The team behind the proposed Coul Links course in Sutherland, Scotland, only a few miles from the world-famous Royal Dornoch, is quietly optimistic ahead of the Highland Council's planning meeting on 5 June, at which the application is due to be decided.
GCA got a tour of the site from project manager Chris Haspell last week and there is no doubt that, if Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are allowed to build the course routed across the Coul site, it will be tremendous. Significant headaches remain though, even after the announcement over the weekend that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has withdrawn all but one of its objections to the project.
In a letter submitted to the Highland Council, SNH has maintained one objection to the plans over the impact on the sand dune habitats. But it has withdrawn its objection to the disturbance on birds after developers filed a Recreation and Access Management Plan covering mitigation measures.
The group has also withdrawn a holding objection on the impacts of water abstraction on the dune slack after receiving additional information, and after the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) gave its consent.
However, campaign group Not Coul, led, rather ironically, by ecologist Tom Dargie, who was a consultant for the Trump Aberdeen development several years ago, continues to object strongly to the golf course.
Co-developer Todd Warnock said: “We are extremely pleased the three-year consultation with SNH has come to a successful conclusion. Our relationship has been professional, thorough and exhaustive throughout. Together, our efforts focused upon building a world class golf course, whilst maintaining environmental integrity of the site.
“Our deliberations with SEPA were also professional and exhaustive. Together with SNH, we worked closely with SEPA on the important topic of the dune slack environment and related hydrological integrity. We are pleased that together we have resolved this important issue and are certain that the environmental integrity of the dune slacks will be maintained.”
Now, to the site. Entry to the golf course will be via a new link to be constructed from the Dornoch to Embo road, giving access to an area just off the links itself. Already at this location are two houses and an old steading; one of these houses is planned to become the pro shop, while the other will hold administration offices. The steading, at the moment, is intended to house the caddy shack, but Haspell says that, if needed, it could easily be converted into a clubhouse.
The edge of the linksland – which has SSSI status – is marked by the embankment of the old light railway that connected Dornoch to the mainline until it was closed in 1960. The proposed first hole is a par five, the first half of which is outside the SSSI, while the second, a short par four, marks the arrival of the dramatic terrain. A high dune at the corner of the hole, which doglegs right around it, will feature an intimidating bunker complex. The third is the first of what should one of the world's elite sets of par threes, playing across a valley to a green high in the dunes, while the fourth is tucked in among some of the most remarkable topography – the landing zone, in particular, is narrow and steep sided.
A standout hole should be the eighth, a par four with its green set in the deepest punchbowl I have ever seen. The ninth returns to the clubhouse, and finishes back outside the SSSI, with a dramatic greensite set way above the fairway.
This first nine occupies land which is covered largely in dune heather, though, as Haspell points out, the vegetation is not in the best condition, and would benefit from sympathetic management. The team plans to transplant large areas of dune heath to revegetate parts of the site from which it has been lost – surely an obvious environmental gain, though one which has provoked doubt from the objectors, who say such translocation of vegetation is unlikely to be successful.
Architect Coore told GCA: “Coul does not remind me of any site with which we have worked before. With its varied natural landforms and environments, it has a more multi-character feel than is generally seen at the majority of classic seaside links. The dramatic heather-covered dunes are somewhat reminiscent of Royal County Down, the most seaward portion of the course could conjure up thoughts of Royal Portrush, while the lower lying, rumpled ground in the centre of the course seems more like the classic seaside links of Scotland. I might add that Coul has some of the most natural and interesting green sites we have ever discovered on any site, including the Sand Hills.”
Haspell told GCA that if the vote on 5 June goes against Coul then developers Warnock and Mike Keiser plan to step away from the project, rather than pursuing an appeal. However, if the vote goes in favour, then construction – which will be tightly regulated – could begin within weeks.