Essence of the game
MACHRIHANISH,SCOTLAND – APRIL 8: General View of the 1st hole ‘Battery’ at Machrihanish Golf Club, 8 April 2004 in Machrihanish,Argyll,Scotland. (Photo by Richard Martin-Roberts/Getty Images)

The Essence of the Game

Playing hidden gems in Scotland reminded the author of the many pleasures that golf provides 

By Michael Bamberger
July 31, 2022

MACHRIHANISH, Scotland — I was playing the old and rugged course here the other day, with its sing-song name that looks harder to pronounce than it is, in this remote and windblown nook of this remote and windblown country. My playing partner was a local, a retired roofer named Tommy Blue, who has lived in these parts all his life and has played Machrihanish for most of it. The course features a thrilling opening tee shot, in which you carry as much beach and dune as you feel you can handle (above). The club’s logo is an oystercatcher, a black wading bird with a white belly and a long orange beak. As it happened, Tommy’s tee was bright orange and plastic and almost impossible to break or lose. So tee, not tees.

“Who’s the most famous golfer you’ve seen here?” I asked.

Don’t lose your haggis: We were in Tommy’s buggy. Yes, an electric cart, here on this swath of ancient linksland, my wee and underpopulated golf bag attached to its hind quarter by the familiar strap every American golfer knows. You could smell the cow-dung fertilizer in the wind coming off nearby farm fields. There were warning signs instructing golfers and beachgoers not to touch the dead birds that had been mysteriously washing up on the shoreline. Neither condition was anything like typical, I should note. Also, we were playing links golf in a good breeze, bathed in sunshine, with the Irish Sea in plain view.

We were having a good time.

Tommy couldn’t think of a single famous golfer who had played the course. Paul McCartney has a farm in Machrihanish and Tommy has met him, both as a roofer and a musician. (As a teenager, Tommy played bass drum when McCartney recorded a song on his farm, backed by locals, called “Mull of Kintyre.”) But McCartney has never been a golfer. Then an answer came to Tommy, a decidedly appropriate name in these times in which we live.

“Aye, Greg Norman did come here once,” Tommy said. We are both 62, and his music is my music, and his golf icons are my golf icons. “He came in on a helicopter. My brother watched him play the last three holes. He came, he played, he was off.”

Greg Norman, your LIV commissioner! You can’t escape him, even on this remote peninsula, the Mull of Kintyre, in southwestern Scotland. At some point on the course, the conversation would turn to LIV. On the clubhouse TV here, tuned to Sky Sports, there’s a passing reference to LIV. In the papers, the same. Ian Poulter this, Henrik Stenson that. Plus Norman, Norman, Norman, the Aussie who won the British Open twice, once in England, at the notorious RSG, and once on the west coast of Scotland, at the course now called Trump Turnberry. Even the people here have heard what the R&A bosses have been saying behind their heavy brick walls: As long as the Trump name is on the course, the Open is not going back there.

By the way, there’s a well-regarded course in Ireland designed by Norman and now called Trump International Doonbeg. Donald Trump has a course in Aberdeen, Scotland, as well. I visited the land there years ago, when the course was under design, through towering dunes. I told a fellow that Trump had told me the dunes were called the Great Dunes of Aberdeen. The man was confused. He had never heard that. What, I asked, do you call them? “The dunes,” he replied.

It’s a new sport, to sing Norman’s praises these days, at least in certain circles. Trump, Phil Mickelson and Charlie Howell are in that chorus, along with various members of the House of Saud. Quick question for CH3, one of the more engaging people to play the PGA Tour over the past 20 years, and I am borrowing this query from a friend: What tour does your son, the good junior player you’ve been speaking of, dream of playing when he grows up?

Of course, there’s another chorus too, filled with detractors, some who are discreet about it (Fred Ridley, Jay Monahan), others who are not (Brandel Chamblee, Eamon Lynch).

