The Machrie 2.0 is effectively a new golf course, albeit it one that offers a respectful nod to what it has replaced. There is more than a tinge of regret that the wonderfully illogical, outrageous and head-scratching links that once ran alongside Laggan Bay on the Hebridean island of Islay is no more. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that DJ Russell’s reimagining of what was surely the most eccentric course in the highest echelons of British golf has resulted in a better layout.
Willie Campbell, a serial Open Championship contender back in the 1880s with a string of top 10s to his name, created The Machrie in its original form back in 1891. There is no doubt his work was tweaked many times in the subsequent 120 years, most officially by Donald Steel.
Where The Machrie was different was in the way that the holes played across rather than alongside or between the rows of dunes. That created blind shots on practically every hole. Even more unconventional was the fact that so many of the blind shots were the approaches rather than the tee shots. Campbell had frequently used the dunes to house his green sites.
Most of us who treasure links golf are well used to hitting drives over marker posts and stones – less so the art of finessing a blind pitching wedge over a large hillock or into a hollow.
Not everyone loved the The Machrie in its previous form – it was just too much for some. It was also relatively short and there were problems off the links too. The whole resort had run into financial difficulties by the time DJ Russell, the Scottish tour player who created both the Fidra and the Dirleton at Archerfield, was called in.
In the most simplistic, broad-brush terms, what Russell has done has created a modern version of the same golf course. The Machrie is longer – 6,800 yards off the tips – for a start. It’s minimalist in style. It features very little in the way of long grass. And you can see much more of the target than you used to be able to.
That is not to say that he has eliminated bind shots because he hasn’t. Rather, he has designed The Machrie in such a way that through skilful – or lucky – tee shots you are rewarded with a view of the green. Over on the other side of the fairway it is often a different story.
The course is almost entirely free of bunkers and you will most often be chipping from short grass. The challenge comes from negotiating humps and bumps, and hollows and dips.
Occasionally, you play a hole that you half recognise from The Machrie’s previous incarnation. That happens as early as the 2nd. But for the most part this just feels like a new course, albeit one that occupies the same piece of land.
It’s fair to say that the tee shots are, as a rule, more dramatic than the approaches though one glorious exception comes at the 17th which is a pure throwback, and a nod, to The Machrie as was.
Here, you drive over the brow of the hill with no knowledge of what is to come and from the top of it the location of the green remains a total mystery. Walk on another 30 or 40 yards and all becomes clear. The hole turns sharply right at the last possible moment to a beautifully situated green.
Considering that The Machrie was in real danger of being lot altogether it seems churlish to be overly critical of what is an exceptional new course in its own right. Better, surely, to treasure this new addition to the list of great Scottish links and raise a glass of Islay whisky to its dearly departed predecessor.
We ended up doing so much more than we expected at the start. We spent a great deal of time agonising over how much to change such an historic links, but eventually decided that some changes were needed. The course was short at 6,200 yards, and had been changed many times since it was first laid out by Willie Campbell in 1891. So we did not have an original course to preserve anyway.
The Machrie layout we inherited had about 17 blind shots and was often described as “quirky”. It did not take full advantage of the incredible coastal setting.
We saw the potential to maintain much of the original layout, and maintain the unique charm of the course, but to extend it into a true championship links.
The course also needed new drainage, irrigation and modern equipment to bring up the playing standards at The Machrie to the highest levels. We feel that we have given an important piece of Scottish golf history a new lease of life for the 21st century.
The changes to the course have improved every hole, in my opinion, without changing the basic routing of the course. However, the sea is now visible from almost every hole, and blind shots can be partly avoided by placing drives into the correct parts of fairways. Good shots are rewarded more than on the old Machrie.