It could be argued that, with the best ratio of golf courses to head of population of anywhere in the world, the last thing Scotland really needs is more places to play the game. And this, with one proviso, is probably true.
But the proviso is an important one and is: There is always room for quality. At Archerfield Links, if they have a three-word philosophy, it is probably 'quality, quality and quality'. Golf does not come much more luxurious or relaxed than this new 36-hole development in East Lothian - which already has its share of great courses, including what is arguably Scotland's finest, Muirfield.
And as Archerfield Links occupies an estate that borders Muirfield, it needs to get things right in order for the inevitable comparisons not to leave it trailing in the wake of its more illustrious neighbour. This it spectacularly does - but at a price. Simply, the development offers first-class service for members and their guests but, in order to enhance that service and the facilities on offer, fee-paying visitors won't be able to visit and play, which is a shame for them but good news for members which of course, it is meant to be.
Director of golf Paul Lightbody explains: 'I would not like to be a member of a golf club where there's a corporate outing and a society visiting with the result that I can't get onto the course for two hours. I also think there's a big market out there for this level of service and this quality of course.'
But although Archerfield intends to offer the equivalent of a first-class flight to the Caribbean with unparalleled standards of service, it will sink or swim, and be primarily judged, on the quality of its golf and here comes the first surprise. Instead of contracting a big name, high profile specialist architect like Tom Fazio or Robert Trent Jones Jr, or even a Major-winning golfer like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer or Gary Player, Archerfield's owner handed the job to a lesser-known European Tour player called David, or DJ Russell. Not only that, it is his first ever design contract.
The owner in question is Kevin Doyle, a man who made his money in pubs, clubs and bars. As a successful businessman he had the opportunity to play in several pro-ams, where he met DJ, as he's universally known, and they became friends. So when Mr Doyle bought the Archerfield estate and was looking for a course designer, it seemed logical to him to ask the Tour pro he knew best. And although Archerfield is the first architect's job on DJ's CV, we suspect it won't be the last because he has created at least one course that is memorable, picturesque and, most importantly, enjoyable.
There are two courses on site, the Fidra and Dirleton. The Fidra opened for play in early May and the Dirleton will take its first golfing traffic next year. Both courses are par 72 and both can be stretched to almost 7,000 yards and each offers a choice of four tee boxes. Black is probably equivalent to championship; blue would be the medal tees, white the everyday member tees and yellow are the forward tees - for seniors, juniors and women.
More impressive than this, however, is that instead of having different coloured markers on the same long strip of grass mowed to fairway height, on virtually every hole four distinct and separate tee boxes have been built, but rather than march in single file from back to front, they have been moved both forwards and laterally away from each other - sometimes by as much as 30-40 yards - to give an entirely fresh view, or challenge, to the tee shot.
It's an excellent idea but one sadly that is rarely replicated on other courses. Oh, and there are no rigid rules about which tee box you play from on any given day - you choose the standard or level at which you feel most comfortable. Would that all golf courses were so sensible.
DJ Russell's design philosophy is a simple one - that all standards of golfer should be able to walk off the 18th having faced a challenge but with a smile on their face. To this end he has created a layout on the Fidra that features wide fairways, manageable rough and large (in many instances huge) greens - and the putting surfaces are not reminiscent of a local funfair roller-coaster ride either, what borrows there are tend to be subtle. No elephant graveyard here.
In addition, every single green has a route to it that allows the player to either throw the ball in high or bump and run it in the classical Scots tradition, depending on mood, wind, ability and preference.
If that was all the Fidra had to offer, you'd probably be asking: 'Where's the first tee and what's the course record?' but just hold your horses a second. Bunkering is a significant part of the Fidra's defences and it's proper, Scottish bunkering, even on the fairways. Find the sand from the tee and it will cost you at least half a stroke and probably a full one. The bunkers are strategic but not too numerous and the overall feeling, having completed 18 holes, is that the course is, above all else, fair.
Unlike the Dirleton, the first 11 holes of the Fidra perambulate through avenues of trees, giving the layout almost a home counties ambience, but when it opens out it feels much more like East Lothian - which makes for an excellent contrast. Many of the holes feature gentle doglegs but nothing that requires Trevino-like skill in manouvering the ball in order to keep it on the short grass.
Oh, and glory be but the Fidra also sees a welcome inclusion of that most valuable but neglected commodity, the short par four, best seen at the 350-yard (white tees) 12th. A large fairway bunker waits for the loose tee shot on this gentle left-to-right dogleg, while an intrusive greenside trap means that the approach has to be either very straight, or flown high.
The Fidra will not leap instantly into the world's top-50 golf courses, as Kingsbarns in Fife has done, but is an excellent test that will be remembered with fondness by almost all who play it.
As Paul Lightbody says: 'We know we're not yet the best but we aim to be the best. There is always room for improvement and we intend to keep on monitoring what we do because a golf course is always a work under progress.'
Paul came to Archerfield almost a year ago, having spent eight years in Dubai and it would appear that at least one of the reasons for his appointment as director of golf is that he is familiar with the concept of offering excellent service. It is almost a mantra with him - not simply a marketing phrase but clearly something in which he strongly believes.
'We want to raise the bar to such a high standard that we will develop a worldwide reputation,' he says, and it's difficult not to think that hell succeed.
For example, members and their guests will be met when they pull into the car park so that their clubs can be delivered to the tee. Buggies will be plentiful but if someone prefers to walk, they are offered a motorised trolley. Drinks and snacks on the course are abundant and a telephone line will be installed so that, as players near the clubhouse (and both layouts feature the classic, two loops of nine that return to the bar) they can order whatever snack or drink they want, which will be waiting by the ninth green.
All this, of course, costs. The first tranche of debentures will be £15,000 (with every 100 people who sign up, the cost then rises on a sliding scale) and annual subscriptions will cost £1,000. However, once the target number of 1,000 members has been reached, debentures can be sold on and the club will take 15% of the resale value - which it expects to be significantly higher than the initial outlay.
In addition, 100 properties are being built on the estate - 27 of the plots are 'mansion' size but from the evidence of the architect drawings, the other 73 properties are not exactly cottages. Building will not start until the renovation of Archerfield House is complete, which is expected to be by mid to late summer. The house, originally built in the 16th Century, was enlarged in 1745 and Robert Adam subsequently expanded it and remodelled the interior. As a Grade I listed building, planning permission needs to be sought for any alterations and Caledonian Heritage and other interested parties are adamant that the work has to be to the highest standard.
Then again, as Herbert Asquith, a former prime minister rented the place, and Sir Winston Churchill used to hold private meetings there with US president Franklin Roosevelt, it has a lot of history that needs to be preserved.
Incidentally, the estate was given the name Archerfield in 1298 when the archers of Edward I's invading army camped out there. Golf has been a feature since the 16th Century when Britains most famous golfing monarch, Mary Queen of Scots, was known to have played over its six holes.
Since then it has undergone many changes and among those who helped lengthen and expand it was Ben Sayers but since World War II the courses fell into disrepair - until now.
If you know any relatively wealthy people in North Berwick, flatter them, do them a few favours and then suggest they join Archerfield - that way they might invite you along as a guest. Failing that, you'll just have to start saving.
East Lothian EH39 5HQ
+44 (0)1620 850542/714
|| 18 - MAY 2004