Well, let me say this in defense of Norman: He has excellent taste in golf courses. Golf Magazine once asked him to rank his 10 favorite courses. He put Machrihanish eighth on his list.

But the point here is that, in this summer of golf’s discontent, the upheaval over the “rebel golf league” (per London’s Daily Telegraph) has washed up on the shores here, along with the dead birds. And influenced nothing. Because I have news for all of professional golf: You are a Weight Watchers slice of the world’s golf pie. The draw of the game is the game. The game! This difficult cross-country game that has never been a mainstream sport and never will be. But the game is so great that the course here, expanded to 18 holes by the senior Tom Morris in 1879, has hung on through hard times and good ones, in sickness and in health. Machrihanish — MACH-rah-HON-ish, with a gentle guttural ch, like the proper pronunciation of J.S. Bach—is a sliver within the niche.

It would be too rugged for some visitors. It has no driving range, no cart culture—Tommy (below) has a bad foot—no fancy hotel, no caddie program, no dramatic closing hole. But the land tumbles and heaves, the wind changes from day to day, and if you’re not allowing for it on every shot, you’re not really playing golf.

I’ve been on a wee golfing bender here, and if you’ll indulge me, let me share this observation. Bobby Jones famously said, “You may take from me that there are two types of golf. There is golf — and tournament golf. And they are not at all the same thing.” That’s from Down the Fairway. Yes, one of the greatest golfers ever was also one of the game’s best writers.

I played in a one-round, stroke-play event down the road from here the other day, at Dunaverty, a fabulous and challenging par-66 course that is three feet short of 4,800 yards. We played in a wind that was approaching stiff. I wore a ski hat for most of the day. My goal was to play the round with one ball, and by 14, still with my first ball, the pressure of it all was starting to wear on me. I kept it in play right through the bottom of the 18th hole, a 300-yarder, into the wind. Solid drive. Punch 8-iron. Made a 15-footer for my only 3 of the day.

I can’t imagine doing that for three more days, in the wind, with a 36-hole cut. The mental pressure of true tournament golf, as Cam Smith and Cameron Young and Tiger Woods and Max Homa and Rory McIlroy played it at the Old Course in mid-July, is, assuming you play well enough to get to the weekend, more than we can imagine. But Jones knew all about it. A 54-hole event, with no cut and 48 players on a soft course, is just a different thing for the best players in the world. The LIV people can call it tournament golf, but it seems like something else to me. Stroke play is not the everyday game at Dunaverty or Machrihanish or anywhere real Scots play the game they invented. Golf is about earning everything you get from the game, and I’m not talking about money. The LIV thing is not the Calvinist Scottish game. It seems to me like it’s money for nothing. That’s OK if you’re into that sort of thing. To me, it’s not golf. It’s a show. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for me, golf is not a show.

As it happens, all my golf here has been with Scots. You almost wouldn’t play here without having some sort of simple match. It’s the match that makes the course come alive, along with the wind and the devil and the angel in your head, as you stand over a ball, caring about what you do.

My point to Bob Jones, honorary citizen of St. Andrews in perpetuity, is this: All golf is tournament golf when you’re out there not just for the walk or the fresh air or the camaraderie, but also for the game. The game! Not the riches golf can bring its most elite players, but the deep, deep pleasures it brings the rest of us. Your game, your match, your plan to hit a punch-hook 4-iron off a wee hanging lie into a slice wind and to a back-left pin. And now that ball is off the face, and what will happen next no commentator could possibly say. Golf is the unknown and the unknowable. And still we soldier on.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com

Essence of the game
Photo credit: Jennie Dunn, Head Golf Professional at Machrihanish

12 thoughts on “The Essence of the Game”

  1. Great piece as usual. Sums it up. The dead birds unfortunately is a result of the devastating Avian Flu which is wiping out whole colonies of seabirds up north.

