Picturesque Jura and Islay are the southernmost of Scotland’s Hebridean Isles, separated by the narrow Sound of Islay. Islay, with a somewhat softer landscape than its neighbour, is a famous destination for peaty Scotch whisky. It’s a short ferry trip across the Sound to Jura, but the change in landscape is truly dramatic. Jura was very much a destination well before there was any thought of a golf course – although it is not the sort of place that many travellers would just “drop in to”. It is, however, certainly worth the effort. It is a large island, and an astonishingly wild and beautiful place; and, with a human population of about 200, the least-inhabited place in Europe – at least in human terms. Jura means ‘Island of Deer’, and the deer population of about 5000 greatly outnumbers the human one. It is one of Scotland’s foremost destinations for deer-stalking, and a must-see for serious walkers and scramblers. – Bob Harrison
At the very south end of the island, Ardfin is one of Jura’s seven Estates, and its 20 kilometres of cliffs and oceanfront, which look towards Islay and the Kintyre Peninsula, are thus somewhat protected from the full force of the Atlantic. Ardfin Estate covers 15,000 acres and includes Craighouse (above), the only village on Jura and home to three-quarters of its population. Before golf was on the agenda, the operation at Ardfin centred around stalking and farming. The farming has been discontinued in recent years, and much of the golf course now lies on the fields where the livestock roamed. In the future the Estate will concentrate on stalking, golf and fishing, and, in the most astonishingly beautiful landscape, this combination of activities should be compelling to prospective visitors.
The beautiful old stone farm buildings look inwards on a central quadrangle, and they are being renovated and converted into a 15-room ‘6-star’ lodge. The main building on Ardfin, however, is Jura House, and the renovation in this case is almost complete. This was the seat of power for the McDonalds clan, and then the Campbells for hundreds of years, and home to the current owners of the Estate.
When the Ardfin course opens for play in mid-2017 it will be a golfing destination in its own right. But it will also be part of a very powerful group of courses that could well become the prime target for travelling golf enthusiasts in the UK. This group will arguably have the most spectacular and diverse landscapes of any courses. The other courses are Machrihanish and Machrihanish Dunes on the Kintyre Peninsula – a two-hour ferry trip from Islay – and The Machrie on Islay, which lies in perhaps the wildest dunes land in Scotland. It will be interesting to see to what extent these courses combine forces to become a dominant golfing location.
The Ardfin course layout is arranged in two loops on either side of Jura House, with holes in both sections heading along the edge of a series of elevated bluffs and cliffs. The holes to the east are higher above the ocean, and the cliffs on this side are more dramatic – at least in terms of elevation. The approach shot into the 1st green and the tee shot on the par-3 2nd, for example, play directly across the corner of high cliffs. Elsewhere the driveable par 4 3rd lies in a beautiful landscape, slightly further inland, where the strategy is dictated by a fast-running creek all the way down the left and half the creek. The 4th, 5th and 6th holes are also slightly inland, and the strategy of these holes is centred around stone walls. (It’s worth noting that the ocean is visible and prominent from every hole on the course.)
After the 10th, a once-in-a-lifetimeNot to be outdone, holes to the west stretch further along the cliffs and get down closer to the level of the beach. These cliffs are not as dramatically high above the water, but they are extremely beautiful, and this part of the landscape is greatly enhanced by a close view of the most rugged section of Islay, and also of the small island in the straight between Jura and Islay on which an ancient castle is located. This castle was once the ‘toll booth’ for ships passing down the straight in centuries gone by.
There are 11 holes on the west side. The par-4 11th hole plays down and around the bay and heads directly towards the boathouse. This is perhaps the nicest spot on the whole Estate. The boathouse has recently been restored, and will offer golfers a welcome break before heading for the 12th tee. Given the outlook, and what might be on offer to eat and drink, some might well be satisfied with 11 holes only…
Many of Ardfin’s holes are dramatically placed along the cliffs, and located so that the angles and curves of the cliffs play an integral role in determining the strategies. The 9th, for example, is a driveable par-4 where the drive is played across a ravine to a diagonal cliff and a green placed hard against it. Apart from being astonishingly spectacular, with Islay immediately behind the green, the hole is full of alternatives. Bail out far to the right and the short approach has to negotiate a bunker placed on the front right of the tiny green set hard against the cliff. More than half the holes are played around the cliffs, and the way the cliffs are situated relative to the tees dictates the nature and the strategic interest of many of them.
The interaction with the cliffs is one reason why there are only 32 bunkers on the course. There is no need for more from a strategic viewpoint, and the overwhelming landscape doesn’t need extensive ‘wow’ from small-scale features. It has been important, however, to create bunkers with a style that fits the ‘old worldliness’ of the course. Many of these will be wild and rugged, with heather and grasses emerging above the sand faces in similar fashion to bunkers at County Down, for example, and Britain’s heathland courses. The sand will be earthy in colour (orange) and the bunkers will certainly not look pristine.
