Course Preview: Cabot Links

A long par-5 at Cabot Links. Notice the approach shot from the right, which forces golfers to play over a ravine.

Course Preview: Cabot Links (Inverness, NS)

Designer: Rod Whitman

Projected opening: Spring 2012

Few courses are as anticipated as Cabot Links. Being constructed between the town of Inverness, NS on Cape Breton Island and the beach that looks outwards towards Prince Edward Island, the course is arguably the first true links to be built in Canada. The site held tremendous promise and I’ve been documenting its progress for a few years, first in a feature in the Financial Post business magazine and later in SCOREGolf.

There’s a lot of hype behind Cabot Links. One of its founders is Ben Cowan-Dewar, the entrepreneur involved with golf architecture geekfest, and its financial backer is Mike Keiser, the Chicago-based businessman behind the stunning success of Bandon Dunes in Oregon. The designer is Rod Whitman, the soft-spoken architect who created Blackhawk near Edmonton and collaborated with Richard Zokol at Sagebrush. He’s got tons of talent — there’s no doubt of that — but hasn’t exactly been the most prolific designer in the world, having designed a handful of courses over a 20-plus year career.

I showed early to meet Keiser for breakfast. He immediately asks me how long it has been since we last met. I mention that we had dinner in Lloydminster when Keiser was looking at a prospective course there, but that was four years previous. In the meantime he’s opened two more courses at Bandon, helped create Lost Farm in Australia and invested in Cabot Links. I mention to him that I spoke to him about Cabot in 2006, but he seemed less than interested.

Dave Axland (course construction supervisor, left), Ben Cowan-Dewar (red shirt, left-centre), Mike Keiser (orange hat) and designer Rod Whitman (far right) talk about how to reconstruct a hill during Keiser's visit to Cabot Links last week.

“I was intentionally not trying to get involved,” he says, laughing. At the time he didn’t want to tackle another course — so he tried to stay uninvolved. Instead in 2007 he was looking to back the course and stuck with it through the economic slowdown in 2008. He entered the project because it was a course on the sea. Now he thinks Cabot Links could go down with the greats of golf.

“Two years ago I thought it might be pretty good,” Keiser says. Last summer I was hoping it might be Dornoch or Turnberry in Inverness. But the holes … they are turning out so well. They are being exquisitely crafted by our dirt guy.”

The “dirt guy,” of course, is Whitman, or the “Great Whit,” as he is commonly referred to around the site. I assume that’s some sort of play on the fact Whitman rarely speaks at any length — at least unless you get to know him and get him to open up.

So how good is Cabot Links? That’s the question everyone wants answered — and with 11 holes nearing completion and seven more to go, I’d say it is going to be exceptional. Top 10 in Canada? That’s a possibility — or at least it has more of a shot at that than any course built in Canada in recent memory. Based on the holes I saw, there should be no comparison between Cabot Links and something like Muskoka Bay, which recently entered SCOREGolf’s Top 10 courses in Canada.

After breakfast, I walked alongside Keiser and Cowan-Dewar for a tour of the course. These tours are always fascinating and a challenge. They are intriguing because you’re seeing a course before everything is worked out, walking with an owner who is making suggestions that could readily become reality. The challenge comes from trying to envision the course while most of it doesn’t have grass and bunkers don’t have sand to add depth. In some instances it is a sea of mud — in other instances it looks like a course.

Cabot Links' opener, formerly the 16th hole.

There’s some of each at Cabot. Our walk starts on what is now the opener, a slight downleg with the corner protected by bunkers. Whitman later tells me there is a routing change, and the hole used to be the 16th, but Keiser prefers it as the opener. From there we wander by a long par-five. The hole shows the width and strategies being employed — with a direct route to the hole forcing the golfer to play over a ravince, while the left side of the fairway allows for a pitch into the length of the green. We wander down to the corner of the property, walking the 15 through 18 holes. The 16th is a stunner — looking like a British links, it plays hard along the water, with sandy outcroppings punctuating the left side hard near the beach. The 17th turns inland and appears to be a sporty, slightly uphill par-3 with a large dip in front of the green.

