Where to Play Golf on the West Coast of Scotland

For many traveling golfers, the west of Scotland means Ayrshire—specifically Troon, Prestwick, and Turnberry. But there’s much more to be found beyond the coastal strip south of Glasgow, notably hundreds of islands, stunning scenery, and some of the country’s best examples of its two most famous exports, whisky and golf.

Golfers have been heading to Machrihanish at the southern tip of the Kintyre Peninsula—not an island, but sufficiently isolated that it might as well be—and to Machrie on the island of Islay, famous for its peaty single malts, for well over a century. These two courses, separated by a two-hour ferry ride and then several hours back to Glasgow and civilization, do not a destination make, but those who make the trip tend to fall hard for the west. In fact, this writer has long cited Machrihanish as his favorite course on earth, home to a small part of his soul.

In these remote parts, Machrihanish is the only place where two courses sit together, and, thanks to the 2009 opening of Machrihanish Dunes, the home of the best facilities. Golfers playing the original 1879 Old Tom Morris design have long reached the turn and, while doubling back for the second nine and home, cast jealous glances over the huge and beautiful expanse of sand dunes in front of them. Architect David McLay Kidd, who holidayed in these parts as a child, and photographer Brian Morgan were two of them. Morgan started the process—which was continued by Australian entrepreneur Brian Keating and finished by American developer David Southworth—of making a second course in those dunes a reality, with Kidd enlisted to design it.

When the Dunes opened, it received, to put it kindly, mixed notices. It was the first new course to be built in Scotland on linksland of this caliber in many decades, and making it happen was very tricky: The government’s consent allowed for little to no earthmoving and put large parts of the site off limits on environmental grounds. As a result, Kidd’s design, laid out over the natural contours, included more blindness than most golfers had seen in a lifetime, wild greens, and some very long walks between holes. It was beautiful, with much to recommend it, but could not be called a comfortable round. Many of the early visitors left saying “never again.”

Time is a great healer. The course managers and the environmentalists have forged a new, more collaborative relationship, leading to extensive changes. Kidd’s father Jimmy, a noted greenkeeper who has a house in the area, has overseen the building of several new greens, while fairways have been widened and rough thinned. It’s still a long walk, but the Dunes is starting to mature in the way that a course built 100 years ago would, with its faults ironed out as they are revealed.

Machrihanish Dunes also has anchored a regional redevelopment. Substantial government enterprise funds were made available due to the closure of the nearby RAF base, which had been the area’s largest employer. Southworth acquired and renovated the Ugadale Hotel, across the road from the iconic first tee of the old course, as well as the Old Clubhouse, now a welcoming pub, and the Royal Hotel, which sits next to the harbor in nearby Campbeltown. Ferry service now operates from Ardrossan, on the Ayrshire coast close to Troon and Prestwick, meaning a golf detour to the west has never been so easy.

Farther west, on Islay, the famous Machrie Links is seeing its biggest facelift since being created by Willie Campbell in 1891. After going bankrupt a few years ago, Machrie and the hotel it supports were acquired by Sue Nye, longtime private secretary to ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and her husband Gavyn Davies, a private-equity tycoon, who are investing heavily in both properties.

The hotel and its unattractive chalets will be totally rebuilt, providing 48 bedrooms to an area short on accommodations. Meanwhile, former European Tour pro D.J. Russell is overseeing a major reconstruction of the old links, including installation of its first-ever irrigation system.

Few holes will be untouched. Several entirely new ones are being built, including the 18th, which will be a par five featuring an attention-getting drive over wild ground. Demolishing a huge dune will enable an approach to a green sitting in front of the hotel. This work is controversial. Simon Freeman, who was Machrie’s head greenkeeper for many years before becoming course manager at Machrihanish Dunes, worries that the alterations will improve the course but remove much of what made it unique, principally the huge amount of blindness for which it was renowned. I share that concern, but the new holes are spectacular. It remains to be seen how things will pan out, but I feel certain that Machrie will remain a singular golf experience.

Drive across Islay from Machrie to Port Askaig, take the five-minute ferry ride to the isle of Jura, and enter a different world. Where Islay is relatively flat and fertile, Jura is mountainous and wild, and although it is Scotland’s eighth largest island, it is home to fewer than 200 people.

The island is divided into several large estates, most of which cater to visiting deer hunters. About three years ago, Australian Greg Coffey, a hedge-fund manager, bought the Ardfin estate, which covers most of the southern part of the island, and filed a plan to build a golf course. While the original application said the course would be private, some outside play probably will be allowed as Coffey hopes to achieve his goal of cracking the world’s Top 100.

The site of the Ardfin course, which is being designed by Australian Bob Harrison, former lead architect for Greg Norman, is amazing. Despite sitting by the sea on a remote Scottish island, it will not be another links. In fact, as Simon Freeman put it, “there isn’t a grain of sand on Jura.” The land, a mile and a half of coastline, is a mix of rock and peat bog, hardly the ideal base from which to construct a top course. All materials have to come in by sea to the village of Craighouse, five miles up the road, and be trucked in on a single-track road.

Yet, Ardfin will be worth whatever it takes to build it, and then to get there. With several par threes playing across cliffs with the sea below, it will have among the world’s most dramatic sets of one-shotters. And it will be hard. Scottish golf journalist John Huggan, one of the first outsiders to see the site, says, “It is going to be spectacular, but impossible.” Architect Harrison hopes it will be tolerably playable.

Either way, it will be one more reason for golfers to go west.