Isle of Drams
I’ve had a long association with this relic of Scottish links golf since it was one of my first assignments as a golf writer & photographer. But this is not The Machrie that I once knew!
Back in the 90's, we flew into Islay Airport and were met with champagne and sandwiches by the then owner Murdo MacPherson, followed by a ‘wee nip’ or three at the turn when Murdo scaled a rickety wire fence to fetch a jug of peaty brown water to splash in our miniatures. It was the start of a long association (and a very long night).
The course was first laid out by Willie Campbell in 1891 and throughout its life has been regarded as antiquated and unconventional but one that links lovers loved to play mainly because of those idiosyncrasies. Wedged between a sprawling, flat expanse of brown peat bog and the beautiful Laggan Bay, Campbell must have been delighted with the stretch of pure Scottish linksland he had to work with. But he laid this course out a little differently. The routeing ran against the flow of the dunes rather than through them as most Scottish links do creating a host of blind shots, none more so than the old 5th where a huge, hairy mound rose some 50-feet directly in front of the tee box. There was nothing quite like it - apart from the other 13 blind shots the Machrie proffered. And this, for its many admirers was a large part of the course's charm.
Also, several greens sat in punch bowls that gathered water, keeping them lush during the summer months when the rest of the course burned out. It was all 100% natural, the old Scottish way and it worked reasonably well.
Not well enough apparently!
I was initially alarmed to see how much The Machrie has been transformed. This is almost an entirely new golf course! Eric Sammels of Edinburgh Landscaping, the course’s shaping company took me around in a buggy on a beautiful July evening to take a few snaps. “You’ve picked a perfect time for your pictures,” he said. He was right! I was excited about getting some great shots but the amount of change I was seeing was disconcerting! Like an ageing Hollywood actor, this place has had some serious work!
I talked to DJ Russell, the ex-European Tour Player and instigator of the changes a couple of years before and gained the impression he was only tweaking a few of the more difficult holes. I guess he got a bit carried away!
The next morning I stood on the 1st tee, driver in hand and viewed an entirely reconfigured hole with a generously wide fairway. The 1st green is all that remains of the original setup. The Par 5, 2nd doglegs, as it once did around the Kintra Burn heading towards the sea but its green has been pulled back to lengthen the hole and bring the burn more into play.
Once you actually start playing holes, it's interesting how your appreciation of the changes, changes! As much as I was slightly startled at how they’d been allowed to reconstruct this old gem, I began to see how the new course worked as a golfing experience and was warming to DJ and Eric’s work.
The old course had improved under the guidance of head greenkeeper Simon Freeman but he was working with difficult terrain. Now everything is smooth and flowing. It's still a bit 'raw' from all the surgery but give this natural links fescue a year or so and it will be in prime condtion.
The most striking change is to the old 5th, now the 6th where the tee has been placed much closer to the beach and the old, hairy mound that collected so many golf balls, put back in its place. It’s certainly no longer in-play and I expect some traditionalists will not be best pleased. Again, this is an entirely new golf hole! But from a playing perspective, it’s much better in that you can appreciate your drive and aim to get into position rather than 'hit & hope' and wonder what was going on 'over the hill.'
As I progressed, I could see how every hole has been transformed. There’s been a lot of 'shuffling and shaving’ to allow better views of the sea. The 1st and 7th are the only greens that remain similar to the originals while the rest of the complexes have been remodelled or built from scratch to give a truer test of your short game. Eric was telling me the new greens were not built to USGA specs but on such a natural sandy base, they certainly won’t need that sort of substructure and - being so sandy, it must have been easy to shape them into the wonderful putting arenas that they now are. The 16th is the best example, long and reaching towards the peat bog with significant movement. "DJ spent 3 days working on that green!" Eric told me. It’s set close to the moor like a green sea lapping against the wild, brown peatbog.
I was appreciating how the design and construction teams have taken the opportunity to bring this old crusty curmudgeon into the 21st century. It's now all about golf shots instead of stepping off into the great unknown. There is still the occasional blind shot if you don’t find the right spot for a green approach. And the ruck and furrow of the fairways has been preserved, or should I say emulated by the excellent shaping that's taken place. If anything, the links terrain is now more subtle and flowing, the nature of the linksland still completely intact. The best shot onto the greens, by the way, is still the classic links ‘bump & run,’ playing it close to the ground.
