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Iona: The World’s Most Natural Golf Course

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Located on the tiny Isle of Iona, just off the western coast of Scotland, the Iona Golf Course dates back to 1886, when a nine-hole course was laid out along the coastline. The course was expanded to 18 holes in 1905, routed through machair (fertile grazing land), and today, it is like a time machine, redefining “minimalist,” untamed design. Featuring blind shots, howling winds, dunes, rock formations, the ever-present threat of sheep crossing your path, and the possibility of playing to the wrong green, every round is “pure golf” and as much of an adventure as it is to get there.

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Iona has no clubhouse or yardage markers, and its maintenance staff consists of sheep and cattle that graze the site. There are no traditional hazards such as artificial bunkers or water hazards, just the rugged natural terrain and the occasional cow pattie. The “greens” are simply areas of rough grazing cut slightly shorter than the surroundings.

Those who make the trek can play for free. The only cost is £1 for the official scorecard, which you can pick up from the local post office on the island. It’s quite the bargain for the chance at one of the world’s most unique and natural golf experiences. Information on the course is tough to come by, but it’s there if you persist. Some quotes and info were sourced from “Forgotten Greens of Scotland.”

In this post, we’ll visit the Isle of Iona and discover its unique seaside links surrounded by the same rugged island landscapes that formed the backdrop to Macbeth’s medieval reign. We’ll explore its origins and location and highlight what makes the course special. Finally, further reading suggestions and videos will help bring the course to life.

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Origins and History

The Isle of Iona is a small island in the Inner Hebrides, located just west of the Isle of Mull. It measures only 3.5 miles (5.6 km) long and 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide and has a total area of just 2.8 square miles (7.2 sq km). Despite its tiny size, Iona has been an important religious center for centuries and is home to the famous Iona Abbey, founded in 563 AD by St. Columba. Over 100,000 people annually make a pilgrimage to the island, which is home to less than 200.

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Golf on Iona dates back to 1886, when Allan MacBeth, a principal in what would later become the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, laid out a nine-hole course. According to Neil MacKay, the village tailor, “Golf-playing has been introduced into the island by some English gentlemen who are staying in the Columba Hotel. The links of the Machair on the west of the island are admirably adapted for this fashionable sport.” 

In 1905, Wiliam Mcneile Dixon, an author and Glasgow University professor, expanded the course to 18 holes. It is said that the course was utilized by the “working men of the island” on Fridays from 5 o’clock on, with WWII interrupting the tradition in 1939.

The course is maintained by the Honourable Company of Iona Golfers, a group of regular visitors formed in 1968. They hold an annual tournament each August and raise money for a local island cause. The “Iona Open” is played over 11 “competition” holes and allows players to drop the highest two scores, leaving them with their best 9-hole scores.

Renowned for its breathtaking natural scenery, the Isle of Iona features miles of pristine white sand beaches lining its shores. The most famous is Iona Beach, a vast expanse of dunes and machair on the island’s west coast. Other highlights include the rocky Spouting Cave, the dramatic Iona Nuns’ Beach, and the pink granite cliffs along the east coast.

Reaching Iona Golf Course is no small feat. It requires taking two ferries – one 45-minute ride from Glasgow to the Isle of Mull and traveling across Mull to another small ferry to the tiny island of Iona. Once there, it’s a 30-minute walk across the island on a dirt path before you crest a hill and see the beautiful seaside course emerge. Locals are said to have a soft spot for visiting golfers and are known to stop and offer a ride to the course.

Did You Know?

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While Shakespeare’s play portrays Macbeth as a murderous, guilt-ridden villain, the real King Macbeth had a relatively successful 17-year reign over Scotland in the 11th century. He came to power in 1040 AD after killing his predecessor, Duncan I, in battle, which was a common way for a new monarch to take the throne in those days.

Despite his violent rise to power, Macbeth was seen as a capable ruler who managed to fend off Viking invasions and English armies during his time on the throne. Interestingly, the quirky Iona Golf Course is just a short ferry ride from where Macbeth would have ruled as King of Scots over 900 years ago. 

Founded in 563 AD by the Irish monk St. Columba, Iona Abbey became a renowned center of Celtic Christianity and a major pilgrimage site in medieval Scotland. Its significance was heightened by its role as the burial place for many Scottish kings and royalty over the centuries. An inventory from 1549 lists around 50 graves of Scottish monarchs at the abbey, including Macbeth and his wife Gruoch.

