But ere the World come to an end Iona shall be as it was. - from An I’ Mo Chride, Saint Columba
Winters can be harsh on the Isle of Iona. The precious machair on the west side of the island, the location of Iona Golf Club since 1886, is exposed to 3,000 miles of the open Atlantic. Winds can average 30 mph throughout the cruel depths of winter. The regular flags are replaced with short plastic markers in November lest they be blown to the Isle of Skye. Despite these factors, or perhaps because of them, the members of the Honourable Company of Iona Golfers convene a regular Sunday game during the quiet season on the small, remote isle.
The 183-yard par three 3rd hole at Iona is one of the great natural wonders of golf. It almost always plays straight into the prevailing southwest wind, often requiring a full driver from the tee just to leave a manageable pitch shot to the elevated plateau /punchbowl green. A massive natural blowout bunker on the left – that Coore & Crenshaw themselves can only dream of creating – is almost certain death for the unfortunate golfer. According to longtime member Finlay MacDonald, “anything that is playable on your second shot is a bonus.”
Around 10:15 AM on Sunday, January 7, 2024, MacDonald reached the 3rd tee with two former Captains of the Honourable Company, Neil MacLeod-Jardine and Glen MacDonald. “There was not a breath of wind,” says Finlay, “which is highly unusual for January.” Using a 20- degree Mizuno hybrid, which he bought for £25 from a second-hand bin “because it was blue,” he struck a lovely, straight, low-rising shot. Finlay assumed it had made the green – a major accomplishment on the stunning monster of a hole. He once scored a 14 on the 3rd in the annual Iona Open; after flailing about helplessly in the colossal sand pit like Bernard Darwin’s proverbial “angry man with a niblick.” It is a hole where a bogey is celebrated like a birdie.
When the Sunday threesome reached the elevated green, someone remarked, “I can’t see it anywhere.” Assuming it had gone through the green and into the rough, Finlay walked towards the towering rock formations which frame the hole. Suddenly MacLeod-Jardine started shouting as he looked down into the deep Iona cup. The group waiting on the tee below thought he had made the miraculous shot. “Neil’s shrieks were way louder than mine,” says MacDonald with a laugh. Martyr’s Bay, the local pub/unofficial clubhouse, was closed on this Sunday. Finlay MacDonald still owes the approximately 15 members of the Honourable Company their requisite pint of Tennent’s. You can be sure they will not let him forget.
The 3rd hole at Iona was created entirely by nature, yet it rivals anything at Cypress Point, Royal Dornoch or Ballybunion. If you are ever fortunate enough to make it there, you will also find that Iona is free to play for visitors. The members of the Honourable Company of Iona Golfers prefer it that way. In this era of rampant greed in sports, Iona Golf Club is a reminder of why we all love this game so much. We can only dream of being in Martyr’s Bay pub on a late golden afternoon, by the impossibly blue Iona Sound, when Fin MacDonald holds court and recounts the tale of The Greatest Hole in One in the History of Golf.
Words by Jim Hartsell