Isle of Jura,
4 miles SW of Craighouse
Visitor policy still to be decided
Situated between the village of Craighouse and the slipway at Feolin Ferry on the southern shores of Jura, the Ardfin Estate extends to eleven and a half thousand acres, encompassing around ten miles of coastline that stretches out along the south side of the island.
In 2010, retired Australian hedge fund manager Greg Coffey purchased the property from the Riley-Smith family (brewers from Tadcaster in Yorkshire) and immediately set about implementing an ambitious plan to upgrade Ardfin’s infrastructure.
The dilapidated C-listed Jura House has now been restored to its former glory, old disused outbuildings have been totally refurbished and transformed into modern guest accommodation and – more importantly for golfers – a brand new 18-hole course has been constructed.
Bob Harrison, former lead architect for Greg Norman’s design company (who has a string of courses currently ranked inside our Australian Top 100) mapped out the 18-hole layout overlooking the Sound of Jura and it was built by Irish contractor SOL.
Occupying a mainly cliff top location on either side of Jura House, the course is routed across a rugged landscape of peat and rocks, where large quantities of unsuitable material had to be dug out and replaced with soil mined from other areas on the estate.
Dry stone dykes were repaired, extended and brought into play, making them an integral part of the playing strategy on several holes. Sand and gravel was shipped in by barge from Northern Ireland and turf for tees, greens and surrounds was imported from Yorkshire.
The scale of the build would have been off putting for most construction firms but SOL is obviously made of far sterner stuff, having successfully delivered challenging projects to great acclaim in recent times at both Trump golf facilities on the Scottish mainland.
There are only three short holes on the card and they’re all spectacular: the 2nd and 10th require heroic carries from tee to green across the edge of the cliffs and the 12th plays out along the beach, beside the old boat house which has been converted into a half-way house.
Last word goes to architect Bob Harrison, who had this to say about Ardfin: “I am convinced that it is one of the most beautiful and spectacular courses in the world, and the question then becomes whether I have given the holes the interest and strategic merit they deserve.”
Just as I was beginning to think that golf course development in the UK was stalling in recent years, along comes Greg Coffey to purchase half of Jura Island and hire the brilliant Australian architect Bob Harrison to build a private course along the southern edge of the island. All 18 holes are now just in play, with a significant amount of construction (e.g.: accommodation, golf services) still very much in progress.
At the moment, playing here is by invitation only. The policy going forward is not determined at this point in time. The growing conditions on the island are extraordinarily difficult given the frequent terrible weather in this part of Scotland, however the course is coming along very well. The views across the Sound of Islay and Atlantic Ocean will render you speechless as you navigate along the coastal cliff holes. When I consider all the new high-profile courses being identified around the world, there seems to be a glorious fascination with building coastal cliff golf courses. But I never shy away from the question of “if you take away the scenery, what are you left with?” While the routing is gorgeous, I continue to focus on the architecture that sits on God’s green earth – and this is an important mindset to have at Ardfin. This course has a lot of growing up to do in the coming years as it gets its feet on the ladder and one day in the future will be among the top 20 courses in Scotland. For example:
A) Its ability to play firm and fast like a true links course is a secondary consideration at the moment given the huge amount of rain that falls in this geography. The first 7 holes and the last 11 holes have different grass seeds on the fairways at the moment, so it’s still very experimental until they get it where they want it to be
B) The course doesn’t have a sufficient number of tee boxes. Too often the brutal forced carries and gale force winds will make certain holes unplayable for the majority of players which can be frustrating
C) There are two holes on the front nine (5 & 6) parallel to each other that feel like you’re playing up and down a massive non-descript field. The magnificence of the opening stretch was somewhat squashed when standing on the 5th tee looking up at an enormous green field with no character. Is this really the best they could have done?
D) The first 7 holes are in a separate piece of the overall property from the last 11 holes. At this point in time, the 7th green and the 8th tee are at least a difficult 15-minute walk from each other, which massively breaks the flow of the course. This is not in keeping with a traditional Scottish links
E) Holes 8 through 14 into a gale force wind are essentially unplayable where players will lose a dozen balls and encounter numerous green-sites that have no apron and reject balls straight into high grass or merciless junk. This is sad, as this is probably the most scenic part of the course.
