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Your New Year’s Resolution: Sail to Cabot Links

Better eat your Wheaties: colourful Cabot's mighty par-5 2nd is a beefy challenge right out of the gate.

It’s hard to know for sure, but the twinkle in Ben Cowan-Dewar’s eye — the one that would take nearly eight years to grow into Cabot Links, the brightest light to adorn the Canadian golf landscape in a very long time — probably first appeared on a gloriously un-wintry December day in 2004 on the western shores of Cape Breton Island.

The power and the glory: churning surf, ominous clouds, howling winds and inviting pin placements are all in the offing at Cabot Links, billed as Canada's first and only "true links" course.

“It was sunny and warm,” Cowan-Dewar recalled. “A golf day.”

A golfer and entrepreneur who founded the “golf adventure” planning company Golf Travel Impresarios in 1999, Cowan-Dewar was hankering to leave his mark on a more grassroots project.

He was summoned to Cape Breton by Rodney MacDonald, Nova Scotia’s fiddle-playing minister of tourism and future premier — a man who no doubt hoped to forge a bond between an ambitious, deep-pocketed, golf-mad Toronto businessman and MacDonald’s own constituents, the people of the moribund former mining town of Inverness — a town long forsaken by the coal industry that spawned it.

Cowan-Dewar, as it turns out, was indeed smitten. A month later, he introduced the property to his architect-in-waiting, Rod Whitman, a man whose distinctive prairie-links design at Wolf Creek Resort in Ponoka, Alta., marked him as having a flair for the sort of along-the-ground golf they knew a thing or two about in Scotland. The weather that day was decidedly different than when Cowan-Dewar first saw the property, but Whitman clearly caught sight of the same vision.

“We both thought how great, you know, the potential for the site was,” said Cowan-Dewar, counting off a number of would-be developers and visionaries who’d come before him years earlier — some even armed with ready-made course routings — only to vanish into the ether.

Looking back towards the town and MacIsaac's Pond after finishing the sheltered par-4 9th.

“It was a site that had been talked about as a golf course for an awful long time, dating back decades, really. It wasn’t an original idea that I had, I think it was just good timing and things sort of fell into place.”

In keeping with the grandest traditions of modern-day “true links” golf, every effort was made to make Cabot Links feel like it’s been there for 200 years, designed, cultivated and manicured by the all-star design team of God and Mother Nature. It’s a commendable philosophy, one that’s been in vogue since the turn of the century, when destinations like Bandon Dunes and Kingsbarns Golf Links first started to show the golf world that less can in fact be more.

Indeed, the Cabot Links storyline bears a striking similarity to that of Bandon — a rough-hewn seaside links layout in the middle of nowhere that eschews certain modernities like golf carts and GPS in favour of bipedal power and real-life human caddies (who, it bears mentioning, know Cabot’s humps, bumps and curves almost as well as their own), and chooses to ignore certain conventional beliefs about successful business ventures.

That, of course, is no coincidence: Mike Keiser, Bandon’s odds-defying visionary, came on board as Cowan-Dewar’s partner in 2007.

“At that point, the vision really was Bandon Dunes,” said Cowan-Dewar.

“It was the great links golf in the U.K., of course, but I think when you think about doing it in North America, the comparisons were obviously going to be to Bandon. To have Mike as my partner and to be able to go through it, to sort of have the playbook of what worked so well for them out there — I think he lent a lot of credibility, there’s no doubt about it.”

So what of the golf course?

A late-season visit in 2011 afforded a few lucky golf scribes the first chance to play all 18 holes, though most were still very much in their infancy and far from ready for their public debut, scheduled for July of 2012. But even so, it was clear that to describe Cabot Links merely as something special is to do it a grave disservice.

The spectacular double green that services both the 4th and 13th holes.

It is, first and foremost, a product of its environment. Wedged fast between the gritty facade of the town of Inverness and the pitiless Gulf of St. Lawrence, like a grassy staircase to the beach, Cabot has an old-world feel that’s difficult to replicate, a sort of time-traveller’s authenticity that makes it easy for players to suspend their disbelief and imagine themselves in a place like Royal Aberdeen or Cruden Bay.

The routing winds its way back and forth, switchback-style, from the elevated clubhouse down to sea level, venturing forth from town into the game’s open arms in the grandest tradition of true links courses, occasionally turning to confront the ocean before beating a hasty uphill retreat back towards the town.

So much is dependent on the elements that there’s no telling just how big a brute the par-5 2nd, which weighs in at 619 yards and has been christened by one of the staffers “the Green Mile,” will prove to be. But be prepared to take your medicine.

Many of Cabot’s bunkers are gnarly, untended, fescue-fettered pits that stand sentry alongside the green sites, serving not as obstacles but disincentives for anything but the most precise of plays. They’re unobtrusive and out of the way, like good bunkers should be, helping to steer the player on his or her most prudent course, punishing only those whose greed or lack of forethought cause them to stray from the script.

The short par-3 8th takes players into a sheltered cove, where they can enjoy a brief back-nine respite from the elements along the risk-reward par-4 ninth, the “Cape Hole,” which wraps around the oddly sheltered inlet of MacIsaac’s Pond to a green framed by a small marina. But it’s just one highlight of a course that is a joy to behold from virtually every vantage point, and which is guaranteed to never play the same way twice.

