From Dependance to Top Resort

In conversation with Ian Ferguson, Dundonald 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.

? What was the reason for Loch Lomond Golf Club to re-sell Dundonald Links?


! Loch Lomond had Dundonald Links for almost 20 years. Some of their members have never played here and knew nothing about Dundonald Links, while other sections of their membership really loved it and played here frequently. So it had come to a point where you could not do nothing with Dundonald Links. For those from Loch Lomond who had never played here this venue was of no value for them. At this stage it coincided with some pressure on Loch Lomond to look at the drainage of their course. After a review of that there was significant cost pressure to do a full sand capping to allow members to play there full year – and all this added up to a 7 Mio. GBP investment. So especially those members who never played here suggested to sell Dundonald Links and use this revenue to reduce the clubs own investment. So they put it up for sale to see the real value of the course. Darwin Escapes bought the venue for 4.5 million GBP and within three years of their purchase we had opened that 25 million GBP resort all the way and had to open right within Covid.


? How has the total investment of 25 million GBP been allocated to clubhouse, accommodation, golf course, others?


! We have done about 1 million GBP in the course in conjunction with Kyle Phillips, e.g. for bigger tee grounds and lots of cosmetics stuff including a new halfway house. Maybe 12 million GBP went into our new clubhouse and similar amount into accommodation with our lodges.


? Which role do memberships play now in the given new ownership, what has happened to former memberships?


! Originally, we did not offer own memberships, as Loch Lomond members where the original members here. So what we did at that time, we were selling an annual membership without any legal rights and no captains, no committee and more. We never knew how the venue would be at the end of the development. We had 270 of those seasonal ticket holders. When we got to know what the investment would mean we wanted to make sure that if you will be staying on site you will have access to the golf course. Therefore, we decided to seize the annual passes completely. We do not have any individual memberships, but offer a very popular corporate membership. But we just wanted to make sure that we do not frustrate either members or guests by not getting on the course. We look at it in the way that either you put your flag in the ground and are successful as a commercial venue or you are a good club and do this very well. Inbetween is difficult!


? How would you describe the new product and customer experience?


! I think we identified very early a gap for golf centered accommodation. You have some nice hotels here in the area, but are conflicting with wedding business, conference business. You might have to make your way with your clubs through a wedding reception. We are convinced that if we provide a golf centered accommodation, you cannot only enjoy our amazing course, but have access to some of the most famous venues in Ayrshire such as Royal Troon and Turnberry in less than 40 minutes plus, in addition, to some hidden gems reachable in less than 15 minutes from here. So you don’t waste time travelling – the last thing you want to do once you committed to a nice golf travel is unnecessary traveling. What we tried to do here is to make sure that as much as we could think of a golfer might want on a trip for four or five days. That could be anything from the drying facilities in the lodges – so if you get a wet day out there you don’t have to bring your club into your bedroom to dry them, there is a separate space to dry them, in the four and six bedrooms we provide a washing machine and more. We also had Kyle Phillips to design the putting greens behind each lodge and the surface is as good as our greens on the course. So you can win your money back at the lodge which you lost on the course (laughing…).

? Which role does Scotland play within your concept?


! We noticed that especially golfers who come to Scotland for their first time also want to dive into our culture, especially whishy. That’s why we have set up our whisky room together with Blair Bowman, a leading whisky expert. We have over 140 whiskies here, starting with ones for the unexperienced guests who have never before tried a whisky up to a 36 year old Bunnahabhain Canasta, which we have in our own cask in the whisky room, or the Macallan M.


? Are your spa and gym just for your guests or do you have a special membership for this?


! No, it is all for our guests. You can go there as a daily guest as well as a guest staying in one of our lodges.


? What are the most important source markets?


! We are really focusing on North America, Northern Europe and the rest of the world. Covid had is impact and the current struggle with air traffic and all the luggage problems has risen the UK market’s awareness towards our destination luckily.


? Is there any plan to set up a combined golf tour together with other Kyle Phillips-courses such as Kingsbarns?


! That’s a good questions – we have talked about having a Kyle Phillips connection and connecting the east with the west, because there are many people who want to play Kyle Phillips’ courses. If you play Kingsbarns and our course you will definitely see some similarities and a joint philosophy on how to set up a course. With having our own accommodation now we have teamed up with our neighbours from Prestwick and Western Gailes so far, so we have a nice package for that local sort of groupings. The next logical step would be some sort of Kyle Phillips link for those people who love his courses.


? You will be hosting the Women’s Scottish Open by the end of July. In 2017, you hosted both, Men’s and Women’s Scottish Open here in Dundonald. How important are such tournaments for you?


! We have always known that this is a tournament venue, so we have always had ambitions to host tournaments. Again, part of the thinking behind not having a formal membership was to allow us to do that with freedom, so we don’t have to put people out and compromise their experience. So we are firmly in the market for those events, not only for professionals, but also high end amateur events. For example, we will have the final qualifying for The Open from next year on for four years – this will be awesome, we really look forward to that. And we have had the Women’s Open from 2015 until 2017 – in 2017 back to back with the Men’s tournament. It was a great experience, but now we have all the facilities to put this venue on the stage and get golfers catch an eye on our venue. Furthermore, we seem to have an affinity with the women’s game here. We have a good working relationship with the team from IMG here, who take care of the event. This is very exciting for us and the price money for this PGA co-sanctioned event is quite high.


? There is less staging compared to the preparation for the Men’s Scottish Open. What is the background behind this?


! There is two sides. First, most of the staging is still in St. Andrews for The Open (laughing). Second, the event in 2017 was quite a pioneering event, back to back had never been done before at the same venue. What we found that the theory was good, but the infrastructure for the women’s event was simply too much. There were too many outside grandstands, some tents in the village were closed. So in practice, it did not prove to work in the way it would have made sense to continue. So the LET and PGA tours know what their customers are expecting and are now creating their own experience for the players and visitors, which works quite well.


? Sustainability plays an important role within your concept. Are you aiming at becoming certified by programs such as GEO?


! We were really one of the first to win a sustainability award way back in 2016, we have been zero waste for almost 9 years now. It has been on our agenda for a long time. When Darwin Escapes were extending our facility they had to comply with our waste management policy. Our sustainability is something we are very proud of, e.g. the work that we do with the Scottish Wildlife Trust. We encourage the re-introduction of the small blue butterfly here, something we have gone along with for the last 9 years. It is now coming back and we are building exclusionaries on the course for them. We also have our own bees and beehives and are part of a program for pollonators.


? Do you already recognize shortages in water?


! We were lucky, because we have an irrigation pond and therefore our own supply. Sometimes we will need more than it can supply, so we are lucky on this regard. But if we need additional water, we can get this so far.


? Which impact does the 150th The Open have on golf travels to Dundonald and the overall importance of golf in Scotland?


! It is priceless, as far as I am concerned. It is a once in a lifetime sort of moment, the next big milestone will be the 200th and I will not know the winner then, I guess. I think a lot of golfers recognize this. It is at the Home of Golf when some golfers are at their peak or close to their peak in the game. It was great to see Tiger receiving standing ovations after his first tee shot. You know, it is so unique, the experience in St. Andrews is very special, the atmosphere is just unbelievable. It really is important for the whole of Scotland. We have people here staying with us and traveling to St. Andrews. And of course we are really looking forward to 2024 when The Open will be held just about 10 minutes away from us at Royal Troon.


Thanks a lot for sharing you amazing experiences with our readers.


The interview was conducted by our author Michael Althoff.


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