This seems like a good time to stop the story and talk about Machrihanish. You know how when you`re thinking about buying an SUV it seems that every other car on the road is an SUV? Or how about when you`re thinking about painting your bedroom green, every room you walk into is a shade of green? Well every thing I read about golf in Scotland led to Machrihanish. Located at the southern end of the west coast of Scotland, the course is too far away for most people to travel to but those that have made the trek insist that if it was more conveniently located (like Royal Dornoch “ too far north) it would be on the British Open rota. The entire first week of my trip was routed so that I would end up at Machrihanish. If it was really that great and really that rare, I was determined to get there. To get there from Dornoch though, meant staying overnight in Fort Williams.
On Thursday morning I slept in, ate breakfast and was out the door by 9:00am. I had planned on heading up to Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland but the low lying clouds hid the peak so I re-jigged my schedule and headed south at breakneck speed. It was three hours to Machrihanish. If I could get on today (I had only reserved a tee time for Friday) I`d be able to play 36 (since the sun stays up so long).
The drive was remarkable. Once I passed through Oban and got on the A83, the sun began to burn off the clouds. The further south I headed the clearer the sky became and the warmer the air got. The landscape changed so much that I forgot that I was in Scotland and started dreaming of Muskoka. In this cottagey country this was truly cottage country. I was getting giddy as I got closer and closer to my quarry. The hills were alive all around me as sheep grazed the grounds. At one point I stopped the car and got out to take a picture of some sheep that were lazing by the side of the road. Mistake! They took one look at me and my camera and started to charge. I raced back to my car which I had left running. I got the door closed and took off like a scared little school girl. I almost pissed my pants laughing at myself but I did get the picture.
At 12:30pm I reached Campbelltown and turned right towards Machrihanish. This was it. I was now approaching the Holy Grail of my trip. I pulled into the car park and headed to the Å“pro shop. It was really just a trailer. The door was locked. The pro was out to lunch. But I had come all this way and wasn`t going to be denied by a little thing like someone elses hunger. I popped my head into the pub next to the pro shop and the woman behind the bar pointed me towards the pro who had his face in a bowl of soup. Once I explained my trip he was happy to take a break and take my money. Finally, I had arrived.
The first hole is called Battery. They say it is the finest opening shot in all of golf. I will not dispute that fact. The hole winds its way to the left around a public beach. A sign just off the tee warns golfers to watch for strollers by the water. The shot is not dissimilar to the tee shot at 18 at Pebble Beach except for the fact that it is compounded with the nerves of being an opening drive of the round. Cut off as much beach as you dare and leave yourself 130 “ 140 yards to a massive green. Standing in that first fairway I was struck by the condition of the grass. This wasn`t the lush carpet one associates with the best kept courses in North America, nor was it the dry brown you come to expect in classic links golf. The fairway was in perfect condition but it was merely the grass of the land cut to its nub. I couldn`t help but think of an obnoxious North American thinking that this is nothing but a cow pasture. Perhaps that was understandable considering that the course is bounded by the sea on one side and a farm on the other. But to me, this is sacred ground.
Old Tom Morris had come here in the late 1880`s to help layout the course. Looking back at the tee and looking ahead at the green one couldn`t help but picture him showing up, surveying the land and saying Å“The tee goes here, the green goes there. What you do with the rest is your business. Where can I get a drink? One gets the impression that that was how easy it was to layout Machrihanish.
The first green is like the rest on the course. It is big – very big. But it is subtle. A majority of the putts look straight but a hundred years of wind, rain and rain has given it unseen breaks. The first time I played to the green I three putted from 10 feet “ missed a two footer that should have gone straight into the hole.
I won`t go through the course hole by hole (you`ll have to make the trip yourself to see it) but I will tell you that the second has a second shot to an unseen green perched on a hill. The third is the first of a series of blind tee shots. One must learn to trust the black and white poles that guide you to the fairway. One must also have a straight tee shot to take advantage of those guides. Many of the greens are held in bowls. On a clear day you are said to be able to see the east coast of Ireland, just 12 miles away.
If you`ve read about Machrihanish you`ve no doubt noticed the common complaint about the closing holes. It`s true that the first sixteen holes are brilliant but the last two are flat, uninteresting and terribly easy. Perhaps it was Old Tom`s way of saying, Å“If you haven`t scored to this point, I`m going to give you a chance so that you don`t give up on the game. Giving up on the game is the last thing I`ll ever do. Once my opening round was over, I rushed back to the pro shop to upgrade my greens fee to a daily ticket. In North America you get a replay rate, in Scotland you can get a day pass. For a discounted rate you can play all of the golf you can stand. Gotta love it.
I played 36 and then headed over to check in at my B&B. I headed into Campbelltown (an old fishing village and tourist destination) and ate fish and chips while parked on the wharf. I headed to bed with a full tummy and my head full with a rush of golf.
The next morning I ate a hearty breakfast before heading back out to play another 36 at Machrihanish. I hadn`t come all this way to be in a hurry to leave. Midway through my third round I came upon a couple that also happened to be from Toronto. I joined up with them and we got to talking about how we ended up all the way over here. I told them about my books. They told me that they were friends were Lorne Rubenstein. Like me, they had already played Royal Dornoch and they took Lorne`s advice to travel here to play this hidden classic.
At the end of the day I folded myself back up into the car and began the three hour drive back to Glasgow. Rob and Chris were showing up the next morning to join me for the second week of my adventure in Scotland.