Course Preview: Cabot Links exceeds expectations

Cabot Links -- there might just be a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.

How good is Cabot Links? I can’t seemingly go anywhere these days without someone asking me, whether it was the caddymaster at the course (a reader of this site apparently), or the guy I bumped into today on the range at Eagles Nest who queried me about my Cabot Links hat.
The answer – beyond very good. Quite exceptional in fact, with holes against which all others in Canada – and perhaps in the world – will be judged.
Yep it is that good; the course won’t even be open until next year, but it is quite conceivably the best in this country.
One writer on my recent visit proclaimed all course ratings are ridiculous, and was completely dismissive of any discussion about just what level Cabot Links has reached. That said, golfers everywhere, regardless of where they are playing, all participate in the “This is better than that,” discussion when it comes to courses. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about contrasting $30 munis or discussing whether Shinnecock is better than Pine Valley. It is all the same: compare, contrast, argue, disagree. Make a point and try to back it up with some defined reasoning.

The par 4 fourth at Cabot Links

On other levels, talking about great golf courses is like debating art. Everyone has a perspective, just some have more of it than others.
So I’ll preface this by saying I love links golf. I love the smell of the sea. I love the wind in the air and the firmness of the turf. I love playing along the water, or hitting one off the beach. My blood gets pumping on a links in a way that it never really does anywhere else. I’m predisposed to a good links course.
I’ve had the good fortune over the past decade to seen firsthand or played half of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 courses in the world, including almost all of the Top 20. I’ve played links golf in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England and the U.S. I’ve been to Bandon Dunes, and I’ve traveled to Royal Dornoch.
With that in mind, I’d confidently say that Cabot Links – which doesn’t officially open until the middle of next year – is clearly in the elite in the world. A strong argument could be made that it is better than Bandon Dunes – the course that put the Bandon Dunes Resort on the map – and that course is rated #60 in the world.
There’s been a lot of talk and discussion about great courses in Canada. To my mind there are only three – Hamilton G&CC, Highlands Links and St. George’s. Perhaps Jasper should be counted in that group, but it rarely is included. The same writer who so despised course ratings suggested that there have been plenty of Canadian courses that have generated the same level of interest as Cabot Links. I  disagree. There has never been a new Canadian course that garnered such discussion on a world level.
And, perhaps incredibly, Cabot Links lives up to the hype. Mike Keiser, half of the team that put the course together and the owner of Bandon Dunes, has had the golden touch to this point in his career. And it continues on Cabot, though with the help and good taste of Ben Cowan-Dewar, the young entrepreneur who discovered the site where the course now resides.
I’m not the first one to play all 18 holes at the course – I’m sure Cowan-Dewar, Keiser and designer Rod Whitman have already

The 13th at Cabot Links might single-handedly bring the railway tie back into fashion.

done that. But I was one of two writers that zipped out and managed to play all 18 with Whitman before dark on Tuesday. Some of the holes have yet to fully grow in. Others had fuzzy fescue greens. But taking the conditions out of the account, and assuming the grow-in is complete June or July of next year, Cabot Links should rise to the claim of being Canada’s best course.
Don’t get me wrong – there will be still lots of questions about whether Cabot will succeed as a business, and my affection for Highlands Links (more on that later), still likely makes it tops in my books. But Keiser and Cowan-Dewar are confident – they’ve already started building the lodging next to the course and it appears there’s plenty of interest in starting the second course (with Bill Coore as designer) just up the road. As a course, Cabot Links is a work of art, one of only a couple of courses that can be discussed amidst the rarefied few in Canada that are world-class.
After visiting in July and playing 13 holes, I wondered whether the remaining holes – the two along the bay on the north end of the property, and the inland holes I didn’t get a chance to play on my previous visit — would measure up to the wonder of those located along the coast. While the inland holes might not have some of the visual appeal of those by the sea, the two along the bay (#8 and #9) are stunners. And I would count a couple of the inland holes – the par four third, the long two-shot seventh, and the 12th and 13th (also long fours) as among the best on the course. Even the classic connector hole – the 255-yard fifth – set itself apart through Whitman’s ingenious Biarritz green. Only the long par five fourth could be considered a little plain, though the greensite is pretty nifty.

