The finishing touches to Archerfield Links were only made in 2004, yet this piece of prime East Lothian land already boasts more history than almost any course in the world. Situated a stone’s throw from the legendary golfing village of Gullane and between the Open Championship venue of Muirfield and Open qualifier North Berwick, Archerfield is the latest addition to this corner of Scotland’s embarrassment of golfing riches. It has two courses, the Fidra – which was completed in 2004 – and the Dirleton, which opened for play a couple of years later. Where, I hear you ask, is all its history?
Easy. Golf may well have been played on this stretch of coastline to the east of Edinburgh for as many as 500 years, meaning it has claims to be one of the original venues for the game. Mary Queen of Scots, it is said, once tackled its original six holes.
What is beyond doubt is that the Royal & Ancient game was enjoyed on the 13 holes which were laid out on the Archerfield site by the mid-19th century at the latest.
The inhabitants of Archerfield House, their guests and selected members of staff enjoyed the golf while the upkeep of the courses was carried out in a wonderfully democratic way, local tenants being allocated individual holes to maintain.
Archerfield was constituted as a private golf club in 1869 and was extended to 18 holes two decades later by Ben Sayers, who was born in nearby Haddington. ‘Wee Ben’ was a professional acrobat until the age of 16 but within two years of taking golf seriously he had finished fourth in a professional event in Glasgow.
He made his home in that other East Lothian golfing stronghold, North Berwick, and made gutta percha balls for a living. He also won many leading tournaments of the day but never, surprisingly, The Open.
Having already tried his hand at course design in Moffat, Dumfriesshire, and nearby Kilspindie, it was he who was invited by James Law – former owner of The Scotsman newspaper – to extend Archerfield to 18 holes. Law also enlisted the services of Archie Shiells as greenkeeper and, between them, Archerfield was turned into one of the finest links in the land.
Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1908 at Archerfield so it was somewhat ironic that it was during his finest hour that golf on the estate ceased to exist as the Ministry of Defence took over the land for use in the Second World War.
Victory for the Allies did not mean resurrection for Archerfield though and it was not until 1988 that a plan was tabled for the estate to be regenerated and courses to be laid out by Peter Alliss and Clive Clark.
That proposal ran out of steam but the idea was picked up by Edinburgh businessman Kevin Doyle, who bought 500 acres of the estate and turned to David Russell to carve out the new courses. Russell, a former European Tour champion who was born in Birmingham but has settled in East Lothian, has made a fine job of raising the phoenix from the flames.
The undulations and borrows make the greens ones to be wary of though while the run-ups, while helpful to the skilled links player, can be difficult to master.
The Fidra, surprisingly, is not linksy – at least half of it isn’t, anyway. It starts with holes whose fairways are lined by avenues of pine trees. The Open Championship might be played a couple of hundred yards away at one of its very finest venues but the start to the Fidra feels more akin to the US Open – more like Pinehurst than Muirfield.
It promotes a feeling of utter tranquillity as you challenge this fabulous new creation, the sound of ball on club echoing between the pines being the only disruption. It is clear immediately that the turf is of the finest quality, and while the challenge is exacting, there is no excuse for a poor score here.
The undulations and borrows make the greens ones to be wary of though while the run-ups, while helpful to the skilled links player, can be difficult to master. Upturned-saucer-style greens, such as at the 12th, can be infuriating obstacles.
Eventually, the course opens out into a more traditional links with Bass Rock – a familiar sight when playing these East Lothian classics – the Firth of Forth and even the distant coast of Fife coming into view.
As we approach Yellowcraig beach, appropriately so does the bunkering on the Fidra takes a step up. In addition, so does the difficulty as wind suddenly becomes a real factor with the protection of the trees left behind.
Indeed, strokes one and three arrive at 14 and 15 as the course develops into classic seaside mode, although there is a twist to the sand traps with wispy grasses normally associated with Arizona dotted around the large, flatter ‘bunkers’.
Two very fine holes close the Fidra, a par three stretching to 206 yards and which is usually buffeted by the wind and an awesome par five which requires two magnificent hits to threaten the green. It closes a relatively new addition to East Lothian’s portfolio of which the area can be very proud.