” by Forbes for the low-impact, community-building efforts in Machrihanish. An evening in his company proved why the label fit.

Southworth was in Machrihanish when I visited, and he invited us to dinner at his Royal Hotel in Campbelltown, partner property to the Ugadale, both having been gutted and refurbished during the construction of Machrihanish Dunes. Both were essential to the recipe that, for me, made Machrihanish unique in my links travels. Southworth had perfected a heady combination of Scottish golf and American hospitality, a micro-resort that captured genuine Scottish character, yet paired it with American-style attention to detail where you wanted it the most—namely, in your giant shower and soufflé-like pillows. 

For all his success and his status as a town-saving mogul in Scotland, Southworth’s ego was as gentle as his approach to creating the Kintyre retreat. He confessed to me as we made our way into the Royal Hotel’s handsome restaurant, with its walls of softwood and exposed brick, that he often expected someone at his own resorts to tap him on the shoulder and tell him he didn’t belong. He was tall with a quiet countenance; he asked us questions and listened thoughtfully to our stories. He told his own stories of the trials of bringing Mach Dunes to life, and of the attention he brought to his work. He asked if I liked the layout of my suite upstairs, as he had arranged each room himself. Southworth undid my suspicion of deep-pocketed developers, and his links in Machrihanish altered my perspective on the future of golf courses around the world.

“We had built courses in the Caribbean with palm trees, and a course in the shadow of New York City, so to go someplace like Machrihanish, wearing a heavy coat with rain in your face, and build a golf course without bulldozers—it was so unique and different for us, it was hard to resist,” he explained. “One of the images that I’ll never shake is seeing 15 guys standing around a green with shovels and wheelbarrows, building a green. Not one piece of equipment—just a watercooler and hand tools and a plan. It was fascinating, stepping back in time. We built it the way golf began.”

greenskeeper mowing a green

*

I once listened to a friend tell me he did not care for Machrihanish Dunes’ wild layout and untamed greens—too many bad bounces and guessing shots. The place felt too raw to him. I used his opinion as an opportunity to grow my character and practice tolerance by offering nothing in response. What a shame; he went around the place entirely unaware of its significance. It was a new way, a fresh path forward; it was a sort of clemency for those of us who wanted to play past the fences. Done right, it was OK to want to golf through geography that scientists deemed off-limits. They proved it in Machrihanish, and the proof was in the purpose.

“It takes effort from all involved to come to understand what you’re dealing with, know why the land is fragile and know how golf can coexist with that fragility,” said Kidd. “That’s a hard sell when someone else says that doing nothing is our best option. It’s hard to argue with doing nothing. The argument I made is that doing nothing may seem like protecting it, but nothing is not what is happening. You think nothing is happening, but the farmer is emptying out stuff from his old tractor, or bringing cows out for four months instead of four weeks, shitting all over the dunes; the surfers drive all over the dunes looking for the best access to the beach—and that’s just the things we could see. No one was looking out for those dunes, because they didn’t see them having any real purpose. They weren’t economically viable; they were just a liability to the farmer and a pain in the ass to everybody else. But once you figured out how to golf across them, now they go from being almost worthless to [being] the crown jewel. If you said now, ‘We want to take a bulldozer in there, bulldoze some areas flat to make a feed yard for some cattle this winter,’ people would scream, but yet the farmer could have easily done that once. Not now.”

And may they never. Simon the greenskeeper joined us for dinner and talked of his former days maintaining the Machrie, an even more remote links on the western isle of Islay, where he learned the challenges and rewards of working on fragile dunes. He viewed his job as land stewardship versus course maintenance: If the land thrived, so would the golf; the land was why the golfers had come in the first place. The legal restrictions at Machrihanish Dunes only brought his team’s work into sharper focus, and in listening to Simon, they seemed an advantage versus a hindrance, a daily reminder of their purpose as keepers of the green. It meant hand-weeding the hillsides and placing the needs of the native flora ahead of those of visiting golfers. And we felt this joyful rearrangement of priorities in Machrihanish as we played; it was the thrill of golfing genuine landscape, and a reminder that only on ground not bent to please our preconceptions did we find golf to please our souls. 

We dined on haggis-stuffed chicken and sampled cheeses made in Kintyre, and we laughed well past dark. We all made a pact to return here in two years’ time to relive our Scottish retreat, and that by then one of us would know the words to Simon’s haggis poem. It was a strange feeling to make such a promise and believe it; I knew well the dubious nature of late-night pub promises. But they did things differently here, and this wasn’t one of those.