Seven years ago, former European Tour player D.J. Russell was summoned to the Isle of Islay, the southernmost island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides chain, to iron out some of the kinks at The Machrie, the famously quirky 1891 Willie Campbell links that used to have a dozen or more blind shots.
“When I first got involved it was just to tweak a couple of things,” Russell recalled. But the project steadily mushroomed. “By tweaking a couple of things,” he added, “it became pretty obvious that we could do a lot more things. … We gained so much comfort with every step we made and realized that we could create something extremely special.” Design changes to a few holes turned into a total reinvention of the links, which reopened in 2017.
Along with that came a six-hole short course, a practice range with five covered bays, an instructional area with Trackman technology, a putting course and extensive short-game area – everything you would expect to find at a top resort, except a hotel.
That final element is expected to be added by mid-September with the opening of the 47-room Machrie Hotel behind the 18th green. Like the links itself, the hotel is a reinvention of the dilapidated structure that used to exist on the same site.
All told, this ranks as the biggest comeback in Scottish golf since Paul Lawrie rallied from 10 shots back to win the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie.
The Machrie holds a unique place in Scottish golf history. Gordon Dalgleish, a Scotsman who co-founded tour operator PerryGolf, noted that in 1901, James Braid, John Henry Taylor and Harry Vardon played a match on Islay for £100, almost as much as the British Open prize fund that year.
In 1935, The Machrie hosted the Western Isles Open Championship, which offered prize money equal to the Open. By the 2000s, however, the remote island resort located 25 miles from the mainland had lost favor. The Machrie went bankrupt in 2010 and was acquired in mid-2011 by former BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and his wife, Baroness Sue Nye, a top aide to former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Anyone who has visited Islay knows it is woefully lacking in lodging for tourists. Many visitors who arrive to play The Machrie or tour the eight distilleries on “Whisky Island” drive off the ferry in RVs rather than trying to find lodging. So the owners’ plans to rebuild the hotel were welcomed by local officials. “The planning department was really keen to ensure that The Machrie continued being a key part of the island economy,” said John Nortcliffe, head of commercial for Hudson Architects, the British firm that handled the project.
“They were pretty much willing to let us do anything we wanted creatively, which made a real difference in the project.” In deference to the Ileachs (Islay natives) who often gathered at The Machrie, the façade that faces the A846 road “evokes memories of the original building,” Nortcliffe said.
The back side has been altered to take advantage of views of the golf course and Laggan Bay. That includes the main restaurant and bar that look out over the 18th hole and the bay. A private walkway provides access to the beach. Much like the original Machrie, there are four lodges that are tailor-made for buddy trips. Davies and Nye have cherry-picked top talent to manage The Machrie.
Dean Muir, the former Muirfield superintendent, has been on board the past two years overseeing golf operations. David Foley was plucked from Dromoland Castle, a Five Star resort in Clare, Ireland, to be the head professional. Campbell Gray Hotels, a boutique operator, was hired to manage The Machrie, its first Scottish property.
The new general manager is Anne Schaeflein, who previously worked at Gleneagles and the Isle of Eriska Hotel, Spa and Island, another boutique resort with a nine-hole course on Scotland’s west coast. While many key hires came from off island, Schaeflein said her goal is for Ileachs to form at least half of the staff.
That includes her spa manager, Eilidh Gillies, who ran a local beauty business the past seven years. “Working together with the local community is key for the future of any business, and certainly when one comes to Islay, authenticity is so important,” Schaeflein said in an email to Golfweek.
The Machrie’s summer room rates will start at around $300 per night, with offseason rates around $185. “The new hotel will undoubtedly make The Machrie more attractive, especially to the seasoned international golf traveler who’s already played most if not all of the other golfing regions of Scotland,” said Sam Baker, founder of the tour operator Haversham & Baker.
Baker added that he would recommend that his clients pair The Machrie with a few days on the southern end of the Kintyre Peninsula, where they could play Machrihanish and Machrihanish Dunes. He would even send more adventurous travelers down to the tip of the peninsula to play Dunaverty Golf Club, or to Shiskine, a 12-holer on the Isle of Arran, east of the peninsula.
Like The Machrie, all of those links, with the exception of Machrihanish Dunes, predate 1900. It would be, Baker said, “a real treat for the links aficionado looking for golf as it was a century ago.” Dalgleish, from PerryGolf, said he expects his American clients will be interested in The Machrie, though he anticipates most of the business will come from the U.K. and Nordic countries.
“For our audience, it certainly brings it into play for somebody who maybe has been to Scotland and is looking for something off the beaten track…” Dalgleish said.
“A trip to Islay for golf and drinking some local product and staying in a nice hotel might well be appealing.”
The Machrie might have its own solution for travelers concerned about being isolated on an island with only one golf course. Russell said the resort, located next to Islay’s airport, has an Islander plane that can fly four to six people on golf day trips to courses such as Machrihanish, Royal County Down and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, or Askernish on the Isle of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Gwk
(Note: This story appeared in the September 2018 issue of Golfweek.)