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.
Quite simply one of the best courses I have played very much worth the effort to get to the complex, the staff were brilliant thank you for our brilliant day
I likely would have liked the “original” Willie Campbell version of The Machrie although perhaps not after the changes made by Donald Steel. I read the one review where the reviewer stated that the changes made to the course was a travesty whereas an architecturally significant golf museum was destroyed. Bob Harrison, a very good designer had the original Machrie in his top five courses in the UK.
The original course is very different to The Machrie that exists today. The previous course was less than 6300 yards, had narrow fairways, smaller greens, often had the holes playing across the dunes rather than between them which resulted in its most unique characteristic of seventeen blind shots. Many of the tee shots were from lower or level ground to the hole.
No course that I am aware of ever had seventeen blind shots on the course such as Prestwick, Royal County Down, Lahinch Old, or Royal St. George’s. As such it would have been an architecturally significant course much like Astoria on the west coast or Oregon with it section of “half-pipe” holes or the course at Yale which might have the best version of Seth Raynior and Charles Blair Macdonald’s template holes.
But even the three courses mentioned above have eliminated many of their blind shots due to fairness and playability. Golf is often a guessing game with a player having to likely battle wind or rain. Combined with one perhaps battling their own mental fragility as to what game shows up for them on the day, then seventeen blind shots is too much.
As I said, I likely would have enjoyed playing the original Machrie. But would I have enjoyed it more and more each time I played it as a member? Probably not. Instead, I might have enjoyed it by playing it twice every two-five years. Perhaps that is a major reason the club fell out of favor and had to be rescued.
The course has been brought back to life. Architect D J Russell and the team of Dean Muir have built a golf course that is both fun for visitors as well as a championship layout. In my opinion, that is one factor that separates an average course from a good course. The Machrie is a good course.
I was able to twice play The Machrie. I had played my final round at Ardfin in the morning and our first round at The Machrie was scheduled for the afternoon. Yet my friend and I walked off after hitting our tee shots on one due to the rain and high wind. As I sat in the restaurant looking at the course, I saw the rain drop and the wind lessen, so 50 minutes later I went back out as a single. I was rewarded with a course that was deserted, having only to go through one foursome on the fourteenth hole, luckily a par 3. Unfortunately I did rush my tee shot to get through and suffered one of my two double bogies on the round with the previous double bogie on the hole before as I rushed a bit to catch them. Overall, I was rewarded with a round that I played walking with a trolley in 1:45. While it never stopped raining and the wind was always a factor, I liked the course and went to bed with anticipation of another look at it.
The next morning we had the first tee time at 6:50 and my friend and I spent some time discussing the course as we played. A breakfast was also brought out for us. We played in 2:45 which was perfect as it started to drizzle as we hit our final putts on eighteen. We played in stronger wind then the day before, but it was dry.
This is a course that I would like more each time I played it. It is a course I highly recommend that golfers go to play, and not simply to play one round. The small hotel has very nice rooms, a fitness center, a lovely lobby, a very juice bar and restaurant (although no one sat outside - haha), and a well stocked pro shop. I highly recommend staying here, playing at least two rounds and then adding a visit to one of the distilleries on the island. One is missing out if they only play The Machrie once.
The course now features wide fairways and perhaps only five blind shots, although a bit more if one gets out of position and has to go over a “side” dune to a green. Most of the greens are large. Many of the tees have been elevated to give the golfer a wonderful view of the tee and the abi,it’s to determine where to try to land one’s ball, factoring in the strength and direction of the wind. The course has been lengthened to 7024 yards with the biggest differential on the twelfth, where a par 5 is nearly 90 yards longer from the Black tees and the fifth which is 50 yards longer. We played the blue tees at 6400 yards. The course is a par 72 rated 74.2/136 and 71.8/126.
The two most defining characteristics of the course include the wonderful variety of lengths in the par 4 influenced not only by the yardage but the terrain that the hole lays upon. While many holes are similar in length, they do not play the same due to either a fall in the land or a rise or dunes influencing a target line. The second characteristic of the course are the well shaped greens. They are some of the best greens I have played in the UK or Ireland. The size matches the length of the hole. They have good undulations, mounds, depressions, and slope. There are greens of all sorts here with perhaps the best being on the fourteenth and sixteenth holes.
The course now has approximately 50 bunkers. I thought the number to be appropriate although some I thought should have been moved slightly closer to a green. There were only a few times I thought another bunker would have been appropriate.
The opener is a mid-length par 4 which in our first attempt felt like a par 5 due to the brisk wind and heavy rain. It plays to a wide fairway and a large green which sits below much of the fairway. As the hole turns to the right there are mounds of all sizes and small valleys on either side of the fairway as you near the green. It is a good starting hole.
The second plays from an elevated tee on this par 5 to basically a double fairway shared with the fourth. There are three pot bunkers right placed at the bottom of a small hill as the fairway turns left. After the bunkers is a rise in the fairway only on the right side. This is where I thought that the third bunker should have been placed on that rise. Going down the entirety of the left side is a wide burn with fenced in pasture land to the left of the burn. The fairway and green are flattish with no bunkers at the green and an obvious bail-out area to the right. The green is nearly 50 yards long with three small tiers and a slant towards the burn on its left. It is a strong hole.
The first par 3 is a long one from the back tee at 222 yards but more manageable from the blue tees art 174. The green sits slightly up with bunkers on the front corner and fall-offs on the left and back. The green slopes mainly right. It takes a well struck shot to make the green. This is a hole where I thought another bunker could have been added.
The fourth turns back to the clubhouse and offers a splendid view from an elevated tee to a fairway sitting below you. The right side of the large fairway is preferred as the left can be blocked by a tall mound. One has to avoid the central bunkers. The green is shaped in an arc and sits above the fairway preceded by ripples and mounds. There is one bunker on the front right. I greatly admired this mid-length par 4.
