Published: 06/11/2015 18:00 - Updated: 06/11/2015 16:42

Mixed opinion over proposed golf course at Embo

Coul Links near Embo, site of the proposed new golf course.
Coul Links near Embo, site of the proposed new golf course.

THE prospect of another “world class” golf course in Sutherland has been roundly welcomed this week as a potential major boost for the local economy.

However, the president of Golspie Golf Club has warned that it could bunker

his own course if it competes for members.

As the Northern Times exclusively revealed last week, American entrepreneur Todd Warnock, with partners, are considering building an 18-hole links course on a large swathe of ground at Coul links, close to the village of Embo.

The ambitious £7 million plan is at an early stage, with the environmental impact still to be assessed. The ground involved is in a Special Protected Area (SPA) and also has designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

A public consultation exercise is to take place, but if it is to go ahead the project would have the potential to bring hundreds of visitors to the area, boosting the economy and creating jobs.

But Sandy Mackenzie, the president of the 125-year-old Golspie Golf Club, said the new course would be an “over provision” in the area and could badly affect existing courses. “We have around 250 members and could easily take 800. The membership does not pay the total running costs. We depend on summer visitors and their green fees,” said Mr Mackenzie.

“If this new course tries to compete for members — it is in the same catchment area — and visitors I think it would be a threat to us and to Brora as well.

“We are struggling financially, and have been for the last two years, not least due to weather-related problems. The club would survive, but it could call into question keeping both full-time greenkeepers and other things.

“I do think it would be an over provision of courses in the area, but I expect it may well end up being a bit exclusive like Skibo, which would not have the same effect.”

Mr Mackenzie said they had received no approach from the developers and situation would be discussed at the next club committee meeting on November 12.

“The first I knew of this proposal was when I read it in the Northern Times. We would be happy to meet the developers and see if we can work together. We have a very good working relationship with Brora and Dornoch,” he said.

Mr Mackenzie added that Golspie Golf Club’s full fee is £365 a year, and currently has an introductory offer to attract new members of £125. Juniors pay around £20.

Tony Gill, secretary of 124-year-old Brora Golf Club, which has 400 adult members, allayed fears over the threat of the new course.

“My understanding is that it will be a pay and play model, which we would broadly welcome,” he said.

“It will add to the portfolio to make the Highlands a true golfing destination and encourage people to play other local courses. If it went down the membership route, it would be difficult to know at this stage what impact it would have, if any. But I am led to believe it will be a course where people just turn up and pay and play.”

Royal Dornoch manager Neil Hampton has said he had been informed about the project and welcomed it.

Local councillor Jim McGillivray said: “The American investors have a strong record of delivering the projects they undertake, and projects so far in Dornoch have been a major boost to the local economy.

“There have been several local Embo people, some very much active and some sadly departed, who have long held the view over the years that the links area to the north of Embo would have made an ideal golf course. 

“During the five years recently when the Embo Trust held a Land Reform Community Right to Buy on Coul Farm, this was one of the ideas put forward by trust directors as a possible economic development for Embo.

“At the same time there are others who would deeply regret losing the natural wildness of this area to a more cultured appearance.”

Jennifer Cameron, chairman of the Dornoch Area Community Interest Company, said it too had not had any contact from the people behind the proposed course.

But she added: “I think the prospect of more investment in the Dornoch area is very encouraging. Everyone is waiting on the feasibility study, and there are a lot of considerations to go through.

“However the reaction we have had from people is very encouraging. We are very pleased to have international interest in the Dornoch area.”

Around 11,187 golfers travelled to Dornoch this season to play Royal Dornoch’ championship course and a further 3237 played the club’s Struie course. 

Chicago-based Mr Warnock and his wife Liz have already invested hundreds of thousands in Dornoch, converting a former manse — Links House — into a boutique hotel.

The couple are also kickstarting a project to turn the historic Dornoch courthouse into a Andrew Carnegie-themed visitor centre.

Mr Warnock has joined forces with fellow Chicago businessman and golf course developer Michael Keiser, along with Ralph Abel Smith, owner of Coul Farm, to “evaluate a potential new course at Coul Links”.

The area of ground in question is located three miles north of Royal Dornoch Golf Club along the Dornoch Firth at Loch Fleet. The site identified is understood to be twice the size of Royal Dornoch’s championship course.

Mr Keiser, who was also in Dornoch this week, is a well known name in golf circles. According to “Golf Tripper” magazine he sold a greetings card company to try his hand at golf course development and has been responsible for the award winning Bandon Dunes course in Oregon, Cabot Links in Nova Scotia and Barnbougle in Tasmania.

Two other noted names in the golfing world — course architect Bill Coore and former Masters winner Ben Crenshaw (of the firm Coore Crenshaw) — have conducted preliminary analysis of the site.

Mr Warnock said the group has conducted initial discussions with Highland Council and Scottish Natural Heritage and has agreed to launch an assessment of the economic and environmental issues related to the proposed project.

“Highlands and Islands Enterprise is helping to facilitate discussions,” he added.

But he warned: “At this point no conclusions whatsoever have been drawn in respect of the potential project. The group plans to spend several months in feasibility mode, during which there will be a process of public consultation.

“A further announcement will be made when appropriate.”

It is understood that at this stage the group does not intend to build any infrastructure other than a golf course. Initial plans are that golfers would be shuttled by bus between Royal Dornoch and Coul Links.

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