Archerfield is a rather upmarket golf club, formed in 2004. It offers a first class golfing experience for debenture holding members who play over the Fidra and Dirleton courses which are located within the massive Archerfield Estate. Today, green fee paying visitors are welcome, subject to tee time availability. Situated between the long established East Lothian links of North Berwick and Muirfield, these two new courses have much to live up to if they are to bear favourable comparison with their illustrious near neighbours – and they are doing rather well.
Golf has been played on the Archerfield estate for a number of centuries and the original 6-hole course was increased to 13 holes in the middle of the 19th century. North Berwick professional Ben Sayers then extended this layout to a full 18-hole track just before the First World War.
The Ministry of Defence used the grounds during the Second World War then the whole estate seemed to go into hibernation for over fifty years before local businessman Kevin Doyle bought 500 acres through his company Caledonian Estates. He enlisted senior tour professional David “D.J” Russell to create two courses as the centre piece of a multi million “gated community” development which involved the complete refurbishment of Archerfield House and the building of over one hundred luxury houses.
The Dirleton course measures from between 5,503 and 6,946 yards, depending on which of the four sets of tees is selected for play. There are over sixty sand traps on the course, many of them old-fashioned pot bunkers with revetted faces and wooden stairs at the rear. Like the Fidra course, many of the large, links quality greens have run-up areas in front, enabling the execution of traditional bump-and-run approaches along the ground – putting on such green baize surfaces, incidentally, is an absolute joy.
After a fairly quiet start to the round on the opening holes playing away from the clubhouse, the 5th and 6th holes at the most easterly corner of the course are very strong and worthy of the low stroke index attached to each. The round really goes up a gear or two from the 9th, heading back to the clubhouse at the end of the outward first loop of nine – the swale in front of the green here, with minimal bunkering, is so simple but so effective.
The holes continue to get even better on the back nine with great use of cross bunkers and ditches on several fairways plus swales before some greens with subtle contouring – apart from the wickedly undulating par three 13th hole. Many of the fairways are bounded by low, gorse covered mounding – resembling the esker ridges to be found on the King's course at Gleneagles – so a feeling of semi seclusion from other golfers is created on these holes.
The signature hole may well be the 463-yard, right dog-legged 16th which has four bunkers lined up one behind the other on the bend with a dry ditch further up the fairway to catch errant second shots – a par four on the scorecard will be well earned at this hole.
Many little touches and attention to detail help to create a premium golfing product on the Dirleton – whether it be the yardages to the hole marked on all of the fairway sprinkler heads, the use of white sea shells on many of the walkways or the low sleepered bridges over drainage ditches – they all combine to give the Dirleton a lovely feel.
An enormous clubhouse was finished in 2007, two years after the Fidra course opened. Constructed in a colonial style, the new building complements on course activities perfectly. Like Loch Lomond, the Archerfield courses were difficult to get on because of their member and guest playing policy, but things have changed, visitors are now welcome subject to tee time availability.
My return visit to play the Dirleton course was well timed, as it turned out, because the splashes of yellow gorse around the course are a sight to behold in early Spring. You have to keep reminding yourself that the course is such a fledgling on the Scottish golf scene as it has bedded in so well in such a short space of time.
The opening holes were a lot more challenging than I had remembered first time around (indeed, my opponent was quickly two up after five holes) and I’d forgotten what a strategic hole the downhill short par four 4th really was. Holes 5 and 6 are both beautifully bunkered from tee to green whilst the penal swale in front of the green on the 9th must surely be the reason why the hole is ranked stroke index 2.
After a mandatory 10-minute pit stop at the cosy wee halfway house, it was on to the back nine (match play all square) and, to my mind, the toughest set of holes on the estate. Fairways are still relatively generous but if you do stray too far from the short cut grass then you are almost certainly in deep trouble (two lost balls right off the tee at 15 contributing to my ignominious 4 & 2 defeat).
I still think the 16th is easily the best of all 36 holes at Archerfield – the four bunkers in a line at the kink in the fairway, followed by a ditch running diagonally across in front of an elevated green make it a very memorable hole. It’s such a shame that an access road has to be crossed several times during the round and that housing now sits beside the fairways at holes 13 to 16 (though natural growth of gorse on the bund walls should soften the intrusion of real estate over time) as it just seems the privacy of such a private place should remain intact for the full round.
The Dirleton may be more a manicured than a wild links experience for some purists but, nonetheless, it delivers a surprisingly enjoyable game of golf.
I returned to Archerfield nearly eighteen months after playing the Fidra to see if the Dirleton really was going to be the better course of the two. My conclusion? Yes, overall I prefer the newer of the two courses, particularly the inward half on the Dirleton where the holes just got stronger and stronger from around the turn. However, if I was to play my IDEAL 18-hole course at Archerfield, I would settle for the front nine of the Fidra followed by the back nine of the Dirleton, creating something like a Scottish equivalent of Formby.
The tees are enormous, fairways wide and firm (and feeling nothing like brand new) and the greens - well, no other word can be used than immaculate; green velvet, absolutely pristine and a real indulgence to putt on. If only the course had more wild, bearded bunkering like the large one on the left of the fairway at the 18th which looks like it’s been there for ever – and is one of the best designed sand traps I’ve ever seen.
My three favourite holes were 1) the par three 7th in front of the magnificent, restored Archerfield House, 2) the par three 13th where the green must slope over seven feet from back to front, and 3) the tough 16th which is a classic, dog-legged par four with several fairway bunkers on the bend. When the clubhouse is completed sometime in 2007, it will be just the place to look back and savour the round just played, whether on the Fidra, Dirleton or the MacFormby composite course!