By Ron Kaspriske
If you talk to even the most seasoned golf travellers, you’ll likely get a never-heard-of-it-look when you tell them you’re heading to Scotland to play at The Machrie Links. But if you find yourself in a conversation with a longtime scotch drinker, just say you’re heading to Islay and wait for the nod of approval.
The sleepy island on the southwest coast of Scotland (pronounced “I-La”) has been known for centuries for its quality single-malt whisky. Despite a population of less than 3,200—there are more sheep than people there—nine distilleries call Islay home. Well-known brands such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore and Bruichladdich are a short drive from each other.
And it’s this concentration of distilleries that makes Islay an interesting—and certainly unusual—choice for a golf trip. More on the whisky in a moment, but let’s get back to the mystery golf course. If you’re still unclear on the geography and why The Machrie is a timely topic, know that this links course is only 25 miles from Royal Portrush, site of this year's Open Championship.
On a clear day, you can see Islay from Northern Ireland’s northeast coastline. They are so close that hotel guests can ferry across the North Channel from Islay to Ballycastle, Northern Ireland to attend the Open. The hour-long boat ride drops you about 17 miles from Royal Portrush.
The Machrie also has historical ties to the Open. The course, which opened in 1891, was built by Willie Campbell, the famous Scottish golfer who finished in the top 10 at the Open Championship eight times in nine years but never won. And Englishman J.H. Taylor, a five-time winner of the Open Championship, came to Islay and won The Machrie Open in 1901, besting James Braid and Harry Vardon for the prize of 100 British Pounds.
But that’s where the history of The Machrie turns dark, like a brooding Scottish sky. Over the decades, the hotel became more and more dilapidated. And the course, popular with islanders because of its quirky and countless blind shots, was unappealing to visitors who spent more time searching for lost balls than savouring the scenery. For many years it looked as if Islay’s only true links course was doomed for extinction.
But in 2011, former British Broadcasting Corporation Chairman Gavyn Davies and his wife, Baroness Sue Nye, diary secretary to the United Kingdom’s former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, bought The Machrie for a reported 1.9 million euros and then spent millions more renovating the hotel and course.
They brought in famous U.K. hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray to reimagine the lodging and common areas and architect D.J. Russell to make the golf course more user friendly. Most of the blind shots are now gone, and the course has been rerouted to capitalize on the views offered by its coastal location.
The back of the hotel has terrific views of the course and the North Channel.
To the unknowing, The Machrie looks as timeless as any Scottish links. Sheep often wander onto the fairways, and most of the holes are sequestered by the property’s rolling dunes and high fescue grasses. The par-72, 6,782-yard layout has many memorable holes, including a fantastic stretch from the sixth to the ninth.
The 404-yard sixth has a green surrounded by dunes covered in fescue on three sides. On a windy day it looks like a gallery of wispy ghosts have come to watch you putt. If the wind is behind you, the 303-yard seventh, which runs parallel along a pristine beach, is drivable for many. The par-4 eighth requires an approach over a steep drop in the fairway. And the 143-yard ninth is one of the most scenic par 3s in Scotland, with an elevated tee box overlooking a bay known as Loch Indaal.
The ninth plays toward a 7.5-mile long beach known as The Big Strand.
Perhaps the most interesting one-two punch on the course is the 12th and 13th. The first is a 509-yard par 5 easily reachable in two if it’s playing downwind. But you better make birdie, because the next hole is a 456-yard par 4 into the wind that can be unreachable without two of your healthiest blasts.
Although the 526-yard 18th is a great finishing hole—straightforward, fair, and getable even in a headwind—the 17th might be the back nine’s most interesting. Head golf professional David Foley will tell you not to hit driver on the blind, dogleg right hole that finishes with another green surrounded by high dunes. But make a gentlemen’s agreement now: Everyone must hit driver on that hole. Then let the search begin.
The “drivable” 17th has a green tucked amongst the dunes that you can’t see from the tee box.
That’s the great appeal of the course, says Foley—it gives and it takes. You might walk away from some holes feeling beat up, but you’ll be back at the bar later talking about two-putting for birdie on a par 4. Speaking of the bar, Campbell Gray did a great job turning it into one of the most memorable 19th holes in golf. The long indoor/outdoor seating area sits just high enough to stare out at the water.
And as you might expect, the scotch collection behind the bar is extensive. Not only are all the local whiskies represented—often by numerous varieties from the same distillery—and you can get just about any scotch you like. That’s especially useful if the peaty nature of Islay malts is not your preference. But perhaps give them another try.
The view from the 19th hole at The Machrie.
If you know your scotch, you probably know many of the whiskies of Islay are infamously smoky. Because a type of decomposed plant material known as peat is used as fuel to heat the grain during the fermentation process—just like it has been done for hundreds of years—the taste of an Islay malt can be harsh (often described as smelling and tasting like iodine).
But know that the distilleries on Islay are aware of their peaty reputations and have produced varieties of other scotches that are far more appealing to those who prefer the milder, more savoury taste of malts distilled in other regions of the country, such as Speyside.
Bricks of peat are thrown into a furnace to heat the grain used in scotch.
You can try all the offerings by visiting any of the Islay distilleries. Most have free tastings that include some of their oldest and expensive creations. Think of the Napa/Sonoma wine trail but replace wine with scotch and the spit bucket with a strong constitution. (You’ll need a designated driver. No exceptions!) You also can reserve a guided tour of some of the facilities, including a detailed explanation of how scotch is made. The Machrie’s staff can help arrange these visits.
The Bruichladdich distillery.
Whisky fermenting in containers known as washbacks.
Barrels of scotch undergoing the aging process.
Islay is the classic pastoral Scottish setting with quaint coastal villages and vast acres of farmland blending with rolling hills and long stretches of unspoiled beach. About a 20-minute drive from the hotel is the Islay Wollen Mill and world-renown clothing weaver Gordon Covell.
For the past 38 years, he has been making tweed and other cloth worn by celebrities around the world and used in major motion pictures including “Braveheart” and “Forrest Gump.” If you’re looking for a unique souvenir for a non-scotch drinker, this is the place.
The Long Strand beach adjacent to The Machrie.
Gordon Covell of the Islay Wollen Mill.
Circling back to the golf, the thought might have occurred to you that a trip to Islay sounds like a long way to go to play only one course (see Travel Info, above). There’s no denying that although The Machrie has 18 holes and a six-hole par-3 course, the lack of other nearby golf options make it a tough sell for hardcore players; especially Americans who think of a trip to Scotland as a 36-a-day march for four or five days on as many courses.
But you could enhance a journey to The Machrie by ferrying from the island to mainland Scotland and playing nearby Machrihanish Golf Club. Machrihanish, which opened in 1876, is another seaside gem and is ranked as the 11th best course in Scotland by Golf Digest. It will take about four hours to get there, as you must ferry to Kennacraig, north of the course. Then it’s an hour drive south to Machrihanish. Just like getting to The Machrie, it takes a little effort to reach. But well worth the adventure.