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Cabot Links: A retrospective on opening

I first heard of the project that would become Cabot Links when I was at a dinner in 2004 alongside my friend Ben Cowan-Dewar and his girlfriend (later wife) Allie. The then tourism minister of Nova Scotia talked about a site that would be well suited for golf on the west coast of Cape Breton Island. I don’t think Ben thought it would be very good, and I surely didn’t.

Eight years later, Cabot Links will open on that very site. That tourism minister would become premier — and then get voted out of office. And I’d write stories about Cabot for half of my career in journalism. I wrote web features and magazine features. When I toured the site I wrote about it. I wrote about it in the National Post, the Financial Post Business Magazine, Canadian Business, the Toronto Star and Sharp magazine. I’m sure there’s some other mag I didn’t write it for — it must exist.

Anyway, I didn’t go to Cape Breton for the opening. My choice. I figured it would be crazy busy, and I’d hardly get a chance to talk to my friend who dreamed up a project and brought it to fruition. Here’s to you Ben — you made it happen when a lot of people thought it couldn’t.

With that in mind, and the fact that the golf course — which I contend is the best course built in Canada in the last 50 years — opens tomorrow and I thought I’d create a list of the stories I wrote about the project. I’ve never had so much detail on a course that hadn’t yet opened.

Here’s to Rod Whitman, Ben Cowan-Dewar, his wife Allie, Mike Keiser, my friend Mike Rossi and all the others who have helped bring Cabot to life. Enjoy the opening day. And to those who haven’t seen it yet — go soon, and you’ll understand what everyone is talking about.

In 2006 I wrote an initial piece for ScoreGolf. At the time Cowan-Dewar didn’t have the cash to move the project forward, making the date of 2008 seem awfully ambitious now:

Resting on an abandoned mine, with dramatic, sweeping views of the ocean, sits the site of what might become Canada’s next great golf course. It isn’t quite ready to go yet, but if entrepreneur Ben Cowan-Dewar has his way, Cabot Links will become synonymous with great links golf in this country when it opens in 2008. Imagine North Berwick’s West Course transplanted to Nova Scotia, or Bandon Dunes residing next to a seaside Maritimes town.

“This course will be something totally unique,” says Cowan-Dewar, who continues to run his high-end golf travel business, GolfTI.com. “Even in Scotland there are few courses that have 18 holes to which the sea is totally exposed.”

Though I had written a story for the National Post previously, this is the first one you can find online. 

A year later I wrote a piece about Bandon Dunes’ owner Mike Keiser’s involvement:

The man who made rustic and remote seaside golf popular in the U.S. appears to be ready to leave his mark in Canada.

Mike Keiser might have made his fortune in greeting cards, but he made his reputation with Bandon Dunes, the renowned golf resort on the Oregon coast. Now Keiser is “80 per cent certain” he’ll become part of

Cabot Links, an ambitious links project in the Cape Breton town of Inverness, N.S., a concept developed by a young Toronto golf entrepreneur who has been trying to locate appropriate financing for the past 18 months.

“It is a concept that I think is going to lead to a deal,” said Keiser on the phone from his home base of Chicago. “If we go ahead it’ll be really exciting. I’m entirely hopeful this will go forward.”

Keiser’s potential involvement is a huge boost for the project. The site, located on a sandy flat that used to be a mining site between the dilapidated town and the ocean, has been marked for golf for a decade. First a multi-million dollar project involving Jack Nicklaus was on the books, followed by a concept by Canadian Graham Cooke. Neither project ever neared breaking ground, leaving the struggling town of Inverness searching for someone who could turn their piece of property into golf and revitalize the town in the process.

Now it looks like Keiser could be the man to breathe life into the village and kickstart the project.

A year later I wrote a much longer piece on the possibilities of the club and what it might do for the region. Called “Far Away Prize,” it was a magazine story in the Financial Post about the potential economic developments resulting from the club. At the time there were questions about whether Keiser would go forward with the club, even though Cowan-Dewar had moved to Inverness:

Duart MacAulay sits in the Coal Miners Cafe, sips on a coffee and talks about the potential death, and hopeful resurrection, of an East Coast town. MacAulay is the warden for Inverness County, a sort of regional mayor for an area that includes the seaside town of Inverness, located on the western coast of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. One hundred years ago, Inverness was a place where 6,000 people lived and worked the mines that dipped miles underground and out under the ocean. Blurry black-and-white pictures on the walls next to MacAulay in the café document that heyday.

That was long ago, he admits. The last mines shut down 50 years ago and it’s safe to say Inverness, with a population of less than 2,000, has never recovered. If you look out the main window in the café you can still see the same company houses that are pictured inside. Their peeling paint and unkempt facades underscore the decline. Today, 350 kilometres from Halifax, a long haul even from Sydney, and hard against the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Inverness feels like it’s far from everywhere. Young people aren’t staying either, MacAulay points out. They head to Alberta, return occasionally, then permanently relocate their families to the oil patch.

That’s the dying town part of the story. It’s familiar across the region. The hopeful resurrection? It centres on a plan that’s floated around Inverness in different forms for decades: to build a golf course on the former mine site. Two things are different today, however. First, the start of construction of the aptly named Cabot Links golf course is said to be imminent. Second, and more remarkable, is that the man whose involvement has been the catalyst for making it all happen — Mike Keiser, an iconoclastic American multimillionaire — is the driving force and founder of the wildly successful, nine-year-old Bandon Dunes Resort in coastal Oregon. Keiser, who could be lending his name, money and acumen to almost any project, chose Inverness. Why? Because the very things that have been holding the town back — its extreme isolation and sandy, reclaimed, mine-site property — make it a perfect spot to transplant and replicate the Bandon Dunes’ concept.

There’s a more golf-centric version of that story in ScoreGolf, but damned if I can find it online. I’d love to point you to it — I won an award for it.
On Canadiangolfer.com I’ve written extensively about the project. Most notably I’ve done several previews (see the initial preview here, and the full review here.) I also did a hole-by-hole review here. Earlier this year I spoke with Mike Keiser about his plans for a second course at Cabot. It was in that story where a local resident decided to debate with me the merits of jobs versus access to the beach.
Anyway, that’s probably enough. If you’re out at Cabot this weekend — enjoy. If not, try to find your way to Canada’s east coast, play the wonderful Highlands Links and head to Cabot. Play a round with a caddie (walking, naturally) and sit in the bar overlooking the course and have a glass of scotch and recognize everything that went into this remarkable project.

 

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • In August 2008 I had completed a lobster dinner in Inverness while on a family vacation (played Highland Links and Crowbush Cove on that trip) and then strolled the boardwalk as the sun set and a big harvest moon rose up over the town. I was struck with the thought that this would be some sweet spot for a golf course. A local lady advised me that “Jack Nicholson” was contemplating the same thing. Eight years later, presto whammo – Cabot Links! Without a Jack of any kind,

    I hope it works. So far so good. I am so looking forward to playing this course someday.

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