Islay Golf: Surviving Ilfrinn

George Orwell didn’t play golf but the islands he described as “the most un-gettable-to places” are being reborn and rediscovered as ancient golfing land. On the Inner Hebrides they have been golfing as long as they have been legally distilling.

Soon the Bein Heartache lighthouse could be as familiar as Turnberry’s and Maladorous Bay mentioned in the same awed breath as Spyglass and Pebble Beach.

And the “Sheepfold Hole” as well and widely known as “The Road Hole”.

The Outer Hebrides has five courses – Isle of Harris,  Barra ( the most westerly in the UK), Benbecula ( a nine-hole services course only opened to civilians in the 90s),  Stornoway (1890) and Askernish (1891), designed by Horace Henderson and Old Tom Morris. who described he choice of land for golf in the Hebrides as “staggering” nature, being in his opinion, the supreme golf architect.

Scotland’s Inner Hebrides are hallowed golfing terrain too.  Islay – the Queen of the Hebrides,  2-3 hours from Glasgow and Edinburgh by train or car but only 25 minutes from Glasgow airport by “Loganair” –  has a long golf heritage.

“The player who beats the Colonel on level terms requires to play very good golf.” So wrote one visitor after playing Islay’s long-gone nine hole par-41 Gartmain course near Bowmore, where the island’s  first legal  distillery was  built in 1774. Islay now has seven distilleries. And even makes gin  – “The Botanist” and “Nerabus”.

Gartmain opened in 1907 but was allowed to grow over. Islay’s more famous  “natural course with good turf” –  as it was described in 1900 – has just re-opened, having undergone a makeover which should appeal to the romantics, purists and linksland loyalists.

As well as many others who might be described as “young” or “longer hitters”.

Or both.

Islay Golf Club is now the new Machrie Golf Hotel and Links. Investors include Baroness Dye, the former diary secretary of former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

The property is located a mile from the island’s Glengedale airport and ten minutes from the ferry terminal at Port Ellen. DJ Russell, former Ryder Cup Vice-Captain who played in over 700 professional events and is now chairman of the Seniors’ Tour, has redesigned the historic course. Russell partnered with 1991 US Masters champion, Ian Woosnam to work the redesign, through the” machair” – tufted short grass growing in sand dunes between land and sea. The course and hotel were closed for six years.

Says  Russell, “It’s still old-fashioned. You can bump and run and putt from a hundred yards out. If you care to, and think you can. But we have minimized the blind shots, which some didn’t like on the old course. But you still get those on the new. When you get out of position.

“We’ve also widened the fairways. I’ve yet to see someone having fun looking for their ball.

“It’s not a crash bang wallop course. It rewards risk as well as artistry. And straight hitting. It’s there to be enjoyed.”

But Machrie isn’t the oldest Hebridean island course. Or perhaps the truest and most classic test of seaside golf. Colonsay’s golf course, 90 mins away by Cal Mac ferry, goes back to 1775. 

It’s first hole is  one of the great tongue twisters of world golf – “Traigh Traigh an Tobair Fhuair (meaning, “Bay of the Cold Well”). 

The second is called Port Lobh (“Malodorous Bay”). Two burns cross the course with views out to the Ardskenish peninsular, Beinn nan Caorach (“Hill of the Sheep”), Dubh Hearteach lighthouse and the Dun Ghallain headland where a mediaeval fort once stood. 

In the late nineteenth century, the hoteliers were known as “the Misses McNeill”. They  maintained a “undulating machair that holds such fascination for the golfer”.

The course was mapped out by a JS Williamson of Troon in the 1930s but the holes already had names, thanks to a group of locals called the “Colonsay Thieves”. Members died or left the island and the course disappeared. But then reopened in 1978.

Every August, it hosts the annual Colonsay Open, when anyone who turns up can pit their skills against the Viking’s Grave (6th), the Fank or Sheephole 7th, “Reekin’ Kelp (9th) and The Rushes (14th).

The course measures 4,752 yards and comprises four par-5s, eight par-4s and six par-3s. The members enthuse about the crosswinds, the ball-eating burn and “tatty-bye”. It has no bunkers. Just rabbit holes. Sheep are the greenkeepers. And they nibble down the very small greens to a slow STIMP reading. Sometimes you have to bump and run on the greens.

