Islay, the southernmost island in the Inner Hebrides, is probably best known for its whisky production – there are currently eight active distilleries in operation there – but, for golfers, it will always be associated with the iconic Machrie links on Laggan Bay, a course that was originally laid out back in 1891.
Designed by Willie Campbell three years before he left for America to become the first professional at The Country Club in Brookline, the old-fashioned layout was modified by Donald Steel in the 1970s when, in the words of the architect, he made it “more complete, more modern and more challenging”.
Unfortunately, the hotel and golf course then ran into financial difficulties, bringing about a change of ownership in 2011. Ex-BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and his wife Sue Nye, former diary secretary to Gordon Brown when he was British Prime Minister, acquired the business with the aim of rebuilding the hotel and renovating the golf course.
Architect DJ Russell was called in to oversee what amounted to a complete redesign of the layout, ably assisted by course manager Dean Muir (who’d been at Muirfield for 17 years) and construction men Eric and Robert Sammells from Edinburgh Landscapes. A short par three course, driving range, putting green and practice area were also added to enhance the golfing infrastructure.
The refurbished course reopened for play in May 2017 with only seven of the original greens retained in an imaginative new course routing that still weaves wildly in and out of the dunes. Fairways are wider than before, offering a good chance of recovery from poor tee shots or wayward approach shots, and blind shots aren’t entirely eliminated, though there are far fewer to be played now.
The original idea was to
have no bunkers whatsoever on the reincarnated version of the course
but course manager Dean Muir then oversaw the phased introduction of
revetted Ecobunkers. By the end of 2020, this resulted in the
installation of around fifty bunkers, built using double stacks of
astroturf. Bunker faces were also hydroseeded with fescue to soften
the impact of the artificial materials used in construction.
Traditionalists will mourn the loss of the old Machrie and for sentimental reasons that’s understandable. However, the nostalgic attributes of the former course weren’t enough to attract golfers in sufficient numbers and the place was dying on its feet – it might well have perished forever – before a significant level of investment was made to remodel the layout and build new visitor accommodation.
The new Machrie is now geared up to handle visitors long into the future, the 48-bedroomed hotel opened in 2018. Rather than look back with regret at the loss of the old course, golfers who still pine for the old days and the old ways should really be grateful that somebody felt it worth their while reviving an old classic to make it fit for purpose in the modern era.
Getting in and out of Islay when the weather was not so good was a nightmare but very much worth the effort. Superb golf course and wonderful hotel. Would go back any time.
One word to describe this course. IMMACULATE. The hotel and complex was outstanding and before your even teeing off you are having an unreal time. For me the worst hole on the course is the 1st but the second makes up for it with an outstanding par five. Holes 2-9 I actually believe that you would be hard pushed to beat across the UK. The highlight is the 9th which is simply outstanding. The back 9 slows down slightly but still has great holes such as 18. Great hole to try and fight tooth and nail to save your card!!! If any criticism of the course it would be the greens in some places are too fast for the slopes such as 8 with a front pin. Had three putts from the back of the green and ended up down the front of the green every single time. In some parts also the rough is penal and you miss the fairway five yards and can’t find your ball. Again little criticism on what is an proper golf experience. This course really helps the flag for west WEST coast golf and is worth the trip to the beautiful Islay just for this. Final comment is I can’t help but think this should rank higher and is a serious threat for the top 10 of Scotland. A special place.
This course really is very special, on a special island. Some very traditional links holes and I found myself on a lot of tee boxes just standing and taking it in. The greens were in superb condition. Enjoy walking up the 18th with clubhouse balcony just behind tbe green and make sure you stick around before the facilities were very nice.
The trek to the remote island of Islay is well worth the effort if you want to play The Machrie which offers top-class links golf on a modern lay-out. There has apparently been golf played on this land for about 130 years, but it is a complete redesign by D J Russell, completed in 2017, which has raised the quality of the golf course into becoming one of the very best in the British Isles.
The lay-out is a mass of grassy dunes bisected by wide fairways on an undulating site. The bunkers are very strategic but not over-powering (there are too many in my view on many modern-designed courses) whereas if you miss the big fairways, the rough is often penal. The general conditioning of the greens, bunkers and fairways is exceptional, everything is presented to a very high standard.
