Os­lay 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.

Golf Vacations - - Contents - by Stu­art Abra­ham

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 par41 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 par5s, 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

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