Back-Roads Scotland: Tain Golf Club

Tain is an Old Tom Morris layout on southern side of Dornoch Firth. It’s less than five miles in a straight line from Royal Dornoch, and less than ten miles by car. I played it in 1992, on my first golf trip to Scotland. Jerry Quinlan, of Celtic Golf, who planned my trip, had arranged for me to play with the club’s general manager and one of the members. I got lost in the town and didn’t arrive at the club until exactly eight, when we were supposed to tee off. Here’s where I got lost:

The manager, whose name was Norman, and the member, whose name was Ian, were already on the tee when I pulled up. Ian looked peeved and impatient. I jumped from my car, pulled on my shoes, breathlessly hit a drive without a practice swing or a waggle, and took off after them.

Norman and Ian, it turned out, where playing in a club competition. Even so, they played at a pace that would have staggered the average American golfer. I have friends at home who think I play ridiculously fast, but I had to concentrate to keep up. I watched them closely, to make sure I put down my bag on the side of the green that was nearest the next tee, and I always had to be aware of whose turn it was to do what. No plumb-bobbing!

If there was any doubt about the playing order, one of them would quickly establish it. “First David, then myself, then Ian,” Norman said on one hole as he pulled the pin. Each golfer was expected to line up his putt or select his next club while the others were putting or hitting. Even so, we played more slowly than the two players behind us, who occasionally had to wait.

Tain is surrounded by farms and separated from Dornoch Firth by fields full of sheep; at one point, I had to retrieve my ball from a pigpen, which was out of bounds. Still, my round was one of the happiest of my trip. After I had jogged along with Norman and Ian for a couple of holes, they apparently forgave me for being late, and from then on we chatted between shots. Norman told me where to aim on every tee—the bunker on the left, the last tree on the right—and I manged to hit my ball on the proper line surprisingly often. Later, it occurred to me that my unaccustomed accuracy was probably the result of my aiming at something. Before that day, I don’t think I had ever aimed a drive at anything smaller than the entire fairway—in effect, aiming at nothing.

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After our round, Norman and Ian bought me a beer in the clubhouse bar. The two players who had been behind us were also there. Ian good-naturedly complained to them that they had talked too loudly during their match, and that their voices had bothered him. “If you had been playing at the proper pace,” one of them said, “you would have been too far ahead to hear me.”

Stop Filling Out Your Bracket, Right Now, and Plan a Golf Trip to Ireland

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Eleven golf buddies and I are going to Ireland in early May. I thought we were being shrewd when we bought our plane tickets, several months ago, because air fares were lower than they had been for years. But they’ve fallen further since then:

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By comparison, I paid $550 for the same flight on my first golf trip to Ireland. That was in 1992—twenty-four years ago. What’s more, the dollar is super-strong against the euro right now. In fact, traveling to Ireland to play golf is arguably cheaper than staying home, especially if you take the money from your wife’s 401k. And, if you need someone to handle the planning, you can get in touch with my old friend Jerry Quinlan, at Celtic Golf. Mention my name, and Jerry will give you the same discount he gave my friends and me. That is to say, he’ll charge you his normal rate. But you won’t have to lift a finger.

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Great Golf Courses: Machrihanish and Machrihanish Dunes

Machrihanish Golf Club, near Campbeltown, Scotland, May, 2014.

Machrihanish Golf Club, near Campbeltown, Scotland, May, 2014.

Machair is a Gaelic word that means pretty much the same thing as links, the sandy, wind-shaped coastal grasslands where the game of golf arose. It’s pronounced “mocker,” more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat. The word is still used in parts of Scotland—for example, on the island of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. The photo below, of me and my golf clubs, was taken on the machair at Askernish, the ghost course, on South Uist, in December 2008:

owenaskernish2008The word machair is also preserved in a number of places in Ireland and Scotland: Magheramore, Maghera Strand, Machair Bay, Macharioch, and Machrihanish. Those last two are villages on the Kintyre Peninsula, in southwestern Scotland. The southernmost tip of the peninsula, called the Mull of Kintyre, was celebrated in 1977 in a song by Paul McCartney, who owns a house nearby. A few miles north of the Mull is Machrihanish Golf Club, which was founded in 1876, with twelve holes, and was enlarged three years later by Old Tom Morris. Here’s the view from the first tee at Machrihanish — one of the coolest opening shots in golf (the beach is very definitely in play):

machrihanishfirstteeAnd right next to Machrihanish is a second course, Machrihanish Dunes, which was designed by David McLay Kidd, the architect of Bandon Dunes. It opened in 2009. It has my favorite kind of clubhouse:

dunesclubhouseMachrihanish was the setting of Michael Bamberger’s book To the Linkslandwhich was published in 1992. One of the most and least appealing features of Machrihanish is that it isn’t easy to get to. If you’re traveling by car, the round trip from Glasgow can be more than seven hours, without much in the way of golf along the route. Flying is possible, although scheduling can be problematic, especially if you’re trying to connect from an international flight. The workaround my friends and I used during a recent buddies trip—with help and planning from Celtic Golf—was to go by water, on a chartered boat, which was operated by Kintyre Express. We made the trip, from Troon, in less than an hour and a half. The boat ride turned out to be one of the week’s many highlights:

tonyrichardboatWe passed this lighthouse on the way:

lighthousefromboatAnd this is what we saw as we entered the harbor at Campbeltown, the town closest to Machrihanish:

campbeltownviewOur hotel was right on the harbor, a short walk from where the boat tied up:

royalhotelAnd both courses were just a short drive (by van) from the hotel. This is Peter A., putting from a fairway at Machrihanish:

peterfairwayputtThe two guys in the photo below, who were out for a walk with their wives in Campbeltown, chatted with us about golf, and then came back without their wives to tell us a story about Tony Lema. I think they were interested in us partly because I had played two Scottish courses they hadn’t believed any American golfer would even have heard of: Reay and Strathpeffer.