While the exact location of Macbeth’s grave at Iona Abbey is unknown today, his final resting place was likely marked with a carved stone slab or cross like those of other kings buried there. Many of these grave markers were sadly destroyed during later raids on the abbey by Vikings and others seeking plunder. However, Macbeth’s legacy as one of Scotland’s most famous and controversial Kings lives on through Shakespeare’s iconic play and at historic sites like Iona linked to his reign.

The Course

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Despite its modest length, the Iona Golf Course has been ranked as one of the best short courses in the world and the most natural. It plays 4,673 yards to a par of 66. Notable is the absence of par-5s, with the longest hole only 378 yards. The outward nine plays 2,308 yards to a par 32, while the inward half plays 2,265 yards to a par 34.

The greens are hand-mown by locals, making the grass slightly shorter than the rest of the course, which is void of rough and manicured only by the roaming livestock. The routing takes you through dunes and rock formations, with walking paths somewhat undefined. It starts with a short par-4, featuring a blind approach. The 2nd is another short two-shot hole with a wide open fairway, played into the prevailing wind to a small green.

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Iona contains six one-shot holes, ranging in length from 102 to 232 yards, none better than the signature 3rd hole, “Crow’s Nest.” Playing 190 yards uphill to a green guarded by a massive 40×30-yard natural bunker with a rock formation behind it, the 3rd has been compared favorably to some of the best one-shot holes in Scotland. On “competition day,” a prize is awarded to the player with the highest score on this hole!

Another short par-4, the scenic 4th, plays along the beach with a view from the tee that is one of the best on the course. A mound in the fairway shows the proper line off the tee. Iona’s longest, the 5th, also plays along the beach, with vibes of the first at Machrihanish and as I did some research, I found this notion shared by Evalu18. You can shorten the hole by playing over and closer to the water on the left side. The short 6th is the first back-to-back short holes with the wind helping; the 190-yard 7th is defined by a blind tee shot over a hillock. The outward half concludes with the undulating, drivable par-4 8th and the 95-yard 9th.

The 10th is a short par-4 played between rock formations and dunes, with a blind approach as the rocks obscure the green. The short 11th, the final hole used for competition, plays into the wind and features yet another blind approach. The green is one of the best on the course and overlooks the beach and Atlantic. The 13th and 15th are seemingly drivable par-4s; the latter played uphill with the flagstick visible, urging you to take it on. The round concludes with the one-shot 18th, a 150-yard approach to a postage stamp green. On this one, I recommend watching the videos, which will no doubt inspire and give you a feel for the rawness of the course.

Further Reading

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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A Course Called Scotland
by Tom Coyne

Summary: For much of his adult life, best-selling author Tom Coyne has been chasing a golf ball around the globe. When he was in college, studying abroad in London, he entered the lottery for a prized tee time in Scotland, grabbing his clubs and jumping the train to St. Andrews as his friends partied in Amsterdam; later, he golfed the entirety of Ireland’s coastline, chased pros through the mini-tours, and attended grueling Qualifying Schools in Australia, Canada, and Latin America. Yet, as he watched the greats compete, he felt something was missing. Then one day a friend suggested he attempt to play every links course in Scotland, and qualify for the greatest championship in golf. 

The result is A Course Called Scotland, a hilarious golf and travel adventure throughout the birthplace of the sport and home to some of the oldest and most beloved courses in the world, including St. Andrews, Turnberry, Dornoch, Prestwick, Troon, and Carnoustie.

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Golf Courses of the British Isles
by Bernard Darwin

Summary: “Golf Courses of the British Isles” by Bernard Darwin is a classic text that explores and celebrates the unique beauty and challenges of golf courses throughout the British Isles. Darwin, a revered golf writer and grandson of Charles Darwin, provides insightful commentary on the architecture, history, and character of iconic courses, blending personal anecdotes with expert analysis. His vivid descriptions transport readers to the very greens and fairways of famous venues, highlighting their natural beauty and the intricacies of their design. The book, illustrated with evocative drawings by Harry Rountree, remains a timeless tribute to the game of golf and is considered a must-read for enthusiasts of the sport and its storied landscapes.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Iona – Best Course You’ve Never Heard Of
Iona Golf Course – No Laying Up
Links Diary- Iona Golf Course

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