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.
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.
These are exciting times for anyone involved with the Machrie. With a major course renovation well under way and a new hotel in the pipeline the latest owners have certainly committed to a substantial investment. We were lucky enough to play alongside Robert from Edinburgh Landscaping who is the lead shaper and finisher of the new design.
The majority of the old course is the layout we played last week, but it's now possible to get a genuine feel for the bold new routing as most of the fairway shaping is complete and many of the new greens are built.
The course will be lengthened from 6300 yards to almost 6800 from the back tees and to 6440 from the yellows as well as being changed from a par 71 to a par 72. A handful of the weaker holes are being altered dramatically or removed completely, many of the greens retaining their current location but most are being altered in some way.
There are currently six bunkers in play but all will disappear as course architect D J Russell feels that such an undulating and interesting piece of land can defend itself perfectly well without them. The new design cleverly routes many fairways between or around the dunes therefore removing most but not all of the numerous blind shots.
There is, without doubt, a real charm to the location of the course with fantastic views over the peat beds to the mountains and across beautiful Laggan Bay, making this is a special place for anyone who has played here.
Inevitably there will be much discussion as to the merits of such dramatic alterations to iconic golf holes but I firmly believe that when the dust settles the vast majority will see this as a positive leap forward for golf on Islay. I can't wait to return in a few years time to view the finished article. Brian W
Often the green is on a downslope behind a dune so your ball will tend to run through the back. The nature of the undulating fairways and hidden greens has negated the need for bunkers and as a result there are only ten on the whole course. The light rough at the edge of the fairways is actually quite thick so you will get very little run if you are just slightly off line.
Seven, eight and nine run alongside Lagan Bay on the left and are bordered by lovely dunes along the right. The par three 10th has the Machrie Burn in play on the left. Like the 5th, the wind tends to be from behind so staying on the green is the trick, even though you may only be hitting an eight iron. Not so the par three 12th, ‘New Mount Zion’, which is 174 yards uphill and usually into the wind.
There are some good par fours on the back nine but none better than the 17th. The shot into the sunken and hidden green is a real test of skill. It is far better to be a little long on this hole, otherwise you may have a virtually unplayable lie in the little craters that form natural bunkers. The par four 18th finishes with a blind second over a very high dune in the centre of the fairway, only 35 yards short of the green.
This review is an edited extract from Another Journey through the Links, which has been reproduced with David Worley’s kind permission. The author has exclusively rated for us every Scottish course featured in his book. Another Journey through the Links is available for Australian buyers via www.golfbooks.com.au and through Amazon for buyers from other countries.
The ingénue first and tenth holes gently and with little drama seduce you into the front and back nines, coaxing you into two sequences of natural golf holes, each carving pathways of immaculate links turf through deeply grassed dunes to beautifully presented greens. There are few bunkers, but each one is exactly where you wouldn’t want it to be. From a golfing perspective the progressions from the 4th to the 9th and from the 11th to the 18th are breathtaking; indeed the latter is simply brilliant. The views from almost every vantage point on the course across the island’s sea lochs and hills are stunning and unforgettable at all times; on a fine day they are sublime. Now the golfer who is not given to raising his eyes from his tee might grumble that the course is quite short, that he wasn’t able to capitalise on his length, that he lost his ball every time it went in the rough, and that there were a lot of blind shots (far too many I hear him say). All true. The Machrie would never be built today. But bear in mind that it wasn’t built at all; it’s been teased out of the existing land, great artists seeing the shapes that lay buried in the wild grasses.
Nostalgia plays its part, as at my years it must. In a warm glow I see the friends of my youth, many already gone, as we battled against each other and a raging gale, frozen and soaked to the skin; at other times in high June sunshine we managed four rounds in a day … the course was a little less demanding to walk back then. The long strolls(!) with the girls on the beach at Laggan Bay – jump over the fence at 3, 8 or 9 now – when my parents happily believed I was on the course perfecting my game. I was in a way. Golden recollections. Long, long ago. And so on to university, responsibility and real life. I was well prepared for the last. The Machrie had taught me to take the bad breaks with equanimity, the good ones with quiet pleasure, and to treat all mankind as equals, as they are, and do, at The Machrie. The Machrie. I shall arise and go now.
Without a shadow of a doubt the best golf course review I have read! Would be interesting to hear the authors view of the new layout.
How Machrie does not make it into the Top 20 of course listings for Scotland defies belief because if it was on the mainland, the many golfers that would play it would rate it as they do Cruden Bay, for instance, rightly elevating its position but then, exposed to the golfing masses, would it retain the same charm that it undoubtedly possesses? Links lovers should make the pilgrimage to play here at least once and follow in the footsteps of the golfing greats from yesteryear. That Willie Campbell knew a thing or two about designing great golf courses, you know… Jim McCann