Course Preview: Cabot Links (Inverness, Nova Scotia)
Architect: Rod Whitman (2011)
The Scorecard: “Are you going to play?”
The question is asked of me by a middle-aged women strolling with her young son as I walk from the parking lot of an ice producing factory adjacent to the south end of Cabot Links. It isn’t typical that a passerby is intrigued that at person is lugging their clubs on to a course; it happens every day all over the world. But those courses aren’t Cabot Links, arguably the most intriguing public golf course to open in North America since Chambers Bay appeared on the scene on the American west coast a few years ago.
Not only did the lady want to know if I was playing Cabot, but she stuck around to watch our group of visiting writers – as well as the club’s new pro Joe Robinson, who joined the operation after nearly four decades at Highlands Links – tee it up and let them fly on the long par 5 11th. She’d later applaud when my putt dropped on the hole, and say she’d be out to play as soon as the course was opened, which is expected on July 23 when a handful of Cabot’s fairways will be shown off during so-called “preview rounds.” These sneak peaks were supposed to start the day we tipped it up (July 1), but were delayed when cold weather limited growth on several holes. Our group soon expanded to include course founder Ben Cowan-Dewar and we played a six-hole loop (several times, I’ll add), while I later ducked away for an additional hour touring and hitting some shots with superintendent Mike Rossi on holes that aren’t quite grown in.
Interestingly, everyone from the guy working the scanner at Sydney’s airport through to the assistant pro in another club we played wanted to know how our round at Cabot was. They’d ask where we’d played and when the Cabot name came up, eyes widened.
Why the fuss?
Cabot is the rarest of beasts – a true seaside links (at least according to some pundits), with fescue grass fairways and greens. The ocean is in view all over the course. The fairways have undulations that propel your ball randomly. Yes, some of the course might have been built on clay from the old mine, but it looks like a links and plays like one of the great seaside beasts that can be found dotting the shores of Ireland or Scotland. I have little time for those who nitpick about whether recent Scottish greats like Kingsbarns are true links, and I won’t bother debating it here. It has the appearance and the character of a links, probably most akin to those found in Bandon, Oregon. Not surprisingly Mike Keiser, the owner of Bandon Dunes, is helping bankroll Cabot.
Having only “played” 10 holes, I feel the need to reserve judgment on the course in some regard, considering three holes have yet to be finished. In some instances even the design is incomplete; while driving to the course designer Rod Whitman discussed whether he’ll add bunkers on a par 3 that is only rough shaped. He thought it might be too much.
On the other hand, the stretch of golf on the back nine – from the par 5 11th through to the remarkable par 4 16th – is as good a group of holes as can be found in Canada. From my tour, they appear to be the standouts and they are breathtaking, occasionally fearsome, sometimes whimsical and a lot of fun to play. The target for Cabot is very high – Top 5 in Canada or better, perhaps among the handful of great golf courses in the world. The jury might still be out – at least until the course is complete — but the highlights suggest Cabot might just make the grade.
• The par 3 14th hole is a nice version of Pebble Beach’s fabled 7th. At 100 yards it plays straight at the ocean with a small pot bunker on the right and a steep fall off to the 15th tee behind. The green was firm allowing you to play a mix of shots, from high sand wedges to knocked-down irons, while the bunker gobbled up anything hit on the far right side of the green. I could have stood there all afternoon and hit balls at it – to my way of thinking this is among the great par 3s built in Canada, right up there with Devil’s Cauldron at Banff Springs.
• Width. The course is wide enough to withstand sea winds that could ravage the games of golfers playing Cabot Links. But there are preferred lines of play within the short grass, meaning some pins are more easily approached from certain areas of the short fescue fairways.
• The 15th and 16th holes – both long par 4s along the ocean – are dramatic in appearance and performance. The green of the 16th, set on a bluff near a cliff along the ocean will be the one that will be the one people take their cameras out for, but the 15th, with its centre bunker and short grass surround on the right, was my favourite in terms of strategy.
• The short par 4 sixth, which at less than 300 yards was reachable when I played it, was a terrific strategic hole.
• The 9th, a cape hole on the bay, has only recently been seeded, but looked stunning.
• The inland second is going to be a tough early hole, but the strategies and options were apparent right from the start. Fascinating.
• I was struck by how close the 18th green is to the clubhouse, which is currently being built. The clubhouse is just to the left of the hole, which was designed to be a short par 5 by Whitman. Is it too close? I like its proximity from an aesthetic perspective, but you might find a ball in your drink if you’re sitting on the patio and a wayward shot is hit. Smacking the clubhouse is very possible – I watched it happen (though it wasn’t my shot).
• I wonder if the one-shot holes, with the exception of the par 3 14th, are a little plain. The 17th was surely fun to play, and had a great green, but might underwhelm some who have emerged from the drama of the proceeding holes. The 8th looked like it might stand out, but it is in the early stages, while another long three was incomplete and not yet grassed.
• Will the inland holes measure up to the seaside ones? While it is true the ocean is always within few, only on a handful of holes (11, 14 through 16) is it the focus. The onus will be on the holes farthest from the water, like the opener and the 18th. I thought the first hole was understated, though I liked the way the fairway flowed into the green. The 18th utilized an interesting angle, but I wonder whether it could be a letdown considering the drama that precedes it.
The Final Tally: The holes I played at Cabot were big on strategy and options and captured the essence of what a modern links is about. This wasn’t a perfect site, and the shaping by Whitman and his team is excellent. It will likely fool many who think the site reflects the actual landscape that was there when the designer first toured the site – and that’s a big compliment. Though I didn’t get a chance to play it all, I’d argue that the stretch along the ocean is rivalled in Canada only by Highlands Links when it comes to drama, excitement, strategy and fun. Holes 14 through 16 might represent the best run of golf in Canada. The final result will depend on the inland holes. If they are similarly excellent, Cabot Links will be in very elite company indeed.
Grade: Reserved (for now).