Appeared in November/December 2005 LINKS
You’ve played the country’s Open courses—the Old Course, Carnoustie and Muirfield, Turnberry, Troon and Prestwick. You’ve journeyed to Royal Dornoch, stopping at Nairn en route. You’ve been thrilled at Cruden Bay, battered by Royal Aberdeen and charmed at North Berwick. You’ve ventured to Machrihanish and struck that wondrous opening tee shot across a sliver of the Atlantic. Surely you’ve been there and done it all, right?
No, you haven’t—not if you’ve never experienced the Machrie, Scotland’s most extraordinary, most unabashedly old-fashioned and most character-filled layout. If Machrihanish and Royal Dornoch are properly described as “remote” and “geographically challenged,” Machrie’s location is “off the charts.” It’s far off Scotland’s west coast on the Isle of Islay, the most southerly of the archipelago known as the Outer Hebrides.
Despite its location, Islay need not be regarded as truly remote, since you can fly there directly from Glasgow—a quick 35-minute hop—and return in the same day. Unless you are pressed for time, however, the “fly there, fly back in a day” visit is a poor choice. Sure, you’ll be able to play 18 holes at the Machrie, but you won’t see the links at its most sublimely atmospheric, as it invariably is early and late in the day. To merely walk this layout at such times is an almost mystical experience. Nor will you see much of what is a spectacularly beautiful and historic island. And, worst of all—in a Scotsman’s eyes, at least—you surely won’t get an opportunity to tour one of the island’s world-renowned whiskey distilleries and sample the famous Islay single malts, with their distinctive peaty flavors.
But before you book your next golf vacation, a serious word of warning: If you aren’t overly partial to blind shots, the Machrie is not the place for you. Here, in the course of 18 exhilarating holes, you will confront more blind shots than anywhere else.
Established in 1891, the Machrie occupies a wonderful setting beside Laggan Bay, over capricious, heaving duneland terrain. When routing the course, the original architect, Willie Campbell, took the land as he found it. So many of the optimal landing areas and putting surfaces are concealed from the tee or fairway, you might even conclude the degree of blindness was intentional and purposeful. Presumably the plan was to spice up the usual club selection process by adding—on top of the ever-present coastal winds—elements of fear, surprise, confusion and excitement.
This uncertainty comes into play right away, with a blind tee shot and a blind approach to a mischievously sunken green on the teasing 308-yard opening hole. You can see neither the green nor the flag from the crumpled fairway of the 390-yard 4th, and the drive is partially blind at the excellent 344-yard 6th, which tumbles downhill to a magnificent green set in the dunes. And so it continues, with the target hidden on approximately half of the tee shots and half the approach shots (including blind approaches to the final four holes).
Whenever the merits of the Machrie are discussed, this topic of blind shots inevitably arises, “archaic and unfair” typically being the cry of skeptics. We can be fairly certain, however, that Bernard Darwin would have disagreed. He often spoke of the “thrill factor” inherent in a blind shot—the joy of making such a stroke, then running to the crest of a hill to discover the outcome.
The most celebrated holes include the run of par 4s from Nos. 6 to 9—a fantastic, roller-coasting sequence—and the ultra-quirky and similarly spectacular four-hole finishing stretch.
It is nigh on impossible to compare the Machrie to other links courses because, like the famous Islay single malt whiskey, it is so distinct. You may conclude that it is not the best golf course in the world—perhaps not even the finest course in the west of Scotland—but you will undoubtedly sense that you have pitted your wits and imagination against a remarkable test of golf.