How The Machrie became the course we play today

Golf has been played on Islay for 130 years. The course we play today represents the latest stage in The Machrie’s long and gradual evolution and its creator was DJ Russell.

The Machrie dates back to 1891, when the original course overlooking Laggan Bay on Islay’s south-west coast was laid out by Willie Campbell.

Born in Musselburgh, Campbell was one of many Scots to emigrate to the east coast of America at the beginning of the 20th century to take advantage of the game’s burgeoning status on the other side of the Atlantic.

Before he left to seek his fortune, this perennial contender at the Open Championship, where he finished no worse than 11th in any of his 10 appearances, spent two days on Islay designing a course. He concluded: “This place was made for gowf.”

The course officially opened with a match between Campbell and the 1883 Open champion Willie Fernie. Fittingly, the architect triumphed.

The course he left amid Islay’s wild dunes, on a coastline shaped by the buffeting of Atlantic waves, was one of a kind. 

It was a throwback to the days when the land dictated the routing and blind shots were considered to be much a part of a seaside course as sandy soil and a fresh breeze.

The Machrie’s reputation was quickly established and in 1901, the Great Triumvirate of Harry Vardon, JH Taylor and James Braid, who were in the process of amassing 16 Open Championships between them, came to Islay to play a challenge match.

Over the next century, the course naturally evolved and was altered several times.

Most notably, when a local farmer reclaimed some land in the 1970s, Donald Steel was called in to replace these holes using new land at the far end of the property.

As entertaining as it undoubtedly was, by modern standards the course was unfair and sometimes confusing. With so much golf here played by visitors, there were also safety concerns to consider with no fewer than 17 blind shots to contend with.

That was where DJ Russell, the former European Tour professional who designed the two courses at Archerfield, in East Lothian, came in.

He was aided by the expertise of course manager Dean Muir, who made his name at Muirfield, where he helped to set up the course for the 2013 Open Championship before moving to Islay to work on this exciting new project.

“I was brought in to tweak the golf course but as the more I got into it the more it became obvious that we could do something really special,” says DJ.

“We gradually pieced together how to put a golf course along the original golf course really.

“Willie Campbell only came over for a couple of days – it took me the best part of four years to get my head round where everything needed to go. How he managed to do that in two days I don’t know,” he said.

In 2017, what had begun as a re-working – a modification – concluded with the creation of an entirely new golf course. 

The Machrie as we now know it was revealed to the world.

“I think the whole experience of it has been an incredible coming together. We’ve got a greenkeeper that has produced the finest links golf course in the world in Muirfield. We’ve got an owner who is doing the things for all the right reasons from a golfing perspective and we had a construction team here for four and half years who have built some of the finest golf courses on the planet so it was just an incredible opportunity for me to be able to show what was possible with this land.

It’s a real links experience and everything you’d want from a links course: the wonderful dunes, the wonderful changes in elevation, and the weather can change dramatically every five minutes. 

“It’s links golf as it used to be where the ball is played much closer to the ground than the modern game demands.”

Speak to DJ for any length of time and it is evident how he became immersed in the project and inspired by the Isle of Islay itself.

“It’s an incredible experience, really. It’s taking the time to take your time. The solitude, it’s your own private place. You come over to Islay and feel like the world has taken a big deep breath and you’ve got time to do things.”

DJ’s memories of the course as it was are still vivid, and they have helped to shape what it has become.

“It really is a spectacular site for a golf course and it was very important from my perspective that I made the course a lot fairer than it was. 

“It was fantastic golf course but one with a lot of blind shots and it was very important that I made it a more pleasurable experience, particularly for the people who were playing it for the first time.

It was a very demanding test of golf. You were playing blind tee shots so you were hitting tee shots over a marker pole and then if you were lucky enough to find it when you got over there your second shot was over another marker pole. 

“There’s a place for that but probably not on every hole. The Machrie had become very much a golf course that if you knew it, it was a lot easier than if you didn’t know it. 

“I mean, I played on the European Tour for 25 years, and I played on the Seniors Tour for 12 years, and the first time I played the course I lost 14 golf balls. 

