Going for the Green

Robert Thompson's comments, criticism and opinion on the world of golf.

PEI’s golf dilemma has a solution

Crowbush Cove, with potential for new holes on the left side near the ocean.

Crowbush Cove, with potential for new holes on the left side near the ocean.

It seems like it has been years since Prince Edward Island elected to put its golf courses on the auction block. But once again the provincially owned courses are in discussion, this time because there’s talk that Crowbush Cove, arguably the most notable of the courses on the island, is apparently nearing a sale.

I say “apparently,” because I know for a fact that a deal isn’t in the offing. There are interested parties, that’s for sure, but there have also been protracted negotiations about the property that have gone on for more than a year.

The Guardian out of Charlottetown has waded into the fray with an op-ed that appeared on Friday. The paper argues that the course the province should be getting rid of is Dundarave, because it loses the most money. That’s interesting as that would also likely make Dundarave the least attractive when it comes to a sale. Who wants a golf course that is haemorrhaging cash? Last year the province brought Ian Andrew in to consult on the problems at Dundarave — but I’m not sure if any solutions were implemented.

The Guardian suggests that if “deep pockets” come in to PEI, a deal shouldn’t exclude residents:

One would think that Crowbush, the premier golf course on the Island, would be the last course the province would look at selling. It is the course which attracts golfers to P.E.I. It’s the anchor and without it, other Island courses will be hurt.

If this offer is indeed a serious one, government should ensure it doesn’t lose money on the deal and that it doesn’t divest these top courses at fire sale prices just to tell voters they followed through on election promises.

The approximately 40 jobs at Crowbush are important for that rural area. It would be unfortunate if a private buyer comes in with deep pockets to turn it into an exclusive resort for the benefit of big spenders from out of province to the exclusion of Islanders. That would be a mistake.

I’m not sure the paper understands the notion of why the courses were built in the first place — as a lure for tourism. The courses are not sustainable if they are simply catering to locals — they’ve got to reach beyond the island’s small population.

A big issue facing PEI is what has happened only hours away at Cabot Links. There, under the guidance of Ben Cowan-Dewar and Mike Keiser, a destination is being created at Cape Breton that caters to the east coast not just of Canada — but the U.S. as well. Within two years Cape Breton will have three of the Top 5 public courses in Canada, and some would argue the Top 3 in the country. This occurred because the province of Nova Scotia was willing to work to develop a world-class golf course that connected with the sea. Crowbush Cove, on the other hand, was met with a number of unfortunate restrictions in environmental laws that limited the interaction the design had with the ocean. PEI had the chance to build an Irish-style links, but failed; Crowbush’s commercial struggles are the ramifications of that lack of vision 20 years ago when the province was dreaming up a golf strategy.

To me, the solution — the only option really — is to sell Crowbush to someone willing to make it something more, and likely sell it for next to nothing (which is what it is worth if money losses of $1.4-million for the province-run courses last year are to be believed). Allow a developer to abandon the bland and predictable inland holes, and develop along the coast west of the back nine, making the course a true seaside links. Right now it is a mix of parkland holes with a handful of seaside offerings, none of which are tremendously compelling.

PEI could take a lesson from the success of Cabot Links and Bandon Dunes. In both instance golfers return time and again for an experience they can’t get without a flight to the UK. Some reviews of Crowbush have compared it to playing in Ireland — but the truth is that’s a gross exaggeration. It is a good golf course, but one that will likely slip out of Score’s Top 20, a position it didn’t really warrant anyway.

Could a reworked, reconceived and redesigned Crowbush work? That’s an interesting question. If ocean holes with dunes were added it would be quite unique. Currently there really aren’t seaside courses with dunes — even Cabot Links is lacking dunes, though the second course, Cabot Cliffs, will surely have some. Regardless, a facelift for Crowbush Cove (and a name change, I’d suggest), might bring some renewed tourism to PEI and breath some life back into the other courses. It gives it a chance — under the current structure and government ownership I doubt it can survive.

But the Guardian has got it wrong — this isn’t about locals, it is about competing on an international stage. If PEI’s golf can’t do that then its future is in question.



