The impressive new 18-hole course takes shape on the Isle of Jura’s Ardfin Estate

12 September 2016 Respond to this article

The impressive new 18-hole course takes shape on the Isle of Jura’s Ardfin estate

Top 100 Golf Courses previews Scotland’s latest golf course development in the western isles

The Inner Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland consists of thirty-five inhabited and dozens of other uninhabited islands and their combined land mass amounts to around 1,600 square miles. The mountainous, rather bleak and barren Isle of Jura is the fourth largest of these islands, supporting a small population of around two hundred people. Access to the mainland is by a couple of vehicle ferry crossings via Islay or by taking the summer season passenger ferry that runs to Tayvallich, near Lochgilphead, a two-hour car journey from Glasgow.

With vast tracts of the island covered in blanket bog, Jura is divided into seven estates. One of these, Ardfin, is located in the south of the island, within one of forty designated National Scenic Areas in Scotland. The estate was acquired in 2010 from the Riley-Smith family, brewers from Tadcaster in Yorkshire, by retired Australian hedge fund manager Greg Coffey and the London-based owner has embarked on a long term redevelopment project to restore the semi-derelict C-listed Jura House to its former glory and construct a top class 18-hole golf course.

Jura Hotel and DistilleryAt the invitation of architect Bob Harrison, I had a look around the course recently in the company of both the designer and estate manager Willie MacDonald who, like his father and grandfather before him, has worked on the Ardfin estate all of his life. Bob is a former lead architect for Greg Norman’s design company and eight of his courses are currently listed within the Top 100 ranking chart for his native Australia, including the ultra-private Ellerston in New South Wales which he built for Kerry Packer at the start of the new millennium.

Jura FerryRather than travel to Jura by boat or plane via Islay, I decided to take the small passenger ferry from the mainland, taking 45 minutes to get to the small port of Craighouse, where the Jura Hotel and Jura Distillery are located within yards of each other. The Irish construction company SOL GOLF is building the new Ardfin course and I got the chance to have a chat on the journey over with greenkeeper Sam Leach, who was heading back to the job after flying into Glasgow from Dublin, having had a few days at home on leave.

Within minutes of arriving on the island, I was striding down the 1st fairway with Bob and Willie, who both endorsed Sam’s assertion that building a course on such difficult terrain – much of it peatland that had to be dug out and replaced with soil from elsewhere – hadn’t been easy. As an example, the fescue and bent grass turf for the greens had been specially shipped in from Yorkshire, along with a whole range of other building materials that couldn’t be sourced locally, so organising the transportation logistics had been a major consideration from day one of the project.

The course is laid out along the cliffs that line the southern shores of the island, with holes routed down to the water’s edge on the back nine before climbing back up to Jura House at the end of the round. The views across the Sound of Jura towards the Isle of Gigha and the Kintyre peninsula are simply sensational and some might say it’s all too easy to succumb to the seduction of the spectacular surroundings. But what of the course itself and rumours that, just like that other private golfing playground at Ellerston, Ardfin will be something of a tough track?

The 1st hole gives a fair indication of what lies ahead, playing gently uphill, with rocky outcrops to the left, a severe drop off down the cliffs on the right and a ditch scything through the fairway in front of the green. There’s little margin for error with either the tee shot or the approach as anything slightly offline will be lost in the dense vegetation skirting the fairway and the green. It’s obvious right from the start that precision, not power, is what’s required here because many of the playing corridors are frighteningly narrow, placing an absolute premium on accurate shot making.

Ardfin golf course 2nd holeThe long par three 2nd calls for a heroic tee shot across a bracken-filled chasm to a seemingly distant green but the hole normally plays downwind – unlike the short 10th, which requires a similar all-or-nothing tee shot across the edge of the cliffs, but this time into the prevailing wind. Bob told me more work is still to be carried out to the left side of the 3rd hole, opening up the stream that runs along the edge of the fairway before it cuts behind a really striking, right to left sloping green. After such a demanding start, it’s time to relax a little during the next few comparatively placid holes.

Ardfin golf course 5th holeThe 4th plays uphill then kinks right across a road to a fairway split by a nest of bunkers, so width is not an issue here. The breadth of the fairway isn’t a problem at the next two holes either, played side by side, first uphill then back downhill towards the water. Beautifully reconstructed stone dykes line the perimeter of the large playing field that houses both the 5th and 6th, and they offer a bit of a breather before the rigours of the back nine. The 7th hole lies along the hillside and its fairway had just been seeded so it was the only hole I didn’t get a close look at.

Ardfin golf course 8th holeThe 8th drops down a level towards the shoreline and the architect told me it was one of the most difficult holes to fashion on the course. Part of the hillside had been removed to create a semblance of a driving line from the tee boxes but it’s still a really tight path for tee shots to reach the fairway landing area. From here, a stone wall fronts a gully that runs across the fairway before the hole then veers left and down towards the green – it’s a simply stunning par four that begins a brilliant sequence of holes around the turn.

Ardfin golf course hole 11The 9th doglegs left and down, bringing us towards the water’s edge, where the 10th plays as a semi blind “reverse Calamity” short hole and it seems to be all carry to the putting surface – only when you walk towards the green do you discover there’s actually a big bail out area along the edge of the cliff, which is handy for when a strong wind’s blowing directly in your face on the tee. The 11th continues the slow descent towards the restored boathouse down at the Sound and there’s a huge wetland area to carry with the approach shot to a raised green that might, depending upon a high seasonal tide or stormy weather, end up almost entirely surrounded by water.

Ardfin golf course hole 12The par three 12th skirts a little sandy beach, moving inland to a wonderfully rippled green nestled at the foot of the rocky escarpment. It’s a hole that looks great from the tee but even better from the cliff top at the back of the green, next to the putting surface on the 16th hole. The 13th continues along the coastline, past an old sheep shearing building that’s still to be restored, to a challengingly shallow, two-tiered green. This hole’s then followed by a terrific Cape hole which hugs the shore as it swings left to another green that’s protected by a really intimidating wetland area in front of the putting surface, just like the 11th.

Ardfin golf course hole 15The 15th turns for home and it starts a slow, inexorable climb along the cliffs to the 18th green. Thankfully, there’s a fair degree of width on the closing holes which is probably just as well because the fairways all slope a fair amount from left to right as they head along what appears to be a little ledge cut into the hillside, above the cliff tops. With par fives at both the 16th and 18th, there’s always the chance of bagging a propitious birdie at the end of the round. On the other hand, should a bogey or two prevail, there’s always the consolation of the magnificent vistas to soften the blow of a somewhat disappointing finish.

There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Ardfin is destined to become a high flying entrant in a future Scottish Top 100 chart, possibly even making an impression on the Great Britain & Ireland Top 100 chart. I had the same feeling about Castle Stuart, Renaissance Club and Machrihanish Dunes when I visited each of them before they officially opened for business and I won’t be in the least surprised to see this course make its mark in a similar fashion. In fact, looking at the way some remotely located new build courses within the English-speaking golf world are being touted for inclusion in forthcoming golf magazine World Top 100 charts, don’t discount Ardfin from making a global impact in the ranking stakes either.

Jim McCann
Editor
Top 100 Golf Courses