I will be quite honest: I have found this possibly the hardest On Site report to write in the 11 years that we have been publishing GCA. Because, even after a good look at the works, an extended chat with the architect and a lot of reflection, I still do not know what I think!
The Machrie links, on the island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, to the west of Scotland, is a course that has long been famous for offering something very different to the majority of Scotland’s links. As seemingly befit its location, on the edge of the world in golfing terms, Machrie’s appeal lay in its wild and woolliness, a relatively untamed connection with an older golfing world. Though the course was not totally true to Willie Campbell’s original 1895 design (the famous third hole, ‘Mount Zion’, was lost, and many other changes were made in the 1970s) as Anthony Pioppi outlined in a ‘Lost Hole’ column in 2011, Machrie had more blind holes than almost any other course, and its reputation was that of a throwback.
Throwbacks, though, don’t always make money, and the Machrie course and attached hotel struggled, finally entering bankruptcy protection status in early 2011. Later that year, the property was bought by Gavyn Davies and his wife Sue Nye, one of Britain’s true power couples, for a sum believed to be in the region of £2 million. Davies, formerly global chief economist for Goldman Sachs, once chairman of the BBC and now a noted private equity guru and Nye, director of government relations under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, seemed, in many ways, ideal stewards for Machrie, with deep pockets, a close connection to golf (Davies is co-owner of the Vidauban club in the south of France) and a reputation for doing things properly.
The new owners have, it seems, pretty big ideas for Machrie. Forgetting the course works for the moment, the hotel – which had become desperately run down – is to be demolished, and a new one, with around 50 bedrooms, built in its place. The horrendously unattractive concrete ‘lodges’ that flank the hotel are to go. It is a very big development for a spot as isolated as Islay is, and at first glance, it smacks of overambition, verging even on hubris.
Take a closer look, though, and the scheme has rather more credibility. When I visited the island at the beginning of October, finding somewhere to stay was remarkably difficult; Islay was basically full. The island is a popular tourist destination, primarily among fans of its most famous export, the peaty single malt Scotch whisky that is produced by its nine distilleries (with at least one more planned to open in the next few years). The distilleries are well set up for tourism, with good visitors’ centres, and, in several cases, excellent restaurants. If the island was so busy in October, I can’t imagine how hard it must be to find somewhere to stay in August. In this context, the addition of 50 more bedrooms at Machrie looks rather more sensible.
So, after all this exposition, onto the golf course itself. Davies and Nye hired former European Tour player David J Russell (known to one and all as DJ) to upgrade Machrie. What was originally planned as a fairly small-scale renovation, though, has turned into an almost total rebuild, as Russell and his team found more opportunities for changes, and, presumably, as the ownership grew bolder. “The original project goal was simply to tweak it and improve playability for modern golf,” says Russell. “The place had hardly changed since the advent of the Haskell ball in the early 20th century, apart from Donald Steel’s alterations in the 1970s. But the expertise I’ve been able to put around me has given us the opportunity to do much more.”
>Walking the new-look course with part of that expertise, former Muirfield greenkeeper Dean Muir, reveals the scale of the changes. It starts at the first, which plays to the same green, though from an entirely different direction, and continues throughout. “It’s turned into a very new golf course,” Russell says. “The old holes were played at from very different directions. We’re using seven of the original green sites so a lot of what was there is being used in a different way. At first we thought of building a golf course within a golf course and keeping the original. But the magic of Machrie is its solitude. I believe we’ve embellished that. It’s taken the best part of three years to put it together. The views are so improved, because we have really being able to raise the golf course up onto higher levels.”
This comment is at the heart of the alterations. Part of the reason that Machrie was so unusual was that it was a genuine throwback, a course designed before the Golden Age that was largely intact, including no artificial irrigation whatsoever. As such, it retained a lot of those Victorian design characteristics, notably using lower ground, especially for greens, so that water would funnel down onto the playing surfaces and help keep them in good condition. “We have redone a couple of the old greens and got them way above the water levels,” says Russell, making the same point. “In the past, so many greens were in hollows that, combined with the water table, it really shut down in the winter. Now, if you’re mad enough, you’ll be able to play all year round.”
It is a testament to the quality of the site at Machrie that Russell has had this opportunity. Most of the new-look holes are, in large measure, natural: it is quite remarkable that a piece of property should contain so much good golfing features that were, until now, entirely untouched. And the new holes are, mostly, extremely strong. The shaping, by Eric and Robert Sammels of Edinburgh Landscapes, is first rate. The only really large piece of construction will be the new eighteenth hole, a gambling par five with a fantastic natural tee shot over a dune slack to a valley fairway. From then on, though, the closer will be artificial: a huge dune is to be demolished, and the materials used to construct a green complex right in front of the planned new hotel. It will, I am confident, be dramatic in the extreme.
Russell is well aware that the work will be controversial among those who have long loved Machrie. “I’m sure there’re people who aren’t happy with what we’ve done but I’m very, very proud of it,” he says. “But I want people to realise that this hasn’t been done on a whim. It was very important to us that things weren’t just changed quickly in five minutes but properly thought through.”
So, back to where I started. I had never seen Machrie prior to my visit last October, so I am perhaps not the best person to judge these changes. In isolation, DJ Russell and his team are clearly doing fine work, and Simon Freeman, for many years course manager at Machrie, now across the water at Machrihanish Dunes, put my feelings into words. “They are making it a better golf course,” he told me. “But will they remove what made Machrie special in the first place?”
This article first appeared in issue 44 of Golf Course Architecture.