After the 10th, a once-in-a-lifetime par-3 from bluff to bluff, the course drops down to a lower level with a more intimate interaction with the shore and the beach. Holes 12, 13 and 14 are also played along the beaches before the course turns for home along the edge of an internal cliff. While these holes are a little further from the ocean, they have perhaps an even more dramatic view of it, and it’s possible to argue that the reachable par-5 16th is the most spectacular on the course. On the other hand, you could make this claim for other holes as well, and I’ll mention one more in particular. At 320 yards, the 8th is a sometimes reachable par-4 depending on wind, but the brave tee shot is also extremely risky as it needs to carry a diagonal ravine not far short of the green. This was perhaps the hardest hole on the course to find, and perhaps the one that needed to be ‘manufactured’ more than others – at least the landing area, which, in its finished form, is a rolling plateau which wobbles down to the ravine guarded by another stone wall. For those who play safe, the short approach on this hole is possibly the most breathtaking shot on the course.
In the early days of this project it was particularly pleasing to find a number of ancient stone walls in the fields to the east of Jura House. These ancient walls are very appealing and have an intrinsic and historic value which has led to most of them being Heritage-listed. On some holes they are an attractive part of the landscape, but on others they play a central role in determining the strategy. The driveable par-4 5th hole, for example, plays inland from the ocean with an existing stone wall hugging the right-hand side all the way to the green. You can hit your drive anywhere to the left because the 5th has a combined fairway with the 6th of effectively 100 yards or more. The problem from a safe tee shot, however, is the bunker on the front left of the green and the downhill slope within the green beyond it. The prevailing wind is left to right, which makes the brave tee shot up the line of the wall very intimidating. But it is also very worthwhile because approaches to the left and rear pin locations are much more feasible from this side of the fairway. There is also a huge advantage to a longer tee shot.
By contrast, the objective on the 6th hole, which turns back towards the ocean from an elevated tee, was to hang the strategy around the construction of a completely new stone wall. This wall runs away from the tee on the right, and at the length of a moderate drive bends diagonally to the right. The more of this section of wall you can carry from the tee, the better the angle of approach to a green which is slightly elevated and favours shots from the right of the fairway.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere how beautiful the landscape at Ardfin is. It’s also an ‘old world’ landscape, and the objective was to drop the course onto the land while disturbing it as little as possible. This will be real golf. There’ll be no golf carts (buggies in British terms), no clubhouse, and no irrigation except for greens and tees. It will have an ‘old world’ feel in an ‘old world’ landscape. The aim was not to change the landform dramatically. Some of the holes were shaped to a moderate extent, and hopefully this has been done in a way that does not look unnatural, artificial, or out of place relative to the adjacent landscape. That did not mean, however, that the work was either insignificant or easy. The ground conditions were astonishingly difficult in places, where we found a combination of peat and rock. The peat was sometimes quite extensive and, to their great credit, the Irish contractors, SOL, took it upon themselves to remove and replace it. (At the 14th green, for example, the removal went three metres deep, and in most cases the replacement material was rock. Thankfully, this green site looks very natural and appealing in its finished form.)
So, where this golf course has been shaped, it is has been shaped mainly from rock – which made the finishing of some of the features such as bunkers, unusually difficult. Some have argued that the ground conditions were not totally suitable for a golf course, and in a way that is perhaps the case. But once you’ve overcome the problem – which we have – it doesn’t matter that you had to produce good growing conditions artificially. It’s done. And in this case it’s been done very successfully. There was plenty of topsoil. On some of the holes on the former farm fields, the ground was not reshaped and the topsoil was left in place. Others were reshaped, and on these the soil was stockpiled and later replaced. On the remaining holes in poorer ground, the soil was provided from nearby fields outside of the golf course.
While the natural landscape imposed this considerable difficulty, it has the advantage (say, over dunes land) that once you’ve done the work, it is much more complete and varied. It is a great satisfaction that the course looks finished and mature as soon as it is grassed. Speaking of overcoming difficulties, and SOL’s capacity to embrace and succeed with this ambition, the ground conditions were one thing – but the logistics of construction were quite another. Sand and gravel for greens, tees, bunkers and drainage had to be brought by ship from Ireland. And then from a dock up the only single-lane three-metre road which runs throughout the ‘developed’ parts of Jura. SOL chose to sod the greens, the surrounds and the tees in order to be secure in a considerably windy environment. The sod came from Yorkshire by truck, and from the Kintyre Pensinsula by ferry to Islay, and then to Jura. Given the whisky trade and the movement of trucks to support it, it was possible to obtain only a few truck movements per week. And all of these logistic factors played a part in making this course a real examination to construct –which makes the £6 million cost to construct the course very impressive.