Not even a visionary saw this this one coming.
He says it was Royal Dornoch that inspired him to create Bandon Dunes, a mystical golfapalooza on the southwest coast of Oregon. And then he did it again in Tasmania. And then again in Nova Scotia. He just broke ground on a second course in the sticks of Wisconsin.
But could Mike Keiser have ever imagined such a spiritual narrative arc, boomeranging to where it all began?
"I never would've thought of it," said Keiser, on the phone from Dornoch, where he had completed a day of meetings with local political leaders, discussing next steps for Coul Links Beach, his new golf development project located three miles north of Dornoch. About 350 acres, the site is in the initial stages of becoming a new 18-hole golf course designed by Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw.
Coore described links land to Keiser as: "Spectacular! Might be the best ever."
This, coming from the guy who just completed Cabot Cliffs, which has a mile and a half of dramatic Cape Breton coastline.
"It's two miles of ocean frontage, and about a half-mile deep," Keiser said. "It will have roughly the same footprint as Royal Dornoch."
Royal Dornoch is an Old Tom Morris design (1866) in a remote Scottish town in which Donald Ross was born (1872), raised, and taught all aspects of the game of golf before eventually settling in the Sandhills of North Carolina (1900).
Video: Ginella on Keiser's Coul Links Beach in Scotland
Todd Warnock: Keiser's man on the ground at Dornoch
Keiser's business partner in this project is Todd Warnock, 55, a self-proclaimed "recovering capitalist." Keiser calls him "Warnock of Dornoch," but he's actually one of Keiser's friends from Chicago who has also had a successful career, has strong family values and they share a passion for all of the finer things about golf, especially as it relates to Dornoch.
Like Howard McKee was at Bandon Dunes, Richard Sattler at Barnbougle, Ben Cowan-Dewar at Cabot Links and Craig Haltom and Keiser's oldest son, Michael, at Sand Valley, Warnock will be Keiser's man on the ground at Dornoch.
Since 2010, Warnock has been developing Links House, a high-end lodging option only a short chip away from the first tee of Royal Dornoch. He has eight rooms now, and in a month, he's adding another six rooms. After years of admiring nearby land that seemed destined for fairways and flags, about nine months ago, he called Keiser, selling him on the idea they should pursue a golf development. Keiser told Warnock that if he liked it so much, find out who owned it.
A local family, who is choosing to remain anonymous, replied to Warnock's e-mail with a phone call. The man on the phone had done his research on both Warnock and Keiser, and he would be willing to talk.
The plan they worked out is for Keiser, Warnock and potentially 200 other "founders" to enter into a long-term lease of the land. Upwards of 99 years. The local landowner would potentially get a percentage of all paying customers.
It's Bill and Ben's turn
On the heels of starting Sand Valley, a two-course project in Wisconsin, and only weeks after walking away from building a sixth course at Bandon Dunes, Keiser says this is a perfect time to start something new.
"It is such a good site," said Keiser, who considered David McLay Kidd and Tom Doak as the architects for this project. Both have already built golf courses in Scotland.
"David did the Castle Course, and Tom built the Renaissance Club. It's Bill and Ben's turn."
Coore has been to Scotland twice, spending days walking the land with an ecologist, who is helping determine what could be available as a golf course. Based on a first pass of what is deemed a "Site of Special Scientific Interest," Coore told Keiser there was more than enough to move forward.
Prior to their phone calls, Keiser and Warnock had spent their Thursday meeting with Highland officials and environmentalists (Scottish Natural Heritage), discussing next steps.
For nine to 12 months, there will be research on the land's local plants and migratory birds. If things go as planned, in two years, Warnock and Keiser could be the latest American golf enthusiasts to break ground on an addition to the sacred land of Scottish links.
"I would never do this by myself," Warnock said. "It's too big of a project. Mike knows how to do it, and he does it in the tradition of how we would all want it to be done. Mike is humbled by the thought of coming here. He told me he would take the next six to twelve months looking into Old Tom Morris."
Coul Links could help solidify the Highlands' rep
And so, assuming the environmentalist's concerns are satisfied, and terms of the lease can be agreed upon, Coul (Cool) Links could help solidify the Highlands as yet another Scottish destination with a deep lineup.
Warnock says Castle Stuart, a course developed by Mark Parsinen and built by Gil Hanse, located 45 minutes south of Dornoch, has helped. "But people still just come up for the day, play 18, and then go back south," he said. "We want to give them a reason to stay and play a few more rounds."
Keiser has not committed to any lodging. "This is just 18 holes," he says. "We don't want to compete with locals, we just want to add to what's already here."
Warnock is already there, and he's excited about the opportunity to partner with Keiser.
"He's Mike Keiser," Warnock said. "He sees things we don't see. He's creative. Spiritual. His personality attracts people."
More importantly, his golf attracts golfers. And right now, Royal Dornoch gets about 20,000 rounds per year, with roughly half of those rounds by visitors from the U.S. If Coul Links becomes more than just a beach, it won't take a visionary to see a dramatic rise in both of those numbers.
The defacing of the nicest area of wilderness and spoiling it would be a huge disincentive to come to the area. These areas are rare. I am a local and am familiar with the entire region. This would be a devastating loss. If people can't get DOZENS of golf courses to their liking; ruining the final area of wilderness on the east coast and taking away from the the overall beauty of the area in a devastating way...would be an act of total impudence and complete folly. You can not promote golf by vandalism in this way. I will be put off golf totally and could not face walking in my home countryside. It is like the clearances all over again for people like me.
I have walked along the top of the dunes last Saturday and the area is in flood. It is wild and beautiful. If we have a normal amount of rain, it will be like this half the year. This venture would mean draining and diverting water in the iconic Embo Plains. It is a low basin. This venture is a ludicrous act of mindless vandalism. If the environmental people are worth their salt; they will protest against this with everything they have got. Defacing this area would be criminal... and it should be MADE criminal! The Locals, and visitors, are against this.
I guess the only people capable of designing a golf course hail from the USA, and of all the names who have built world class golf courses only a select few appear capable these days. Why in the world do we Scots allow this, surely we know something about golf and golf courses.
Getting to Inverness is about to get a lot easier...
Undoubtedly another $250 - $500 golf course to stroke Mr. Keiser's ego and get even less people to play the game.
A lot of people don't bother going to the north of Scotland given the driving distance and the attraction of the southwest (Troon, Turnberry etc.), southeast (Gullane and North Berwick) and of course St. Andrews and Fife. There are numerous courses in the north apart from Royal Dornoch, Nairn and Castle Stuart. Places like Fortrose and Rosemarkie, Tain and Brora are well worth the visit. People just need to commit to the north and the Highlands as an area worth visiting. The addition of another course in the Dornoch area would help this cause and be very welcome. More hotel space in the Dornoch area would also be a big help. Driving back and forth from Inverness can be a bit tiring.