Ardfin’s greenskeeper may have finally found a home
Interview by Casey Bannon
Light / Dark
In 2010, Australian financier Greg Coffey purchased roughly 10 miles of remote Scottish coastline along the Isle of Jura known as Ardfin Estate. Soon after, he tapped fellow Aussie architect Bob Harrison to design 18 “If you build it, they will come” holes upon the cliff tops. Two ferry rides and a drive away on the mainland, Laura Sayer-Hall was looking for a change. Her job had left her feeling uninspired. On a whim in 2019, she packed up and followed her sister to Jura, where she planned on housekeeping at the lone pub in town. Instead, she found the newly completed Ardfin Golf Course. Little more than a year later, she is one of a small staff tasked with maintaining the seaside links that is already moving to the top of global must-play lists. The demanding conditions there have fast-tracked her agronomy education, but get to know Sayer-Hall and it’s clear a little Scottish wind won’t blow her off course.
CB You are one of how many people who live full-time on the island of Jura?
LSH The last time I checked, I think about 230. It’s only populated on the east coast; the west coast is very wilderness-y. Everyone’s pretty much located in the one village.
CB It looks like something out of “Game of Thrones.”
LSH [Laughs.] Yes, I know what you mean. No dragons up here, mind you—just the odd otter and eagle.
CB You’re originally from Liverpool, though.
LSH I’m from the Wirral, if you’re going to be specific. That’s across the water from Liverpool. I was a laminator in the aerospace industry. It was a nice workplace, but working indoors every day was a bit grim. It’s a lot more fun being out in all weathers; you never know what you’re going to get. Like today, there’s a storm with 60 mph winds.
CB What exactly does a laminator in the aerospace industry do?
LSH It’s got—how to describe it?—pre-impregnated carbon-fiber sheets. Then you take the backing tape off and lay them on these big metal tools that make parts for the F-35 fighter jets and other things. Definitely not a long-term job for me. It was a normal nine-to-five down in Liverpool, but a nightmare being in rush-hour traffic every day. We only have one road on Jura, so the only traffic jam is the odd herd of cows standing in the way.
CB It’s still an extreme reaction to move somewhere as remote as Jura.
LSH Originally I settled down with my ex-partner and we lived the part of very normal folks. But I felt like I needed something different. I’ve done all sorts of jobs—tracing plasterer, tiling—and renovated a house for two years. Just the most random things. I try stuff and just see. It’s amazing what you can do when you try. You question if you’re doing the right thing or not. I think that’s called life, where you try these things rather than wondering, “What if?”
CB How did you find Jura?
LSH My sister had lived up here for a year, and so I came to stay with her for a bit and fell in love with the place. And then I moved up here to work a seasonal job housekeeping in our one and only pub on the island. The pub is the main social hub of the island; everyone goes to the pub. It’s quite nice. During summer, all the tourists are in there, so you meet new people all the time. I met the greens keepers there and the rest is history.
CB That’s how you found the golf course?
LSH My sister’s boyfriend was a mechanic at Ardfin for a couple of months; he knew all the greenskeepers. He was up at the pub and we were playing pool; it was quite a sociable night. Then they just handed me, “Are you looking for a job?” I kind of shrugged it off and thought, “No. I don’t really want to. Not going to change jobs straightaway after moving somewhere new.” It seemed like quite an interesting job, but I thought it was just grass cutting, and [I] had that naïveté about it.
CB Did they just throw you into the fire?
LSH My initial duties were quite vague, because we’re such a small team. There’s seven of us on staff. They expected me to do basic upkeep for a few months, but two weeks in I was sitting on a fairway mower. It seemed like such a steep learning curve, but they taught me new things all the time just by the nature of us having to be versatile.
CB How nervous were you cutting that first green? Scared of catching an edge?
LSH [Laughs.] Yes, you do catch edges from time to time. Even now, if you’re not paying attention, sometimes you could just nick a little bit out. My first time, I was quite scared. I felt a lot of self-doubt: “Why am I doing this? This isn’t going to end well.” We’ve got a pitch-and-putt, so that was my practice ground. I was let loose on that. [My supervisors] have this ability to go through stuff over and over until you do get it. It’s just practice, really. I think cutting greens isn’t so bad. It’s getting those nice, straight lines that takes the time and the practice.
CB I’ve seen some of your work—very strong lines.
