Monday, 18 September 2017

Ardfin Golf Course - Course No 670

Yes, it's been a very long time since my last blog entry.  One reader was concerned that I had either given up the quest to play every course, or that my health was somehow fading to the extent that I could no longer play.  The simple truth is, I've been busy so other pressures on my time have made it very difficult to maintain my progress. Indeed, now that I've played all of the courses that the sports governing body (Scottish Golf) recognises, (see my blog entry from 8 March 2017) most of the smaller and unofficial courses still on my "to play" list are remote and/or difficult to access.

Although the number of golf courses in Scotland is declining as a consequence of a general reduction in playing numbers, the good news is that the development of new courses is continuing, despite that trend.  I'd read  great things about the new course being constructed on the island of Jura, so I was delighted to be invited by the Director of Golf at Ardfin Golf Course to join a small party of guests to play the course on 15 September 2017, meet the Bob Harrison the course architect and offer some thoughts from a playing perspective about the design and lay out.  I got that invite through occasional work that I do for the Top 100 Golf Courses website, so a great big thanks goes to them and to all at Ardfin for making that possible.

So, is Ardfin really as good as recent publicity suggests?  I'd not really known what to expect, aside from a rugged challenge on a great site, but I was simply blown away by the grandeur of the setting, the outstanding quality of the design and some really epic views (and the 30 mph NNW wind that swept across the course!) Time will tell whether Ardfin gets a mention in the world's top 100 one day, but even at this relatively early stage in its evolution it's clearly a contender for recognition as an outstanding new course.  It's maybe unfair to rank it in comparison with other Scottish and UK courses before it's even completely finished and fully open for play, but recent publicity about the course has been right to highlight its quality and potential. I've played all of the famous Scottish courses that attract national and international praise, and given time, Ardfin will join them.  This is a view from the practice ground, down to the 1st tee, looking north, up the Sound of Islay, with Islay in the background.

The back story is already well known. Australian multi-millionaire buys 15,000 acre Scottish estate and comes up with the idea of developing a championship-level golf course, despite the original site being hugely challenging. Exposed peat-based moorland, where weather conditions can be hugely challenging (and that's sometimes in the summer too) is not the most obvious site for a new course, but hat's off to the owner's vision and determination to go ahead. When we met Bob Harrison, the architect engaged to turn the owner's dream into reality, Bob said he'd received a call one day, completely out of the blue, inviting him to "build me a Scottish golf course."  It wasn't a wind-up by a friend, and several years later and 29 return trips from Australia, Bob is now putting the final touches to the project, including some possible new tee locations and reviewing other design details.  This is me, with Ran from the USA, Dick from Holland, and Christian from Denmark with Bob (on the far right) before we set off on our Ardfin game. It's not very often that someone with my limited golfing ability (11 handicap now!) plays in front of an audience so, it was a new experience playing in front of the course architect, Chris the Director Golf, Willie the Estate Manager and Simon the Head Greenkeeper. Factor in that Christian is a former European Challenge Tour pro and that we were later joined by Fergal O'Leary (surely the only man to have played all of the World's Top 100 courses and a formidable player in his own right) and I was way out of my comfort zone!  I needn't have worried, as this was a round which I'll recall as one of the great highlights of my personal journey around Scotland's courses.

Ardfin is a 6800 Yard Par 72 off the Black tees and a "more manageable" 6445 Yarder off the Yellow Tees.  Not overly long but it proved to be hugely difficult on the day.  I played Ardfin off the Yellows on most holes, so it  started with an uphill 398 Yard Par 4. Bob advised us to keep our drives to the left, opening up the best approach to the green. I missed the fairway by inches on the right and could only scramble a double bogey after 3-putting the green.  As we were to discover, the greens were fast running and true, with surfaces that were just outstanding.  Next came the glorious 2nd, a 195 Yard Par 3 over a clifftop ravine, as shown here.  Bob's design approach was to keep the layout sympathetic to the surrounding landscape, keep bunkering to MacKenzie styling and allow bale out areas where possible. There was no such relief on the 2nd and although I managed to clear the ravine OK, another double bogey followed after a fluffed chip from the front of the green.

