Having entered an open competition at Gleneagles, near Perth, on Saturday 13th April a friend and I had debated at great length about where to stop off ‘on route’ from West Yorkshire for a game of golf on the Friday.
Goswick, just off the A1, was the frontrunner for a long time, whilst 18 holes at any of the East Lothian courses was also a very sensible consideration. However, in the end we decided a round on The Old Course, St. Andrews was the best bet.
The problem with this preference was that it required entering the ballot two days beforehand and come the Wednesday prior the weather forecast looked decidedly dodgy with heavy rain expected for most of the day. We discussed a number of other alternatives before concurring our wisest option was not to enter the ballot, leave our options open and literally decide the evening before as to where we should head – ‘let’s follow the sun’. Thanks to an ever-changing outlook at 10pm on the Thursday night we were still undecided.
How and why we ended up at The Machrie, on the island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, the following day is still a little fuzzy in my head but after a quick run through the ‘logistics’ I recall saying good night to my fellow idiot with a vow to pick him up at 3am the following morning so that we could drive the 6 ½ hours in order to catch the 10am ferry from Kennacraig on the Kintyre peninsula to Port Ellen on Islay.
As an aside, we were to arrive on Islay at 12.30pm, play golf and then catch the 6pm return ferry back to the mainland, landing at 8pm, before embarking on a 3 hour drive across deepest, darkest Scotland to our hotel before our 9.30am tee-time on the King’s course the following day. I’m pleased to say everything ran like clockwork.
One of the reasons, no doubt, we ended up at The Machrie is that it has been on my ‘to play’ list for some time. Indeed, one of my biggest golfing regrets is not ever visiting the old Machrie, which has been lain to rest with essentially a new course, designed by David (DJ) Russell, now in its place.
A shiny new hotel is also nearing completion and is due to open in June which replaces a hotel that is now demolished after it ran into financial difficulties in 2011. New owners, new money and new ideas essentially summarise what is happening at The Machrie.
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.
Other early highlights are the drives at the par-five second, where you must go as close to a threatening burn as you dare in order to shorten the hole, and at the tumultuous fifth, which is simply a links-lover’s dream and also our passage into the heart of the real duneland.
Tee shots at the sixth, seventh and eighth - where we edge along the shoreline - are also all out of the very top drawer and are equally varied, challenging and come with decisions to be made. In fact I can’t recall even an average driving hole on the entire Machrie links, let alone a poor one, with the possible exception coming at the 17th (from the black tee) which is slightly obscured and plays much better from the main teeing area.
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.
Some of the longer two-shotters are so elegant and merge into the landscape effortlessly they were the real highlight of the course for me on first play. The approaches at the three afore mentioned bruiser par-fours work very well, as does the approach into the gathering par-five 13th. I can imagine when the course firms up in the summer that working the ball into these will be very rewarding.
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.
As mentioned previously, similar to many other modern links, the course is extremely wide and whilst it will be interesting to see The Club’s policy on rough management all I can say is that in the early season it played exceptionally well. Hit it, find it, and then hit it again. Rightly so, you were penalised by a lack of control and spin if you wavered from the generous fairways but finding your ball was easy and with an inevitable breeze whistling across the links the set-up was very good, if not perfect.
The only two fairway bunkers I can recall were both on the sixth – and very well placed they are too – but in truth the rest of the course doesn’t need them thanks to the turbulent land. I counted only three other sand traps on the entire links; a brace fronting the skyline par-three fourth and one teasingly hidden over the back of the driveable seventh.
The maximum yardage from the black tees is 6,782 yards whilst there are several options to play it shorter than this. The yellows tee blocks pace out at just over 5,100 yards. Par is 72.
The debate regarding the 'modern versus the old' at The Machrie will probably rage on for a generation or two until memories fade and the new layout is given time to prove itself, which it undoubtedly will.
On the ferry ride home my initial inkling was that something a bit more controversial and atypical is what would have gotten golfers out to Islay, however, history and the dilapidated apartment blocks, still awaiting demolition, has told us that this is not the case. So, out with the old, in with the new and good luck I say.
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.
EDIT: I returned to The Machrie four years on in the Autumn of 2022. This visit was not quite as last minute this time but it did involved some drama with cancelled ferries and not knowing if I would be sleeping in my car the night before. Island golf, eh?
I have to admit that the course has matured exceptional well over the last few years and it has gone up in my estimation. Some new bunkers have been sparingly and sympathetically added and this has added a little more bite to the course. The stretch of holes from the fourth to the ninth is extremely memorable. I also gained a greater appreciation for the holes at the northern end of the property; the triangle of 10 through 12.
I played the course in a fierce wind and it was exceptionally playable.
The Hebridean putting green is now in play as is the wonderful 6-hole pitch & putt course where you can play to any green from any tee!
A lot has changed off the course too and the facilities are absolutely first class. The lodging and catering facilities are exceptional (albeit pricey) along with spa treatments available and even a cinema room! The indoor coaching and practice facilities are excellent too.