Thursday, August 14, 2008

Machrihanish - The Best Opening Hole in Golf

In the summer of 1995 our group was playing links courses in the north of Scotland. After finishing one of our rounds, our leader Don Kennington became engaged in a clubhouse conversation with a local Scottish golfer. The old Scot quizzed Don about which courses our group had played. After rattling off a lengthy list of our past played courses Don paused and the old Scot with a glint in his eye snapped back, “but have ye played Mach..riiii..haaanish”? Don had to admit that he had not yet played the course with this strangely pronounced name. Not to be outdone, Don returned home and planned our next year’s itinerary to include this great links course located in Campbeltown at the south end of the Mull of Kintyre.

Getting to Machrihanish is not easy. The Mull of Kintyre is a Florida like projection that hangs off the west coast of Scotland. The easiest way to access this isolated links course is to catch a short hop flight that embarks from Glasgow airport once or twice a day. Another access is by ferry either from the mainland or from Northern Ireland at select times of the year. The third way to reach Campbeltown is to take a three hour car or bus ride up the west coast mainline through a mountain pass and then back south down the Mull to Campbeltown. As our travel mode was a Scot driven chartered bus, Don chose the long route to Machrihanish. Our trip that next year was uneventful until we entered the mountain pass that contained numerous ringed hairpin turns. Our coach driver’s name was Alex. Alex was from the region of Scotland where residents speak with a deep guttural toned accent. It was difficult to make out exactly what Alex had to say.

As our bus entered one extreme hairpin turn Alex downshifted his transmission to slow the bus for the oncoming maneuver. As I was sitting in the front seat across the aisle from Alex I could tell from his reaction that something was wrong. I could see Alex frantically pumping the gear shift lever forward and backward trying to get it to engage. All efforts failed and our bus came to rest in the middle of this narrow mountain road just short of a blind hairpin turn. Alex opened the door and a couple of our group bounded out to begin directing traffic that was coming from both directions. I approached Alex and asked what was wrong. He grabbed the gear shift lever and showed me that it was freely moving back and forth. It obviously had become disengaged from its connection linkage to the transmission. A flashback memory from my old days of driving a company owned dump truck told me that a shear pin in the fork connection at the transmission had done its job. It had sheared to prevent damage to the transmission when a jam occurred.

Alex sat totally dumbfounded as what to do. This was in the days before cell phones and we had no means of communicating with the bus company repair shop. I asked Alex where the access was to the transmission box. He pointed to the rear of the bus and we headed in that direction. Alex peeled back the rubber floor cover which revealed the trap door access to the transmission. An opening of the door revealed immediately that indeed a pin had been sheared in the linkage. I asked Alex if he had a coat hanger or other wire in the bus. Someone produced one and a temporary shear pin replacement was quickly fashioned. A few twists of the wire and we were back in business. Alex gave me a big smile. I smiled too as I thought back on the old dump truck. I’m just glad that it was the shear pin that failed and not an engine fire that I once had to extinguish on the old clunker using my best multicolored suede leather jacket.

Machrihanish was worth the effort we made to reach it. It is a classic links course whose motto boasts “the best opening hole in golf”. The opening hole drive must cross over an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, a challenging first shot that is not for the faint of heart. Their website touts Machrihanish as a quiet place to play a great links course. That is not what I remember. The day we played the RAF practiced touch and go landings and takeoffs with fighter jets just a short distance away. This was a WW2 American base that was officially handed over to the Brits in 1995. Although a bit short at 6400 yards from the back tees (only two par five holes) Machrihanish is nevertheless a great links course which takes its name from the “machair”, the name given for the land that lies between the sand hills created by sea storms and the wet moor lands that lie further inland. It is in the machair and the sand hills that true links style golf courses are constructed. The long stemmed marram grasses found on the sand hills of links courses serve to stabilize the sand in stormy weather. Maintaining the fragile environment of links courses has caused many courses to build basketed rock walls to guard against erosion.

It is the fragile nature of such sand hill environments that has caused approval of golf course construction in them to be a thing of the past. The new links style courses are now artificially constructed but can be wonderful counterfeits, Kingsbarns down the coast from St Andrews being a great example.

Machrihanish, “the best opening hole in golf”!

Following is a great video I found for Machrihanish on YouTube that was posted by another golfer. I hope you enjoy it.

-The Secretary

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