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.
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
The mixed reviews below say quite a lot about the “New” Machrie. The former European Tour Player turned architect Mr. David Russell was contracted to give the old Machrie a complete facelift. Personally I truly wish I could have experienced the original Machrie but will have to settle with curious stories of 18 blind tee shots, quirk and crazy green sites – to be fair the antithesis of commercial modern architecture.
The commission clearly was to upgrade The Machrie into a modern version, that was more playable for the masses, safer and hopefully a destination resort where guests would come for beautiful nature, fun, fair and challenging golf and actually want to return. Fair is fair. The purist among us seems to hate this. One school of thought as you can read below believes a true golden age museum piece has been all but destroyed. The other side, which unfortunately contains the majority of the golfing public, will only be happy about this renovation.
That being said, I can only evaluate the course I played and not what could have and perhaps should have leant towards the purist side. I think they managed to do solid work of creating a fun, challenging and playable links course worthy of commercial tourism. It’s fun, it’s fast and it still benefits from the wild landscape it always had. Fortunately it is not without quirk and given the windy nature of the site this renovation will make the course playable for a lot more people.
We caught it on a very high wind day, roughly windforce 7 with 8 gusts. We were joined by Mr. Russell himself and witnessed his 6 birdies and an ace in those conditions. It’s clear that not all golfers are created equal.
I believe once the lodge is finished The Machrie will be a wonderful place for an isolated get-a-way golf vacation, especially when combined with hunting, fishing and whisky drinking given its ideal location near Bowmore.
I looked ahead to my visit to Islay last week with a degree of trepidation – would the new Machrie be so radically different to the old course that I wouldn’t like it? I’d played the original layout twice before and I loved it to bits so I was really worried that DJ Russell’s new vision for the links might not compare favourably with what I’d experienced before. However, within minutes of stepping out onto the revitalised course, any prior concerns I might have had were immediately dispelled.
I can’t really sympathize with anybody who’s played here in the past and still yearns for a return to the old days – I’m sorry, but that old-fashioned golfing gem was really unsustainable in the modern world (as proven by the business going bust a while back) and in its place there’s now a magnificent new links which is fit to serve golfers for another hundred years and more. Forget about what’s gone before; rejoice instead in being able to play a brilliant new track that still embodies much of the old course’s charms!
For crying out loud, it’s located on the same site – it’s not as if it’s moved miles away! If anything, the new routing actually enhances the vistas along Laggan Bay (from the tee boxes on the short par four 7th and par three 9th, for instance), it eliminates the internal OOB on one of the old holes and it still permits blind shots to be played on several holes – starting with the drive on the 1st tee!! Bunkers have also been reduced from eleven to five, though in fairness, a few more strategically placed sand hazards wouldn’t go amiss.
One of the best aspects of the new Machrie is width – yes, I know it doesn’t exactly punish big hitters who stray offline but name me a new course built nowadays that doesn’t allow golfers generous latitude off the tee, allowing less competent golfers a decent chance of playing a recovery shot? More than half a dozen of the original putting surfaces have been retained and the new versions have plenty of internal contouring with imaginative swales surrounding the greens.
I was delighted to see the old 5th hole largely retained – the green’s been moved 50 yards back – as it’s a wonderful downhill par four played towards the beach. I was also pleased to see the old 9th had gone – it’s 20-yard wide fairway “shelf” was always too narrow – though some might scratch their head when they see the big dip that fronts the green on the replacement hole, the new par four 8th (pictured) – personally, I loved such a quirky aspect, which is quite in keeping with the spirit of the old Machrie.
I thought the split fairway on the left doglegged 12th worked really well and the big step in the green on the par three 14th (pictured) was quite a talking point among the group I played with. Then, just when I thought the round would end in a conventional manner, up popped the penultimate hole, veering sharply right to the old 17th green (formerly played blind over the top of the dunes) which is now approached from a different angle. This late homage to the old layout, replacing an eccentric hole on the old course with another unusual one, was a nice touch before concluding the round.
The hotel behind the 18th is still under construction and it’ll be a fabulous asset once it’s finished. I’m glad to have played the Machrie as it once was but I’m even happier to have played it now in its new guise. Islay is a special place to visit and the new course infrastructure – including the short par three course and driving range – will, along with the hotel, surely play a big part in attracting new golfers to tee it up at one of the finest links venues in the British Isles.
The King is dead, long live the King…
Couldn't agree more Jim. When we played here in May 2016 only the first 14 holes were opened, but we were blown away by a course which was an absolute delight to play, so much fun and just top quality. The island itself is also a treat; a great destination for golf, whiskey and the great outdoors. I can't wait to go back to play the full 18 holes of the new course.
I am a 7 handicap overseas golfer with experience playing more than 400 rounds on over sixty links courses in Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, the Isle of Man and Bandon Oregon over the last 25 years. These courses range from all the Open Rota Courses past and present, other grand Classics like Rosses Point, Carne, Waterville, Dornoch, Nairn, Machrihanish and Western Gailes, to modern links like Pacific Dunes and Castle Stuart and far flung gems like Shiskine, Durness, Rea, Scarista and Askernish. So please allow me some credit for having an informed opinion.