11 responses to “PEI’s golf dilemma has a solution”

  1. JGolf

    The ONLY salvation for Crowbush is to develop the land west-north west of the current sight into a links layout using the ocean as either a hazard or a vista point to every extent possible. This would require the PEI government to increase its investment in CB prior to selling but it would produce an ocean side golf links that people would come to play. (I need to digress for a moment as this issue isn’t solely one for CB).
    A very similar issue weighs on Ron Joyce’s course. The great flaw of Fox Harb’r is the 9 hole executive course on the prime piece of real estate. Move the Par 3 inland and use the ocean front for the main course. Now you have a quasi links course and a beautiful destination. When speaking about FHarb’r, every golfer asks the same question; “Why is the par 3 course where it is???” If both CB and FH made better use of the ocean, and less inland, they would become destination courses. Golfers would include them both in their east coast swing. If they stay as is, golfers will not put them into the rotation, they will fail financially and the bid PEI turned down will not be there a year from now. One course has a billionaire owner and the other is owned by the provincial residents. I suspect neither will have the political will to do what’s needed and as such both will continue to slide down the ratings scale (and their value will also decline).
    It’s really too bad because PEI did have the right idea and had the foresight to get to the party first. They do have the opportunity to bring CB back but I suspect there’s no need to hold our breath. Between the diehard locals who don’t like any change and the tin-headed environmentalists the course will fail to win the support and approval it so desperately needs.

  2. Gary Slatter, PGA

    Interesting, a second course (links, in the dunes) next to the existing Crowbush would be great, and allow CB to fix it’s close to the sea holes at the same time.
    I can’t imagine how CB could lose money! We played in September, it was superb, and lots of play. Good hotels abound, food is good.
    Robert, most of CB’s inland holes are pretty good, the excellent condition is also a draw, as well as the fact you can take a cart! $9 for a can of beer is good too!

    1. Ritchie

      really, $9.00 for a beer is good. Really?

  3. Dick Kirkpatrick

    Interesting comments gentlemen.
    As the project manager when Crowbush was built with architect Tom McBroom, there were many things that Tom and myself would have like to have done differently.
    The main one being that although the property went right to the ocean which of course is where the main dunes are, we could not build any holes there. The one exception to that envoirnmental ruling is that we were allowed to build the 16th hole quite close to the cliffs, and it has been in jeopardy ever since from erosion from the big storms. The province spent close to .5 million dollars trying to protect it a few years ago.
    The land to the north west of the existing course is interesting but not real dunes land, i.e. it is not real sandy and gorse covered, as was the 16th and 17th holes of the existing. We had the co-operation of the Province to eventually get the 11th tee on that property.
    The inland holes, as Gary Slatter points out, are some of the most challenging on the existing.
    It would be a sin to close those holes only to move the course closer to the ocean and hope an architect or designer could come up with better holes there.

  4. Dick Kirkpatrick

    Absolutely dead on RT

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

  5. Gary Slatter, PGA

    RT, Dick: Originally I didn’t think Crowbush was special when I first played it in Sept 2001 (9-1-1). Last month I played Highland, Cabot and Crowbush in a span of 4 days – we really enjoyed Crowbush! The 11th still is difficult to figure out but the rest was perfect, and they’d had 24 hours of rain before we played. In fact it sold my brother on taking a golf group there next summer, a group who can go anywhere, usually to Ireland, next year to PEI and Cape Breton.
    Hopefully PEI can build on the dunes and keep Crowbush too. And I will travel there, for the chowder and golf!

  6. tracy w

    Robert,

    Your opinion piece is about the finances of golf courses and creating a destination, but calling Cabot Links a “success” after just two seasons is a stretch. I played Cabot this summer and we walked on with very few other golfers on the course. Lodge looked beautiful but the appeal of paying $500 for 2 nights was reflected in the empty parking lot. The only other motel in town was a 2-star at best property and we couldn’t even get a decent meal in town so drove on to Cheticamp. Yes, Cabot is a fantastic course, but suggesting PEI use its formula for financial success? Not yet. Comparing it to a world-class destination like Bandon Dunes? Again, not yet.

  7. Gary Slatter, PGA

    well said Tracy. My brother and I were really anticipating Pebble Beach when we got to Cabot. Nice hotel rooms, good food in the pub at night, in the clubhouse for breakfast. We were first off (we didn’t have a time and appreciate Ben getting us off). When we finished less than four hours later we were glad we’d visited, will come back again (health willing) when their cart paths are in!

  8. Robert

    Tracy: Cabot has been open fully for a year. Is it Bandon yet? No. Was Bandon in the same place after year one? Likely. Did they create a Top 100 course in the world that practically everyone is talking about in the golf business? Yes. Time will tell, but the second course has the chance to really elevate the place.

    As for the food, did you not eat at Cabot? It is excellent. And I can assure you the rooms at Crowbush — nor any decent golf resort in the world — are cheap. That’s just a truism of the business. In time, if demand is there, other hotels will open, and the distillery down the road is more than passable if you didn’t want to stay at Cabot.

    Gary: I wouldn’t be holding your breath for cart paths. However, with a medical certificate you can get a cart at Cabot.

  9. Gary Slatter, PGA

    AYE, I wondering where a cart would be able to go on some of the holes!
    apparently with a medical certificate you can take a cart driven by a caddie. I’ve often wondered about medical certificates, my doctor would tell me to walk!

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