Two things stand out as to why I consider The Machrie a wonderful place to play the game. Firstly it’s remoteness virtually guarantees ‘millionaire‘s golf’ for you seldom see another playing group and the peace and solitude is awe- inspiring. The second feature I like is the huge variety of the holes over similar-looking terrain, for the course architect has displayed an imagination that seems incredible.
We played on a breezy but dry day, conditions which make links golf so much more enjoyable. It is surely only very good golfers who like strong winds! All the holes are strong, but some merit special attention:
1. The 2nd hole is a magnificent dogleg left requiring a well-placed drive over dunes onto a fairway with a burn running along the left and a some very strategic bunkers on the right. The green offers a bigger landing area than it appears from distance, but once on it there are some difficult putts!
2. The charming 9th which is the shortest hole but a lovely test onto a good-sized green surrounded by dunes and pot bunkers.
3. The short par4s at 7 11 and 17 are an unusual feature because although they are very tricky as you would expect, and can be driven by a top golfer in a favourable wind, you feel the mid-handicapper has a good chance to make par with two well struck shots into testing greens.
4. The sheer beauty of both par5s on the back nine. The 12th has a wide fairway which splits in two for the second shot before offering a gorgeous-looking approach shot into a bowl of a green. The 18th meanwhile finishes right in from of the clubhouse and hotel rooms and is a risk-and-reward hole with obstacles to be overcome. But sound rather than extravagant play can provide a happy finish.
In my view, The Machrie provides an outstanding and fair test of golf. It is an exhilarating place to play and realistically priced for the enthusiast when considering its location. I am sure the travelling golfer will love the experience and surely, like me, plan to return.
Played The Machrie in October 2020. I had never played the original layout so had nothing to compare it to. I thought the course was great. Very wide off the tee, which was most welcome in the 30mph winds we played it in. The greens had lots of good little undulations and could make you look a little silly if you got in the wrong sections. Loved the par 3 9th heading back towards the water. Also thought that 17 was a great little hole as well. The course was in fantastic condition as well, probably the best conditioned course I played in 2020. The whole setup really reminded me of Cabot Links with the hotel overlooking the 18th green and the big windows opening up from the hotel rooms. Would love to go back and play it in better weather than the day we got it!
I see two main reasons to play the Machrie.
First, Islay has many distilleries to visit (nine or ten, according to the Islay Whisky Academy) and one golf course. It should therefore be top of the list for any group looking to combine high-quality whisky tourism with ditto golf.
Second, it is a very good links course and represents a great outing if you are on the island for other reasons. The reopening of the hotel with a spa and an equally ambitious restaurant should also make it attractive to golfers with friends or partners with other interests in life.
I am not so sure, however, that it fits naturally on any multi-course golf tour. We recently looked at fitting the Machrie into a week in Ayrshire in August this year, but decided against it. The majority view was that extra effort would not be worth it. Having now played there, I think it was a correct decision.
I am also not sure it will end up being chosen over other stay-and-play destinations like St Andrews, East Lothian, Southport or Sandwich. A group of golfers looking to play very serious links golf staying in one place for a few days would want a bit more variety than what one course can provide, however well designed.
On the design side, the course clearly has a lot of width of the tee, which makes it playable in virtually all weathers and pleasurable for most categories of golfers, a real plus in my book. I played it twice recently (end of March) in relatively modest one-club winds and found it bordering on easy, just like Ed in his review below. However, I can easily see that slightly higher green speeds would quickly raise the level of difficulty without sacrificing much of the playability. Hopefully that is how the course plays in summer.
Finally, I think a place that plays so much on its history (and talks so much about how the new is better than the old) would want to showcase how its course design and layout changed from the 1890s to now. Other clubs do this well by putting up old course maps on the walls with small explaining texts. Hopefully, the Machrie will follow suit.
Depending on how you define "the region" it is either four or five balls in my book.
Because I’d never played the old course, by all accounts an iconic throwback to dark-age golf but with an almost cult following, I’m not really in a position to compare and contrast with what is there now.
