Monday, November 28, 2011

Machrihanish Dunes

“An un-aged whisky...”

Machrihanish Dunes is a David McLay Kidd design. The course is extremely remote and is located directly next to Machrihanish Golf Club (click for review).

Machrihanish Dunes is nearly brand new, being only two years old. Herein lies the biggest problem with Machrihanish Dunes: It is too young. The course has an unfinished feel and many attribute this problem to a pre-mature opening on the part of the developers and owners. The course was opened in 2009 with the implied purpose of catching the tourist rush accompanying the Open Championship at Turnberry in Ayrshire. This is said to have been a year or so before the course should have been opened. The course is like an un-aged whisky that has spent too little time aging in the barrel. Mach Dunes is rough, but you know there is something special there.
How rural? Ask the sheep on the 10th tee....
The design of the course is enjoyable and impressive. There is ample land for the golf course, and this presents both benefits and negatives for the golfer. The journey between green and tee is very long on most holes. According to the starter, this is because there are rare and endangered plant life and animals that inhabit the system of dunes. Laws and regulations protecting the dunes habitats inhibited the designer and a strange course routing. This strange course routing is both interesting and, honestly, confusing. At one point, I turned to my partner on the golf trip, Matt, and said, “This is beautiful, but I have no idea where we are or where we go next...”

The benefit of the open expanse of land is the ability to make a very long golf course. The tips are over 7,100 yards. A course of this length is rare in Scotland. The 17th hole is a par 5 of over 620 yards. Dundonald Links is the only other course in Scotland that I have played which has similar length. David Kidd offered many different teeing options in his design, so despite the course being so long, it is manageable for golfers of all skill levels.
Tee boxes set deep into the dunes allowed for very long holes
Bad golf course conditions are to be expected in Scotland during November (just look at Gleneagles), but Mach Dunes had a truly “unfinished” feel. The course felt as if it hadn’t completely settled into its skin. Three greens were being re-done due to salt-water damage, which was caused by close proximity to the beach. One must assume that if due diligence had been performed and not rushed at Mach Dunes, developers would have better anticipated the problems that have arisen.
2nd green set deep in some dunes
Jim Kidd is the father of the course’s designer David McLay Kidd. He is also his right hand man in the golf design business. Jim was at Mach Dunes helping with the re-design of the aforementioned greens. He had participated in every Kidd design from the St Andrews Castle Course to Bandon Dunes in Oregon, USA. We were able to share a pint with Jim Kidd and then receive a ride back into Campbeltown with him at the end of the day. It was extremely interesting to speak with this design master about the golf the course and the thought that went into some of the routing decisions.

If you are on a golfing trip to the Mull of Kyntire, play Machrihanish Dunes. However, make sure that you play the course in addition to Machrihanish Golf Club. Unfortunately, it is this juxtaposition of golf courses that makes Mach Dunes feel inferior to its older neighbor. When you play Mach Dunes, don’t expect an ancient links with a tons of history. Do expect an enjoyable design set within beautiful dunes that features as much length as any golfer could want. If I am able to play the course again when I am 60 or so, I will expect an incredible and settled links course hidden in western Scotland.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Machrihanish Golf Club

“If there is a golfing heaven somewhere, Machrihanish will have to be passed to gain entry.”

Machrihanish Golf Club is an Old Tom Morris design located on the Mull of Kintyre. It is one of the most rural golf clubs that I have played, and is also one of the hardest to reach. I travelled to the course with my good friend and golfing partner, Matt Birchall. Due to a wrist injury, he was unable to play the course, but caddied for me on the trip.
The "A" marks Machrihanish GC. Thanks to Google Maps
The night before the round was spent in a B&B in Campbeltown, a short 25-minute bus ride away from Machrihanish GC. The lady running our B&B told us that the former caddiemaster of Machrihanish had a favorite pub hangout in Campbeltown. She went on to say that if we were lucky, we would be able to have a drink or two with him. We ended up spending two nights sharing pints, information, and golf stories with the old links master. Matt and I had seen the course the previous day when we made the journey out to play Machrihanish Dunes. The setting is gorgeous and we were very excited to play the #93 ranked course in the World.
My touristy Gore-Tex bucket hat was a life saver! 
Unfortunately, upon arriving at Machrihanish GC, the weather was horrendous, and we were immediately greeted with an encounter that tainted the experience. We walked up to the pro shop to check in with our golf clubs and overnight bags. The lady working behind the counter immediately told us that we would have to leave our bags outside in the torrential rain and wind (keep in mind we were the only tee time of the day and there wasn’t another soul in the pro shop). She then pointed us to the clubhouse across the street to dry off before checking in. We dropped our wet bags in the visitor’s locker room and headed back to the pro shop to pay our fees and tee off. She again made me leave my bag in the downpour while we spent time looking at shirts and paying greens fees. When we left, I literally had to wring out my bag and its waterlogged contents. We did our best to not let this initial poor interaction with a bad employee taint our day.

