Battling the elements on the Scottish island of Jura

Battling the elements on the Scottish island of Jura
Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

The visitor to Scotland, the home of golf, will find courses spread the length and breadth of the country. It’s one of the joys of Scotland that, seemingly every little village seems to have its own golf course, even if only a very basic nine holes. Even in Scotland, though, there are places that golf has not conquered, and where the construction of a course seems like a pipedream.

The isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast must surely be among the most unlikely parts of Scotland for golf. Mountainous, and home to less than 200 people, despite being one of Scotland’s largest islands, Jura has beauty aplenty, but it doesn’t seem overburdened with the sort of land well suited to golf. And, as Simon Freeman, for many years course manager at the Machrie on the neighbouring island of Islay, and now working on the mainland at Machrihanish Dunes, told me, ‘there’s hardly a grain of sand on the island’. Jura is famous for its massive herd of red deer, and thus some of the best stalking in Scotland, for the malt whisky produced at its one distillery, for hillwalking and not for much else.

That hasn’t deterred Greg Coffey, the London-based Australian hedge fund manager known in the City as ‘the wizard of Oz’ for his remarkable run of investment success. Coffey, who retired from the hedge fund business shortly after turning forty, with a fortune believed to be around the £500 million mark, bought the Ardfin estate, which encompasses a large part of the southern half of Jura, a couple of years ago. The estate also includes Jura House, the largest dwelling on the island, mostly derelict, which Coffey is having rebuilt, and the famous Isle of Jura gardens, previously one of the island’s major tourist attractions, which have, controversially, been closed to the public.

But it’s golf that is to be Coffey’s most obvious investment in the island. The course, centred around Jura House, went through planning as a private course for the new laird and his guests, but the project has grown in scope since then, and no-one seems to have taken a final decision on how it will be operated. A local businessman, though, told me he had heard that Coffey’s ambition was to achieve a ranking among the world’s top 100 courses, and certainly if that is to happen, he will have to allow some outsiders to play it.

Coffey enlisted Aussie architect Bob Harrison to design the golf course. Harrison, formerly lead architect in the Sydney office of Greg Norman’s firm, has experience of this kind of project; he led the design of the Ellerston course in upcountry New South Wales for tycoon Kerry Packer. Ellerston is regularly voted among Australia’s best courses, but even for magazine raters it is a tough ticket. If the Ardfin course is to be private, it is being built in an odd way; a course designed for one man and his guests does not need four sets of tees.

If we don’t yet know for certain what operating model will play out at Ardfin, we can be pretty sure of one thing. The course is going to be extremely difficult. Architect Harrison has form here; Ellerston, the course he built back in Australia for Packer is renowned for its challenge, routed across severe ground and testing to golfers of the highest standard. Ardfin, I suspect, will be little different.

It’s probably unfair to conclude from this one data point that Harrison has an affinity for tough courses. Simply constructing a golf course on the Ardfin site is a remarkable achievement. The site of the course is a wild mix of rock and peat bogs, with precious little in the way of topsoil, and thus precious little material in which to grow grass. The construction team that has built the course has scoured the wider estate looking for soil it could use to plate fairways and give the course manager a chance to produce a decent surface. Construction manager Esie O’Mahoney told me their original thought had been to sandcap the fairways, but they had been forced to change plans when it became clear just how big a logistic operation the importation of so much sand would be.

All the materials for the construction of the course – sand and gravel for greens and tees, drainage pipes, irrigation equipment and the like – has been imported by sea, with barges coming, mostly from Northern Ireland, to dock at the small pier at the village of Craighouse, Jura’s principal settlement. But Craighouse is several miles from the site, and those miles are only traversed by a single track road. It’s not the sort of environment in which you could use huge trucks. So the barges coming into the pier have been unloaded, the material transferred into small vehicles and driven to site, a massive logistical challenge for the team.

So Harrison’s design is likely to be a ball-eater for anyone who isn’t very straight. It is however, unarguably spectacular, starting right at the beginning, as the first hole plays up the coastline with the Sound of Jura to the right. The par three second is truly dramatic, going straight over the cliffs, while the third will be a tough par four with a fairway landing zone that, to this observer at least, seemed scarily narrow.

Hole seven takes the golfer practically into the front garden of Jura House. It’s this close proximity to the house that makes it tricky to understand how house and course might operate together, at least while the owner is in residence. I personally would not want golfers tramping through my garden to get from one hole to another, and Coffey is known to be fanatical about his family’s privacy. The eighth tee lies to the south west of the house, and begins another spectacular run down the coastline, featuring the remarkable par three tenth, another cliff-carry hole that will for drama match anything anywhere in the world, and brings play right down to the water’s edge, next to the estate’s beautifully situated old boathouse, scene, in 1994, of one of the more unusual ‘art events’ of recent years, when eccentric musicians the KLF burned a million pounds.

Once the course turns for home at the fifteenth, it moves slightly further up the hill and away from the sea. But the views will still be spectacular, and the holes will still be difficult. The sixteenth green sits on top of an exposed rock face, with the par three twelfth green right at the bottom of the face. It is, for sure, a truly remarkable place, albeit one that only the truly ambitious, or perhaps we should say visionary, would imagine as a golf course. Those who get to play Ardfin, even if the final number is only a handful, will experience something as dramatic as anything in the world of golf. I personally hope that Mr Coffey and his staff find a way to blend the house’s privacy with at least some access to the course for outsiders. But unless those outsiders are golfers of the highest quality, they would be well advised to carry a large supply of balls with them.

This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture – Issue 43.