By Adam Schupak
Editor’s note: In June 2018, Coul Links received approval to enter the construction phase of the project. This article, written in fall 2017, provides useful background on what will be the newest course in the Scottish Highlands.
Ever since he first played Royal Dornoch 40 years ago, developer Mike Keiser has searched for a piece of property to build a course in Scotland.
His dream could soon turn to reality in the Scottish Highlands. Keiser is teaming with business entrepreneur Todd Warnock, landowner Edward Abel Smith, and the Embo Trust to build a seaside layout less than two miles north of Royal Dornoch, which will bear the distinctive name Coul Links. Why Coul Links?
“That’s the way it appears on a map,” Keiser says. “In gaelic, ‘coul’ means ‘beach.’ So you could say it’s ‘beachland.’”
The project is still in the planning and permitting stage, but took an important major step forward on September 29, 2017 when the developers submitted a planning document to the Highland Council proposing the construction of the 18-hole course in the town of Embo.
Keiser’s planning documents, two years in the making, address United Kingdom restrictions pertaining to sensitive duneland and the concerns of environmentalists. This included altering the design of the course to reduce the impact on the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest at Coul Links.
“The UK is rightly concerned about the preservation of the sensitive duneland,” Keiser said. “Any development on their beautiful dunes are subject to a bit of scrutiny.”
Scottish Natural Heritage, the national statutory body for environmental oversight, raised two specific objections: dune habitats and a more thorough recreation and access management plan.
“We have already begun work in this respect,” Warnock says. “The narrowness of the objections now allows us to focus on the actions required in order to move forward.”
The SNH response follows public meetings held in October in Dornoch and Embo, which showed widespread support for the project. More than 220 people attended the meetings with only seven opposed. At Embo, more than 100 people attended with not one expressing opposition.
Local golf clubs—including Brora, Fortrose & Rosemarkie, Golspie, Royal Dornoch, Skibo, Wick, Bonar Bridge, and Tain—also have expressed their support of the project. The owners of the Royal Golf Hotel, beside Royal Dornoch golf course, backed the Coul Links proposals and announced plans for a £1 million hotel extension as a result.
One of the bedrock principles of Keiser’s success has been the belief that two courses represent a golf destination. However, Keiser concedes there is only land for one in Embo. But as the front page of the Coul Links web site so boldly proclaims, the course is conceived with “the goal of breathing life into a beautiful part of the world.”
“Right now, traveling golfers visit Dornoch on day trips while usually not even staying long enough for lunch,” Keiser says. “The hope is Coul Links will add to the region and give tourists a reason to stay overnight and propel the local economy.”
Add Castle Stuart in Inverness and Trump International Golf Links Scotland in Aberdeen, which have second courses in the planning stages, and northern Scotland could thrive as a popular destination all its own.
Approval likely will come down to a mid-January 2018 Highland Council planning meeting. Any discussion of a date for groundbreaking is premature, Keiser says.
Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw, who have done several Keiser courses, including Bandon Trails and Cabot Cliffs, are waiting in the wings to transform raw, tumbling coastland into world-class, seaside links golf.
“Both of them are cautiously jumping for joy for the chance to build something great and memorable,” Keiser says. “It’s saying something when Bill Coore calls it ‘The best site we’ve ever had.’”
Would the addition of a Coore & Crenshaw design in the Scottish Highlands make you want to go even more? Let us know in the comments below!