Dumbarnie Links – Newcomer with awards
In conversation with David Scott, Dumbarnie Links
On the occasion of the 150th The Open, golfmanager visited the "Home of Golf" (editor's note: St. Andrews) and the Old Course as well as other worthwhile courses. In addition to a general introduction in the article "Scotland's golf scene - much more than St. Andrews and The Open", author Michael Althoff conducted the following detailed interview with Stuart McColm, General Manager of Castle Stuart Golf Links.
? You have opened in 2020 – what was the reason to do so with regards to Covid?
! Our plan was to open on 17 May 2020 – that was before Covid struck in March. We already had quite a few bookings in the system including Scottish bookings. When Covid hit, we then decided on “why not proactively focus on the Scottish market?” as we did not know what Covid was all about and how long it will last. So we wanted to make the most of this opportunity – especially, as we already had some great staff in place and would have to lay them off in case of ceasing the opening. So we opened the golf course on the 29 May 2020, which was the first legal day to open in Scotland. Sadly, the clubhouse wasn’t completed as the builders had to stop all their work due to Covid. We had to think about a plan b with temporary cabins and a big stretch tent. We ran an outside BBQ all season. It was operational every day – even on the breezy days. There was no travel externally and so we were fully focused on people from Scotland, who suddenly had plenty of money and time in their hands. Through social media we quickly built up a reputation and had players who played up to 20 rounds that year.
? Which role do memberships play?
! We offer a lower rate for Scottish residents when bookings within 21 days to the day of play. We are a pay and play course like many others in Scotland. It’s a similar business model as in Castle Stuart and Kingsbarns. We open for the season, April through October, and then close down for the winter. There is almost no demand during this time from overseas tourists. If we were to have play over the wintertime, the course wouldn’t be in such good condition, we would have to offer a lower rate and all you would be doing is beating up your golf course rather than letting it just rest and get ready for the season with high greenfees.
? How would you describe the product?
! Certainly, we are a big golf course. We have 345 acres of a footprint the golf course covers – most golf courses are about 150 to 200 max. Each hole is very individual. Quite often you can’t see any other parts of the golf course. There’s virtually no chance of slicing or hooking your shots to someone else’s fairway, because the separation between holes is so significant. That in itself makes it very unique, it is probably the biggest footprint in Scotland. The views on the Firth of Forth and looking across to Edinburgh on clear days is just tremendous – and if you look to the south, you are looking over to Muirfield. The clubhouse sits about 25 meters above the water level and so commands a great position to take in the marvelous views across our links and out to sea.
? Are there any plans to add own accommodation or another course?
! We do have an option in the future to provide some beautiful modern lodges. But it is not going be significant, it might be just six units – should it go ahead, it’s likely not to come to fruition for several years. It is a big question whether it is going to be beneficial, because we are so close to the Mecca of golf, St. Andrews, and being some 15 to 20 kilometers away from St. Andrews most people just want to stay in the Home of Golf and enjoy all the great hospitality plus great bars and restaurants there rather than being stuck away from the golfing capital, but indeed, in a very nice and relaxing part of Scotland.
? You are cooperating with Troon – how is this cooperation working?
! Troon had been involved from the start here. We opened the golf course in May 2020, they got involved about 2.5 to 3 years ahead with the design of the clubhouse and working away with the builders to get things in place. On the agronomy side as well, they have been heavily involved, giving us quality advice on our turfs. Troon headquarters are based over 5,000 miles away in Scottsdale, AZ, but we have regular visits from the European division of Troon. It is great to have their support here!
? Is Troon’s own loyalty system, Troon Rewards, well known in this area?
! No, it is not. We used to be managed by a company that was called OB Sports – a smaller company which had around 65 golf courses in their portfolio. They got bought over about 1.5 years ago by Troon, so we have then been pulled into their family of golf courses. As a result we are benefiting from many discounts Troon gets you. However, Troon Rewards is something we still have to find out how this might be beneficial for us.
? How important is it to be the host of well recognized tournaments such as the Scottish Women’s Open 2021?
