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.