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.”
The biggest surprise of my golf year has been Ardfin. First of all, just the opportunity to go out and pre-play this course during a couple day visit to the Isle of Jura is extremely special. However, that pales in comparison to what we found once we arrived. Having recently visited Ellerston outside of Sydney, one of the most private courses in the world, Ardfin also by the same architect may well end up the same type of situation and closed to everyone except the Owner, his family and immediate friends.
Ardfin Estate is situated on the South East corner of the Island of Jura and occupies a truly spectacular and magnificent piece of land. The routing takes us out to the East side of the estate along the cliffs. The first hole is a short to medium length par 4 playing up along the cliffs. Standing on that tee box is truly breathtaking. It’s clear that the intent at Arfin was to greatly impress the golfer right out of the starting gate and that intent was hugely successful.
A solid drive to the left hand side of the fairway allows a pretty good look at the clifftop highly undulated green. Don’t miss the approach shot to the right, first step is a serious one.
The second hole is one of the more spectacular par 3’s on the planet. Played from cliff top to cliff top and measures roughly 180 meters from the back tees. The green is naturally placed along the opposite cliff top and sets up ideally to receive a ball that lands just short of the green and bounces up. There is also a significant right to left slop to the green and two tiers that allow players to bring it in from the right.
The short par 4 3rd is a risk reward cut off all you can chew type hole played towards a semi narrow fairway that is running from right to left at a diagonal line from the tee box. A decent drive with anything from a hybrid to a driver depending on the wind will set up a relatively short downhill approach shot to a front to back sloping green. Short is definitely better than long here and if it’s playing firm then there will be a strong need to land it short and run it up. Long is near death with a small stream running behind this green.
The 4th hole is a long tough par 5 with a blind tee shot up over a hill from a tee box that may be set at the lowest point of this starting 9. Visually there seems to be little space but once you arrive on top that deception is all too clear. The hardest shot on this par 5 may well be the second shot and the choice to lay up short of the burn and native area or attempt to carry it so that you can have a short uphill approach into this green. The surface is not viewable from the fairway on the right but may well be from the far left, a side of the fairway I did not choose to go. The approach is full of centerline bunkers so the play also needs to make a choice on the second shot if they would prefer to play to the left side fairway over the burn or the right.
The 5th hole is another extremely interesting hole. Once on the tee box you are faced with a similar look as standing on the first tee at the Old Course in St. Andrews. There is an old stone wall to your right running all the way up past the green on the right-hand side. The wall then runs behind the green and across to the far end of this 150 yds wide fairway before it comes back down parallel with the fence on the right side before cutting off to the left further. Much like the Old Course it’s a very wide fairway and thus not easily missed, however there is a clear strategy here which is in fact the closer you play to the right-hand wall the easier and more straightforward your approach shot is. The further left you play the more difficult it becomes.
The 6th hole plays back down in the opposite direction to an elevated green with the sea and channel between Isle of Jura and Isle of Islay as a backdrop. The tee is elevated slightly given the 5th also plays uphill and now we return back down the hill. There is a really interesting risk reward aspect to this hole as well in that you have to again take on the wall in order to enjoy the best angle of attack. From the tee, you can choose to take on the carry of the entire wall running in front of you and landing where the wall cuts to the right side. The elevated green has a couple tiers so makes for a really tricky approach and the angel is far more favorable from the right side.
The 7th hole is a par 5 playing back down to where the Estate House is located and back towards the first tee. A diagonal approach in a wide fairway with lite bunkering is followed by a layup or long approach which for us played almost directly into the wind. This green runs away from front to back as well.
After the 7th the golfer is required to take a sizeable 5 minute walk along the front of the estate.
The 8th hole feels as though you stand on the side of the cliffs and aim for a sliver of a target in the right to left sloping fairway surrounded by stone walls on the left and in front.. At around the 220 meter mark there is a hazard in the form of a dry wash. A hybrid or a long iron will leave a short to mid iron to a wonderful green perched at the cliffs edge. A breathtaking shot to a green guarded on the right by a strategically placed bunker and on the left by a small native area and the drop to below.
The 9th hole is another wonderful mid-length par 4 playing along the cliffs edge as you gradually work your way down towards the sea and the alone isolated boathouse that doubles as a halfway house. The tee shot requires a slight carry to a fairway that is ordained with some natural rock structures. A strong tee shot leaves a challenging approach to another green along the cliffs edge. The setting is that from a storybook.
