In an age when new golf courses are unveiled against a backdrop of hyperbole, fanfare and wide-eyed aspirations of “hosting a tour event one day”, there is something endearing about the modest manner in which The Machrie has relaunched itself.
Located on the Isle of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland, golf has been played on the site as far back as the late 19th century, when Willie Campbell laid out the original course.
It survived for over a century, evolving with the times but never fully submitting to them, instead remaining true to what it was always intended to be: a classic links. Seventeen blind shots, open to the elements, large greens, pot bunkers, the works.
That’s not to say there wasn’t room for improvement but it looked unlikely that the full potential of the site would ever be realised after the property ran into financial issues around the time of the global economic downturn. That was until it was salvaged by Gavyn Davies and his wife Sue Nye.
Davies, a former chairman of the BBC, and Nye, a key figure in Gordon Brown’s Labour Government, took ownership of The Machrie – its course, its hotel and its land – in 2011 and have subsequently, quietly, transformed it.
The result? A triumphant Phoenix-like ascent from the ashes.
Former European Tour player DJ Russell has completely redesigned the course, something that, by his own admission, “took years to plan”. The idea was to create something that was a throwback to the golden age of golf courses. “I wanted every hole to be an improvement on what had been there previously,” he told bunkered earlier this year. Mission accomplished, in that regard.
Only seven of the original greens have been retained, as the course now weaves in and out of the dunes. The fairways are wide enough that only the most errant shots will be punished, not by mindless bunkers (there are surprisingly few such traps on the course) but by clever design. Get out of position and you will most likely find yourself ‘rewarded’ with a blind shot.
I like that. There’s no hacking out of unimaginatively thick rough. There’s no losing balls in gorse bushes (surely the most overly penal and ugly ‘hazard’ of them all). Instead, you’ll have a shot – just not one you would choose. That’s punishment. Golf’s not supposed to be fair. That, though, doesn’t mean it’s meant to be unfair.
Whilst many golf courses misunderstand that basic premise, The Machrie gets it, and gets it right.
Tee shot into the par-3 ninth at The Machrie today. Garbage swing, decent result. pic.twitter.com/L5zxWhGyKa— Michael McEwan (@MMcEwanbunkered) December 10, 2018
The lapping waters of the Atlantic Ocean have been brought into sharper focus with Russell’s new design – anybody who says they don’t appreciate a sea view on a golf course is a liar and for the watching – whilst the greens are large and littered with subtle borrows and breaks.
From what I gather, there are some who would rather the course hadn’t been changed and who preferred the quirky challenge of its forebear. Whilst sympathetic to those, I fail to see how it’s possible to view the new Machrie as anything other than a significant improvement. All of the elements that made its predecessor so popular are still there; they’ve just been refined in a way that makes the course a more tantalising prospect for the “drive and gouge” brigade. It is quintessentially, unapologetically “the way golf was meant to be”… and all the better for it.
It is the equal of just about anything you'll find on the Scottish mainland. I mean that, too.
The 17th is a true golfer’s golf hole. A fitting homage to the old layout, a blind tee shot should slightly favour the left side to give the best possible angle for your approach as the hole doglegs sharply from left to right towards a green tucked within a spectacular dune-sculpted amphitheatre. I’m told this is the hole most golfers talk about at the 19th hole and I’m not remotely surprised. Some will love it, some will hate it but there’s no questioning the brilliance of the design.
Also worth a mention is the par-4 11th. The bigger hitters amongst you will be tempted to take it on as, in the right conditions, it is driveable. Trouble, however, abounds for anything less than the perfect shot.
The ‘Wee Course’ offers unabashed fun. It comprises six par-3s that can be played from a number of different tees. Be warned, though: hours disappear into thin air when you play on it. The same goes for the spectacular, huge Hebrides putting course.
There’s also a five-bay covered driving range and short game area where you can either work on your game on your own or have the pro staff – led by former Golf Union of Ireland coach David Foley – give your swing the once over.
Off the course, the fully refurbished 47-bedroom hotel is a bright, cosy and modern place to stay. It’s unmistakably Scottish but without having had the ‘shortbread tin makeover’ that some other hotels seem to default towards. Instead, its identity is much more subtly evoked through the choice of rich, earthy colours and hand-picked finishing touches.
There’s a Puregray Spa & Gym for leisure lovers, whilst the 30-seater ‘Screening Room’ is perfect for unwinding with a film at the end of a long day on the links.
A special mention, too, for the restaurant. ‘18’, so-called because it overlooks the 18th green, offers a diverse and delicious menu, with spectacular panoramic views over the course towards Laggan Bay the perfect side dish.
The bar, meantime, is stocked with an impressive collection of whiskies, most of which are from Islay’s eight distilleries. That's right - eight. If Scotland is the 'Home of Golf', Islay is surely the 'Home of the Good Stuff'.
You’ve got two options. The first is to drive to Kennacraig on Kintyre and take the ferry over to Islay. Easy to say, time-consuming to do. Kennacraig is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Glasgow on a circuitous if picturesque route around Argyll and the Trossachs. The ferry is a further two hours plus, with the Port Ellen ferry terminal in Islay another ten minutes by car from The Machrie.
The second option is to fly.
Loganair, the European Regional Airline Association’s recently-announced ‘Airline of the Year’, operates flights in and out of Islay from various Scottish airports. I flew from Glasgow and would be lying if I said that the quaint charm of the 50-seater plane didn’t enrich the whole experience. You’re airborne for just 20 minutes and will get a great view of The Machrie on your approach as the hotel is just a five-minute drive from the airport terminal. It’s quick, convenient and fun.
£120 per round; £150 per day.
As part of The Machrie’s commitment to developing young golfers, kids aged 17 and under can play the course free of charge when accompanied by a paying adult. A great touch.
It’s impossible not to be completely enchanted by the entire Machrie experience. From the small island-hopper plane that bounces on the clouds, to the beautifully appointed hotel, to the trend-bucking golf course where brains are more handsomely rewarded than brawn, it is an almost-perfectly executed project that deserves to be seen and enjoyed by the masses.
Credit the team behind this rejuvenation: they’ve taken a rough diamond and turned into one of Scottish golf’s true prize jewels.
Go there. You won’t be disappointed.