There is, as the rather unpleasant saying tells us, more than one way to skin a cat. Similarly, it has become clear in recent years, there is more than one way to build a new links course in Scotland.
In the last two decades, a small but significant number of new links have opened – Kingsbarns, Castle Stuart, Trump International and Machrihanish Dunes being the highest profile – and a number of others have been mooted, notably the planned Coul Links development in Sutherland. It might seem odd for such a small sample, but really if we want to understand those projects, we need to consider each in turn and look for similarities and differences between them.
The two Mark Parsinen projects, Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart, might best be identified as ‘constructed links’. Parsinen and his team looked for sites that offered great sea views and had links characteristics, even if the ground itself was denatured, and not classical sand dune territory. He judged this approach to be preferable to the inevitably difficult planning process that would accompany any attempt to build a course on a natural, untouched area of sand dunes.
Machrihanish Dunes, Trump International – and Coul – by contrast involved just this kind of virgin linksland, and naturally all three had complicated planning histories. Machrihanish Dunes, the first course to be permitted within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), achieved its planning consent by signing up to an incredibly tough list of environmental constraints; Trump International, on the other hand, was forced through planning by way of brinksmanship and political influence (Coul Links, still mired in planning, seems closer to the Machrihanish Dunes approach, though unarguably it is suffering from buyer’s remorse on the part of some people who were involved in getting planning for Trump, and now regret it).
Dumbarnie might seem, at first glance, to be a hybrid of the two models. On closer examination, though, we see differently. The Dumbarnie Links SSSI is there, but the golf course does not venture onto this sensitive terrain, instead occupying land right up to the fence line that marks the edge of the SSSI.
A visit to the site, which GCA paid during Open week in July, demonstrated this even more clearly. Though the crew, led by architect Clive Clark and project manager Paul Kimber, had mobilised on site less than two months previously, shortly after Fife Council voted to approve planning permission, they had already shaped seven holes, and were just about ready to begin the installation of irrigation. But compared to say Machrihanish Dunes, or the plans for Coul – which are emphatically ‘found’ golf courses, I would describe Dumbarnie as basically a ‘built’ course. This should not be taken as a negative statement; both Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart were most definitely built courses, and they have hardly lacked for acclaim. Nor should readers assume that the construction is overwhelming, obliterating any sense of natural feature; this is far from the truth. Nevertheless, it is best to understand clearly what we are dealing with.
Dumbarnie has been Clive Clark’s passion project since it first surfaced more than five years ago. The former Walker and Ryder Cup player, and for many years a BBC golf commentator, moved to the US after he gave up television work, and built a new career as a golf course designer. Told by his friend, the golf journalist Malcolm Campbell, who lives nearby, about the Dumbarnie site, he negotiated a lease with the landowner, the 5,000-acre Balcarres Estate, created his routing, and, eventually, put together a consortium of fourteen investors, mostly American, that is developing the course. One of those investors is leading golf contractor Landscapes Unlimited, which is providing the construction crew. The site has more elevation than is commonplace on most links courses, with several holes occupying an escarpment some sixty feet above the coastline, resulting in thirteen holes having a view over the Firth of Forth.
Bunkers are being built by a crew provided by leading synthetic bunker edging specialist EcoBunker. That crew, led by global installation specialist Llewelyn Matthews, is moving through the property behind the shaping crew and constructing the revetted bunkers. Not all the bunkers will feature revet though; architect Clark has planned in a number of large sandy blowouts.
“The par five fifteenth has twin fairways, the straight line is more dangerous as it is only 30 yards wide, while the left fairway, which is split from the right-hand fairway by a couple of large bunkers, is 50 yards wide,” he says. “There is also a short par four at seventeen, around the 300 yards, and that has an old Scottish wall en route to the green.
“The coastal level is the larger part of the site, but the dunes there are fairly low, which allows us to see over them,” says Clark. “Up the escarpment and when you’re high above the coastal plain, we have three of four holes where the view is getting on for 180 degrees which is quite spectacular.
“The material onsite is ideal, and we moved quite a lot of dirt to accomplish high dunes – the bigger ones are in step with Birkdale,” says Clark. “We hope to have construction finished by the end of the year. It is a tight schedule, but we are on target, which will allow a full eighteen months for the course to grow in before opening in 2020.”
That tight target looks like being hit. At the time of writing, middle September, the final hole, the par three eighth, was being shaped, and a lot of green grass was evident, with some greens and fairways already being mowed and rolled to aid establishment of the turf sward. Formal opening is planned for 2020, though it is likely that there will be play next year.
The article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.