The Emergence of Scotland’s Next Golf Destination

14th hole from the tees with the village Machrihanish in background, Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club

by Ru Macdonald, 2013 Golf Scotland Young Person of the Year

14th hole from the tees with the village Machrihanish in background, Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club
14th hole from the tees with the village Machrihanish in background, Machrihanish Dunes Golf Club – Source: Southworth Developments

It’s been fascinating to watch the growth of Scottish golf tourism around the modern developments of Kingsbarns, Castle Stuart, Trump International and The Renaissance Club. Inward investment is clearly helping generate inbound tourism to these courses and the established golf courses in their vicinity. Each region already had great links golf options but such developments helped create destinations ensuring prolonged regional stays. Take the Highlands for example. Golf purists traditionally made the trip to Royal Dornoch, maybe passing Nairn, but rarely stop for breath. Now instead they would include a round at Royal Dornoch on the same itinerary as a round on the Ailsa Course at Turnberry and the Championship Course at Carnoustie. It would be a mad dash and before you knew it the visiting golfer had played all of Scotland’s Open rota courses and completed their Scotland bucket-list in a week. What reason was there for them to return?

That was until some bright spark at Visit Scotland began researching the benefits of destination marketing. Now Scotland actively markets different regions of the country. St Andrews (Fife), East Lothian, The Highlands, Carnoustie, Aberdeen and Ayrshire each offer the golfing visitor a blend of new, old and yet discovered links golf experiences. As the respective regions mature and those in the industry become accustomed to selling Scottish golf as an experience best enjoyed with a loyalty card rather than a sweat band, I’m on the look out for the next region to again shift the balance.

I present you Scotland’s rugged and raw Western Isles and 5 reasons why I believe it will mature into a major golf destination in the years to come.

1. World Class Links Golf

Mandatory to any successful golf destination is a good golf offering and fortunately the Western Isles has some of the best. Askernish is a fascinating story of a course lost to nature, only to be rediscovered 10 years ago. You can only try and imagine how the great Tom Morris navigated his way to South Uist when he laid the course out in one visit back in 1891. Then there is Machrihanish, located on the Kintyre Peninsula and home to Machrihanish Golf Club and Machrihanish Dunes. Both courses, while created 100 years apart, offer visiting golfers links golf at it’s most enjoyable. While not an island the remote setting and vistas quickly have you forgetting that you’re only a twisting three hour drive from Glasgow. Finally the rugged linksland of Machrie has always had a reputation as a true test of links golf, home to perhaps the largest number of blind shots anywhere in Scotland.

2. Investment

You look at where the money is moving and at present, it’s west. First to take the plunge was U.S. based Southworth Developments who invested £60 million into Machrihanish Dunes. In partnership with the national environmental agency they helped create the first golf course in Scotland built on a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and along with their time share and lodgings are seeing a growing rise in visitors from around the world. Also on the mainland and in the south east of Scotland is Donald Trump’s latest Scottish venture, Turnberry. The substantial investment reported to be as much as £100m will see the iconic Open Championship venue finally get a much needed facelift. Plans to close at the end of this season will allow the major refurbishment of the Ailsa Course and hotel to begin this autumn. Equally as intriguing is the current multi-million pound refurbishment of Machrie Golf Hotel and links on Islay after it’s acquisition by former BBC chairman Gavyn Davies.

3. Golf Authenticity Sells

The visitor typically falls in love with Scotland’s unique golf culture. Whether that be in the form of the public roaming the links late into the evening or the friendly welcome and cold pint with a local, it’s golf as many haven’t seen before. That said, things are changing. The aforementioned modern resorts, while packed full of economic benefits, appear to be having a detrimental social impact. With truly world class golf and lodging options such resorts are slowly extracting any form of the authentic experience away from the travelling golfer. The affluent visitor pays a premium to stay onsite in a sanitized environment detached from Scotland’s golf culture. So while the migration towards new resorts continues, the appetite and opportunities for an authentic Scottish golf experience may well lie elsewhere.

4. Home of Whisky

Very much in vogue, the Scottish whisky industry continues to grow astronomically thanks to the emergence of rising middle class export markets such as Asia and Brazil. As St Andrews is to golf, the Isle of Islay is to Whisky. Home to 12 distilleries the island of less than 4,000 inhabitants remains a Mecca for whisky enthusiasts the world over. As the Scottish golf destinations compete for a competitive advantage the lure of one of Scotland’s largest exports is sure to catch the attention of many.

5. Predicted Rise in Disengaged Travel Experiences

Ask yourself this. As you work, relax and even sleep are you ever more than arm’s length away from your phone? The consumer is fixated by connectivity to a point where he or she can’t physically or mentally disengage. A growing trend in the travel and tourism industry, the consumer is being encouraged to embrace their travel experience fully without checking emails, Facebook likes or news stories. A sort of phone/iPad amnesty. Nothing can be more detached than casting yourself on a remote Scottish island and playing golf for a week. That said, a complete ban on WiFi, social sharing and correspondence with the outside world would be nonsensical but all in moderation. The sense of adventure and disengagement is an impactful experience money can’t buy.

Such advances in technology in recent years has allowed golf on the Western Isles to foster into a more much plausible proposition. Logistically, island hopping can be made more affordable, readily available and packaged in a way that it could never have been when Scotland golf vacations became popular in the 1980s and 90s. It’s the right time and the right place.

So familiarize yourselves with the names of Machrihanish, Askernish and Machrie, the backbone of Scotland’s next great golf destination.

About Ru Macdonald

I host a weekly podcast (The Scottish Golf Podcast web page) for golfers aspirational about golf travel to Scotland. Hear from leading personalities in the golf industry such as Geoff Shackelford or Matt Ginella or from the avid amateur as they share their recent Scottish golf experience.Subscribe here.