Ardfin Golf Course
Isle of Jura, Scotland
United Kingdom

‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’ George Orwell

Animal Farm was not written by George Orwell on Jura, which is ironic in that Jura translates from an Old Norse word loosely meaning wild animal.  Orwell went to the northeast coast of Jura after World War II to write 1984. Orwell’s cautionary tale might well have been a metaphor for the dreary golf architecture of the 1980s. Parkland ‘championship’ courses dominated and narrow defined tough. Holes were walled off from one another by trees and brush. Developers/owners of golf courses were more interested in selling homes than building great courses. Consequently, new courses were either near population centers or for second homes in gated communities.

Thankfully, Orwell’s vision didn’t fully come to pass and golf architecture eventually entered a second Golden Age period. Backed by visionaries willing to bet on the game’s allure ‘if you build it, they shall come’, courses sprang up in all sorts of thinly populated, romantic places from Tasmania to Nova Scotia. Golf course architect Bob Harrison was part of one such venture when Australia’s wealthiest man decided to build a golf course in the gorgeous rolling hills north of the Hunter Valley. Most architects never experience the freedom of working with a huge swath of land to reveal the best golf with no allowance made for economic outcomes like homesites. Certainly, only a handful ever get the chance twice. So, imagine Harrison’s surprise when he received a phone inquiry late one night in August, 2011 if he would be interested in building a course on the Isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides. Bob’s natural reaction? Which mate was pulling a prank! When later that night Harrison told his wife, Colette, that he wasn’t sure he could do such a remote project justice, she told him to get straight back in touch with Jura and ‘get on with it pronto.’

After an email the next day from Australian financier Greg Coffey, things became very real. Five days later, Harrison was on a plane making the thirty hour journey from Sydney, Australia to the Isle of Jura. He moved quickly not only at his wife insistence (!) but because he thought this could be a match made in heaven. Harrison had visited the Isle of Islay next to Jura for over twenty years, specifically to play the Machrie. In preparing Harrison’s April  2000 Feature Interview on this site, the author was surprised that Harrison nominated Machrie as one of his top five courses in Scotland. Additionally, Harrison knew Coffey to be a direct man who spoke his mind in clear terms. In short, the ideal client.

As the above photograph illustrates, golf on a remote Scottish isle is broadly the stuff of dreams. The view of the 16th century Claig Castle, Sound of Islay and the blue flag on the eleventh green standing at attention convey a new paradigm of beauty for golf. Yet, the practical side of fashioning a course that both pays respect to the wind swept, rocky landscape and allows players of most abilities to have fun is no small task.  Willie Macdonald, the Estate Manager, oversees Coffey’s 15,000 acres. Macdonald grew up on the isle and as a man much in demand to lead stag stalking parties, no one knows the land better. Macdonald would serve as Harrison’s guide and companion when they explored the estate. While the soil lacked a sandy loam component, the environment was otherwise most handsome. Fescues, heather and gorse abounded amid the sylvan oak, birch, bog willow and hazel.

Though Jura’s soil is largely infertile, it yields a number of strains of vegetation and trees that provide a panoply of colors and texture. This view is southeast toward the higher first seven holes.

Though one would not know it today, the process of building the course was quite arduous. Harrison turned to Sol Construction who did a magnificent job. In retrospect it was very fortunate that unabated, torrential rains hit the Isle during course construction, foretelling the sort of weather that the course would need to handle. Great golf does not exist without proper water management. Harrison details:

We received an atrocious amount of rain during the summers of both 2015 and 2016, substantially slowing the construction process. It seemed never-ending, and it also made tasks like shaping the difficult ground even more difficult – particularly if we had to finish areas when the ground conditions weren’t favourable. There was, however, one enormous upside to all this wet weather. We realised that we had to place even more emphasis on drainage and, in particular, the need to stop water flowing onto the course from adjacent slopes (as well as removing water). For this reason almost all of the holes have substantial open-ditch drains on the high side which now are hidden from view because of the surrounding landscape. This was the vital lesson – make sure that we stop water flowing onto the course from the surrounding landscape. We then added two further levels of drainage in all of the fairway and short rough areas. The first consisted of agricultural pipes in gravel-filled trenches at intervals ranging from 5 to 15 metres. We  followed with sand/gravel slit drainage at 1 to 1.5 m centres over the entire area. As a result of all this drainage the course is reasonably dry and firm within an hour or two of heavy rain during a normal weather period.

