The Machrie was often described as ‘eccentric’ – which is another way of saying ‘bring lots of balls’.
For the purists, its array of blind drives and approaches was the epitome of what links golf was all about, a hark back to a long-gone age of plus fours and hickory shafts.
But for others, The Machrie Golf Links was simply too much. Their visits were fleeting and singular.
A golf course and hotel that’s perched on a Hebridean island can’t just trade in one-time trips.
“The fairways had been really narrowed in, there was only one greenkeeper, and it was very difficult to play,” remembers golf manager Dean Muir.
“If you can imagine blind tee shots and approach shots over dunes to very narrow playing surfaces, it became very difficult.”
“People came, lost a lot of golf balls, and didn’t particularly want to come back,” he adds.
Not even the Isle of Islay’s marvellous malts were enough to tempt golfers back in sufficient numbers and, 10 years ago, The Machrie sadly entered administration.
There were those, though, who saw great promise in those sweeping west coast dunes and the incredible Laggan Bay flanking them.
Gavyn Davies and Sue Nye bought the business in 2011 and, after 17 years at Muirfield, nine of those as deputy course manager, Muir left the Honourable Company to join The Machrie’s revolution.
He explains: “The biggest thing was the opportunity to be involved in such a project – coming in and, right from the start, to be involved in the course changes.
“The entire project brought huge excitement.”
DJ Russell, the architect of the acclaimed Fidra and Dirleton courses at Archerfield, in East Lothian, was brought in to bring the links up to a modern age – and his reimagining is capturing the attention of all who see it.
Where once you saw very little of the sea, now the routing plays right to it – creating incredible vistas. It routes holes between and alongside the dunes rather than over them.
The challenge is in negotiating bumps and dips, not bunkers and long grass, and the fairways are wide and accommodating.
“The golf course is on such a fantastic bit of ground,” says Muir. “It’s very un-Scottish-like, in a way, with the duneland.
“A lot of traditional Scottish courses tend to be quite flat. The Machrie is definitely not that.
“There are towering dunes. The greens are set below them. There’s a real sense of remoteness and isolation. You can be out there, outside of the first four or five holes, and you don’t really see anyone else. You feel like you’ve got the place to yourself.
“On the old course, I think there were only two or three spots where you actually saw the water. You always heard it. But because the old holes were kind of tucked down, along the fore-dunes, you never saw the water until you got to the high points.
“Now, with the redesign, you are being pushed right back towards the shore. I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved here. I’ve played a lot of golf at different places around the world and this really is phenomenal.
“Maybe I’m biased but certainly the feedback we get from any guests that come is that they fall in love with it and they want to play it again and again.”
Covid-19 has hit hard this year, as it’s affected all golf and hospitality venues, but with The Machrie quickly climbing course ranking lists, and with the hotel attracting all manner of visitors as Islay opens up in the wake of the pandemic, Muir is confident the best days still lie ahead.
“It definitely is a destination now and it is only going to grow and become more popular,” he adds.
“We are climbing up the rankings but, really, the significant increase for us will be when more people get here.
“I think the hardest thing for us is that not enough people have seen the place and seen it in its full glory.
“The potential of The Machrie is unimaginable. It really is. We’ve obviously got really supportive owners with great investment in the property and we are going to grow the business, improve the golf course.”
Have you played The Machrie? Let me know what you think of it in the comments, or tweet me.
- Related: Why The Machrie is the course of my dreams
- Related: Where does The Machrie fall in our list of GB&I’s Top 100?
Played by NCG vodcast: The Machrie
NCG’s Steve Carroll and Dan Murphy have both experienced what The Machrie has to offer, so they sat down to discuss their time on the Isle of Islay in the Played by NCG Vodcast…