The Stroke Indexing hasn't been done yet, but I suspect that the 341 Yard Par 4 3rd hole will be one of the easier holes.  I'd hit a reasonably good drive but the fairway slopes down towards the green and I'd not noticed the sucker pin position just before a slope which took 3 of our balls down banking at the back of the green.  Another double for an increasingly nervous Alan.  The tee shot on 4 is the only fully blind shot on Ardfin and we played this short but uphill Par 5 in a sudden downpour that blew up from seemingly nowhere.  Uphill Par 5s in pouring rain often herald personal disaster but 3 good long shots, a chip to 4 feet and a dodgy putt later, and I'd got my first (and only, as it turned out!) par. Next came Holes 5 and 6, which run parallel to each other.  With an OOB wall on the right and most of Jura on the left, the uphill 5th looked easy enough but factor in the NNW wind and this short Par 4 was a real challenge.  The 6th is steeply downhill, as shown here, with another OOB wall intruding from the right.  Left off the tee is safe but leaves a tricky approach to a plateau green.  I decided on a brave line off the tee but pulled my approach way left, for my first lost ball of the round (and there would be many more!)

I lost another ball on the 7th, the last hole on the south section of the course.  The rest of the course lies to the north and dips down to the shore before climbing gradually higher, finishing close to the new hotel being built within the estate, with superb views out to sea.  The transition between those sections of the course was a little awkward, and a good example of the finishing works still to be done before the course can be fully open for play.  This is the 8th, a lovely little Par 4 of only 309 Yards. I'd only a short upwind iron to the green but I didn't have enough club, so another lost ball. As we were all finding to our cost, any misjudgment of line or length could be heavily punished.  I dropped another ball and saw my ball land in the fringe grass beyond the ravine but again, another lost ball.  My score by this time had already assumed catastrophic proportions but I wasn't really caring.  Just as well! 

Earlier in the day the boss of the construction company building the course was telling me that Ardfin would not be revealing its secrets on a first play and that if we thought that we'd just seen the best looking hole on the course, another would be even better and that this was particularly true of the Par 3s.  I'd really liked the 2nd, but the 10th was just incredible. The card said 177 yards off the Black tee and 174 off the Yellow, so as a short hitter (its a long story but illness last year has taken its toll) I was already wary.  The Black tee sits on a narrow strip of land around 15  by 15 feet wide, with a precipitous 100 foot+ drop on 3 sides. The green is the shallow slither just visible below the boathouse roof in the far distance. There is a bale out area but this is hidden from view so it looked as though our only shot was to take on the 170 Yard carry, directly into the 30 mph wind.  I don't think any of us completed the hole without losing a ball.
I'd wimped out by playing from the yellow tee but even with this marginally shorter approach, my view from the tee (as below) didn't look any easier.

And so to the magnificent 11th, which I thought was one of the best and most inviting tee shots on the course.  This is a sweeping right to left dogleg that hugs the shore, with green lying just above seas level, by the boathouse that now forms the luxurious half way house.

The tee shot is pretty demanding.  I'd hit a decent drive but the carry required for the second shot looked impossible, given the wind we faced.  The course is built on an exposed site so if you're lucky enough to play here some day, you might have a different wind to face.  NNW is far removed from the prevailing SW wind so maybe the 11th will be kinder to you. Then again, chances are you'll be battered from another direction!

Chances are you'll also enjoy lunch before tackling the Par 3 12th as seen here from the heights of the 16th fairway.  From the tee, this hole looked relatively simple and at 145 Yards looked well within my range.  However, the NNW wind cut across the hole from left to right.  Christian's ball sailed off right so it was no surprise that my feeble attempt at holding a draw against the wind ended up on the beach.

