Walter Hagen never did make it to The Machrie. Shame. That goes for anyone else who hasn’t played golf on Islay.
Quite simply, The Machrie is quintessential links golf at its best. In fact, there might not be a better example of links golf anywhere else in the world.
If you haven’t played The Machrie, then you must. Put it this way, if you were looking for a course to add to you bucket list, then this is it. Find a way to travel to the beautiful, remote, barren island of Islay.
Hagen reportedly set out to play the course with Joe Kirkwood in 1937 on the advice of Tommy Armour, but ended up on Arran at Machrie Bay by mistake. The Haig missed a treat.
Willie Campbell designed The Machrie in 1891. He took one look at the links land on the island's southwest coast and came to one conclusion:
“This place was made for gowf.”
I’ve been fortunate to visit the course on two occasions. I’ve never played a course like it. Every aspect of true links golf is in evidence – fast running fairways, deep marram grass if you miss the fairways, pot bunkers, stunning scenery, bowl greens, landscape that ripples and rolls like waves on the ocean and blind shots. In fact, every other shot at The Machrie seemed to be a blind one. There seemed to be more marker posts on this layout than any other I’ve ever played. Many times all I could do was aim at the sky and hit and hope.
My first visit featured a Scotland v England four-ball match. One of our English opponents hit a shot over a towering dune to the 17th green. We had no idea where it ended up. Imagine our chagrin when we walked over the dune to find the ball six inches from the hole.
I remember shanking a chip shot early in the round to a green (the second, I believe) shaped like a bowl, the ball hit the top of the bowl and rolled round and round like water draining out of a sink, coming to rest a foot from the hole.
The Machrie has an important place in golf history. It was the setting for the first ever £100 golf competition. Back in 1901, the club laid on what came to be known as the Islay £100 Tournament. That wasn’t the total purse, but the prize that went to the winner. That sum was four times more than first prize in that year’s Open Championship at Muirfield. Indeed, it would be 45 years before the Open offered a £100 first place prize.
Held immediately after the Open Championship, the day’s top golfers turned up on Islay to try to win the £100. The Great Triumvirate of Harry Vardon, James Braid and JH Taylor took part, as did other legendary names such as Sandy Herd, Willie Fernie, Andrew Kirkaldy and Ben Sayers. Taylor made history by becoming the first ever golfer to win £100 by beating Braid in the final, and by doing so putting The Machrie on the map.
One of the reasons I’m keen to return to Islay stems from DJ Russell’s recent course changes. From what I hear, the two-time European Tour winner has done an excellent job helping restore The Machrie to its former glory after some tough times in recent years. The course and hotel went into receivership 10 years ago. There was a danger it would disappear altogether. Thankfully that did not happen.
The other reason I’m keen to return is that the hotel has been completely refurbished and extended. Previously it was a 16-bedroom hotel with 15 self-catering lodges and a restaurant. It was a wee bit tired last time I was there. Not now. The photos look fantastic.
Part of The Machrie’s charm is its remoteness, since you either have to take a boat from the Scottish mainland to get there, or a short haul flight from Glasgow. Once on the Island, there isn’t much to do except play golf or visit one of numerous malt whisky distilleries. You're spoilt for choice with names like Laphroaig, Bowmore, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain to choose from.
The old hotel had one of the best selections of malt whisky I’ve ever seen. We didn’t manage to get through them all after that Scotland/England match, but it wasn’t for want of trying. My dip in the sea next morning helped clear the head, but beware if you’re thinking of following my lead: the Atlantic Ocean is a cold place even in July.
If you can manage a distillery tour while you’re there then go for it. I can recommend Laphroaig, if only to see the office of former owner Bessie Williamson. You’ll feel as if you could walk straight into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s one of the best offices I’ve ever seen, right up there with office of the R&A chief executive above the first tee of the Old Course at St Andrews.
One thing’s for sure, you’ll leave The Machrie and Islay with many lasting impressions.
(Photos by Phil Inglis courtesy of The Machrie Hotel and Golf Links)