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!!