            The previous nights spent with the caddiemaster in the bar had given us some “local knowledge” on the course. One of the first things he mentioned was that the first hole was “the best opening hole in the world.” He was understandably biased, and while it may not be the best opening hole in the world, it certainly is a great way to start the round. The hole hugs the beach (which is in play) and golfer's have the option of cutting off as much of the Atlantic Ocean as they dare.
View from 1st tee
Outside of the front nine of Royal Aberdeen, Machrihanish is one of the most pure links layout that I have ever played. I found the front nine to be particularly impressive. The first things that struck me on the opening holes were the green complexes. The greenside bunkering was amazing. The course felt as if it was naturally meant to be there. There was nothing artificial about the layout. This is confirmed with a quote from Old Tom Morris, the course designer, on Machrihanish. He said, “The Almighty had golf in his eye when he designed this place.” I can imagine Old Tom walking around the links having to do nothing more that point out where to put pins and cut the grass. Machrihanish’s layout is the furthest thing from the earthmovers and artificial dunes seen in many of today’s designs.
The holes worked naturally within the dunes
It was difficult to choose a favorite hole on the course. Nearly every approach shot on the front nine was very interesting and all of the holes are set within gorgeous dunes. If the torrential rain had not left us so cold and wet, I would have wanted to play the course again and again that day. I felt terrible for Matt, who, with his wrist injury, was unable to play any golf, but was salivating at the beautiful layout. As the round was coming to an end, we were cold, tired, and dripping wet. High winds and endless torrential rain had detracted from the level of play, but the quality of the course was still very prevalent. Out-of-bounds runs down the entire left side of the 17th hole. It reminded both of us of a par 4 version of Hogan’s Alley at Carnoustie. A near birdie cemented the hole in my memory and left a good taste in my mouth as we sloshed our way in.
Matt getting soaked without rain gear on the final stretch
A common negative brought up about Machrihanish is its seemingly weak finishing hole. The 18th is a wide open, short par 4 with very few hazards and very little risk. The caddiemaster addressed this issue the previous night over a few pints of ale in the pub. Originally, the 18th green was located where the clubhouse now lies. This is nearly 70 yards past where the current green is located. To keep the green in reach, the original tee of the 18th was moved forward nearly 40 yards. This original hole was a challenging par 4 and was very different from the current 18th. The hole was changed when the road running through village dissected the hole. It was not safe to have players hitting over the road, so the green was moved short of the road.
Our experience at Machrihanish was tainted due to horrendous rain and wind along with poor interactions with a sour woman in the pro shop. Despite these two factors, I thoroughly enjoyed the course and I look forward playing the course again when the weather is better. The design was one of the most natural layouts I have played and was very enjoyable. From fairway to green, it is one of my favorite courses I have played in Scotland.

The weather was so poor at Machrihanish that I didn't feel comfortable bringing my DSLR camera. All of these pictures were taken with a soaking wet iPhone during the endless downpour. The opportunities to take photos during the round were scarce, and I hope to revisit the course and take many more on a sunny summer day.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kingsbarns Golf Links

