As is the case anytime the Open Championship is held in Scotland, the focus of the golfing world shifts to the birthplace of our game and the many golfing pearls dotted across her coastline. The likes of St Andrews, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Turnberry, Royal Troon and Royal Dornoch need no introduction and are household names for those who have, as well as those who haven’t, traveled to these ancient shores. Throw in the likes of Royal Aberdeen, Prestwick, North Berwick, Cruden Bay, Brora and Machrihanish as fun alternatives to the bigger names, and it’s hard to mount a credible argument against this being the greatest golf destination in the world.
While visitors naturally gravitate toward the older links here, there are a number of modern designs with a strong following. Kingsbarns outside St Andrews is the best established, followed by Castle Stuart, which has hosted several Scottish Opens. The new Trump International Golf Links north of Aberdeen has also made a lot of noise in recent times. Each certainly has its own qualities but is somewhat shaded by a more illustrious neighbour. The same is true of virtually every other modern golf course here. In fact, about the only criticism of Scottish golf is that, in general, these modern designs are poorer, and less fun, that the older, original links.
What’s interesting to note here, is that with a handful of exceptions the new layouts in Scotland have been developed and/or designed by North Americans. These include signature professionals such as Jack Nicklaus (Gleneagles) and Tom Wesikopf (Loch Lomond) to proper designers like Tom Doak (Renaissance Club), Gil Hanse (Castle Stuart & Crail), Doug Carrick (Carrick at Loch Lomond) and Kyle Phillips (Kingsbarns & Dundonald). Looking forward, the trend continues with major new developments planned for St Andrews, Aberdeen and Inverness that include additional designs by Weiskopf, Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
All of which makes the new Ardfin course on the sparsely populated Scottish Island of Jura so different and unique. Here, in the home of golf, is a new development not only being designed by an Australian, Bob Harrison, but also developed by an Australian, financier Greg Coffey. Harrison describes the project as ‘perhaps the most significant and enjoyable’ of his career.
The genesis of the project dates back several years, when Mr. Coffey and his family first visited the Southern Hebrides and fell in love with the vast 14,000-acre Ardfin Estate, which for decades had been used chiefly for deer stalking. Ardfin not only had the land necessary to build a spectacular golf course but it was also home to the stately Jura House as well as cottages and stables dating to the 18th century. The Coffey’s plan was to restore and upgrade the amenity to five-star standards, and to allow access to the golf course for friends, family and a limited number of guests staying in the lodgings.
For the project to work and for the first ever course on Jura to be a success, it needed to be of a standard sufficient to satisfy the tastes of both the developer and expected clientele. Coffey apparently selected Harrison as his designer in part because of the role he played building the ultra-private Ellerston course for Kerry Packer. It was also due, in part, to their mutual love of Shiraz, Test Cricket and this particular corner of Scotland.
To appreciate just how special this project is for Bob Harrison, it’s necessary to understand the geography. At its nearest point, Jura lies less than a kilometre from the more populous island of Islay, home to the timeless Machrie Golf Links. Prior to meeting Coffey, Harrison fell in love with Machrie and made numerous trips to the Hebrides to play what he calls the ‘wildest links in Scotland’. For Harrison to be able work on the island next door, and leave his own design legacy for Scotland, has truly been a dream come true. ‘Any course in the home of golf would be exciting’ he says, ‘but to have such a beautiful and spectacular site is the icing on the cake. It's become my favourite place on earth, and I have a reverence for the landscape.’
Above - The spectacular opening hole at the Ardfin golf course on the island of Jura. Photo by Konrad Borkowski.
Beyond proximity to one of the quirkiest links in golf, is a site of rare natural beauty overflowing with scenic possibilities. The Coffey’s own more than 15 kilometres of Jura coastline, along with seven private islands between their shores and Islay’s. Harrison had his choice of land, and selected an area around the manor house, closest to the larger offshore islands. The opening seven holes will play to the east of Jura House, and the final eleven to the west.
One of Harrison’s chief tasks in designing the Ardfin course was to somehow stay out of the way of the scenery while at the same time building holes that compliment the views. It’s a delicate balance. You don’t want golfers to feel there are superfluous elements or gimmicks here, but equally you can’t afford for the golf to feel overwhelmed by the outlooks. Making it harder is the fact that these are among the most rugged and untouched panoramas in Britain. Not surprisingly, Harrison aligned holes to point beyond the narrow Sound toward Islay as well as straight along the majestic Jura shoreline. There are holes set down along rocky beaches and others atop towering cliffs that rise hundreds of feet abruptly from the sea. Those away from the really dramatic views are often blessed with nice, natural features or old, historic stonewalls, which Harrison has used strategically within his design.
Harrison describes the landscape as 'old world' and his design objective being to, ‘drop the course into it with as little disturbance as possible, and with absolutely nothing of a pristine nature.’ There are no cart paths at Ardfin and no car parking either. There isn’t even going to be a clubhouse. Available instead will be pure, raw golf.
Despite obvious quality away from the cliff edges, unquestionably it’s the holes nearest the water that will live longest in the memory. These include breathtaking par threes beyond giant chasms, long holes across old stone cottages and drivable par fours toward greens perched seemingly at the edge of the abyss. It’s not going to be an easy course to play, but equally it will be hard to forget and almost impossible not to fall in love with.
Above - Looking across the 10th green and out towards the island of Islay. Photo by Konrad Borkowski.
While the landscape at Ardfin is something you might expect of a Peter Jackson film or Game of Thrones set, it’s unusual for golf and very difficult for construction. Harrison is quick to credit his construction crew, Irish contractors SOL, for having toiled through a challenging winter and for having the patience and fortitude to deal with what he describes as about the hardest site you could imagine. ‘The contractors have been magnificent,’ he says, ‘given the logistics of working on the island, the rock and the heavy ground conditions at hand. I’m grateful for their efforts, and the fact that nothing has been too much trouble for them.’
The local ferry to Jura can only transport two turf trucks per week, so with the green bases now shaped and ready for grassing the process at this point is to seed fairways and tees and grass two greens per week through summer. They expect to have the course fully finished and grassed by September, and for Ardfin to be ready for play by next April, subject to winter conditions.
Above - View from behind the 12th green, an old stone boat house and one of Ardfin's private islands in the distance. Photo by Konrad Borkowski.
From the first tee through to the final green, Ardfin is an almost impossibly beautiful experience and vastly different from the traditional links upon which the Scottish golf tourism industry has been marketed. Crucially, it’s also a break from the modern American developments found elsewhere in the country. In a land where golf has been played for more than half a millennium, to have built something so fresh, so distinctive and so spectacular is quite an achievement. It would be a stretch to call Ardfin Australian, but it is a credit to both Greg Coffey for his vision and Bob Harrison for the design skills needed to bring a golf course to life on such challenging terrain. Those familiar with Harrison’s best work here in Australia will want to play this course when finished, especially those who have been unable to grovel their way onto Ellerston.
UPDATE - September 2015
All 18 tees, greens and green surrounds on Bob Harrison's Ardfin Estate golf course have now been grassed, as well as six of his fairways. The remaining fairways are due for seeding in early 2016 with a likely opening date late summer 2016.
Above - Aerial view of the 1st/6th greens and down the 2nd, 3rd and 4th holes. Photo by Konrad Borkowski.
Above - Aerial view of the 11th, 12 and 16th greens at Ardfin. Photo by Konrad Borkowski.