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Golf In the Kingdom: Cabot Links, Ready At Last

“Forget about the pursuit of happiness; that way lies grief. Concentrate instead on the happiness of pursuit.”

The wonderful double green at Cabot Links, incorporating both the par-4 4th (left) and the par-5 12th (right)

Now that they’ve cut the red ribbon at Cabot Links, the wind-whipped Rod Whitman masterpiece in Cape Breton that bills itself, justifiably, as Canada’s first and only “authentic links” golf course, players bracing for their first taste of what real golf is all about might do well to keep that hoary old hang-in-there bromide close to their hearts.

You’ve heard it a million times before, of course: true links golf is a game that’s played along the ground, sharing only passing similarities with the bomb-and-gouge, drop-and-stop air assault that’s played on forested parkland layouts across the U.S. and Canada.

But you can’t really appreciate how different the two styles really are until you experience it for yourself.

At Cabot Links, the wind is so persistently strong, they use special cups in the greens that grip the flagsticks in order to prevent them from being blown out to sea. The fairways are hard, fast-running and cambered to cruelly divert a poorly conceived tee shot into places of unspeakable evil.

The sinewy seaside rough will, at times, swallow a ball forever — even when you’re standing over it in your follow-through, looking to the sky, expecting naively to see it soaring towards your target. The bunkers are in some cases more like foxholes, but they offer no respite from the warfare, only more hardship. The greens are hard to hold and harder still to read — they demand finesse and fearlessness in equal measure.

"Fairway Stevie" Waxman looking for a long one on the daunting 12th

In other words, it’s as golf was intended, and should always be.

Everyone knows golf is a game of paradoxes. But Cabot Links — itself a paradox, a man-made paradise in the middle of nowhere, borne of co-founder Ben Cowan-Dewar’s irresistible if-you-build-it-they-will-come impulse — has latched on to perhaps the greatest paradox of all, the one that captures the very soul of the game, the essence of what P.G. Wodehouse called the infallible test: passing, with flying colours, a trial that resonates in the end not with having fallen short in outcome, but having stood tall in the effort.

Even the youngest, most inexperienced golfer learns quickly that the game is not about conquest, but about character. It is about hope and promise and the chance, even in the most fleeting of moments, to feel victorious in the face of an unwinnable battle. The best links courses in the world — and Cabot Links is one of them, without a doubt — are brimming with just such opportunities.

Links golf is an everyman’s game. It does not demand soaring 280-yard drives or textbook, pro-calibre swings or expensive, high-octane equipment. It demands tools with which all of us are equally equipped, if we take the time to check: imagination, creativity, patience and persistence.

And despite all the daunting environmental challenges a “true links” course can present, the game is easier — yes, easier — than its younger, less traditional counterpart.

In modern golf, the toughest courses demand the toughest shots. Pins are tucked into diabolical corners, truly accessible only to a player who can shape a high, biting cut with a short iron or a soaring wedge that makes the ball dance like water droplets on a hot griddle. In links golf, the game is played lower to the ground, respecting and using the natural contours of the course and its surrounding environs, and letting the hillocks and humps guide the course of the ball. These are not obstacles or impediments; they’re tools that the crafty links player uses to his or her advantage at every opportunity, keeping the ball low and rolling to protect it from the ever-present winds.

Don't stray too close to the edge of the infinity green at the tricky par-3 13th

Yes, Cabot Links is a challenging golf course, but the challenge is readily met if the player is willing to set aside the so-called conventional wisdom of modern-day North American golf and instead focus on learning some new basics, solving what ought to be a relatively simple puzzle: how to get the ball from here to there in as few strokes as possible, by any means necessary. If, for instance, the best way to play Cabot’s strong-armed par-5 second — a brutish uphill three-shotter, raked by the prevailing winds and lined with ball-gobbling gorse and wild seaside grasses — is three blows with a hooded four-iron, followed by a chip and a putt, then so be it. Par at the second is a good score any day of the week, and it beats the hell out of what you’re liable to make (and what I made in three consecutive rounds) if you flail away at it with a driver and a 3-wood.

It is a misconception that it takes a higher degree of skill to play the ball low; in fact, it takes less. Take an extra club or two, play the ball back, hood the face a tad, stop the club at vertical on both sides of the swing, and presto: low ball flight. Hitting the driver in the neck all the time? Perfect. Yippy chipper at your toney, lush-rough country club? At Cabot, your caddy will hand you your putter and tell you to knock yourself out.

With the right frame of mind, players will find that Cabot Links will slowly — perhaps reluctantly, but eventually — reveal its unique and irrevocable charms, and in so doing introduce a style of play and golfing philosophy as old as the game itself, and heretofore tragically unfamiliar to a majority of Canadian golfers. And before too long, it will yield — grudgingly — the odd birdie or eagle.

“Forty years after the town of Inverness thought of a golf course for the first time, we’re getting ready to open all 18 holes,” Cowan-Dewar, Cabot’s original visionary and co-founder with Bandon Dunes creator Mike Keiser, said last week as Friday’s opening day approached and crews put the finishing touches on the clubhouse, the spectacular greenside lodge and the course itself.

How you like me now? Ben Cowan-Dewar holds court beside the 18th green and the brand-new lodge in the background

For as long as players are willing to visit, the course will stand as a monument to the power of perseverance and personal vision.

“There were a lot of days in the early days when it was just me and Rod coming down here, sharing rooms at the Halifax airport hotel, and I’d be thinking on the way down, ‘What in the world have I done?'” Cowan-Dewar said.

“As soon as I got to the site, I think it always made sense. When I stood out here, that was the thing that kept me going.”

It would be corny to suggest that the hard-bitten former mining town of Inverness, or its rugged, unforgiving shoreline along the western edge of Cape Breton Island, boasts any sort of lyrical, Shivas Irons-type magic. But it’s without a doubt a special place, which is part of the reason why — in spite of all the odds suggesting otherwise — it’s impossible for anyone who’s been there to imagine, now, that it can’t or won’t succeed. Play golf there and you’ll see what I mean.

At the end of the day, it’s not about your score, or the position of your wrists at the top of the swing, or how much you paid for your putter. It’s about the journey, not the destination. And the journey around Cabot’s breathtaking 18 holes (with, the rumour mill suggests, 18 more twinkling in Keiser’s eyes as you read this) is well worth the effort.

At Cabot, staff members talk routinely about seeing rain-soaked players, hair wild with the prevailing winds, limping off the 18th green after a debilitating triple-bogey 7, only to find themselves wearing a weather-beaten grin so wide, not even a smack upside the head could wipe it away. That, my friends, is all golf truly is, and all it ever should be.

All of this and more awaits at Cabot Links, the new pride and joy of Canadian golf. And by God, it’s about time.

Oh, and one more thing: Yes, I made this putt (I think):

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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.

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