A new multi-million pound golf course on the Sutherland coast would create an economic catalyst for the region by reversing the “Castle Stuart effect”, according to the developer behind the plans.
American businessman Todd Warnock spoke to The Press and Journal in his first newspaper interview on his plans with renowned golf course developer Mike Keiser to create a “world class” championship course at Coul Links, Embo.
He also dismissed comparisons with Donald Trump’s golf course inthe north-east.
Mr Warnock said that the opening of Castle Stuart in 2009-10, although boosting golf visitors to Royal Dornoch, paradoxically resulted in a decline of people staying in the area, as golfers staying in Inverness now travel to Dornoch by coach, play and return the same day.
Along with Mr Keiser, Mr Warnock will be investing £6-10million at Coul Links, and if planning is approved early next year they hope to have it open by Spring 2020.
Mr Warnock, who also owns the Links House hotel and Carnegie Courthouse in Dornoch, added: “Before Castle Stuart opened you would not drive all the way to Dornoch and turn around and leave.
“Now, if you go and stand on the first tee at Dornoch you see bus load after bus load coming and leaving. The reason for that, and I have had lengthy conversations with tour operators, is that we have three iconic courses in the Highlands, and two of the three – Nairn and Castle Stuart – are in the Inverness area.
“If a group of golfers are on vacation and they stay at the Kingsmills, they will play Castle Stuart or Nairn and come up and play Dornoch and leave. They might remember Castle Stuart and Nairn and decide to go somewhere else for their next vacation.
“We don’t need any more golfers up here, we need more golfers to stay in our area and if they stay, this could be the economic catalyst for more hotels and restaurants.
“And the catalyst to stay is a world class golf course which is on a par with Royal Dornoch”.
Mr Warnock says that he has had positive feedback from captains and members at other local clubs – Golspie, Brora and Tain – and that the hope is to form an East Sutherland Golfing Society to more effectively market these courses.
And, despite a large amount of controversy over the potential impact of Coul Links on the area’s undeveloped coastal dunes habitats, Mr Warnock says he is “confident” his team, led by renowned golf course architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, can build the course in an ecologically sensitive way.
The site, which borders the North Sea and Loch Fleet, is in a special protected area and has designated sites of special scientific interest, but Mr Warnock stressed that less than 50 acres of this area will be turfed.
He has also assured that when a planning application is submitted by the end of the year, his experts’ evidence – including studies on migratory and nesting bird and vegetation – will “overwhelmingly” allay conservationists’ fears.
Specifically, he highlighted that designers have routed the course so as to avoid the most sensitive part of Coul Links, a primary dune slack at the point where Loch Fleet meets the Dornoch Firth.
He added: “It’s a question of achieving a dual goal of economic development and ecological conservation. We have the best people in the world to achieve these two goals and I am confident we can do it”.
When asked specifically about a study on the rare Fonseca’s seed fly, which conservationists argue is only found on this stretch of coastline, Mr Warnock said: “This study is nearly complete but we are confident that when the report is published the public will be comfortable that the habitat for Fonseca’s seed fly will be preserved, if not strengthened.”
Mr Warnock also dismissed the comparison with Donald Trump and his Menie Estate course as “irrelevant” and “innapropriate”.
He said: “There will 100% certainly be no hotel on this property or residential development.
“The comparison to Trump is misguided and is inconsistent with the facts. I could not find a man more different to Trump than Mike Keiser”.