  2. Richard Parker

    great piece and love the photo…thanks! My regular Sunday morning partner in Philadelphia during the 90’s told me about Machrihanish, and this article captures what he said. I do take issue with the expansive interpretation of Bobby Jones. By “tournament golf” I believe he was referring to the very specific test a national or “open” championship provided, as well as other serious events conducted by legitimate governing bodies. It could be match play, like the recent US Junior Amateur or many of Jones’ majors, or medal play, as in the 72 hole (no music, shotguns or power-ranger teams) professional tournaments around the world. This is reserved for the elite players who can qualify. I would argue that one’s club championship, member guest events, etc are not what Bobby Jones was referring to by “tournament golf.” I would call what you did at Machrihanish as “real golf,” and yes, for the love of the game, the best variety!

    Of course LIV golf is neither “real golf” or “tournament golf,” It is exhibition golf. I have a lot of interest in watching “tournament golf” because of the very specific criteria for the competition. I have no interest in exhibition golf, although if Joe Kirkwood Sr. was still alive I would go to see him! Now that LIV has joined forced with trump, this exhibition series sets a new mark for lowest common denominator. Long live real golf and tournament golf…LIV, not so much. I hope that it DIES.

  3. Mark Chatfield

    Excellent exposition on links golf, real golf played on rough, firm & fast ground whipped by winds!

    We want to plan a long trip throughout Scotland, Ireland and England…hoping for a long summer in places like Machrihanish and especially Dunaverty! When planning the trip I’ll be searching for sources like their website where they list ” Affiliated Member Clubs Half Price – Ballycastle GC, Brodick GC, Carradale GC, Dalmally GC, Glencruitten GC, Lochgilphead GC, Machrihanish GC, Inveraray GC, Tarbert GC, and Shiskine GC.” Looking for places where real golf is played.

  4. Gregg Thompson

    Enjoyed this piece so much, you always manage to capture the “essence of the game” which has zero to do with money. Just this weekend drafted an itinerary that ends with Shiskine, Machrihanish & Dunaverty. Was in 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 for the second time the last 2 weeks in May, another magical trip especially on The Old Course, Cruden Bay, Elie & Anstruther. Your To The Linksland was reread before the trip & always inspiring! Cheers,
    Gregg
    IG: the_pond_is_good_for_you

  5. My Dad and I made the trek out to play Machrihanish 20+ years ago based entirely off one chapter of To The Linksland. A fantastic course–and day–I’ll never forget.

  6. Great article – as usual. I played Machrihanish a couple of times during a fabulous week in nearby Campbeltown a few summers ago with a friend who was spending his summer there on a sabbatical leave. I saw but didn’t play Dunaverty. My friend just loved it.

  7. I presume they have resurrected your quote which was prominently displayed above the clubhouse bar before the clubhouse burned down.
    Been there done that twice coming from NZ which is a long way but worth it. Also took some great shots of Dunaverty. Must do it next time round.
    A bit surprised you didn’t (or did I miss it) mention Machrihanish Dunes which I thought was a very good example of a Scottish style course and must be played since it’s so close and can easily be combined with Machrihanish in one day given how long the light lasts on a Scottish summer evening.

  8. Michael, you are so right. What Norman and his minions are promoting is not golf, not my kind anyway. And your love of Machrihanish is shared by any real golfer that makes the trek to Kintyre. My bro and I are headed back there for the third time in a few weeks. Links golf is so much more than golf here in the states. Few golfers who never venture onto the links will ever understand that. Machrihanish teases and entices you, Mach Dunes wows you…and Dunaverty feeds my soul. Keep it up,,, your pieces are a welcome break from all that is happening in golf.

  9. After our first trip to Scotland this spring, I can say apply Bobby’s comparison in this way. This way – there is golf and there is links golf and they are not at all the same thing. Old Musselburgh, Anstruther, Covesea, Portmahomack, Reay, Durness, The Old Course are a separate, thrilling, brilliant world.

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