Two things are certain: it will rain on Jura and thanks to the drainage work, the course will snap back quickly into play. Indeed, the rapidly changing weather is part of the appeal of being here. Stupendous long views may in a moment give way to a blinding squall. Several nights afford the traveler a better opportunity to experience Jura in all her moods; a brief in-and-out visit is too happenstance as to what weather one may encounter.

Where else would one rather be when the Sound of Islay is glass-like? This view is from the 12th tee and Islay is across the way.

Ardfin is a big course. It ambles across more than 240 acres of Coffey’s estate. There are four long walks from green to tee but each are part of the Arfin experience. The walk from the fourth green to fifth tee is through a copse of trees, seven to eight is through the famed walled garden of the Jura Estate, a stroll along the beach takes one from 11 to 12 and finally a walk over a rushing waterfall from 15 to 16. You won’t scoot around the course in three hours but then again if you are in a hurry and uninterested in the beauty of the Isle, why come? Crucially, Coffey is an ardent walker and there shall be no carts (or cart paths) to mar the experience.

The first hole starts on the south side of the estate and climbs uphill. The eighteenth heads uphill as well and finishes some 600 yards west of the first tee. In all of golf, the author can’t think of opening and closing hole that both climb uphill to such degree. In between, Harrison takes the golfer on a stroll across southwest Jura. That the two holes don’t finish near each other seems appropriate. Why should the golfer feel like a hamster in a wheel beginning and ending at the same place? The golfer yearns to explore the property and that’s what occurs.

The photographs throughout this course profile are self-explanatory in depicting the beauty of the place. Words are unlikely to capture its grandeur. Some might prefer the sand scape at Tara Iti is or the rolling dunes of Sand Hills or the majestic mountains at Banff Springs. It is fair, though, when someone mentions Cypress Point and the conversation veers down the path of the world’s most beautiful spots for golf that you ask, ‘Have you seen Ardfin?’

Of course, the peril of great beauty is that it can divert the conversation from other meaningful topics. While everyone is fawning over Ardfin’s breathtaking environment, the author has yet heard mention of the green complexes.  Intermediate in size and averaging 4,446 square feet, they are exceptional and praiseworthy. They range nicely in size from the tiny 2,800 square foot eighth green to the almost 6,800 square foot seventh. There are three forced carry approaches at non-one shotters (a flick pitch over a ravine at eight, traversing a wetland at eleven and over a creek at thirteen). By and large, short grass feeds onto all the greens, lending the course the flexibility to play in all wind conditions. Some greens are situated on knobs, others in a field. The interior contouring is bold to the point where speeds will hopefully never exceed ‘9’ on the stimp meter.

From a green on a knob like the 6th to ….

… one with strong interior contours like the 13th to …

… one glued to the ground like the 17th, the greens at Ardfin provide a diverse set of targets.

The task of presenting the course falls to Green Keeper Simon Crawford and his crew. At the time of construction, one of the Sol workers knew Crawford, who was working on a course in Barbados.  Since he and his wife are from Islay and wanted to return, the opportunity turned into a win-win. As a past champion at the Machrie, Crawford brings the eye of a player to his role. He arrived shortly after the fescue fairways had been planted and has handled the overseeding with fescue-fine rye mix. Top dressing is frequent. With the course now open, Crawford and his men are making refinements such as thinning the roughs and trimming back the fescues around the fairway side of some bunkers.