The 10th is a par 3 played from cliffs edge, or if dared from an extremely small back tee of about 4 meters width in any direction surrounded by cliffs on all sides. Those afraid of heights or with vertigo won’t venture to this tee box. Either way the heroic tee shot carries from cliff top to cliff top. A scary shot though there is ample room to the right out of view that can be used as a bail out.
The 11th hole is a tough par 4 that finishes our journey from clifftops down to the the waters edge culminating with the KLF Boathouse. Millions of pounds are said to have disappeared here in a single night’s party. A strong drive with a forced carry leaves perhaps the most challenging approach yet before the break is the be earned. The approach is over a wetland native area to a raised green surround on 3.5 sides by wetland.
After a break at the boathouse the 12th hole welcomes with a long par 3 played slightly uphill and along the shores edge. The green is tucked up into the bottom of the cliff. It’s long and narrow and sloped back to front with varying tiers. An amazing hole to see and in any kind of windy conditions a true challenge to play well.
The 383 yds 13th hole is a solid par 4 playing along the beach on the left. From the back tee the ideal line is over the old stone structure, a feature I loved about this hole but could understand others not liking it as much. I found it cool how the old stone walls and structures were worked into the course. The men’s medal tee allows for a line more to the left. The approach to this green needs to be measured carefully. There is a burn before the green and also one behind. There is ample room but distance control especially into the wind can be tricky here.
The 416 yds par 4, 14th hole might receive my vote for the #1 hcp hole. While not the longest for some reason the approach here was one we found very challenging. The drive along the beach is a bit of a cut off what you can chew shot however it is possible to play well right. The fairway does appear wider than it plays however and running out of space on the right side is feasible even with what feels like the ideal line.
The approach is really what makes this hole so difficult in my mind. A good drive leaves a mid to long iron in still conditions and in our case into a heavy wind you have to choose between lay-up, long iron or fairways wood. I hit 3 wood and made the carry but was still short right of the green. The second day in the other wind I hit 5 iron in finding trouble left which is clearly not the play. Still playing slight uphill this approach is tougher than it looks.
The 15th hole is another serious par 4 and the longest par 4 of the set at 460 yds. The added challenge here is that the tee shot plays steeply up hill to a green surface that is out of view. At this point of the course we have turned back to the East to head back home. On the way out golfers have had to guard against going left but now that’s changed around. Right is sudden death but there is so much space left and this fairway somehow makes this hole play much shorter than the distance.
The approach to 15 is another story and makes up for the perceived distance gained on a solid drive here. The slope is fairly steep and the player must add an extra club or two. The green is guarded by bunkers and drop off on the right side so the safe play is again to the left side just like the drive.
The 520 yds, par 5 16th hole is an excellent 3 shotter. The fairway ahead is split by some native area and mounding down the middle. The aggressive line is down the right side and will allow a shot at this green in two. After the mounding begins the fairway runs down the bluff to the right to a green perched at the end of the bluff above the 11th green. A safe shot to the left side of the fairway will require a lay-up with no chance to reach the green. This is a really tricky tee shot.
The approach to the 16th, which I went for in two both times seems to draw you into going for it (obviously, it did me), even though it is most certainly not without risk. Anything to the right will disappear. The 16thgreen has a beautiful location with a view out to the boathouse. Since it plays downhill the green which is protected by a tricky bunker on the left still seems to set up well for chasing one in on the ground.
The 17th is a 456 yds par 4 dogleg right. The drive is up the hill with tons of space on the left hand side. Hugging the right side provides a much shorter approach but if not long enough the shot will end up being blind.
The closing hole is a 540 yds up hill par 5. This is a serious 3 shotter with a snaking fairway. Longer drives will have to stay right and be played over a semi blind native area. Too long, (probably about 280 meters) the fairway runs out to the right and this will be reachable by longer players. The drive is faced by what I’d best describe as a subtle dogleg right and shots too long to the left can run out of fairway.
The second shot plays over a native area and up a pretty steep hill climbing back up to the top of the cliff/bluff. This green is raised up and the surface is out of view due to the slope. Right is danger and also guarded by bunkers so playing up the left side is advised.
A round at Ardfin won’t come easy but if you do ever have a chance to visit drop everything immediately. It has my vote as a Top 20 course in the world. It’s that good and it's one of the few courses you will ever play that have 18 holes so different from one another that as you walk off the course the routing is totally and completely ingrained in your mind. At least it was for me. Not an average hole on the course, 18 great holes and several all world holes.
Yes, Ardfin is the real deal!
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.