Kingsbarns Golf Links is located a short fifteen minute drive from St Andrews. It is a young course, being slightly more than ten years old, but it has been met with great praise. Kingsbarns is a Kyle Phillips design and is absolutely stunning. It is currently ranked #54 in the world and it unquestionably deserves that ranking.
This latest round at Kingsbarns marks my 3rd round on the beautiful course. I am always eager to make the short trip. Unfortunately, Kingsbarns is fairly expensive to play. It runs visitors around £215 to play. Luckily, Scottish residents (students included) get the discounted rate of just under £100. Even better, the University of St Andrews Men’s Golf Club has a day every year where we go play the course for £15 a round. It is hard to beat!
Downhill par 3 2nd hole
 On previous trips to Kingsbarns, I greatly enjoyed the round, but felt like I didn’t “stop and smell the roses.” For instance, I didn’t go to the locker room, I didn’t have a pre-round bacon roll, and I didn’t simply stop and enjoy everything. I was either too concerned with my score or sunlight running out to actually realize just how beautiful Kingsbarns really is. On this trip, I made a conscious effort to take in the golf, surroundings, and facilities, as I hadn’t done on past visits to Kingsbarns.
Looking across the 8th green to the par 3 15th green
The 6th hole is a drive-able par 4, and with the green set below the tee, a stunning view over much of the front and back nines can be seen. Despite being short, an errant tee shot can make a par difficult to achieve. The fairway slopes right to left with bunkers short and left in the fairway and a large deep grass bunker short left of the green affecting longer hitters. The back of the green has a lowered plateau that gives the greens keepers the option of a very tough pin. The lowered plateau is almost hidden and wouldn’t be noticed until the pin is placed in the very rear of the green.
Looking at the central basin of the course, with the 6th hole on the right
The 9th hole, par 5, works back towards the clubhouse and presents a birdie opportunity for those who keep their drives on the left side of the fairway. An interesting sign is embedded in the fairway marking where Lee Westwood holed out for a double eagle during the Dunhill Links Championship in 2003 (pictured below). The 9th hole coming back to the clubhouse is only one of many American-feeling features at Kingsbarns. The traditional out and back links layout is abandoned.
The back nine at Kingsbarns has, in my opinion, some of the stronger and weaker holes on the course. This will meet opposition, but I think the 10th and 14th holes are the weakest on the course. The tenth is not memorable and if it weren’t for a narrow fairway and an undulating green, it would be slightly bland. The 14th is a short par 4, but not quite short enough to be drive-able. The green has a large ridge running across the green and every time I’ve played the course, the pin is set just beyond the ridge. Due to the hole’s length, a decently long hitter is left with an awkward 40-60 yard pitch to a tricky ridge-protected pin. It feels as though Phillips didn’t quite have enough room to fit in another spectacular hole, so he squeezed this one in.
Despite any weaker holes on the back, the 12th, 15th, 16th, and 17th holes are second to none. As seen in the pictures below, the holes are visually spectacular, but are also very strong tests of golfing skill. The 12th is a dogleg left par 5 that runs right along the seashore. The risk-reward factor is ever present on approach shots and anything tugged slightly left at any point is either in the water or on the beach. Although I haven’t played Spyglass or Pebble, I’m told that the scenery on 12 and 15 rivals those great courses.
Myself on the 12th tee
View from the 12th tee
The 70 yard long 12th green
Below is the view from the par 3 15th tee box. The peninsula green becomes even more intimidating when the tide is in and waves are crashing against the rocks which guard the putting surface.
View from the 15th tee
The 16th is a great par 5 with a well-bunkered fairway. A tee shot favoring the left side of the fairway is safest, but can leave a long approach if going for the green. The green is well bunkered, but fair. A sneaky little burn, that was uncovered from an earlier links when Kingsbarns was being built, runs behind and to the left of the green. The 16th is one of my favorite par 5’s that I have encountered while in Scotland.
                         Looking up the par 5 16th hole

I have heard people criticize the 18th at Kingsbarns as a weak finishing hole that is uncharacteristic to the rest of the course. I disagree. In its own right, the 18th is a solid and difficult par four. The deep burn that runs in front of the green is part of the same burn that was uncovered during construction and it adds a very challenging aspect to the hole. Kyle Phillips redesigned portions of Kingsbarns to include aspects (such as the burn and bridge on the 18th) of the original course, which was discovered during construction – something that I find very interesting and appreciate from a designer.
View from 18th fairway
I love Kingsbarns and try to take advantage of every opportunity to play the course. The impressive locker room and clubhouse remind me of the impressive resort clubhouses back in the States. No golf trip to Fife would be complete without a round at Kingsbarns.