The 9th -- Cabot' cape hole

And yes, the Cape Hole – the 466-yard 9th – might not fit the classic concept of its prototype, but it is a very strategic, very playable hole in an incredible setting.
I’m still not entirely sold on the 18th hole at Cabot – and I’m sure I won’t be alone on that. It is almost too long at 481-yards (and uphill) to be a difficult two-shot hole, but too short to be a par five. The tee shot is certainly not particularly visually appealing, but that’s made up by the approach, which will be further improved when the lodging is completed adjacent to the parking lot and the grounds are complete.
This might sound like nitpicking, but that’s what it comes down to if Cabot Links is to be considered among the best in the world.
I don’t care about amenities, but I still think the lack of a practice range is unfortunate. However, the clubhouse, which struck me as kind of oddly modern in design when I first saw it (I’m sure others will be less kind), is impeccable in its internal detail. That’s not surprising – I’ve known Cowan-Dewar for a decade and he’s always set himself apart by his love of fine things, from golf courses to clubhouses.
I’ll go through Cabot Links hole-by-hole next week, but let me finish with this: there have been many new Canadian courses that have opened in the last decade and have purported to be world-class. Cabot Links is the first course to truly deliver on all levels and it is quite an achievement.  Sitting in the airport, the discussion turned from Cabot Links to Kingsbarns, another new links that opened to a great deal of acclaim in the last decade. It would be an apt comparison — so call Cabot Links Canada’s version of Kingsbarns. Or maybe, just maybe, Kingsbarns is Scotland’s version of Cabot Links.

It is that kind of good.

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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.

10 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Incredible, RT. I knew it was going to be good but this exceeds my expectations. Thanks for such an enjoyable read.

  • ….it’s quite apparent that Mr Thompson’s zeal for Cabot links has no limits…and it is with that same appetite which compels me to agree…though not through the lens of his quite comprehensive admonitions as a golf writer. I have no such obligations….playing there is exactly as personal as your favourite camp. cubby hole, or hide away spot as a child…your fantasies are realized each and every time you golf there…and your excitement is never measured with adult yardsticks…nor golf banter about “what course is better”…you do not have time to engage in such adult semantics…and just wish the Time would never end….all subjective and childish…and that’s exactly the point. I’ve often explained my addiction to Golf simply as get to play in the very fantasies of youth…only now you pay a bit monetarily …after all someone has to cut the grass and dig the Holes…I’m too big for that now.

  • Having played the 10 holes open for this year, have to say it was a great experience. Agreed with everything Robert had to say.

  • Played Cabot in September on a sunny, windless day, utterly perfect conditions. Cabot was there for the taking, can’t wait to return next year and give it all back under less than ideal conditions. The modern design of the clubhouse is in stark contrast to the surrounding beauty of the land and sea. Cabot and Highlands Links make Cape Breton a “must” on any golf bucket list. Combined with the courses on PEI, eastern Canada has one more reason to come back. I will definitely be back.

  • Thank you for this, I happen to have played Cabot Links last weekend in a day of 55mm’s of rain and a constant wind of 30km’s. Ideal playing conditions when on a links.
    I am surprised that you stated that Ben was the “discoverer” of the site. Really? I’ve been visiting Inverness for many years and there were many times where locals stuck a pin in the ground and were playing on this land. There were also local investors backing a designed course by the likes of Nicklaus and Cooke back in the mid-nineties. I applaud Ben for all he has done, there’s no doubt that he’s responsible for the building of Cabot Links with Mr. Keiser and Mr. Whitman, but discoverer of this land for use of golf isn’t correct.

    looking forward to many rounds on the west coast of Cape Breton.

  • Thrilled to hear the enthusiasm being shared towards an incredible Canadian course built by an impassioned team.
    I think Robert is quite right with his second opinion on the course.
    We all deserve to travel more and should make a point to play Cabot sooner than later, that way a return trip can be subsequently planned.

  • Good article.
    Wonderful staff.
    Played 2 rounds, one in 25 mph steady wind, one on calm day. Pure links (walking) golf. Stay out of the fairway bunkers

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