Originally created by Willie Campbell in 1895 there had been a few changes over recent decades but the course still remained a shrine to golf from a past era. Some people are naturally averse to change and I understand are saddened to see the controversial alterations whereas many others are extremely positive about the modernisation of The Machrie citing a major improvement on what was there previously.
Either way; what is done is done. So, I’ll simply treat it as I find it and I must say that overall I was very impressed with the latest version. And time will only improve it further.
From the tee The Machrie is no less than superb. There are some sublime driving holes, many from high vantage points, where repeat plays, and thereby gaining a good knowledge of all the humps and bumps, will only enhance the experience further. There is a pleasing amount of width enabling the course to offer strategic angles into the large greens and visually it is a treat from start to finish.
The way in which the opening hole, a wide-open drive with just the first of many marker posts to take aim at, reveals itself slowly to a glorious backdrop of mountains and the shimmering Laggan Bay immediately calms ones senses at the start of our journey out onto the majestic linksland. And majestic it truly is.
The real strength of the course is undoubtedly the two-shotters. There are some absolute delights and the variety of type and length is particularly good; no two holes feel even remotely the same. There are a couple of shorter ones which really tempt you (the 7th, 11th and perhaps to a lesser extent the thrilling 17th) whilst brutes such as the 472-yard 10th, 456-yard 13th and 444-yard 16th are likely to reclaim any gains made elsewhere on the scorecard.
My main (minor) irk with the course is that I would have liked to have seen a few more daring and dangerous approach shots, especially on some of the medium and shorter par fours. There are many wonderfully natural green sites which are sympathetic to their surroundings but these mostly come at the longer holes where one is likely to be approaching with a straighter faced club and they do require the wider, gentler run-offs that we find around most greens.
At some of the other holes there just wasn’t enough jeopardy on the second shots for my personal taste. I’m all for the lack of long grass around the greens but most often it didn’t really matter if you missed left or right, long or short as the consequence was similar. The knock-on effect to this is that there were few really exciting recovery shots around the greens. The glorious exception to this rule is at the par-three 14th where all kinds of fun can be had down the right-side of this fine one-shotter which simply gets better and better as you walk towards the green.
I’m probably being a little harsh on stellar holes such as the 8th, 11th and 17th which do provide more endangerment but overall I would just have liked to have seen more peril around the greens; bolder drop-offs, a side not to miss on - especially with the absence of greenside bunkering. At times it just felt that after so many exciting and high quality drives the course was occasionally left wanting, albeit slightly, with some of the approach shots. As I said this is only a slight gripe - I’m probably being over-picky - but this is what probably makes The Machrie only excellent instead of great in my eyes.
That said, the contouring on the actual greens is wonderful. They are large, sweeping and contain an innumerable amount of breaks, swales, hollows and slopes. Each one has multiple pin locations which could change the dynamic of the hole in a instant.
From first viewing the new links certainly does a grand job of balancing a contemporary layout with elements of quirk and curiosity. As detailed I’d personally like to have seen a few more risks taken at some of the green complexes but I appreciate my slightly narcissistic view may not be for the greater good of golf at The Machrie long term.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Golf Monthly, noooooo ! How can the Machrie not be in your top 100 ? (Especially when the Belfry, Trevose, Staunton West and Tandridge are included) (I should say that all of these named are really good tracks - except the Belfry). This is a wonderful golf course on a brilliant site. It does have a new feel to it (understandably) and it that respect can be likened to a mini Trump Aberdeen. The lack of many bunkers is quirky and the large greens is some cases seem out of place. In saying that, the routing is outstanding with memorable hole after memorable hole. The best hole is the world class par 4, 13th (tough and beautiful). I was lucky enough to play today in sublime weather and play "millionaires" golf as only saw one other group on the course). I truly hope golfers make the pilgrimage to play the course so the renovation and investment is worthwhile. The views at the back of the 2nd and 4th holes, from the red and white marker post on the 5th fairway and from the 12th tee are worth the green fee alone. This is a golf course to experience and I urge golfers to make the trip to play it.
