JURA, Scotland – An elderly man was slumped over the bar at The Islay House when I returned from dinner at the Harbour Inn in Bowmore.
Given that Islay is the greatest Scotch destination in Scotland, this isn’t an altogether uncommon occurrence. Still, I decided to enjoy a quiet nightcap at The Peat Cutter’s small, wooden bar.
Eventually, though, we struck up a conversation. I soon learned that it was disappointment, not the island’s distinctively smoky whiskies, that was reflected in his glum countenance.
Both of us had spent the day on the neighboring island of Jura. He was there to pay tribute to former Jura resident George Orwell, while I was there to see the most unlikely golf course project in my two-plus decades writing about the game. His day clearly had not gone as well as mine.
We’ll come back to that. I had risen early that morning and driven northeast 8 miles, from Bridgend to the ferry terminal at Port Askaig.
From there it’s just a short hop across the turbulent Sound of Islay to Feolin, on Jura’s west coast. I was first in line for the ferry, surprising given that this would be the biggest day of the year on Jura.
An unusually lovely spell of weather had given way to steady rain, but that wouldn’t prevent Jura’s population of 180 residents from tripling over the next few hours.
This was Jura Whisky’s annual Tastival, when residents and visitors gather in Craighouse, on the southeast side of the island, to celebrate all that is good here: whisky, music, Scottish culture, whisky, food, family, friends, whisky and the rugged, unalloyed beauty of the Paps of Jura, the three mountains that define the island’s landscape. I exited the ferry at Feolin and immediately had to swerve off the one-lane road to dodge a car that had come careering around a rocky corner, racing to catch the ferry back to Islay.
Visitors quickly learn the secret to navigating these single-track roads: Floor it on the straightaways when the road is clear, use passing places when approaching cars have the right of way, and be prepared to back up, sometimes several hundred yards, to the nearest pull-off so that oncoming traffic can pass. That’s why the 8-mile drive to Craighouse can take 30 minutes or more.
More than whisky
Unlike most visiting Jura on this day, I wasn’t there just for the whisky. Australian-born financier Greg Coffey – known in the financial press as “The Wizard of Oz” – in 2010 bought Ardfin Estate, some 14,000 acres on Jura’s southern coastline. It’s one of Jura’s seven massive estates, some of which are reachable only on foot because the A846 only circles the southern coastline and part of the eastern shoreline.
It was here that Coffey decided to build a world-class course for his personal enjoyment, which is the sort of thing you can do if you’re able to quit work in your mid-40s with more than $600 million in the bank.
So Coffey called a fellow Aussie, architect Bob Harrison, and asked him to build the course. Harrison thought the whole idea was so absurd that he stopped Coffey cold. “I said, ‘Look, who is this, really?’ ” Harrison recalled. “I thought it was one of my friends pulling my leg.”
Coffey sent him an email the next morning, and a few days later Harrison was on Jura, walking the estate and trying to determine where to build the course. He settled on land near the 16-bedroom Jura House that Coffey was renovating, with nearly 2 miles of coastline and views of Islay and, on occasion, of Ireland and Scotland’s Kintyre Peninsula.
“You can see the ocean from every hole,” Harrison had told me before my visit. “It is mind-blowingly spectacular. It’s just leaves the question of whether I’ve done it justice or not. It is arguably as spectacular a site as you will ever see.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Coffey made it clear he wanted a course worthy of the site, even asking if some holes could be played to islets just off the coast. “None of that you can do,” Harrison said, “but at least it demonstrated he had a fantastic site and he didn’t want an ordinary result.”
That was immediately apparent as I toured the course with Simon Crawford, the course manager. From the east side of Jura House, the first hole climbs the coastline to the par-3 second, which plays 200 yards across a ravine that falls some 100 feet to the sea.
There’s a sense of mystery as you make the long walk through forest to the fifth tee, which opens to a double fairway, perhaps a tribute to St. Andrews. A new stone wall presents a fabulous risk-reward option on the par-4 sixth, while there’s an infinity effect on the approach to the seventh, with Islay in the distance. From there, players make the long walk through the famous Jura House gardens, shifting from coastal bluffs to seaside golf, before rising again to the bluffs.
Terrain fluctuates, not drama
The terrain fluctuates, but not the drama. There’s the approach to the small, cliffside green at No. 8, soon followed by the par-3 10th, another cliffhanger that’s even more harrowing than the second. Yet it’s the par-4 11th, which plays down to the Boat House, that likely will be Ardfin’s most photographed hole.
The 13th, with the tee shot played across the corner of a stone building, inevitably will bring to mind the Road Hole, while the 14th has a Cape sensibility to it. The par-5 16th, winding downhill to the right, is about as much fun as Ardfin’s select visitors will ever experience. And that’s the hitch: Coffey built the course for himself, but later decided to convert the farm stables into 18 swank guest rooms, which should be completed by June. It’s an open question whether visiting golfers will ever fill those rooms.
Crawford said Coffey has not decided how many, if any, visitors will be allowed to play the course. n n n This brings me back to my friend at The Islay House bar. Over drinks that night and breakfast the next morning, he shared his story. He was 77 years old, a well-traveled diplomat from Australia. His wife, also a diplomat, was stationed in Venezuela.
She was his sixth wife, he said, and they hadn’t seen one another in more than a year. (“I love marriage,” he told me. “That’s why I’ve been married six times.”) Like most diplomats, he was a cautious man. He declined to have our discussion recorded.
Cold War Warrior
He told me he was a Cold War Warrior who had witnessed the evils of communism first-hand during postings in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. He said, the contempt evident in his voice, that he had known Vladimir Putin.
And he told me of his concerns of China’s increasingly aggressive posture. All of this and more had left him in a dour mood, and so he had come here to pay tribute to his literary hero, George Orwell, who had retreated to Barnhill, a cottage on Jura, to write “1984” shortly before his death. It’s not clear why Orwell chose Jura. Perhaps it was simply a quiet escape from London.
Perhaps he thought the clean air would have a salubrious effect on his tuberculosis. Some have floated the theory that Orwell feared London would be the target of a nuclear attack. Or perhaps he simply wanted to be closer to his beloved Jura Whisky. (In 2014, the distillery released Jura 1984, a small batch of 30-year-old Scotch, to honor Orwell.)
My friend, perhaps out of loyalty to Orwell, was faithful to Jura’s 12-year-old expression. He had visited the distillery to learn more about the whisky, though he found the Tastival too commercial.
“They forgot about the art of creation,” he said. He also had intended to make the rugged 4-mile hike up the island’s eastern coastline to Barnhill, hoping for a little inspiration from Orwell. He said he had made the hike once before, in 1984, after a particularly depressing posting in the former Soviet Union.
But he never made it this time. The locals in Craighouse had insisted, for his safety, that he not attempt the treacherous hike in the rain. And so I found him that night, slumped over The Islay House bar, dejected. Later it occurred to me that for him to travel so far and not reach Barnhill would be like a golfer visiting Jura and not being able to set foot on Ardfin Estate. Gwk