How good is Cabot Links?

Cabot Link’s fourth hole, with its half-blind tee shot, is among the most interesting on the course even if it is away from the ocean.

That’s the question that I left wondering about after having played it four times last week. Including the two rounds I played last year and the couple of 10-hole loops I had in July, I’ve tackled the course enough to know many of its nuances. There is no denying it is good — even very good — but does it rank among the top in Canada, or even beyond that, the best in the world?

That’s the question — is Cabot Links among the best in the world? I suppose that depends on how you make that distinction and what criteria you use to judge it by. I’d argue the course is stronger and more interesting than Bandon Dunes, which Golf Magazine ranks as #60 in the world.  Though I know Cabot founder Ben Cowan-Dewar doesn’t care for the comparison, I’d say Cabot is comparable to Kingsbarns, another manufactured modern seaside links. That course is #54 in the world.

So how to determine where Cabot stands? In Canada, the best modern courses (those built after 1960) would include Shaughnessy, the National, Eagles Nest, Muskoka Bay, Tobiano, Devil’s Paintbrush, Sagebrush, Oviinbyrd, Predator Ridge’s Ridge Course and Crowbush Cove. I think it is fair to say that Cabot is stronger than any of these courses. Simply put, it is more fun, more engaging and has more world-class holes than any comparable modern course, and its seaside setting is more pleasing than its rivals, even those set in Muskoka or in mountains.

The much discussed second hole is interesting, but is it great?

That said, I don’t think the owners at Cabot were seeking for a Canadian comparison — they set their sights higher from the start. Cowan-Dewar and partner Mike Keiser aimed at delivering something with an experience — both on and off the course — that rivalled the great golf resorts in the world. Think Bandon, Pinehurst, Pebble, Turnberry, etc. On that basis you’d have to take into consideration things off the course. While I think the hotel at Cabot is terrific — tasteful, smart, and classy — it isn’t opulent. They’ve hit the spot they aimed for.

But I don’t judge courses based on their hotels. I make my determination based on the course.

Is there a weak hole at Cabot? You could certainly debate the first and the closing holes on the course, though I came to enjoy the first and appreciate the last by the time I was done. The first is simple — and the inability to see the golf ball land off the tee wasn’t a factor. You knew where to hit it — and you weren’t going to be surprised by the result. A new tee to the left gives a better sense of the flag, but doesn’t really change the fact you won’t see the ball land. That said, I came to find the hole intriguing — the closer you drove it to the green, especially on a forward flag, the harder it was to get the ball close. That’s smart design.

The approach shot on 18.

The 18th is more difficult to like. It isn’t quite a par five and is too hard as a par four for many people. The clubhouse, which I felt was too close at the start, is still close, though not quite as likely to be struck with an errant shot as I initially felt. I’ll never love the hole — but it is tough as nails and depending on the wind one can hit anything from a short to long iron on the approach (we played the green tees and I hit a 4-iron one day and a 9-iron the next). If one wants a tough closer — this is it. That said, it is easier to be tough than great. The hole is without question the weakest at Cabot, but many links have weak finishing holes.

Where are the great ones? Some would say the second, the long par five that plays to a plateau set in the hillside of the raised landform that runs in the middle of the property. While I think it is an interesting hole, I think the right-hand approach — a narrow section of land that allows you to directly approach the flag — is going to be an afterthought for practically every golfer. Most will aim to the left and only end up on the flattened area between the ravines by accident. However, the hole has numerous interesting elements and forces golfers to make decisions. If you hit your tee shot far enough how far do you want to advance up the fairway? Do you play to the left side and take on less risk, but bring in more blindness on your approach? It is a hole with lots of questions and can be played in numerous ways. Is it great? I don’t see it as one of those all-world holes, but I seem to be in the minority.

Where are the great holes? I’m hugely fond of the fourth hole, with its tee shot over a  bunker supported by railway ties that gives way to a wide fairway and even wider double-green. It is fascinating, with big questions about the best way to tackle the green, which is protected by a central bunker. I also came to very much enjoy the short par four 8th, with its strange fuzzy hillock in  front of the green and its expanse of marsh on the right. It also offered numerous ways to play it off the tee — especially when it is downwind.

I also think the ninth hole, with its broad fairway and challenging green (especially the right side) is terrific, but not particularly picturesque.