LSH Now it’s onto rolling them. I haven’t really done it very much. That’s a mind-boggler because the steering is opposite and my brain keeps telling me to steer the wrong way. That’s the one thing I need to get a bit more practice on.
CB What was your relationship with golf before that night at the pub?
LSH At the time, I didn’t really have much interest in golf, but I did play as a kid. It was a weekend-away type thing. Now I’ve got a set of clubs and I’m trying to learn, but I’m so bad at golf at the moment. Really bad.
CB No one’s ever as good a player as they want to be. But it sounds like you have fallen in love with the game through the job.
LSH This is a career that I wish I’d discovered a long time ago, really. I get introduced to different things every day. I attended a turf-management exhibition at the end of January in the U.K. I met the greenskeepers there and did a day course in mechanics, and a tree-surveying course, among other things. There’s just so many different aspects to greens-keeping that keep my interest.
CB Do you have a whole new set ofgoals and dreams now?
LSH Yes. The goals I’ve set for myself now are very much greenskeeping based. It makes me think I’m here to stay. I’m finishing my level-two accreditation year after next and I’m hoping to get some tournament experience at the Open [Championship]. Fingers crossed.
CB Hopefully your path reminds folks that some people don’t find their career directly out of school. If they keep their eyes open,they can stumble into a pool game and find their passion.
LSH I wish more kids knew stuff like that and didn’t put so much pressure on themselves. It’s amazing that at 15 you’re supposed to know what you want to do for the rest of your life, which I don’t think people do, really. This is slowly changing in Britain. We’re getting more apprenticeships and work-based learning, which is good, so people actually understand the job before coming out of university and saying, “What? I really don’t enjoy this.”
CB It seems like that attitude has made you very comfortable in a wide range of environments. What else has helped you in that regard?
LSH Maybe because always being in quite a male-dominated environment, job wise, I want to do the best job because I’m representing women. If there’s only two or three of you around, you don’t want the guys to think, “Women can’t do this job.” So you’re trying really hard with everything you do.
CB We almost went the whole interview without touching on gender. Is that progress?
LSH It seems like America has a lot more women in the industry, or whether it’s just that America’s bigger and there’s more of them—I’m not sure. I didn’t meet any females in the industry until I went to that conference. They had a women’s drinks reception, and I met so many ladies. They’re trying to do a big push at the moment to show other women that it’s not a big, bloaty, scary world. Women can do the job. I think in previous years the work has been quite manual, whereas now there’s a lot more machines to do that for you. It’s a great career for a lot of women now….It would be really nice to get more [women into this field]. I do miss female company in the workplace. There’s women that work at Ardfin, but they’re on the hotel side. You don’t see them out on the course. I’m all for blokes’ banter and things like that, but it is nice to just moan about female stuff to other females.
CB Let’s talk about another part of your industry that’s changing. I noticed on your Instagram that you’re passionate about the outdoors. How do you rectify your love of nature with some of the more controversial methods currently used in golf-course maintenance?
LSH It’s very difficult when you have pressure to have a course presented in a certain way, to then say, “We can’t spray this. Try to find some other way to deal with this fungus.” I think Europe seems to be ahead of us on that. I went to a seminar led by a Danish greenskeeper at Copenhagen Golf Club, and how they deal with the golf course is so natural. It’s quite inspiring.
CB It seems like many in the industry are moving that way.
LSH Yes, definitely. I’m extremely interested in the sustainability of greens-keeping, and connect with a lot of like-minded folks on Twitter about the more ecological side of biodiversity. You can see what other people are doing on the courses and gather ideas for your own course. I’d hate for golf to have a detrimental effect on the land. I know in the past that the use of fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides has been irresponsible. I think the U.K. is definitely stepping away from that a bit. There’s hope there. It seems more and more are taking a step back to old-school greens-keeping and working with the land they’ve got rather than pumping chemicals in an effort to recreate Augusta or Sawgrass. That’s just not viable.
CB So we’ll see you doing good work on a mower 10 years from now?
LSH Wow, that’s a long time, 10 years.
CB We can do five if that eases your angst.
LSH [Laughs.] Good. Yes, five is less scary. I’m going to stay in this role until I’ve stopped learning new things. I don’t know when that’s going to be. I feel like you always need to challenge yourself, and sometimes it takes change to do that.