A dizzying combination of wonderfully scenic, dramatic golf holes with world-class, ultra-exclusive accommodation.
If anywhere matches our stay at Ardfin during our travels, we will be very, very lucky.
Its Australian billionaire owner Greg Coffey and designer Bob Harrison carved a course out of the cliffs on the tiny Scottish island of Jura – known only for its whisky and 6,000 deer.
But it is not intended as a tourist destination. Only Coffey’s family and friends or those willing to pay a very hefty price are allowed in.
The word in the top 100 golfing community was that he may decide to close it to the public, so I was advised that if I wanted to complete my quest, I should pay, have a fantastic time and not look over my shoulder.
On top of the most expensive room we have ever stayed in, was the cost of the golf and of the food but, in for a penny, in for a few thousand pounds.
Our visit came just two weeks after Mrs W’s final episode in her successful cancer treatment and a month after our 35th wedding anniversary, so we both agreed to go for it.
Ardfin has created a mystique. False rumours about it abound – for example, we were told there was an honours board for those who don’t lose a ball and, more importantly, that the course’s condition had seriously declined.
Let me put the latter myth to bed… everything about Ardfin from the moment the gates open, is sensational.
This retreat is so exclusive that if we wanted not to see anyone other than the three people looking after us, we would not have done.
Later we were told that the greens staff are given the schedule of the few playing so that they do their work out of sight.
After relaxing in our wonderful accommodation for a few hours, we embarked on the seven-course tasting menu. This was probably the finest food to pass my lips in my 60 years.
The imagination of presentation (eg locally sourced scallops delivered on a shell and pebbles) was theatrical and the taste of all of the food from the canapes to the petits fours was tongue-tingling.
The next day was the golf. We were only likely to be at Ardfin once, so we decided to try two rounds.
Given our respective physical conditions and age, we inquired about a buggy. When we were told it would cost £300 (!), we plumped for our push carts. The course is hilly and is a long walk. Thus, we were pleased we managed 34 holes.
The operations manager accompanied us to the range, showed us the first tee and then we were on our own on this gobsmacking, beautiful course.
Even Ardfin’s infinity practice putting green will live in the memory for a long time.
Strategy and big, straight hitting are key once the round begins. Many holes have long carry from the tee and anything offline is dead. I mean it – if a ball enters more than two feet into the dense rough, it will be lost.
Our Garmin watches didn’t pick up their satellite, so we relied on the yardage book. I now wish I had paid more attention to its green descriptions because putting surfaces are often longer, wider and subtler than appear from a distance.
The first hole sets the tone, ascending on the side of a cliff with two small streams, big bunkers on the right and tangly stuff down the left.
The second is mind-blowing – a 200-yard par-three, stroke index 16 across a gorge. My first attempt seemed well-struck but the ball disappeared into the abyss. In the afternoon, my drive scrambled to the other side and I was relieved with a four.
The third fairway is a slither between two streams and the approach is mighty tricky as there is water all around the green.
At this point, we remarked on the tranquillity, the silence broken only by the babbling brook.
The par-four fourth intimidates from its blind drive over deep ferns to the top of the post. The next obstacle is a big patch of wetland about 130 yards from the flag and, if this is overcome, there are three consecutive sand traps in front of the green which is also protected by a mound.
There are several long walks between holes at Ardfin and the fifth tee can be found after a little hike through woodland.
The fifth is comfortably the easiest hole with the only real peril a wall to the right. It is intended to replicate the first hole at St. Andrew’s. However, it has a sting in its tail - a green with a very tricky swale.
Picturesque views are stepped up on the sixth – a straightforward downhill par-four with a steep uphill front before a target with the stunning backdrop of the Sound of Islay.
After the hole, a bending par-four to a tucked away green, there is a long walk past the residence and through a beautiful walled garden.
And the hits keep coming with the eighth that demands an accurate drive between the cliff ledge on the left and a huge rock on the right. Mrs W disturbed a family of rabbits with a bit of a hook.
The pitch into the flag is over a wall to a target perched on the side of the sea. This is the first of a run of some of the most outstanding holes in the world.
Three huge stags looked on as we tackled the “fun” 19th hole – an additional and, in my opinion, rather pointless, par-three over a chasm, fitted in during the walk between holes eight and nine.
The locals turned away disgusted after seeing my morning attempt disappear short of the target. In the afternoon, I clubbed up and lost the ball over the green. Mrs W made it look much easier.
I have seen a drone video of the ninth which shows the blind tee shot is over a rocky coastline. This isn’t visible from the tee and neither is the fairway, so I belted the ball in more hope than expectation.
After completing mission one, there was a short approach into a green with sheer drops left and back.
This is one of the most scrumptiously daunting tee shots in golf – from a rocky outcrop over crags towards a barely visible flag. Fortunately, the aforementioned video showed a bail-out possibility to the right.
It is followed by the magnificent vista on the 11th towards Ardfin’s boathouse where lunch is often served. The target lies over wetlands with run-offs on the back and front and a bunker to its right.
The par-three 12th was almost the site of the finest moment of my top 100 travels. I used a driver against the wind to its multi-layered green.
The ball whistled between the bunker on the left and heavy rough on the right, past the hole and then found the slope and began to ease down towards the cup. I was beyond excited, but it rested three feet short and I had to ‘settle for birdie’.
Any thought that Ardfin was going to get any easier was immediately dispelled by the 13th which demands a tee shot over disused farm buildings. There is no way of seeing where the ball lands. First time I found it, the second time I didn’t.
The approach is over a burn with a wall on the far side. It’s imaginative and crazy.
And, on the remaining holes, there is a similar story. If a drive over wetlands keeps the ball in play, a score is possible. If it doesn’t, it won’t be.
Somehow, I achieved on the stroke-index-1 14th because I played it as a five, lagging up in front of the reeds that defend the hole and clipping onto the putting surface.
However, the run-in thereafter defeated me.
The head greenkeeper later confided that the 15th is his nemesis because he struggles to make the nearly 200-yard carry on to the fairway. Ditto – even when I thought I had smashed a cracker, the ball disappeared into the long grass.
Mrs W again befitted from a forward tee but found the hole no formality thereafter as it ascends past bunkers on the right before a green that slopes away towards the cliff.
The 16th should have elicited success after a decent drive and a second shot past the rocks in the middle of the fairway but my aggressive downhill approach failed to stop on the gree, disappearing never to be seen again.
There is no respite on the ascending 17th with another long carry off the tee over trouble before deciding whether to take on a burn that crosses in front of the target.
The par-five home hole could be conquered with some cute course management if the mind hasn’t been scrambled long before.
A burn should be an irrelevance and an approach to the left of the green should keep clear of the array of bunkers down the right.
I had started our day full of bravado as I don’t usually lose many balls but felt chastened as we trooped back to our room.
However, I didn’t feel too bad about losing six in each round when I heard that a three-handicapper had gone around the course in 92 on the same day.
Mrs W. rightly glowed after recording 28 points in her opening round which could and should have been more.
Pushing a trolley was damned hard work and made us appreciate our very fine dinner and room with the most relaxing bath and most comfortable bed we could remember.
But there is a PS - be prepared to pay heavily for any extras. For example, I was dumbfounded by the charge of £60 for a cap and pretty miffed by the service charges on our very sizeable bill.
However, I have to say, it was one of the great experiences of our life.