The double-green that is Cabot Links' 11-13 holes.

The holes that are complete — including the 11-13 holes with their double-green (which Keiser walked off at 110 yards in length), and the slight 14th (Cabot’s version of the 7th at Pebble Beach) — are inventive and intriguing. Will the double-green work? Good question, and it wasn’t part of the original design, as Keiser and Whitman both agree it was part of an evolution of the course. Double-greens strike me as cliche, but this one came about after Whitman’s trips to the U.K. with Cowan-Dewar. I’m not convinced the idea was necessary — and it strikes me as odd considering the double-greens at the Old Course play from opposite directions, while this green will see shots come from essentially the same direction. However, the spacing should be appropriate.

The 17th hole at Cabot Links is basically complete.

There are a number of interesting design elements to the course. First and foremost, the greens don’t offer near the movement seen on Whitman’s previous designs. He said his trip to the UK demonstrated to him that greens can be very subtle on a links, so that’s what he has attempted to emulate. And the bunkers are more restrained and old-fashioned than what one might expect from a designer known for shaping for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. I think that was a clever decision as it makes the course more timeless and less trendy. It would have been easy to do blow-out bunkers or bunkers with fancy edges; instead Whitman bucked the trends and designed something that is more akin to the origins of a links course.

There’s still lots to be finished at Cabot. The “harbor holes,” which grace the north-end of the property are still in rough form, with heavy machinery working on the greensite of the Cape Hole when I was there. Others to the east of the property — the land nearest the town — are also only in rough form. The hope is to get a majority down by the end of the year, allowing some preview rounds at the course late next summer.

The 16th from the tee.

I also wonder about the decision not to have a practice facility (a decision designed to allow for the holes to use as much land as necessary), though that has a precedent in U.K. links, few of which have ranges. A clubhouse is also not likely to be constructed in the short-term. There’s also a second course in planning for a property just north of the site, though Keiser says Cabot Links would probably have to do about 23,000 rounds for the second course to proceed.

“People are going to come and see the course and say, ‘I want one of these,'” Keiser says in the middle of our breakfast.  “People will come and write to say, “Dear Rod, I want one of these. Can you build it for me?”

He’s probably right. In one of those rare instances, a great piece of property is matched with an inventive designer and owner. Will Cabot Links be great? It has the correct supporters to make that a possibility — and we’ll find out whether that’s the case later next year.

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Jeff Lancaster

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  • RT,

    Good read.

    I have no doubt that the course will be great, but will it be successful? With a second course, plus Highland, many of us would be more willing to make the trip. Of course, it is hard to doubt Keiser.

    The GCA purists won’t agree with me, but I really like a nice practice facility to get warm or kill some time. If I have two hours to burn at Bandon, I can fill them easily.

  • Sounds like 100% of the focus is on creating the best course possible vs. trying to create a golfing experience complete with an over the top club houses – how refreshing!

    Any indication what the green fee will be?

  • I just reminded myself that Sagebrush has no range, and I never notice it there – but the course is uncrowded and if there is time to kill, you can play golf.

    Chris – HL is about $90 at the peak. I can’t see Cabot Links being much more than $125 in the same market.

    It is nice to see the focus on the golf. One thing that made Bandon special was not putting the lodge on the water, which many developments would have done.

  • Can’t wait. I love Highland Links, the course has so much character, but it not a real links course. Cabot looks like it would be a true links course, and when the wind is up (which would be most of the time) it going to be a handfull I’m sure.

    If you need to sacrifice the practice facility in order to make room for the course, so be it. Highland doesn’t have a range and that won’t keep me away. Just make sure the bar has a good selection of malts.

  • Thank you for the kind words, I appreciate it.

    With regards to the practice facility, that can certainly be addressed at a later stage, but to Android’s point, we really focused Cabot Links on being the best golf course it could be.

    I look forward to seeing you all out for the opening of our 10 holes for preview play next Canada Day!

    Best regards,
    Ben Cowan-Dewar

  • Absolutly spectacular, can’t wait to see the entire course complete and get a chance to play it! Just hoping there might be a preferential rate for us bluenosers in the shoulder seasons.

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