John Huggan: Restoring a masterpiece

The Machrie has been left behind by golf technology, and is being made relevant again by DJ Russell. Picture: Getty
The Machrie has been left behind by golf technology, and is being made relevant again by DJ Russell. Picture: Getty
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THE sign at the end of the road leading to The Machrie reads, rather redundantly, “18-hole championship links golf course”. But the message is worth repeating.

Ever since 22 November 1890, when the original architect, Willie Campbell, stood atop one of the many striking dunes and announced: “This place was made for gowf”, Islay’s contribution to the game has been one for the connoisseur. Australian Bob Harrison, Greg Norman’s long-time (and now former) design partner, goes as far as to call it the “Sistine Chapel of dunes golf”.

Unlike Michelangelo et al’s masterpiece in the Vatican, however, the original Machrie layout has seen multiple revisions over the years. Donald Steel’s introduction of six new holes and a shortened ninth is the most recent of those, but the essential character of the course has emerged largely unscathed. It remains a wonderful place to play golf, in spots a monument to all that is good about the greatest game.

Covered in the humps, bumps and “quirk” so beloved of those self-important and pretentious golf architecture geeks who endlessly disappear up their own backsides on various “specialist” websites and blogs, The Machrie is unashamedly old-fashioned. There are more than a few blind shots. The greens are typically a quaint mixture of dips, slopes and borrows. And many of the fairways resemble an unmade bed, so eccentric are their contours.

For all that, however, The Machrie is, in places, hopelessly out-of-date. Those who make the pilgrimage either by plane from Glasgow or by ferry from the Kintyre peninsula tend to be, more and more, only the aforementioned aficionados. And even they are coming only once, many of them leaving dissatisfied by the experience of walking a layout time has sadly passed by.

Happily, though, things are looking up at The Machrie. The new owners, the multi-millionaire and past BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and his wife Baroness Nye (once diary secretary to ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown), have engaged the services of former European Tour professional DJ Russell to make the challenge offered by this iconic venue more appropriate to the 21st century.

“My brief is really to enhance The Machrie,” says the two-times European Tour winner, who remains the youngest-ever player to make a hole-in-one in an Open Championship (on Troon’s Postage Stamp in 1973). “Things have happened over the years that have taken away from the original concept on a lot of the holes. Which is a shame. It is an incredible place, an incredible site for a golf course. So it’s important that what we do is nothing except make the place better and more appropriate for the modern world and game.

“The big change in golf came when the game moved from the feathery ball to the Haskell. And The Machrie has stayed pretty much the same since then. But the game has moved on dramatically. There are a lot of blind holes, which can be a bit disconcerting the first time you play there. So, without taking away the character of the place, our aim is just to bring the course into the 21st century.”

That is easier said than done, of course. With the explosion in distance over the last two decades or so, the problem facing every course architect is both obvious and difficult to solve. How does a course challenge the better player, yet remain fun for the less gifted? Make it too long and the handicap golfer can’t possibly enjoy the experience, make it too short and the course is basically obsolete for the professional.

“Modern technology has changed golf,” says Russell, who, remarkably, won the 1992 Lyon Open without making even one bogey. “The quality of the strike between club and ball is now not as important as the speed at which the club is moving. In the past, if players tried to hit the ball really hard, it went all over the place. Now, that is not the case. The ball flies so much straighter than it used to. So tour players, free from the pressure of achieving accuracy, are more than capable of hitting drives 350-400 yards. That’s a good par-4 for the ordinary club member.

“The differences between the tour pro and the average amateur are therefore wider than they have ever been. Which is a sad indictment on those running our game. And it has made it all but impossible for the architect to build a course on which the pro and the amateur can both have fun. The only way ahead is to build in subtlety to course design. We have to ask the good player to do more with the ball.”

Such empathy with golf as an art form, rather than the science it has increasingly become, sounds like a perfect marriage with The Machrie, a course where there is no watering system and so shots played low to the ground tend to have more success than those lofted mindlessly into the air. It is a place where guile and finesse count for more than brute force.

“Overall, our changes will increase the length of the course slightly,” continues Russell, whose assistant on the technical side of the alterations is former European 200-metre sprint champion, Dougie Walker. “What I really want to do is challenge the modern shot. In other words, from the spots where today’s tee-shots tend to finish, I want the approaches to be more interesting and demanding.

“For example, we are building a completely new 10th hole, to replace what was the weakest par-3 on the course. Now, it will play from an elevated tee to a quite generous green at about 145 yards, which I feel is such an awkward distance in links golf. It will be all about ‘creating’ shots to fit the conditions rather than just blasting away, which tends to be the case on ‘short’ holes that play well over 200 yards.

“It’s all about better understanding the interaction between the weather and modern golf.

“The par-5 second hole will also be different and, I think, a lot better. Right now, the landing area for the better player is generous. That’s not great, but even worse is the fact that the weaker player actually has less room to hit into. By moving the tee – and so the angle of the drive – that will be reversed. The better player will be challenged more, if he wants to find the ideal spot. And the higher-handicapper will get a break. It will be an easier drive for him. That has clear benefits for the ‘playability’ of the course.”

Alongside Russell’s work on the course, plans are in place to redevelop the on-site hotel and build a driving range and short-game area. For now though, the priority is the course.

“It has taken me all of two years to fully understand the course and what we need to do with it,” says Russell. “So we’re going to take our time and get it right. There is more than a little pressure involved, too. To be entrusted with the future of this historic place is a big compliment and a big responsibility. I hope the faith of the new owners will be justified.”

It surely will be. DJ Russell knows what he is doing.