Then there are the bunkers. What bunkers? There were only 5 on the original course and that's all that remains. Who needs bunkers on a track that is well-protected by the nature of the land and the wind, which thankfully I felt little of that day.
By the end of the round, I was a convert. I know many old aficionados will not be happy at the radical transformation of one of Scotland's traditional links, but for sure, The Machrie is now a player’s course and much more in keeping with the modern game. It is, in short, a hugely improved golf course.
Perhaps especially so in Scotland, our golfing stock needs to evolve and adapt to modern expectations! It’s easy to get locked into an attitude of ‘leaving things as they are’ which is fair enough but who wants to live in a house, for instance, that hasn't been modernised since the 1970’s? Golf courses can be improved! Look at what Trump’s done to Turnberry! I always admired the Ailsa but following its makeover, it’s now surely one of the finest links tracks on the planet. The same is currently happening at Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart, two of Scotland’s more recent links. After a few years of play, it becomes evident that certain areas required attention. The Machrie is now a great test of golf and I'm grateful for the new owners and construction team for what they've done. They've rescued and reinvented one of Scotland's finest links.
On the accommodation front, just a few short years ago, The Machrie was dying on its feet. In spite of its charms, (mostly seen by me through a mist of delicious Islay malts), the hotel was as antiquated as your granny’s pantry. I recall running a bath before dinner, the water brown from the peat bogs that still surround the hotel. They told me at the reception it was good for the skin! I always had a grand time mind you, marooned on an island that produces some of Scotland’s finest malts. The only thing left today from the original hotel today is the old perimeter wall and the frontage which they seem to be preserving. The rest is brand new and opening next spring. There are 47 bedrooms with a magnificent whisky bar overlooking the 18th as well as most of the front 9 and Laggan Bay. The Machrie Hotel will no doubt carry on the traditions of tasting Islay’s finest, only in a much more salubrious setting. I can't wait to toast it!
And speaking of said whiskies, this Hebridean island is world-famous for its ‘medicinal’ malts such as Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain or Bowmore. There are 11 distilleries currently in production on Islay with another 2 under construction. It’s a whisky connoisseurs paradise and most of the distilleries offer tours and tastings.
My time was limited but I did do a quick tour of the island’s producers. As I hoovered around the 25 x 15 mile (40 x 25km) island quickly grabbing some pictures of these enigmatic distilleries, I was reminded that it is a distillery’s location that affects the flavour of its produce as well as specific malting methods and the nature of the water they use. Sipping an Islay Malt might be an acquired taste, the strong peaty flavours redolent of iodine and seaweed, the top of the malt whisky tasting tree you might say. But as you drive around, you get the sense that it’s the scents and atmosphere of this island that permeates the barrels, cheek by jowl as most of their warehouses are with the rocky shores, dark and musty; ideal conditions for the precious gold liquid to mature.
Given a few tastings, it’s easy to discern the differences between Islay Malts. As a rule of thumb, the southern distilleries - Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin produce medium-bodied whiskies, saturated with peat-smoke, brine and iodine. I find them a bit fierce these days - although you soon get used to them. The northern distilleries - Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain are milder drawing their water from a spring before it has had contact with peat. Bowmore Distillery, in the middle of the island on the shore of Loch Indaal, stands between the two extremes - peaty but not medicinal. Although close to Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila is much more delicate with just a hint of peatiness and it’s my personal favourite - next to a bottle of 25-year old Ardbeg that I wish I never took to that party one night!
Hebridean Golf Tour
Once The Machrie Hotel opens next year, Islay will become a firm fixture once again in touring golfers’ itineraries. It sets up an interesting opportunity to avail yourself to all this seaside joy, both whiskies and golf courses alike. I’ve long been a fan of the two courses at Machrihanish, only a short drive away with a 2-hour ferry trip in between. It's near to Campbeltown, another wonderful whisky producering community. There is also a new course opening on Jura later this year on the Ardfin Estate, just a 5-minute ferry crossing from Islay. At the moment, we don’t know if it will be available to the playing public but all will no doubt be revealed. So, a Scottish Hebridean Golf Tour is now a distinct possibility. This of course is all speculative on my part but this little corner of Scotland is surely set to become one of the most distinct golf destinations in the world.