It is understandable that several recent reviews commend the Machrie by ASSUMING that the recent "upgrading and modernisation " changes are soundly based. Clearly they do not know what they have missed, because they have not played the old layout. I really do feel sorry that they will never know what a real gem of an old fashioned course this was and what has been lost in the process of, in my view, dumbing it down to mediocrity for the mass golf tourism market. I have played the old layout about ten times and have just played the new full modernised layout in May 2017.
There are only three good things to say about it. First the scenery and isolated position still make this a wonderful setting. The new hotel upgrade and extensions will be welcomed by most. The only good thing about the recent course changes though is that the replacement for the bland old Donald Steel par 3 10th [ new 9th ] is a much better and more attractive hole reversed in direction, with the resultant straightened fairway on the next hole an improvement, as it eliminates an internal out of bounds.
That said, the remainder of the changes are in my view entirely unnecessary, with the possible exception of the direction of the first fairway to accommodate hotel extensions. These changes eliminate almost all the blind shots which were an attractive, fun and unique feature of the course. They formerly made sure that the course did not give up all of its secrets when played for the first time. No great course ever does! However with GPS gadgets and marker stones, all holes were still playable for the first timer. But it encouraged the avid links golfer to stay longer and get at least two rounds in. Surely a good and unique marketing ploy for owners with some sales expertise!
In addition, many fairways have been widened and natural waste areas minimized, eliminating the former natural gradual increases in difficulty of your lie, the wider off line the shot. Wide fairways are not unusual on some great links, however there must be commensurate hazards built in as at St Andrews Old Course to require the player to consider lateral as well as longitudinal strategies. There is precious little of this in the new works. Result; its now a more boring driving course fit for "sluggers/bashers".
Furthermore, it seems that the shapers got into their heads that the natural seabed derived contours around many greens were a little too random, so these appear to have been smoothed and graded till the whole effect visually and in response to the bounce of the ball is rather more "formula", predictable and artificial than it once was !! Forget chipping, just putt from up to 20 yards away almost everywhere!!!
Lastly, the worst aspect of the redesign is the elimination or destruction of many fine holes / hole features too numerous to list; but here are just two examples.
The old 15th, "Willie Campbell's Finest" featured a superb driving aspect up a slow ramp full of historic lazy beds to a second shot with the finest view of the sea and a superb natural green and surrounds. Now completely ruined by re-routing and green/surrounds reshaping.
The old 9th, a really unique driving hole, ideally onto a lateral shelf of fairway and testing approach that might allow a clear view or be semi blind, depending on the quality of the drive and which would allow either a high or bounced on approach shot to a large green, replaced entirely by an inland straight hole with a cavern in front of the green, ensuring that only a high lobbed approach shot can be played for your second. YOU CANT BE SERIOUS!!!!!
In short, I am really angry and disappointed about what has been done in the name of progress to what I consider a unique, rare, historic design.
It is true that there have been changes to this course in the past, as there have been at similar ”old fashioned “ courses like Lahinch and Prestwick. But that’s no excuse for the wholesale changes done here.
Can you imagine the outcry at Lahinch if it were ever proposed to bypass the Klondyke and Dell holes there, or at Prestwick if it was proposed that the Cardinal bunker be filled in and the hilly older holes near the clubhouse be bulldozed into "Modern Conformity".
What you have here at the Machrie is something that was wonderfully unique and in this day and age extremely rare, that is now largely lost to modernised blandness, through re-routing / reshaping........ Shame!
Where were the voices of opposition from all the local people, Golfing Press and Architects, from the island and from mainland Britain, who supposedly cared about this iconic old course and used to play it regularly, when these plans emerged?
Played the Machrie in 2007. Went back this week Aug 2017 and while the course is in fantastic condition I think it has lost its charm of old. For me the wholesale redesign has meant a loss some of the classic Machrie holes, punchbowl greens, and blind tee shots have all but gone. The course now features wide fairways and encourages big hitting a feature of "modern" golf. Don't get me wrong I did enjoy the course but it's the loss of the quaint, historic unique links that I miss.
A really candid review with very good points and one that modern designers should take heed to. It seems to be a crime to build tight holes with small greens these days. Everythings for the male ego and the drive/wedge brigade and 40 foot putts. Exceedingly bland with no touch play but they seem to have the notion that's what hotel guests want. I always planned of making it to the Machrie to experience a unique pleasure but alas.
I wrote the review on 18 May 2018. Having never played the course in its previous incarnation I am not in a position to make a comparison. However, notwithstanding the previous comment about wide fairways etc, a visit to the Machrie is still a visit to cherish. Even if the course is not to your taste (I bet it will be), the scenery both on the course and from the ferry on the way over to Islay is astonishing. Make the journey !