A double bogey without a lost ball via the beach was actually a decent result. A terrific hole!

The next couple of holes follow the shoreline before the course turns for home.  As before, accuracy off the tee is essential but for me at least, forced layups came into play, since were were still heading into the aforementioned wind.  

The homeward and largely downwind holes offered some relief but by then any semblance of rhythm and tempo in my swing had been replaced by an anxious thrash at the ball aimed at finishing a hole without further loss of golf balls.  Sadly, the harder I tried the worse I got, but I didn't really care. On lesser courses I'd have a big black cloud overhead and grow increasingly frustrated. At Ardfin, I was too busy enjoying the company, the views and the golf course itself.  This is the 16th, an excellent 492 Yard Par 5 that played short enough to suggest it would be another of the easier holes - must be, since I didn't lose a ball!

The course finishes with another Par 5, this time a 523 Yarder that's steeply uphill.  Ran managed a great birdie here, which he would later talk us through with great relish! Me?  I resisted the temptation to talk our party through my lamentable "umpteen" with 2 lost balls. I'd suffered enough.  The 18th finished with this excellent view out to sea, from what felt like almost the highest point of the course.  It had been a truly epic round, with great company and for me, a sympathetic audience.  I've played better, in fact I can't remember playing much worse. However, I can't remember enjoying playing badly so much in all of my travels.  That's maybe a curious measure to judge a course by, but that'll do for me.  Ardfin was just a joy from hesitant start to ignominious finish. 

We'd time after our round to have a look at the hotel under construction and a new design departure for Bob, the 9 hole pitch and putt course taking shape in front of the hotel.  As regular readers of this blog will know by now, Craig, Stu and I include pitch and putt courses in our list of courses to play in pursuit of our quest.  So, having played the Ardfin course, I'll want to get back to Jura some time to play this little course.  That's one for the future and by then the future usage and accessibility of the new Ardfin course will no doubt be clearer.  As matters stand, it's not clear whether the course will be open to the public.  I hope so, since Bob's design deserves wider praise and the owner deserves wider recognition for his determination to build such a high quality course in such a wild and challenging landscape. Jura's unchanging remoteness means that even if the course is opened for visitors to enjoy, it would never be overrun, so maybe other fellow golfing travellers will get the chance to experience Ardfin at its very best, wind and all!

Thank you again to all who helped make my visit to Ardfin so enjoyable.  And Ran, remind me about that closing birdie again sometime!!

Sunday, 19 March 2017


One of the great pleasures I've had in writing this blog over the years has been the many contacts I've had from blog readers, either commenting on the courses I've played, the experiences they've had in playing golf in Scotland, or just saying hello and encouraging me to keep going in the quest to play every course.  I hope in a small way I've opened eyes to the possibilities of coming to Scotland and playing the remoter "hidden gem" courses, alongside our more famous courses. 

Just recently John and his family from Vancouver in Canada contacted me about his family's forthcoming visit.  They'd already played dozens of courses including the likes of Scarista on Harris and Covesea, two of the finest 9 hole courses you'll find in Scotland, far off the beaten track. This time they were tackling a pilgrimage to the Old Course, the Castle and some other established premier courses in the area. This is John and his family on the iconic bridge on the 18th on the Old Course.  I'd managed to fix them up with Garry, another long-time blog reader and Facebook friend who works as a caddy on the Old Course and I'm glad they had a great time. They even managed to play the Castle in 50 mph winds, which is real dedication to the game and a sample of what true links golf can be like. 

Playing into a 4 club wind when you already have a 3-wood in your hands and the green is only 150 yards away, double bogies can be a very good score. Brutal in one sense but hugely enjoyable in another, if you don't take the scores seriously!  I played on the same day in a seniors competition at Dunbar GC, a top quality links course that's just as exposed to the elements as the Castle and got blown away, losing 3 balls and a ton of energy in the process.