The slightly longer par 4 fifth is a gem with a pole to guide you. Miss the fairway to the right and the result is a blind shot. A fairway bunker lurks on the right. This fairway has three tiers leading to a green backdropped by a dune. Two pot bunkers beginning about 45 yards from the green seemed unnecessary but I suppose come into play if approaching from the right. The green has a ridge snaking it’s way through the middle of the green. It’s a fine hole but not as visually interesting as the fourth.
The sixth is a mid-length par 4 with two central bunkers that look close together but are actually about 70 yards apart. The best line is left of these bunkers as the right side will be a blind shot with a fairway banked to far lower ground on the right. The green is sunken below the hill but balls will not release as far onto the green as one might think. The well shaped green falls off at its rear.
This short par 4 can be driven by longer hitters in favorable conditions. There are three fairway bunkers to avoid and the best line is left of them leading to another green on lower ground tilted to the right. It’s an okay hole but would be better with 30 more yards. There is a terrific view of the beach and coastline from the tee.
Eight has a wide fairway and the right side is banked back to the fairway. The green has a sizeable valley before the green. Balls hit short could cascade back 40 yards leading to a blind shot. There is a large blowout bunker on the left built into the hill which if found will lead to a blind shot. Perhaps another bunker should be on the right side just over the hill. The green is long and three tiered.
Nine is a short par 3 playing from an elevated tee to a green surrounded by six bunkers along with good mounds fronting the green. The green is backdropped by dunes but with a large, flattish green. It is the rare green with a rear bunker. I felt the green should have been either a bit smaller or the left front bunkers placed just a bit closer to the green. Still, it is a visual delight from the tee.
I thought the tenth was an easy par 5 the first time I played it, making a 25 feet putt for birdie. However, it’s a par 4 at 472/426. A burn is in the landing zone down the left off the tee before curving away. The right side features two pot bunkers forcing one towards the middle. Up ahead on the left about 90 yards from the green is another pot bunker which I felt should have been placed both farther up and inside the fairway. The hole is basically straight but due to a tall dune down the right side the best angle isn’t is from the left. The green is in almost a dell surrounded by smallish dunes. Despite a flattish green, it is one of the better holes on the course.
Elven is another drivable short par 4 from an elevated tee but the entrance to the green is narrow as the left side at the green has two bunkers followed by a ten feet high mound with tall grass and heather. The safer play is to hit an iron into the green particularly if the pin is on the back upper tier. Like much of The Machrie, the course presents many risk-reward options.
Twelve is a brute from the black tees of nearly 600 yards with a forced carry of nearly 275 yards. The right side of the fairway offers taller rough before the fairway connects. Th favored line is down the left front the tee, then to hug the right side of the hill on the left of the fairway. Two center-line bunkers are placed about 320 yards from the blue tee. There are mounds and depressions down the right side nearly to the green. The green tilts to the right and again is backdropped by dunes. There are no greenside bunkers and no need for them. This is another good hole.
Thirteen s the number one index due to its length of 456/430 typically playing into the wind or a cross-wind to the left. The hole goes slightly left and the tee shot must be solidly struck not to have one’s ball pushed too far left where there is rough or taller grass as well as a bunker. Near the green in the right is a collection of three bunkers for those trying to bring the approach in from that side. The green is the least contoured on the course as all of the trouble is in raring there.
My choice as the best par 3 is the mid-length fourteenth which sits below the surrounding dunes. The green is angled to the right and is the best on the course with three tiers and other smaller spines. It is a splendid hole.
Fifteen plays from an elevated tee where one must go left for a better angle to the flag as well as the potential to catch the hill and gain distance, otherwise you will have a lengthy shot in across lower ground to a raised green. The green has three pot bunkers, one at the front, one right and one at the rear. The green is bisected by a snaky spine coming in from the left middle. This is a hole that fits in beautifully with the land which so the case for all of the holes from thirteen to the finish.
Sixteen is my favorite hole on the course. This long par 4 of 464 yards has a wide landing zone but only the left side of the fairway offers a view of the green. The right side has a valley with rough then followed by two bunkers sitting 300 yards out. The fairway narrows about 100 yards from the green due to the dunes on either side but then opens up as you near the green. There are ripples in the fairway at this point. The green is the craziest on the course with multiple tiers and a smaller back right shelf with a substantial spine. It is a great hole.
Likely the most memorable hole is the seventeenth which plays from an elevated tee across broken grounds. Go twenty yards left of the guide post and you will be fine as you will tumble down the hill and have a view of the entirety of the green. If you get stuck at the top of the hill you will likely not see the green as it is placed in a dell surrounded by a very tall dune to the right and tall dunes the rest of the way. If you miss the tee shot to the right then you are playing The Machrie of old, a blind shot over the tall dune. The green is relatively benign. The hole has no bunkers.
Eighteen is a fine finishing par 5 and a chance for a birdie likely playing downwind. This is a narrow fairway with three bunkers scattered down the left at 230, 270 and 300 yards so a bunker for every player! Two center line bunkers are placed about 75 and 40 yards from the green. From the tee to the green the lovely Machrie hotel sits right behind the green which is large and on a raised plateau. The hole blends very well it’s visual attractiveness with challenge and playability.
I really liked The Machrie. Obviously I cannot judge what was there before but what is there now is very good. We met a large group of other golfers and one simply said “this is the real deal.” The course has a lot of visual attractiveness with views of the coast, seven mile beach, and hotel. The par 3’s and par 5’s are varied and good. The par 4’s blend well the difficult/longer holes with the quirkier/shorter holes. There are some very good holes on the course set perfectly against the dunes and taking advantage of the flat or rolling terrain. It is a gem.
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.