John Huggan: Distance no object at Machrie on Islay

The links at The Machrie on Islay already provide a pure example of seaside golf but an overhaul of the classic course is aimed at making it even more of a classic test of skills

The links at The Machrie on Islay already provide a pure example of seaside golf but an overhaul of the classic course is aimed at making it even more of a classic test of skills

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Careful development to make classic Islay course an even more subtle test of skills

DISAPPOINTINGLY for those who can recall a better, more interesting time, modern golf in this age of technological wizardry has largely become a one-dimensional experience and spectacle. All but gone are the days when a Lee Trevino or a Seve Ballesteros would shoot in the mid-60s by dint of genius-level creativity, shot making and feel. Instead, brute power rules and tediously long 7,500-yard courses are increasingly the norm in the 21st century.

DJ Russell is directing the changes. Picture: Stephen Mansfield

DJ Russell is directing the changes. Picture: Stephen Mansfield

Hope remains though. Styles based more on artistry than science can still find encouragement when the playing platform is on the ocean. With its inherent randomness, seaside golf in its purest guise represents the most interesting venue for both the truly gifted professional and the less-talented amateur. Which is why a trip to the Hebridean island of Islay and the magnificent links that is The Machrie is set to become even more worthwhile.

Long famed for its classic terrain, spectacular dunes land and many blind shots, The Machrie is currently undergoing a major renovation under the direction of former European Tour player DJ Russell. Enthusiastically backed by new owners – past BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and Baroness Nye (once diary secretary to ex-Prime minister Gordon Brown) – and alongside course manager Dean Muir and ace construction man Eric Sammells and his team, the 61-year-old Midlander now resident in East Lothian is either reshaping or redesigning every hole on the ancient links.

Which is not to say that the old layout is already gone. It isn’t. In fact, only as the new holes are completed will their counterparts be phased out over the next 18 months or so. With many of the new holes running parallel or completely separate from the old, visitors will always have a full 18 holes available throughout the re-design.

“By the time we are done, we will have altered every hole,” confirms Russell. “The ‘old’ Machrie will no longer exist. So it will be welcome to the ‘new’ Machrie, a course I feel will give a lot of people a lot of pleasure for many years to come. I’m confident I’m doing the right things. We are going to have 18 high-quality holes on the most perfect site. And we have done our best to retain the unique feel of the place. In fact, we have added to it by emphasising the ground game. There will be a lot of bump-and-runs out there. I want people to look at shots and think the best shot is one played with a 4-iron, even if they are 8-iron distance from the green. That will be true even when someone is only 70 yards or so from the green. There will be all kinds of options, not just yet another lob with a 58-degree wedge. In that way we have enhanced the magic of The Machrie experience.”

Indeed, only rarely can there have been a more appropriate coming together of talents and attitudes than at The Machrie. Recognising this, the proprietors are allowing the experts to do what they do best, free from the restrictions (“think about where Rory McIlroy’s drive will finish and make it difficult from there”) placed on so many designers these days.

Russell’s love and appreciation for the game as it should be played runs deep in his soul. Muir – better than a scratch player himself and former deputy course manager at Muirfield – is the rare greenkeeper with a real understanding of course set-up. And the redoubtable Sammels brings a peerless enthusiasm and insight to his largely unheralded but incredibly important job. They make a formidable team.

“The Machrie is a wonderfully natural piece of ground for golf,” says Russell, returning to his theme. “These days, too much of golf is played through the air. But here it’s very different. Most of the game is going to be on the ground, or at least with the ball low to the turf. It will be a throwback to how the game used to be. It’s not the ‘crash-bang-wallop’ stuff we see so much of these days.

“Some people will no doubt argue that is ‘old-fashioned.’ And it is, but only in the best sense of the word. It’s a more skilful form of golf, one that asks for control and touch more than just power.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for me to be able to take this fantastic site and build a course that will be so much fun for everyone to play.”

Happily too – especially for those romantics already in love with The Machrie’s ethos and atmosphere – Russell is not abandoning the “blindness” that has been such a part of the course since it came into being back in the 1890s. There’s going to be a difference though. Instead of every approach shot flying over a marker pole, only drives finishing out of position will be condemned to such a fate.

“The atmosphere and aura of the place is something you just can’t buy,” continues Russell. “The solitude is a beautiful thing and none of that will change. But, if you hit your drive where you intend, you will get an unimpeded view of the green on every hole. To me, that’s one of the great thrills of golf. There is no better feeling than hitting a pure shot and watching it finish next to the flag. How anyone can derive much pleasure from hitting over marker poles is a mystery to me.

“If your drive finishes somewhere other than the perfect spot, however, you’ll be hitting over a dune. So you will be rewarded more for your good shots and subtly punished for your less-good ones. That’s why we have widened so many of the fairways. I hate seeing players of all standards reduced to hacking out of long grass. There’s no point to that. Plus, overly thick rough only leads to lost balls. I have yet to see a golfer having fun while looking for his ball.”

Away from the course – albeit not far – plans are in place for a new hotel (complete with in-house cinema), a par-3 course running through the dunes and a Himalayas-style putting green. With only one course on the island, visitors will be able to find fun without straying far from base.

But it is The Machrie that will bring most to the largest and southernmost of the Inner Hebrides.

“When it is completely finished, we will have a course very different from so many you see these days,” says Muir. “There will be a lot of width off the tees. So sound strategy and decision-making – on tee-shots and approaches – will be a big part of scoring well. The players will be able to create their own angles into the greens.

“There will also be a lot of short grass around the putting surfaces. So you’ll have to think rather than just pull your sand wedge out when you miss a green. If you want to, you will be able to putt from as much as 100-yards out. It will be fun. It’s going to be a proper, firm and fast links.”

They are building it. So you must come. Take it from this fan, The Machrie is a wonderful place to be and to play.

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