I hope John and his family return to Scotland sometime soon, as there's still a huge number of challenging courses out there.  Meanwhile, back at the Glen GC in North Berwick, (see, we're still working on a new ultra HD flyover that we hope will stimulate further interest in playing our own hidden gem.  Next time John, the Glen's green fees are on me!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Nearly Finished!

As regular readers will know by now, there is no fully comprehensive list of golf courses in Scotland using our definition of "a golf course." However, Scottish Golf, the body that administers the amateur game in Scotland, lists 587 affiliated clubs, many of which have more than one course.  Put it another way, there are 587 "official" clubs in Scotland registered with the sport's governing body, so that's a pretty decent target for any course bagger to aim at.  Last autumn I was in touch with Scottish Golf about something completely different so I asked them to check their records against what I'd already played, including recent courses such as Royal Troon's Championship course.  Scottish Golf confirmed that I had played every course that they recognised within their list of affiliated clubs.  It was a relief to know that I'd not missed any on the "official" listing of 18 and 9 hole lay outs, but the journey continues.  

I've now done 669 courses in total and I've a very short list of "other" courses still to play. These are mainly pitch and putt courses, academy courses attached to recognised golf clubs or small private courses on private land scattered across the country. I hope to get round these courses eventually and although courses are still closing in Scotland due to lack of members and funding problems, there are encouraging signs that some new courses will be opening in the years ahead.  So, the journey may never be completely finished.  The best I can hope for is to have played every course open at the time and to add new courses as and when they are opened.

In the meantime, this is what Scottish Golf published on their website ( in November 2016 about my progress so far. This is me, Craig and Stu about to board the plane to Fair Isle - a great trip!

Avid Golfer ‘Bags’ Every Course in Scotland

An East Lothian golfer has defied heart surgery to fulfil his dream of playing every affiliated golf course in Scotland and raise valuable funds for charity.
Alan McPherson, 66, has spent the last six years spending his retirement travelling up and down the country to play at all of Scottish Golf’s 587 affiliated clubs, as well as a host of par-3, pitch & putt and private lay-outs.
It’s been like ‘Munro bagging’ for the golf nut, who has now played 669 courses in total.
However, the East Linton local, who is in his last few weeks as Match Secretary at The Glen GC, saw his ambitious plans suffer a setback in January when he had triple heart bypass surgery.
Corrie GC
Alan at Corrie GC on the Isle of Arran
But he returned fit and well in May and highlighted his first full round back with his first ever hole-in-one at Dunbar’s third hole, where he’s also a member, before recently completing all of Scottish Golf’s affiliated courses in style at this year’s Open Championship venue, Royal Troon.
A regular caddy at Archerfield Links and other East Lothian courses and a course assessor for the magazine Golf World, McPherson has been delighted to raise over £4,000 for Cancer Research UK through the generosity of friends, golf clubs and fellow golfers.
McPherson, who teamed up with friends Craig Watson and Stuart Fleming for his journey and fund-raising efforts, said: “I’ve played 669 courses and I reckon there are 682 in total, but that includes pitch & putt’s, par-3 courses and unofficial courses on people’s private land not normally accessible.
“It’s been easy enough to use the lists produced by Scottish Golf and tourist bodies, but it’s been really difficult to find the more obscure private courses and we’ve had to rely on word of mouth as we’ve travelled around. Anything that constitutes a golf hole is within our target range.”
McPherson lists the likes of Kingsbarns, Turnberry Ailsa and the Old Course at St Andrews as his favourite venues on his golfing odyssey.
But the 11-handicapper has also been delighted to enjoy the challenge of countless other venues far off the tourist track, notably Traigh in the West Highlands and Stroma, an uninhabited island in the middle of the Pentland Firth where sheep keep the grass cut.
McPherson continues: “There are umpteen lovely little courses at the most unlikely places. The romance of playing a lovely wee hole in a remote part of Scotland and meeting different people makes it such a rich experience.  Our visit to Fair Isle to play the 6-hole Lighthouse Keeper’s Course was just epic and we sent some used balls, ladies clubs and Glen GC flags as a thank you.
Stroma GC
Stroma GC, an island off the northern coast
“One of the best holes at Asta Golf Club on Shetland is 58 yards. That’s an officially recognised course with an official SSS so we decided that since holes on some pitch & putt and par-3 courses are far longer, we should include such places in our definition of a “golf course” in an effort to play absolutely every course.
“It’s been far from cheap going to places like Durness, Wick and the islands of Colonsay, Barra, Iona and Whalsay, but the journey highlighted the diversity of golf in Scotland, the beauty of our country and I had great fun on the way.”
McPherson, who has recently volunteered to become a course rater for Scottish Golf, added:  “I still have a few unofficial courses to play and since there are other courses around Scotland currently in planning or under construction, my journey isn’t quite finished!
“A few people have done this challenge before, and I know of others doing the same thing just now. It’s great to do it if your leisure time allows. It’s an unforgettable experience and it’s amazing the diversity of the courses you’ll play and the friendliness of the people you’ll meet.”
I'm often asked what my favourite courses are out of the 669 played so far.  It's difficult to pick out courses other than the obvious e.g. the Old Course, Turnberry, Kingsbarns etc. and perhaps a bit unfair to do so, since in many cases I've only played courses once (in all weathers!) during my travels.  Maybe I'll get round to writing about favourite experiences and particular holes rather than favourite courses.  But for now, my next course will probably be the 9 holer at Maverston GC, once it's a bit warmer!

