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Highlands and Islands - A Scottish Golf Tour

A tour of the best Scotland has to offer in terms of authentic links golf and stunning coastal and highland scenery remains one of golf’s ' ‘must-do’ road trips. Picking up the action on the Mull of Kintyre, Andrew Marshall suggests a mouth-watering itinerary.

It’s a claim we’d often heard made – and one we were keen to check out: that Machrihanish Old, situated miles from any where on the craggy west coast of the Kintyre Peninsula, boasted the finest opening hole in Scotland. Perhaps the world, depending on who was telling the story. With the Atlantic pounding away over your left shoulder, ever-present cross winds and alarmingly long beach carry to contend with, this 436-yard par four is a nerve-jangling start to surely one of the most spectacular golfing journeys – travelling through spectacular and remote island and mountain landscapes while playing an old classic, a couple of new designs and a recently discovered gem.

Four-time Open champion Old Tom Morris described the quirky duneland of Machrihanish as “Created by the Almighty to play golf on” and, thankfully, little has changed since he marked out this traditional links using seagull feathers over a weekend in 1876. His legacy to the game has been enjoyed by golfers in their thousands. Taking the small prop plane from Glasgow you can reach Campbletown in half an hour; for the hard-core, there is only one way to get here – and that’s by car. The scenery on the twisting road from Glasgow is stunning, with pretty villages like Tarbut inviting regular stops.

Allow three hours and enjoy the ride. Now there’s another reason to make the trip to the Kintyre Peninsula, because sharing the same breathtaking ocean views with the adjacent "Old Tom Morris” layout, is Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club – the first 18-hole golf course to be built on the west coast of Scotland in 100 years. Scotsman and course architect David McLay Kidd, who is internationally acclaimed for his design of Bandon Dunes in Oregon and, more recently, the Castle Course at St Andrews has created a real throwback of a links, and this one-of-a-kind layout, featuring six greens and five tees right at the ocean’s edge, looks set for stardom. “We followed the lie of the land and unlike most courses around the world, we did not lay out the course and make the land change with it, we designed each hole around the natural terrain,” says McLay Kid. “We are returning golf to how it should be played.” Because Machrihanish Dunes has been built on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSi) the course’s routing in addition to the positioning of tees and greens was also dictated by several endangered species of flora and fauna. Tee blocks had to be excavated and flattened but virtually the rest of the course is natural.

Realistically, you are not likely to score well on your first circuit of Machrihanish Dunes. And there are some golfers who will hate the place. But for any lover of genuine, quirky links golf – and those who appreciate a layout that requires a links mentality – it is not to be missed. Expect severely undulating greens, blind shots, straight shots that disappear over the hill and fairway maintenance by sheep (even the odd black one). And although markers on each tee clearly indicate the direction of the hole, its good to realise you might get lost here and there. Directional markers help on several blind second shots, but the distances to the green can be deceptive if you are not familiar with the course.

In addition to Machrihanish Old and Dunes, another local course well worth playing is the shorter but equally delightful seaside links of Dunaverty, just 20minutes’ or so by car near the pretty port of Campbeltown (incidentally, a good base for playing this opening trio of courses – as indeed are the lodges and cottage at Machrihanish Dunes). Often refered to as Scotland’s only mainland island, the Kintyre Peninsula is also the gateway to islands of the Southern Hebrides – such as the mountain wilderness of Jura, home to 5000 deer, a whisky distillery and a pub and Arran, also known as “Scotland in miniature” that has seven golf courses despite its small size. The pick of the bunch is Shiskine’s idiosyncratic 12-hole layout nestled below Drumadoon Cliffs at Blackwaterfoot. And then there’s Islay, famous for its whisky distilleries and home to the Machrie Golf Course – one of Scotland’s best island courses.

There is so much to see and so many wonderful courses to play that however much planning you put into your itinerary the chances of sticking to it are slim.We took the decision that after Machrihanish Dunes we would head for (we head to the rustic clubhouse and order tasty sandwiches and mugs of hot tea. I go for ’The Old Tom’ (grilled chicken, smoked bacon and lemon mayonnaise on whole grain), while Paul goes for ’The New Kidd’ (ham, Kintyre cheddar and chutney on white). Refuelled and ready to go, we hit the road, heading north up the coast to Oban to catch the 3.50 pm ferry departure of Lord of the Isles – bound for Lochboisdale on the remote and beautiful Outer Hebridean island of South Uist.

The Lost Links of Uist

It’s 7.30 the following morning inside the breakfast room of the Polochar Inn just outside Lochboisdale. “Going by the gannets that are heading south I don’t think the rain is too far away lads,” says local Neil Campbell, as we gaze out on a wild and wonderful scene of desolate islets punctuated by a lichen encrusted standing stone from the early Bronze Age. “The wind looks strong too. You’ll need a six-inch nail to keep your golf cap on today at Askernish.”

If Machrihanish is remote, then Askernish Old is at the end of the world. First laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1891, in recent years it has been unearthed and restored to its former glory by Gordon Irvine (Master Greensman) and Martin Ebert (Canadian course architect) using entirely traditional design principles. Environmental experts have already hailed Askernish Old as "the most natural links course in the world": the dunes’ natural contours form the fairways, no artificial chemicals are used in maintenance, and during winter months sheep and cattle graze the course.