True to links form, Cabot will from time to time mercilessly tempt the longer hitter or better player into doing something stupid. Witness the reachable par-4 6th hole, which plays into the teeth of a coastal gale if it’s blowing off the water, but offers a tantalizing chance to make up a stroke or two if the wind is lying down. A gentle dogleg right, the green is guarded only by trouble along the right side and a shaggy mound in front to add a bit of risk to a low running approach, which is the preferred option on a great many of Cabot’s greens.

A rollicking double green, guarded by a collection of rolling hillocks that would have made Stanley Thompson proud, provides a sprawling putting surface for both the 4th and 13th holes, and threatens to add more than just a stroke or two if your approach finds itself favouring the wrong pin. “Rod, your double-green complex is truly unique. In a word, it’s magnificent,” the Cabot blog quotes Keiser as saying.

Ben Cowan-Dewar contemplates his wind-cheating chip-shot approach to the deceptively simple par-3 14th, an homage of sorts to the 7th at Pebble.

The par-3 14th is another short hole that steers players towards the ocean, in much the same way as the famed 7th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links, and is sure to demand a creative approach when the wind blows, regardless of direction. Barely a sand wedge in terms of distance, I found it impossible to hit the green with anything other than a sawed-off middle iron that almost had to be skulled to keep it out of the wind.

Talking to Cowan-Dewar after the round, it’s clear Cabot has long since become a labour of love, one that prompted the former resident of Toronto to pull up stakes and relocate to Cape Breton Island in order to better oversee the project. As a passionate golfer, he was able to walk the land constantly with Keiser and Whitman, providing crucial input as the layout took shape.

“It’s difficult without being there while all of those key decisions need to be made — you really want to be on top of everything,” he said.

“It was probably one of the challenges for Rod — I don’t think he ’d had anybody who cared about the golf as much as Mike and I. I’m not dismissing his previous owners, but literally, I’d be out there with him every day, saying, ‘What do you think of this?’ ‘Why are you doing that?’ ‘Do you think this should really be a bunker, or should it be a grassy hollow?’ Things like that.

“It wasn’t at all about questioning Rod, it was just about wanting to make sure the absolute best product was there. Mike Keiser — that’s very much his approach. It’s about getting to the best answer. It doesn’t at all have to be his answer, it doesn’t have to be your answer.”

Construction of 48 suites designed by architect Susan Fitzgerald, each offering a floor-to-ceiling view of the ocean and the golf course, got underway last year and is scheduled to be finished in time for the grand opening this summer. The accommodations are surely a must-have component of the project if it is to attract the sort of business Cabot Links will need in order to survive and thrive.

Cowan-Dewar is taking nothing for granted.

“I think this is by no means a sure thing,” he conceded. “Obviously we hope that we could become as big as Bandon, but being realistic, even if we could have half that success, it would be great.”

That said, a vision of the future — one wholly dependent on Cabot’s initial success as a must-play destination — is already in focus. There’s property lying in wait to become a second golf course, this one to be designed by the superstar design duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, another architectural team with an easy grasp of the Cabot-Bandon design sensibility, having already left their mark on Bandon Preserve and Bandon Trails, two of the layouts that form part of the Keiser complex in Oregon.

“I think it’s exciting,” Cowan-Dewar said of the anticipation that’s building as a project that’s been eight years in the making finally comes to fruition.

How do you roll up on this sight and not believe in your heart you're in a remarkably special place?

“We’re at the very early days, and we’re realistic that we don’t know that the people will come. They say if you build it they’ll come, but we’ll know next year. All we can do is put forward the best product we can and hope it lives up to people’s expectations, and if it does, there’s a lot of potential to expand it.”

Cabot Links finally opens its arms to the public on June 29. If you only play one golf course in 2012, make it this one.

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James McCarten

When James McCarten isn't at the Ottawa offices of The Canadian Press, where he works as parliamentary news editor, he's either on the golf course or putting off his latest freelance golf-writing gig to spend time with wife Lisa and school-age kids Claire and Lucas. With 20 years of experience in Canadian journalism, James also suffers from a financially crippling addiction to all things Scotty Cameron.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • James, excellent piece on Cabot Links. I’ve not had an opportunity to play the course but was fortunate to have the Pro Joe Robinson give me a tour of the course just prior to it’s preview opening. It’s on my list for 2012 more than once. Given it’s proximity to Highlands Links it’s going to offer golfers traveling to Cape Breton another outstanding golf experience.

  • Having been a long time visitor to Inverness… both my parents moved back there 50 years ago and both my grandparents lived there all their lives… I was extremely skeptical (as those of us who are ‘big city’ people often are) that anything would be as good as promised. My husband and I went to Inverness for our annual visit to see my Dad who still lives there and we brought along our golf clubs. After my first round of 11 holes that were open last season as a ‘trial run’, I can say without a doubt that it exceeded any and all of my expectations. I have had the luxury in my life of playing some truly great courses in some beautiful parts of the world and Cabot Links can now be added to that group! Here’s hoping 2012 is just the tip of the iceberg on Cabot Links’ success and that the often forgotten town of Inverness bask in this newfound fame!!!

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