twoscottishguysThe photo below is a view of the water from Machrihanish Dunes. The course was built, with numerous conservation restrictions, on what the British call a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The maintenance crew doesn’t use fertilizer, and there’s no irrigation system. Only a tiny fraction of the land was disturbed during construction. And the course is terrific.
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The photo below is of a former R.A.F. base, which borders both courses. A U.S. Navy SEAL commando unit used to be stationed there. Part of the facility still functions as Campbeltown’s airport. The runway is so long that even I could land an airplane on it, probably.

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After three days at Machrihanish, we got back on our boat and headed to our next destination: Northern Ireland, which is actually closer to Campbeltown than Troon is. Here’s the skipper, loading our golf bags in Campbeltown harbor:

That's Robert G. holding my awesome Sun Mountain Atlas golf-bag travel cover, which I bought years ago, after Northwest Airlines snapped the head off my driver during a trip to Bandon Dunes. It has traveled all over the world with me. I'm sorry to say that Sun Mountain doesn't make it anymore.

That’s Robert G., on the left, holding my awesome Sun Mountain Atlas golf-bag travel cover, which I bought about ten years ago, after Northwest Airlines snapped the head off my driver during a trip to Bandon Dunes. My friends call it R2D2. It has traveled all over the world with me. I’m sorry to report that Sun Mountain doesn’t make it anymore.

On the way to Northern Ireland, we passed the Mull of Kintyre, an area of weird currents and whirlpools, a place where a guy had recently drowned, a goat (basking on some rocks) that was descended from goats that were brought to Ireland by the Spanish Armada, and what used to be the cottage of Gugliemo Marconi—whose name was not derived from machair, and who may or may not have been a golfer, but who was one of the inventors of radio. In fact, he made his first long-distance transmission was from the cottage, which is right on the water, to an island a few miles away. Here’s the cottage as it looks today:

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The weather was perfect during our trip. The skipper took us close to both coasts, so that we could get a better view.

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Here we are landing in Ballycastle, where the first thing we did was go to a grocery store and buy about a thousand dollars worth of junk food. Then back to golf.

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Traveling to Golf by Air, Land, and Sea

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I don’t like to fly on the same plane with soccer teams, Cub Scout dens, Shriner lodges, or similar groups, because it’s too easy to imagine the headline the following day: “Plane Carrying All Members of Small Order of Spanish Nuns Goes Down in North Atlantic.” So I felt more than slightly anxious when, a few minutes before our scheduled departure, two dozen members of a Scottish cheerleading team, who had had to run to make their connection, boarded our plane. I learned later that the team was from the Blast Cheer & Dance Academy, in Glasgow, and that they had just won an international title of some kind at a big competition in Virginia Beach, Virginia. 

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Miraculously, the flight went smoothly, and on Saturday morning at 7:30 eleven friends and I landed in Scotland, ready to play golf. We were met at the airport by a bus from Celtic Golf, which planned our trip.

on the bus

Our bus driver’s name was Dave, and that’s also the name of a quarter of the people on our trip. The only kind of people we have more of is lawyers. When the lawyers reply-all to golf-trip emails, the boilerplate disclaimers at the bottom pile up like litter against a parking-lot fence.

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That first day, straight from the airport, we played two rounds, one at Western Gailes and one at Dundonald, which is next door. Everybody loved Western Gailes and was basically OK with Dundonald, which is owned by the people who own Loch Lomond. The picture below is from Western Gailes, and two of the people in it are named Dave.

western gailes

Dave the driver had told us to be ready to roll at 10:30 the next morning. I didn’t see Peter A. as we were loading our stuff onto the bus, so at 10:35 I called his room from the front desk of our hotel. He picked up after about twelve rings, and said, Yeah, yeah, I’m on my way—and five minutes later we left. That afternoon, he told me that he had actually been asleep when the phone rang, and that he had set a personal record for getting dressed, packing a suitcase, and vacating a hotel room.

bus

That morning, the bus took us not to a golf course but to Troon Harbor, where we boarded a chartered twelve-passenger motorboat, owned by a company called Kintyre Express. The boat took us to Campbeltown, the home of Machrihanish Golf Club, on the Kintyre Peninsula. 

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Machrihanish is hard to get to by car; going by boat knocks a couple of hours off the trip. Nice scenery, too.

lighthouseMachrihanish has been on my golf dream list for a long time. I’ll have more to say about it later. After three days there, we had to get back on our boat, and move on to our next destination, so that we could play more golf, but somewhere else. I’ll have more to say about that soon, too. In the meantime, here’s what Tony and David M. had for dinner our first night in Campbeltown:

mixed grill