! It was a massive benefit to us to host such a prestigious event. We had players like Lydia Ko here, but most importantly was the media attention it gave us. We had perfect weather during that week. We had stiff breezes, the course was in great order and one day it was gusting to 40-50 km/h. So the ladies had to play really great links golf shots – bump and run shots – going into the greens. That was great fun for them. We had TV, live streaming to America via Golfchannel to the USA. That gave us an equivalent over the entire week of about 4 million dollars in marketing. Launching our course to the world of golf that way was absolutely fantastic! For still being in a Covid year with international travel being still restricted it worked quite brilliantly for us. Tour operators were asked “where is that venue called Dumbarnie Links? It looks amazing!”. So we managed to get a lot of attention to our links from just this one event.
? Would you say it is easier to host a women’s tournament compared to a men’s tournament?
! Certainly, there were no stands here, but a lot of infrastructure around the clubhouse such as the players lounge, the media center and volunteers tents. It wasn’t particularly hard to set up, but then we had the wonderful internationally renowned brand and company IMG here who set the whole show up – they were absolutely tremendous!
? Which impact does the 150th The Open have on golf travels to Dumbarnie and the overall importance of golf in Scotland?
! We are full this week with typically 250 golfers a day, many of them are leading lights in the world of golf. We had the chairman of the British PGA, the president of the US PGA, former Open champions such as Ian Baker-Finch, Gary Player and Sir Bob Charles playing here. We would never have had that in just a regular July. Most importantly, golf media, journalists and photographers, are coming to the area, so it is a great opportunity to showcase our golf course. They can then tick-off the box for Dumbarnie Links, as they would not fly over here just for our course. But as The Open is in town, they can take us in while they are here. Also financially, this week is very successful for us. We don’t have any low price green fees. We’ve been in great demand and we could have sold our teesheet twice over every single day. It is not great for getting much sleep for the golf team and the chefs though, but we are prepared for this as well (smiling).
? You have closed the course due to the dry late winter/early spring and a lack of growing grass? Why have you made this strict decision?
! It was really the perfect storm of quite a few things coming together: we had very young fescue on our greens, we had eight weeks of very harsh east winds which is certainly quite unusual. But also, we opened the golf course a little too early considering the weather that we were about to get. So in the future, we are not opening up mid March, but mid April. We also had an issue with nematodes, which is a microscopic bacteria. So we made the decision on 03 May to close the course as our focus was The Open week with so many influential people playing our course. We wanted them to go away saying “Wow, what a great golf course, we had a fun day” rather than “we had a great day, what a great layout, but it will need a 5 years to mature”. So we were closed for about six weeks. Financially, it cost us about 1 million USD – that was tough, but it was the right long-term decision!
? Do you already recognize shortages in water?
! Fortunately not, we have two bore holes. So we just drilled down a hundred meters and pull the water from there into a tank. But as a links golf course we don’t want to be using too much, because otherwise we end up getting lush grass throughout. That’s not what we want, we want hard, firm fairways and we’re growing here with Fescue grass which does not demand a lot of water anyway.
? Do you apply a program such as GEO or Audubon?
! We are definitely aiming at this. We are also looking at solar panels across our greenkeeping area to create our own electricity for the battery powered machines.
? How difficult is it in your area to find appropriate and well skilled staff?
! Fortunately, there are two reasons why we are doing fine so far in attracting good staff in here. We have some great heads of department with a positive mindset who embrace the opportunity to support teams, so people want to work for them. There is a massive shortage in the hospitality industry, Brexit has led to a significant shortage in staff. I think our location has actually helped us a little, because we are 20 Kilometers south of St. Andrews – so we are close to Leven, Kirkcaldy and Glenrothes.. there is not much tourism in this area and so we are providing opportunities for employment. The closer you get to St. Andrews, the harder it is to get staff. There are so many hotels and golf courses requiring staff and so it’s a price was to attract staff. It will be a tough market in the future and we are lucky that many of our employees have previously been working in St. Andrews and now save 20-30 minutes per way every day. But it will remain a challenge over the next couple of years.
Thank you so much for these amazing information and all the best for the rest of the season.
The interview was conducted by our author Michael Althoff.