Troon is a Time-travel Wormhole to Machrihanish

Machrihanish is a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland. Part of the routing was created by Old Tom Morris in 1879, when what was then called the Kintyre Golf Club acquired additional acreage and expanded from 12 holes to 18. Machrihanish has one of the awesomest opening tee shots in golf. Here’s the first tee:

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The rest of the course is terrific, too. The only difficulty with Machrihanish is that it’s tricky to get to. The drive from Glasgow Airport can take more than three hours, with little or no hope of golf along the way. But there’s a shortcut, if you do what 11 friends and I did in 2014: charter a boat from an outfit called Kintyre Express. The trip from Troon Harbor (which is just up the road from Royal Troon) to Campbeltown Harbor (which is just down the road from Machrihanish) takes 75 minutes. That means that the round trip saves you more than enough time to squeeze in one entire bonus round at either Machrihanish or Machrihanish Dunes. Here we are getting ready to set out from Troon:

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And here’s some of what we saw along the way:

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And here’s what Tony looked like when the skipper gunned his engine:

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And here’s what we saw as we approached Campbeltown:

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And here’s where we stayed, just up a long ramp from the dock:

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Three days later, we took the same boat to Northern Ireland—which is even closer to Campbeltown than Troon is. All our golf bags and suitcases went into the hold:

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Kintyre Express has lots of other routes, too. The Troon-to-Campbeltown trip starts at £500 for up to 12 passengers. Thanks to Brexit, that currently works out to only about $55 a head. Kintyre also operates regular ferry service to a number of destinations in the same region. Ask for Mairi!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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