Throughout the laborious construction process, Harrison would muse what a dunescape would be like as opposed to the clifftop setting. Ultimately, he decided he preferred the rocky setting as he knew, given the variety of the landscape, the course would have an immediate beauty and sense of maturity. None of the British greats, Old Tom Morris, Horace Hutchison, Harry Colt or Sir Guy Campbell built in a medium like Ardfin’s. They availed themselves of sandy sites which were abundant; working in rock was both impractical and nonsensical back then. However, as man has built courses around the world, drainage technology has evolved to where new possibilities exist.

In certain respects, what Harrison and team fashioned along this rocky coast is a stand alone achievement in Scotland. Certainly, the course doesn’t remind one of any other in the home of golf. With Coffey’s unflinching commitment, the best of technology and design was brought to bear and something splendidly unique emerged. Still, the time-honored design themes of width off the tee, playing angles, interesting hazards and rolling greens are as evident here as on a sandy course by one of the Grand Masters. See if you agree.

Holes to Note

First hole, 435 yards; The expression ‘a gentle handshake’ cuts both ways. Ease into the round and the golfer is happy but make a bogey on the shortish openers at Royal Dornoch or North Berwick and the day becomes a bit longer. Conversely, bogey a tough opener like Machrihanish or Muirfield and the author thinks, ‘no harm no foul.’ The stout uphill opener at Ardfin falls in the later camp. It’s a good thing the practice field is nearby.

Prudence says let the back tee at the 1st clear.

A traffic jam! The blue flag top left gives a hint of the climb up the 1st.

Looking back across the 1st green toward the 8th and 9th holes.

Second hole, 205 yards; Countless one shotters around the globe play from high point to high point across a depression. What standouts from others with those same general characteristics? A great green like the ninth at Yale? Absolutely, but surely a fundamental part of the answer is the setting and the scope of the natural hazards. The photographs below need no amplification and it is worth noting that the sight of the ball taking the high right slope and bounding left and onto the putting surface is one of the day’s highlights. So what? The traveler comes here to experience something different and, well, that happens! Every golfer the author has seen play this hole reached for his iPhone.

The immortal words of tennis legend John McEnroe ring in the ear: You can’t be serious!

The thrill of hitting over a crevasse cannot be overstated. Nor can it be imagined until you stand on the tee and do it.

Importantly, lots of green grass exists between the green and the craggy cliff so that the hole functions well in all winds.

Third hole, 350 yards; Ardfin’s pacing is excellent. Tough holes (first, seventh, tenth, fifteenth) invariably have something easier (third, fifth, ninth, sixteenth) spliced into the mix nearby. Played more than once, this short two shotter instantly engenders respect due to its ever narrowing fairway. More variance of club selection off the tee occurs here than any other two shotter on the course with anything from a six iron to a driver being commonplace. The approach is one of the most fun on the course and a golfer never tires of figuring out how to use the sloping ground to work a ball close.

A lesser architect might have elevated the tees to provide perfect visuals of the ever narrowing third fairway. Thankfully, Harrison appreciates the merit of not giving too much away.

The Craig Mhor Burn is in front of the green and swings left and around the side and back. The high right to low left tilt of the land was perfectly captured …

… in the hole’s design. As seen from the right, the fairway spills onto the open green, which continues the natural grade of the ground and cascades left.

Looking back, the golfer appreciates the tight connection from the 3rd green to 4th tee.

Fourth hole, 545 yards; Harrison uses the length of a three shotter to gracefully climb uphill, here and at the Home hole. In both cases, the tee ball is deceiving in that gobs of fairway are hidden from view. Both tee balls are among the more important of the day because the subsequent forced-carry becomes problematic without a good one. Here, a forty-five yard band of wetland must be negotiated on one’s second in order to set up a short iron approach.

As seen from behind, shot after shot, there is always something to be gained by playing the angles at Ardfin. In this case, the best pitch into the green comes from hitting one’s second shot across the wetland and toward the stonewall.

continued >>>