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Balmoral Golf Club

When I wrote my blog entry about Course No 410, which Craig Stu and I played on 6 June 2011, I was honouring a commitment to not mention the name or location of the course, given the owners' wishes for complete privacy.  At that time, access to the course was restricted to the owners' family, estate workers and those few golfers who were able to gain access for corporate golf days.  Those few aside, the course was strictly off limits and access was almost impossible.  We were lucky that we knew someone who knew someone working for the estate's management, but even then, we were sworn to honour privacy, hence the rather cryptic blog entry. Since then, I've learnt that one of the guys at my own golf club works for the royal household, has access to the course and can invite guests!

However, it seems that the former privacy has just been waived.  The Scotsman newspaper of 20 February 2017 contained the following short article -

"Queen's private golf course being opened to public

The Queen's private Balmoral golf course is being opened to the public. Normally only open to the royal family, staff and their guests, visiting golfers will now be allowed a round on the 9 hole course for £200 for four players.  The course in Aberdeenshire had been available for hire by corporate clients.  A shortage of bookings due to a downturn in the north-east's oil and gas industry has encouraged the royal household to open it up."

Given this development, I guess I'm no longer obliged to treat the existence of the course as confidential - despite the obvious presence of the course on Google Earth if anyone bothered to look.  So, the secrets are out, there's a proper golf course on the Royal Estate at Balmoral and Craig, Stu and I have played it.  Is it worth £50 a head?  Yes! The course itself is pretty good and not the easiest we've encountered on our travels.  And yes, the scorecard is pretty special! It really pays to keep the ball straight, hit the fairways and avoid the penal rough and water hazards. But apart form the golf, there's fun to be had just getting there.  I'd a new black Honda CRV at the time, with black tinted rear windows, which really looked the part when I drove slowly into the estate, past the lines of gawping tourists.  We were allowed to drive on the estate roads to the course, which is well away from the normal tourist routes around the estate. However, we could still be seen at various points on the course and we wondered whether anyone thought we were "important."  A daft thought perhaps, but inescapable in the circumstances.

Here are some more photos from our 2011 visit -

Overall, well worth a visit, although I'm not sure exactly how anyone would make a booking and the official Balmoral website doesn't give any clues.