The above observations are tough, but they are facts. The golf course in many places can rival the views on display at Pebble Beach, Cabot Cliffs or Cape Wickham. The brilliant architecture is clearly there and the sheer mind-blowing effort to break rock to create the holes is a feat worthy of the highest praise, but to the extent that Mr. Coffey can allow Bob Harrison to make this course a lot user-friendlier will be a welcomed addition to this glorious slice of heaven.
Almost exactly a year after I last visited the new Ardfin course on the isle of Jura (to read the story click here), I returned last week with a couple of other members from the Top 100 Team to see what progress had been made with the project. Having travelled to Jura via the small passenger ferry from Tayvallich on the mainland twelve months ago, I arrived this time on the small vehicle ferry from Port Askaig on Islay.
The last time I was here, architect Bob Harrison and estate manager Willie McDonald showed me around. This time, I was left in the capable hands of Christopher Campbell, recently recruited from his former position as Director of Golf at Trump International at Balmedie in Aberdeen, and Esie O’Mahony, Golf Development Manager of SOL Golf Construction, the company that somehow or other managed to build the course on what’s a very challenging site.
Simon Crawford, the new Course Manager who spent the last 11 years as Head Greenkeeper at Royal Westmoreland in Barbados also walked the course with our group, which included Paul Rudovsky, the only man to have played every course that’s ever appeared in a World Top 100 ranking list (click here to read his story from a year ago) so, along with Paul’s charming wife Pat, we comprised quite an eclectic gathering of golfers.
The opening four holes at Ardfin are pretty uncompromising. The first two are set along the edge of the cliffs that overlook Jura Sound, where mishit shots to the right are gone forever. The next two holes dip into then out of a small glen that runs away to the east of the estate, with the offset tee on the 3rd hole designed to disorientate golfers a little, followed by an intimidating uphill tee shot with a lengthy carry on the 4th.
The wide open spaces of the parallel holes on 5 and 6 bring some welcome relief from the rigours of the first four holes, and offer a breather midway through the front nine before the long par four 7th then swings back towards the 1st tee and a lovely infinity green perched on the edge of the cliffs.
There’s then an awkward transition to get down to the 8th tee, which is set on the other side of the walled garden that sits in front of Jura House. A buggy ride of some sort might be the best way to transport golfers from green to tee once a couple of bridges have been installed to traverse little gullies that eat into the cliff top.
The next seven holes, from 8 to 14, occupy a sublime portion of the property, starting off on the cliffs then working down to the water’s edge where a converted boathouse (now one of the most impressive half way houses you’ll ever see) and old sheep shearing buildings lie right on the shoreline. There are rocky inlets, dry stone walls and wetland areas to carry along this demanding stretch and it’s more than likely a few golf balls will be lost here by players who’re not on their game.
The 15th begins the march for home, with the hole rising steadily uphill until the split fairway on the par five 16th falls down a little towards a green that’s suspended on a rocky outcrop above the putting surface of the par three 12th. The par five 18th might on paper be regarded as a birdie opportunity but don’t bank on it as it’s uphill all the way to the respite of the home green.
Overall, fescue greens and ragged edged bunkers (constructed with capillary concreting) are absolutely top drawer though I think some additional teeing positions could be installed as it’s quite a big jump in overall yardage from forward tee positions at 5,523 yards to middle tee markers at 6,445 yards. There’s no stroke index or SSS assigned to the scorecard yet and it’ll be interesting to see what they’re set at when the course is rated. A few paths need to be finished off and some little bridges installed so the course is all but ready for regular play.
The restoration of Jura House is now complete from what I understand. I didn’t get very close to it but externally it looks rather grand from a distance. The nearby outbuildings which are being renovated for guests are still a work in progress but there’s an army of tradesmen working on them right now so they’ll soon be ready for occupation. All that’s to be decided now is the visitor policy, which the owner hasn’t yet disclosed.
My respect for Bob Harrison’s design skills is immense but by admiration for the construction abilities of Esie O’Mahony’s men at SOL is just as great. It hardly bears thinking what had to be done to somehow fashion fairways along the edge of the cliffs on either side of Jura House, across terrain that even the estate deer would once have thought twice about venturing onto. Hats off to all concerned at Ardfin as it’s a case study of how to overcome adversity both off and on the course.
This looks an amazing course, but there is something nagging in the back of my mind about the trend for building golf courses remoter and wilder parts of our island. Judging by the costs involved they seem to be the playthings of the fabulously wealthy and i suspect will mainly be played by their ilk. The difficulty of getting to this course alone would deter most of us.