Archerfield Links in the village of Dirleton, Scotland, sits on land where bowmen once pitched their tents while helping Edward I of England earn the nickname the Hammer of Scotland during a punitive military expedition in 1298. In the ensuing centuries, Englishmen hauling all manner of intentions have journeyed north to this craggy coast, located 18 miles east of Edinburgh, where round medieval towers brood along the Firth of Forth. Most of those Englishmen were loath to arm the Scots, but golf course architect D.J. Russell, a transplant from Birmingham (he now lives near Dirleton in Dunbar), has done just that with his two new layouts at Archerfield. “I wanted to put golf back in the hands of the player,” says Russell, “not in the equipment.”
A regular on the European Seniors Tour, Russell expresses disdain for the present state of golf course architecture. “Designers have been building courses that are so difficult and overstated they are not for the everyday player,” he says. “You have to play them once, but you’d never do it again. They are built for the odd occasion that Tiger [Woods] might play them.”
Russell’s two courses at Archerfield—a 550-acre private club and community that is open to nonmembers who rent the estate’s manor house (about $10,500 per night) or one of the adjacent suites (beginning at $380)—reflect his populist leanings. Dirleton Links, which opened in July 2006, is a manageable layout (even from the tips) that is free of elaborate water features and massive bunker complexes. Instead, pothole bunkers litter fairways that follow the terrain’s hills and swales and lead to contoured greens. Golfers must roll their approach shots between the bunkers that protect most of the putting surfaces, or run the risk of skittering off the backs. “It’s an old-fashioned way of building courses,” says Russell, who notes that a traditional style is appropriate under the circumstances: A golf course existed on the site of Dirleton Links in the 19th century.
Dirleton’s most recent predecessor at Archerfield is Russell’s Fidra Links, which opened in 2004 as the golf club’s first course. Fidra was named for a nearby island that Robert Louis Stevenson employed as an inspiration for Treasure Island. (The map of Skeleton Island in the first edition of the novel closely resembles Fidra’s horseshoe shape.) About half of the course plays through pine trees—a novelty in this part of Scotland—but trouble, for the most part, can be avoided simply by remembering one of Russell’s central tenets of design: “I want to build courses where you can play along the ground.” This playing technique applies equally well to Fidra’s final four holes, which, not unlike those of Muirfield and other nearby courses, head along the coast into a prevailing wind.
Russell hopes that his designs at Archerfield bear a resemblance to another of the region’s courses. “To me, golf needs to be subtle,” he explains. “St. Andrews is the most subtle course in the world. You learn something new every time you play it.”