Machrihanish Golf Club was founded in 1876. Charles Hunter of Prestwick laid out the original 12 holes. Old Tom Morris was called in to expand the links to 18 holes in 1879, after the club obtained additional linksland west of the Machrihanish River. Famously, Old Tom is said to have proclaimed (adjusted for modern day English) that the links “had been specially designed by the Almighty for playing golf.” It’s hard to argue with the great man’s assessment.
The course began its initial run of popularity in the early 1900s when the Campbeltown and Machrihanish Light Railway opened in August 1906. The railway was an extension of the old coal mine railway from Drumlemble. It was intended to carry the large number of holiday passengers traveling to Campbeltown from the Glasgow area, via paddle steamer. The rail line ran from the Campbeltown Pier to the old Pans Hotel and 1st tee of Machrihanish Golf Club. Within three weeks of opening, over 10,000 passengers had used the rail service. It was successful for many years, with interruptions caused only by World War I.
I had first visited Machrihanish with my dad on that memorable trip in 1994. A day ticket was only £18. Ken Campbell, the longtime pro, allowed us to go out as much as we wanted. We stayed at Ardell House with David Baxter for almost a week, playing golf until we were worn out, followed by dinner in the simple, unassuming clubhouse. The large bay windows in the dark, wood-paneled bar featured the sunset over the Atlantic on a nightly basis.
Open competitions in Scotland are just that: open to anyone with an established handicap willing to pay the nominal entry fee. They are a great, affordable way for golfers to experience different courses around the country. We were paired with Peter and Graham from Balmore Golf Club, north of Glasgow. It was their first trip to Machrihanish and they were
excited to be here. “We try to play in two or three of these Opens a year. It’s such a great way to see the country and meet people,” said Graham, who was wearing a light blue Jacksonville Jaguars cap. He explained, “I just love American football.”
With seemingly the entire west coast of Scotland watching us tee off, I proceeded to pull-hook my drive onto Machrihanish Beach—narrowly missing a hand-holding couple out for a Saturday afternoon stroll with their dog. “Unlucky, Jim. You’ll get it there. I can see it,” Robbie said sympathetically. He then proceeded to hit a low draw that ran for 75 yards down the left
centre of the fairway. I had a decent lie of the beach, just far enough away from some large boulders. A surprisingly well struck 7 iron got me back in the fairway, and I salvaged a bogey—a net par for the team with my handicap. The opening hole at Machrihanish gets all the attention, but the essence of this ethereal links, for me, is the stretch of holes from the 3rd to the 8th. It’s one of the most memorable runs of true links holes in golf.
Thankfully I played reasonable golf, helping Robbie on several holes. I had wanted to play well for my friend at his beloved links. At the long par-five 12th, I made a 25-foot putt for birdie: a net eagle with my stroke. Robbie, not normally given to displays of emotion on the course, gave me a fist bump. “That’s the Jim Hartsell I remember,” he said with a smile.
We walked along briskly for the last few holes. Dark clouds had rolled in, and the wind suddenly intensified. “It’s going to rain in about an hour,” Robbie said with assured certainty. There was an effortless, ongoing conversation with playing partners Peter and Graham. Where else but golf can you become friends with someone after just three or four hours together? We shook hands on the 18th and signed our scorecards. I put my arm around Robbie briefly. “Thanks for the game,” I said. “No bother, Jim. You played well today.” We weren’t going to win the McKinven & Colville Better Ball Open, but we played solid golf. That meant more to me than I cared to admit.
Many of my happiest days had been spent in this special place—so many rounds over the years that I had played with my Dad, Jake, Charles, Chris, and Robbie. I thought about the wonderful long evenings over dinner in the old clubhouse. I remembered the kindness that Mr. Baxter had shown to all of us. The title for my first book, The Secret Home of Golf, was inspired by this hidden mecca. The following is an excerpt from the poem, “Machrihanish,” written by unknown author in 1883:
"When round the social board we meet, For golfers a’ are clannish, We pass the night in mirth and glee, In the inn at Machrihanish. Then golfers a’ tak’ my advice, If care you want to banish, Tak’ up you clubs, an’ wi’ a friend Set off from Machrihanish."
Words by Jim Hartsell from his book 'When Revelation Comes'
Photography by Graeme Mccubbin
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