Irvine, who worked for free on the project, believes that based on his ability to distinguish natural land forms from man made ones, he has correctly exposed and re-created the original layout. (Only the eighteenth green had to be relocated; the original now serves as a practice green.) “We’ll never know for sure,” he says. “We can’t bring Old Tom back. But this course is as close as you’ll get to an original Old Tom Morris layout.”

The result is a course right out of a time capsule that will appeal to purists and aficionados of links golf. Officially opened by Kenny Dalglish MBE, on the 22nd August 2008, the 6,164- yard layout begins and ends in understated fashion, but from seven through to seventeen it’s a roller-coaster ride through terrain as violent as a storm-tossed sea. The par-four 7th runs south along the shore from a dune-top tee to a green sheltered by even taller dunes and the green at the eleventh, a long and spectacular par-three played directly into a sea wind, looks as if it could only be reached using rock climbing gear. Perhaps the star of the Askenish show is the sixteenth called Old Tom’s Pulpit, a memorable short par-four with a two-level green, the back half of which forms a punchbowl, where most approach shots including ours seem to end up.

From Askernish at the bottom of South Uist, we drive along the distinctive one-track road (with passing bays) through the middle island of Benbecula to the top of North Uist all linked by causeways. It’s an absorbing journey – through a wild and unique landscape covered with a patchwork of peat bogs, low hills and lochans, with more than half the land being covered by water. Some of the lochs contain a mixture of fresh and tidal salt water, giving rise to some complex and unusual habitats – the haunt of dolphins, otters and numerous bird species including waders and the rare white-tailed eagle.

Beyond North Uist, on the dramatic and rugged island of Harris is another far-flung gem– the Scarista Links at the Isle of Harris Golf Club – a gorgeous 9-holer bordered on one side by the Sound of Taransay, leading onto the Atlantic Ocean, and all down the west side of the course stretch the white sands and turquoise waters typical of this part of the Hebrides. When Nick Faldo visited the course in the early nineties, prior to flying out to the Masters, he described it as “one of the most beautiful settings for golf.”

Back then, the green fee for a day’s golf was £5 (today it's still only £10), paid into an ‘honesty box’, a quirky arrangement that adds to the magic of the place. Faldo signed his £5 note and ever since that day the club members have competed annually for the 'Faldo Fiver'.

Alas, on this trip we don’t have time to drop our tenners into the honesty box at the Scarista Links. After spending a comfortable night at the Langass Lodge in Locheport on North Uist, the following morning we trundle aboard the M.V. Hebrides vehicle ferry at Lochmaddy, dine on hearty Scottish breakfasts during the crossing and roll off the ramp at Uig on the Isle of Skye a few hours later.

Recently voted the ‘4th best island in the world by National Geographic magazine’, Skye is a 50-mile-long smorgasbord of velvet moors, jagged mountain ranges, sparkling lochs and towering sea cliffs. The stunning scenery is the main draw card, but when the mist closes in there’s plenty of other attractions including picturesque villages, castles, cosy pubs, crofting museums, fine local produce and a 9-hole seaside course at Sconser with spectacular views of the Isle of Raasay and North Skye.

Castles, Lochs & Highland Golf

After travelling over the Skye Bridge we are back on the mainland and soon head past Eilean Donan Castle, standing bold and upright on the shores of Loch Duich, on a site that that has been fortified for well over 800 years. The castle is something of a filmstar, and has been used in many productions over the years including the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough and Highlander starring Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert.

An hour or so later we experience another iconic Scottish image, driving alongside the mysterious waters of Loch Ness where more ancient castles perch on heather-clad hillsides, home of golden eagle and red deer. At 22miles long and up to 1.5miles wide, no one knows for certain if monsters inhabit the near 1,000-ft depths, but certainly its peat-darkened waters would be the perfect place for such a legend to hide.We joke to ourselves that there’s probably a better chance of spotting ‘Nessie’ than shooting under our handicaps at the final course of our Islands & Highlands trip – the new and testing Castle Stuart Golf Links just east of Inverness.

The brainchild of Mark Parsinen, the American who gifted the world Kingsbarns, this championship links course overlooks the Moray Firth and well-known landmarks that are synonymous with Inverness – the Kessock Bridge, Chanonry Lighthouse, Fort George and Castle Stuart itself – and enjoys similar topography to Royal Dornoch further north, with an old sea cliff creating two tiered plateaus with six holes running alongside the inner Moray Firth. The course has been designed with wide fairways to offer plenty of lines of play on ground that is perfect for links golf.

The great thing about Castle Stuart is that you get a real sense of seclusion and most of the time you are not aware of other golfers out on the course. The views all around are fabulous, and from some tees and greens, the 1930s style white ’Art Deco’ clubhouse can be seen sitting prominently atop its viewing perch. As Turnberry is to Ayrshire, Gleneagles is to Perthshire, and St Andrews is to Fife, Castle Stuart has been conceived to be for the Highlands region and destined to be a future classic.

The addition of new courses such as Castle Stuart and Machrihanish Dunes, together with the unearthed gem of Askernish Old – simply add to the incredible pull of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, a road-trip that is surely on the ‘bucket list’ for any serious lover of links golf.

GolfToday's Course Guide to Scotland starts here.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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