Now that the Coul Links has been approved, what does it all mean for Scotland's links landscape?
No doubt, Mike Keiser's project in Embo two miles from Royal Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands could end up being a game-changer. With the unparalleled success of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw paired with Keiser, it's not a stretch to think that Coul Link could cause a disturbance in the force for every links destination in Scotland. Traffic patterns of American links lovers could shift away from the Ayrshire Coast in the west and East Lothian in the east. Heck, maybe even tour operators who sell only St. Andrews, the "Home of Golf," should be a little nervous.
Could adding another bucket-list links help the Highlands overtake St. Andrews as Scotland's No. 1 golf destination? It's not as preposterous as it sounds.
Video: Ginella talks Coul Links project on Morning Drive
The Coul Links project
Coul Links could be the last major links ever built along the Scottish coast. Few developers have the money or the patience to sift through the approval process that took Keiser and his partner, Todd Warnock, years to navigate. Donald Trump's contentious relationship with the locals while building and now running Trump International Golf Links Scotland in Aberdeen certainly hasn't help Keiser's plight. The Times has reported that opposition still exists:
"A petition opposing the course, which would be on a site of special scientific interest, gathered more than 90,000 signatures. A coalition of environmental groups also spoke out against it."
Golf fans, meanwhile, couldn't be more stoked. Consider the star-studded list of courses Coore and Crenshaw have already built for Keiser - Bandon Trails (2005) at Bandon Dunes in Oregon; Lost Farm (2010) in Tasmania; Bandon Preserve (2012), a 13-hole par-3 course at Bandon Dunes; Cabot Cliffs (2015) in Canada; and the Sand Valley Course (2016) and its 17-hole par-3, The Sand Box (2018).
“Bill and Ben will pour everything they’ve got into this site,” Keiser told Golf Advisor in 2017. “Especially considering its proximity to Royal Dornoch. It’s nice to have that as competition. Will they rise to it? We will see.”
The Coul Links impact
The Highlands becoming more popular than St. Andrews? Balderdash. Or is it?
I toured the Highlands in 2015, a golf trip that easily rates among the top five I've ever taken. I loved the sense of adventure as our 10-person bus explored its back roads and tiny towns.
St. Andrews does have its inherent advantages - it's easier to get to, the vibe of a seaside, college town, an endless supply of links in a compact area and The Old Course, of course. You can handpick an awesome itinerary among the seven courses run by the St. Andrews Links Trust; the spectacular Kingsbarns Golf Links; two courses at the Fairmont St. Andrews; and perhaps the most difficult links in the world, Carnoustie Golf Links, host of The Open in 2018. But not everybody is enamored with the Old Course.
The Highlands has that mystique of a land lost in time. Visiting Dornoch, the birthplace of Donald Ross, is akin to religious pilgrimage. Royal Dornoch might be the best combination of scenery and shot-making in the world. It's like Pinehurst No. 2 with more elevations next to an ocean. Castle Stuart might be the most fun links in the U.K., and Brora Golf Club the most unpretentious. My foursome played through grazing sheep and one large cow resting in the fairway.
The Tain Golf Club, with roots to Old Tom Morris and a statue to prove it, punches above its weight class for the honor of the most underrated links in Scotland. Nairn Golf Club shouldn't be overlooked with its pure greens and warm hospitality.
Even today, if I had to choose between a return trip to St. Andrews or the Highlands, I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. Adding Coul Links in 2020 (or soon after) would make that decision even harder - for me and probably countless others heading to Scotland.