Coul Links was supposed to be Scotland’s next great links golf course. Envisioned to be built by Coore-Crenshaw on a protected wildlife site in Embo on dunes near Dornoch, those hopes took a serious blow on Feb. 21, when the Scottish government denied planning permission for a project spearheaded by golf course developer Mike Keiser.
“I’m moving on. I have so many other projects,” Keiser tells The Forecaddie. “God bless Dornoch.”
In its decision notice, Scottish Ministers determined that the proposed development would adversely affect the local environment, stating in their findings that the “likely detriment to natural heritage is not outweighed by the socio-economic benefits of the proposal.”
Keiser had teamed 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. They submitted planning documents, two years in the making, in September 2017, and addressed 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.
Local golf clubs — including Brora, Fortrose & Rosemarkie, Golspie, Royal Dornoch, Skibo, Wick, Bonar Bridge and Tain — expressed their support of the project. The owners of the Royal Golf Hotel, beside Royal Dornoch, went so far as to announce plans for a $1.3 million hotel extension as a result.
Keiser expressed surprise with the outcome, and for good reason. The Highlands councilors had initially given the project its blessing in June.
“The old links courses like Balybunion and Dornoch couldn’t get approval today. The best sites are dunes and they have been characterized as extremely sensitive and environmentally untouchable. Given the EU statutes I don’t think any of the old greats would get approved,” Keiser said. “The interesting thing is it was the government that said to Todd, ‘Why don’t you build a great golf course?’ The best site according to Bill (Coore), and we agreed, was Coul Links. It was the best site and the worst choice we could’ve made if we wanted to build any golf course.”
“I’m not going to fight it,” Keiser continued. “I’ve read the ruling. If they say, birds, bees and butterflies are important and the golf course will affect them. They’re looking at that part of the study that said that. Our statement was we wouldn’t affect them in a material way. I don’t think we’ve bridged that gap.”
He didn’t want to speak on behalf of Warnock, his partner, who may choose to appeal the ruling.
Sadly, the ramifications of Coul Links being stalled likely signals a death knell to two potential courses that Keiser was considering in Wales and Ireland.
“I’m going to pass on those and do projects where the people want you. They’ll have to find someone else willing to crank through the EU dunes restrictions in Ireland. I thought Coul Links had a better chance,” he said. “My advice to anyone doing golf courses is go where you are welcome. The EU is not a welcoming place.”
While Keiser may be moving on from Coul Links, it won’t slow down his future course output. The Sheep Ranch is scheduled to open in June at Bandon Dunes in Oregon, and Keiser said he would be traveling to Saint Lucia in the eastern Caribbean Sea on March 2 to visit with Coore-Crenshaw, who are building Cabot Links St. Lucia, a luxury golf resort and residential community. A third course, Sedge Valley, is under construction at Sand Valley in Wisconsin, which is being designed by Tom Doak.
“My son, Michael, is talking about a fourth course there,” Keiser said of the Wisconsin destination that already is home to Mammoth Dunes and Sand Valley. “We’ve got a few other exciting sites and two of them are in friendly countries, but it would be premature to say any more than that now.”
“We’ll end up fine but it’s golf’s loss,” Keiser added. “Bill and Ben had a fabulous routing. I’m picturing it now and like Dornoch it would’ve been a blast. By the time you’d have gotten to 18, you’d be saying let’s go around again.”