The 1964 Isle of Skye Golf Club, which hosts its annual Open every July, is more manicured. The 4776-yard Sconser Club, which has its own full-time greenkeeper, was designed by former walker Cup player, Dr Frank Deighton. He died in February 2018 and his ashes were scattered over the course which has holes with names like Suidhisnis (Seething headland). At the foot of red Cullins, the course looks out over Raasay and several Mealls and Munros. Sometimes you can have the course and the old man of Storr to yourself.

The old Machrie was created in 1891 over a hundred years after Colonsay, and seventy-three before Skye, by Willie Campbell from Musselburgh. He was one of the first professional golfers to move to the US and worked as the professional at  Brookline Golf Club in Massachusetts. He came sixth in the inaugural USZ Open held at Newport, Rhode Island in 1895. The bunker he came to grief in during the 1887 British Open is known as Campbell’s Grave.

Machrie is now run by Campbell Gray Hotels. In 1901, Harry Vardon won a challenge match against  H.  Taylor and James Braid pocketing $125, then the largest prize in golf. He described the old first (“Mount Zion”) now part of the new 17th as “the hardest hole he had ever seen.”

The now 525-yard, par-5 seventeenth is justifiably called “Ilfrinn” – the place of suffering and, often,  great torture!

Operators offer golf packages with private flights over from Islay to Kintyre’s fabled Machrihanish Links (1873) and new “Dunes”.

Machrie is now 6782 yards off the black backs.  Its holes have name like Sxots Maiden (3rd), “Heathery” (11th), and Willie’s Fancy 15th). The Kintra burn runs through the course. The eighth (Bog Strand) runs along the seven-mile-long Atlantic Laggan beach.

The big-windowed 43-room luxury hotel has the island’s first cinema and has the feeling of a very modern high-ceilinged high-end hunting lodge. The locals approve. Although they grumble about the potholed approach road  which seem to have been retained as a site of archaeological interest and historic significance.

There is a six hole “wee course”, the ubiquitous virtual golf teaching facilities. The magnificent Sunday Lunch defeats most.

Room 26 is the best room in the house looking over the eighteenth green and down the fairway. There is no room 101. That’s in Orwell not Islay.

RAW Design’s portfolio includes Archerfield in Edinburgh, as well as projects in China, Bulgaria, Lagos and St Kitts. Russell and Woosnam also designed Amsterdam’s “The International”.

But they are already in competition with sister island Jura’s extraordinary Ardfin Estate course. It was built by hedge fund multi-millionaire “Financial Wizard of Oz” Greg Coffey, and Bob Harrison, who worked with Greg Norman. Everything had to be imported by sea, mainly from Northern Ireland, to the pier at Craighouse, Jura’s principal settlement. George Orwell wrote “1984” on Jura (“The deer island”).

Ardfin’s last hole ends up at the boathouse where, in 1994, the KLF rock band burned a million pounds. At the moment the course will be only open to its owner’s friends, making it easily the most exclusive golf course in the world.

Machrie at na Torraig, Bruichladdich is open to all. New tees may have been added, greens raised, re-contoured and enlarged, or just moved. Greenside bunkers re-jigged and the sixth fairway moved closer to the Atlantic. But as resident PGA Golf Professional and 2013 Irish Fourball Champion, David Foley related, the course which not only skirts the dunes but crosses them, is still classic golfing habitat and its original designer would have approved. It’s still “a place made for gowf”.

“The location and the tranquility is something you can never change.  I have to pinch myself every time I come here,” says DJ Russell. “It’s nice to see the 58 degree lob wedges staying in the bag and four irons being sued from eight iron distances. Machrie is a very special place.”

The reborn Machrie is not to be feared. Although a little “Laphroiag” single malt in your porridge in the morning helps to give some Hebridean courage.

Winter rates start from $185 per room, per night and summer rates from $300 per room, per night, including breakfast.  The 2018 visitors green fee is $80 per round and $125 per day.  April-October 2019 – $150.  www.campbellgrayhotels.com

Story by Stuart Abraham

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