We ‘The Bogeymen’ hadn’t been over to Islay for two years during the re-vamp of The Machrie. We are a mixture of low and high handicap golfers who have Toured together over the last 30 years and visited Islay on a regular basis.
What an improvement course designer DJ Russell has made - almost unrecognisable.
ALL the new holes are sympathetically sculpted fitting into the landscape beautifully - so much so at the furthest point, the 11th, you are surrounded by a vast expanse of Peat moorland evoking a wonderful sense of isolation / exposure. In contrast the stretch along the shore is awesome. I challenge anyone not to be distracted enough to take a photo of the breakers rolling into the vast expanse of sandy beach before teeing off on the 6th or 7th
The Greens were superb for the time of year. They are now large with steps and undulations that will test the best putters having the potential to be very slick come the Summer.
A very fair course which suited and appealed to our eclectic mix of handicaps. The transformation is fabulous and unrecognisable. From the white or yellow tees, wider more forgiving fairways still challenge your accuracy off the tee without intimidating. However from the black tees I would imagine The Machrie will bare it’s teeth.
On Islay it is a rarity that the elements will not influence your round and Russell’s design clearly takes this into consideration as there are no monster par 4’s or 5’s from the yellow / white tees. The prevailing wind and the natural terrain strongly influences the course’s defences, disproving that a plethora of ‘pot bunkers’ are integral to a good links course.
To score well, the course and weather demands that you have a variety of shots in your locker especially with the shorter irons. The large undulating firm greens mean that each round you play is a learning experience, having an imagination around them will pay dividends.
‘Enjoyable’ would be the word to describe The Machrie, which is not always the word that describe most links courses. Not a ‘slog’ at 5953 yards from the white tees and even in windy conditions I never felt absolutely spent after the round.
The old course was a quirky, holiday course which could be described as a Marmite golfing experience.
The ‘New’ Machrie golfing experience is a Triumph, a holiday links course with attitude, which I am sure most will look forward to playing again and again.
Once the new hotel / clubhouse is completed this will soon become a must play course on most golfer’s tick list.
My only caveat is the green fees at £65 and I am told £90 in the Summer they may price themselves outside most groups budgets. They must remember the The Machrie is a destination course.
Played 14th to 16th April. Angus Cameron
I have been fortunate enough to play the Machrie just before the major renovations and then again just after, so I feel I have gained a good perspective to comment on the old and new layouts. Whilst I sympathize with those who long for the days of the quirky old design which was undoubtedly a fun and thrilling round. To reiterate others, there is a reason that significant changes and investment was needed into the course, it is simply unfeasible to run a course of such an eccentric nature in a remote area without making it more appealing to the general market.
To those reviews who make out that the new changes, whilst significant, have taken away the character of the course, I would have to disagree. I would argue that the new lay out maintains some of best bits of old design and reduces some of their more mundane aspects to create an equally enjoyable but more balanced course. Some of my favourite aspects that have been maintained are the sweeping par 5 second that has been lengthened into a great risk reward hole with the river coming further into play with the second shot. Further I'm very glad they have largely maintained the par 4 5th, which is simply one of my favourite par 4's in Scottish golf.
Out of the new aspects I thought the blind driveable par 7th and deep hollow before the 8th green were fine nuances that kept alive the spirit of the old layout. Furthermore the new par 3 9th is much stronger than the old 10th, whilst I liked the split fairway of the par 5th 12th. Finally, I was disappointed that they removed the old blind 17th which is very reminiscent of the 17th at old Prestwick however, they have replaced it with a new blind approach from a different angle to the original green, a challenge that befits the old design but which is much more playable for your average golfer. Once the hotel is finished, it will be a brilliant backdrop to the new par 5 18th.
I have to note when I played the new layout there were still no bunkers in place, which I didn't even notice as there are still plenty of difficulties, but I believe this can only improve the course design. Overall, I can only applaud the work on the course and thank the investment which will hopefully see the course and island thrive for years to come. For those that have not managed to get a trip across, I can't recommend it enough, one of the special places for golf (and whiskey) that you don't forget in a hurry!
Michael from Belfast