New ferries might bolster Machrihanish

The 14th hole at Machrihanish Golf Club.

The 14th hole at Machrihanish Golf Club.

MACHRIHANISH, Scotland – The path to Machrihanish Golf Club is about to get a little easier, and that hopefully will make one of golf's greatest old links more accessible to golf travelers.

A new ferry service will be launched May 23, connecting Ardrossan, a town 15 miles north of Troon, to Campbeltown, the small port city located five miles from Machrihanish on the Kintyre Peninsula, near the southwest tip of Scotland. The ferries will travel across the Firth of Clyde, stopping briefly at the Isle of Arran.

Machrihanish long has suffered from the great product-dubious location quandary. I've visited Machrihanish twice over the past seven years, and each of my rounds there were among the most exhilarating golf experiences I've ever had. Golf architecture buffs might quibble about the design, but the seaside setting and history – Old Tom Morris turned the original course into an 18-hole layout – trump those concerns in my mind. It has never been an Open venue, but it is a bucket-list golf experience.

The issue has been finding a way to get golfers, particularly monied Americans visitors, to the Mull of Kintyre.

Last month I played at Machrihanish with representatives of the North American Golf Tour Operators Alliance (www.nagtoa.com). Their sentiment: The ferry service might help drive traffic to Machrihanish, but it remains a tough sell because of its remote location.

"You get the guy who is not necessarily checking off British Open-type courses, but he's checking off the connoisseur courses," said Graham Spears of Sterling Golf Tours. "Those are Machrihanish, The Machrie (on the island of Islay), (Royal) Dornoch. That's who goes to those courses. It's the same guy who goes to Enniscrone (in northwest Ireland)."

From Glasgow, you're looking at three-plus hours by car to Machrihanish. It's a beautiful drive – it led Paul McCartney, who still owns property near Machrihanish – to write "The Long and Winding Road," which is a lovely tune, but also a literal description of the road. For Americans interested in collecting trophy courses during their infrequent visits, the idea of spending seven or eight hours going to and from Machrihanish – essentially a full day – is unappealing, particularly for gung-ho golfers trying to get as many notches as possible in their travel bags.

The other option to date has been the Kintyre Express, a fleet of small ships that ferry passengers from Troon to Campbeltown. That's a manageable 75-minute commute each way, but tour operators have been reluctant to put their clients on the small boats in choppy seas. I took the Kintyre Express shortly after it launched seven years ago, and wasn't troubled by the bumpy ride. But I can see why tour operators are reluctant to place their clients on it. (One with whom I visited Machrihanish last month dubbed the Express the "vomit comet.")

The larger, more stable car ferries potentially offer a better alternative, though it's a slower ride.

A one-way ferry ride, operated by Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries, will take two hours, 40 minutes each way, with prices ranging from 9.50 pounds ($14.80) for individuals to 58 pounds (about $90) for cars. There is a premium for motorhomes based on weight. The ferries will operate on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays through Sept. 28 – a test run to see how the service is received. The thinking is that tourists could make overnight or weekend trips from places such as Troon or Turnberry on the mainland's Ayrshire Coast.

Short visits to Campbeltown have become more feasible in recent years for two reasons. A second course, Machrihanish Dunes, opened in 2009. (Unfortunately, our group got rained out on the day we were scheduled to play the Dunes. And needless to say, when you get rained out in Scotland, you're talking about something approaching a monsoon.)

In addition, there is four-star-level lodging, thanks to Southworth Development, which did magnificent restorations of The Royal Hotel in Campbeltown and The Ugadale Hotel just across the street from the first tee of Machrihanish Golf Club. Those complement The Ugadale Cottages, which opened in 2009 and were recognized by Golf Tourism Scotland in 2010 as the Hotel of the Year in the Small Hotel/Guest House category. Those accommodations ease the minds of tour operators, who were reluctant to house their clients in older B&Bs in Campbeltown and Machrihanish.

The ferries, upgraded accommodations and second course can only help Machrihanish's cause in the battle for golf tourists. The NAGTOA members were generally impressed by what they saw, but know that it won't be a high-volume business. It also is likely to be hurt by new competition from the Scottish Highlands region.

"Trump (International Golf Links) and Castle Stuart (Golf Links) are going to kill Machrihanish for the moment," said John Murray of Golf Travel Etc. "There's so much to do around (the Scottish Highlands) now."

Murray suggested an alternative ferry strategy that he believes his clients would find more attractive: connecting Northern Ireland to Machrihanish – about 20 miles by boat.

"If they do it onwards to Northern Ireland, then I would sell Machrihanish with Northern Ireland way more than I would with Scotland," Murray said.

That idea held a lot of appeal to some of the other tour operators.

"The only thing that will truly make it a destination for most of our golfers is if they can get transportation both from Northern Ireland and from the mainland of Scotland so that you can go from (Royal) Portrush to Machrihanish to Turnberry easily and accessibly," said John Gosselink of Fore Seasons Golf Tours.

That idea, however, probably is a nonstarter. The Caledonian MacBrayne prices are supported by government subsidies, and Scottish officials would likely balk at sending their tourists across the ocean to Northern Ireland.

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