“It was obvious that something had to be done for the people that played the golf course for the first time or were coming on holiday.”

Russell has certainly succeeded in making The Machrie a course that rewards creativity and the art of shot-making, whether that is in riding the wind on a downwind drive or skilfully executing a chip-and-run from a tight lie.

“With the strong Westerlies that can kick in, I think it’s very much a golf course that is a throw-back to the days of being able to play more along the ground or close to the ground than you need to now,” he said. 

“It’s distance control, being able to pull a 7-iron out and nudge it along the ground. 

“I always remember the shot that Seve played back in the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale where everything was burnt and there was a lot of short grass and he had a chip between the bunkers on the 18th. He ran it between the bunkers and put it close to the pin. 

“Modern golf with the irrigation systems has taken that skill away a little bit. If Phil Mickelson was in that place today he’d get out his 64 degree wedge and lob it in. 

“The Machrie is very much a throw-back and encourages you to play those bump-and-run shots.

The result is a course that, crucially, can be enjoyed just as much by the first-time visitor as it can by those lucky enough to call The Machrie their home course.

“I hope that when golfers come here for the first time that they’re suitably blown away by the place. When you drive in to The Machrie, you wouldn’t believe that behind the hotel and the clubhouse there is going to be this incredible links land. 

“I’m very proud that it does blow people away. 

There are not many places that have that aura to it. Trust me: this is the sort of place that sends shivers down your spine when you actually stand on the golf course and see what is here. It’s a very special place,” he said.

Quick takes

DJ’s favourite holes…

Most of the holes are my favourite holes because I’ve imagined them and watched them come out of the sand dunes but my favourite hole will always be the 9th, that was where it all started on my first visit. 

I tried to pick the brains of a few of the older members about the original golf course and the views and I finished on top of this sand dune looking towards the sea and suddenly pictured a par 3, the 9th hole as it has turned out, and then I pieced it together from putting that one hole in. So the 9th will always be the one that sticks out for me.

How the 1st is the same but very different…

The 1st green is still the original green, just played from a different direction. 

The 1st hole used to start where you have your breakfast and you played at 90 degrees to where you play it now. We took over a couple of fields and created the current 1st tee with the fairway coming out of the green at 90 degrees – totally different. As for the green surface itself, it became pretty obvious that it worked really well.

On the seven surviving greens…

The 1st, the 4th and the 7th greens are among the original sites we’ve saved.

It was purely they worked very well within the routing and the greens themselves had quite a bit of carry to them anyway.

The 4th hole has changed, I’ve probably made it a little bit easier to come in at but it’s a similar length to the original green but we’ve mowed out some of the original greens and made them a bigger putting surface so you’ve got a lot more interesting pin positions. 

Most of the greens were down in hollows and back in the day when there were no watering systems they generally found the wettest place they could so the greens were good in the summer but unfortunately in winter they filled with water. 

With a couple of greens, the 6th and 17th, we’ve put them back in to their original place but lifted them two metres so the golf course is playable 52 weeks of the year.

Where to find the best views…

I really enjoy the view when you come up the 1st hole. You come over the crest of the hill and the golf course sits there in front of you, it’s quite an unexpected view. The 2nd green, the 3rd tee, the 4th tee – there’s just a collection of wonderful views.

The way the golf course used to play – from hollows over the dunes back into the hollows – it was very difficult to appreciate the views as you were walking over the top of a hill to see where your ball was. You weren’t really looking around and appreciating the views.

The Machrie’s generous fairways…

I think The Machrie will evolve as it’s evolved over the last 120 years. I wanted to give it the room to evolve. Bunkers will be added over the next couple of years. The wind can suddenly pick up and blow from a different direction. It’s very difficult to make a golf hole playable for every day of the year so it was important I didn’t over-step my mark at the start. There’s so many wonderful places you can put a bunker out there.

I think if people are visiting in a few years they will see a few more appearing but they will appear for the right reasons rather than aesthetic reasons which could damage the way the hole plays, either downwind or into the wind.