The ninth hole at Cabot Links.

That gives way to the 10th and 11th holes, a par three-par four combo that are exquisite in their details and presentation. The 10th is not nearly as simple as it looks and the 11th, with some tweaks — or by pushing the tee forward — is arguably the most exciting hole on the course. I’d say the 11th is the first truly great hole at Cabot.

I’m not, on the other hand, completely sold on the 14th, the 100-yard par three that has been regularly photographed. Sure it can be a pitched sand wedge or a 6-iron, and yes, if you miss you are heavily penalized. Maybe that, and its remarkable location in front of a panorama of ocean, is enough to make it great, but I’m not fully convinced — yet. Some see it as too simple, others are too penal if you miss. Maybe that is the sign of a good design.

I’ve fully sold on the next two holes — the two long seaside fours, especially 15, though I find the hole to be far more interesting visually from the back tee that makes it slightly over 400 yards long. The 16th, by contrast, is more low profile, hitting into a wide fairway. The most compelling part of the hole is the approach, with its green deflecting balls down into a ravine near the beach if they come up even slightly short.

Many may not see how clever the 17th is given that it appears to be a relatively plain par three, but after repeated playings it reveals itself to be a tricky little hole. We largely played it from the tips — at 175 yards — and Whitman’s design is clever in the way that it keeps you from ever being particularly comfortable with the tee shot. The angle of the green, and the bunker short of the putting surface make the hole more intriguing than you initially suspect on a casual glance.

Looking back from behind the green on the 14th hole at Cabot Links.

Given that, so how good is Cabot Links? To my way of thinking it eclipses Sagebrush given the fact the land Cabot is built on makes it walkable and more sensible for golf while maintaining the visual element that is inherent in both courses. Its setting far exceeds inland courses like the National, and the golf is stronger than the likes of Muskoka Bay or Tobiano. That would make it the best modern course in Canada — and I’d see it sneaking in to the lower end of the Top 100 in the world. Is it better than Highlands Links or St. George’s? That’s a discussion for another post.

Tomorrow: The second course at Cabot has the potential to exceed the first.


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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.

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Nice observations about the awkward feeling on 17. I continually felt like I couldn’t feel the shot from the tee. But looking back down the hole, it didn’t seem so hard.

    Any thoughts about the old/new 12? What about 13 — how fun is that green?

  • Another excellent analysis Rob on what could become Canada’s best course with a few alterations. I’ve played it four times now and agree with almost everything you mention- its a course I want to play again and again- its fun and offers different options each time I’ve played. In my opinion, the two biggest misses are the far too short 14 th- as I’ve played it at less than 80 yds- ( solution- add 40 yards by moving # 5 tee 50 yards to the east – and add fill for tee elevation) and the addition of a small blow-out or pot bunker front left aka; The Devil’s asshole on Pine Valley’s # 10). I concur with you on the length and placement of the 18 th green as Ive been intimidated every time by the looming clubhouse and all those windows ( solution- relocate the green complex to the hollow about 15 yards front west of existing green). All in all, my favorite course to play in the country.

  • Good review RT. I agree with most of your comments. I DO NOT agree with putting Cabot Links in the same sentence as Highlands or St. Georges (but we’re all aware of your ongoing overzealous assessment of both). The Highlands (the word Links MUST be remove from the name!!!) does have potential however, as it sits today (even with all the improvements), it is not in the top 20 in Canada. If they take down several thousand more trees to open the vistas to the sea, enhance the turf conditioning and get rid of some the ugly site lines, one could argue for a move up. Also, I do not understand you putting Oviinbyrd, Eagle’s Nest and Crow Bush Cove in the best modern courses reference. Please!!!
    Back to CL. I think the 1st hole is a beauty. Depending on the wind and your desired second shot you can hit 3 iron to driver . The second hole is world class. The ‘right option’ for your second shot, while appearing easier is in fact more difficult. The 2nd hole plays very long, the tee shot is key and the green is a challenge. I thought it was great.
    It is VERY unfortunate the clubhouse was built so close to 18. There was no need to do so. Having said that, I ‘found love’ for the 18th by hitting the tee shot right. It results in a much easier 2nd shot than from straight on. Great finishing hole for sure.
    Cabot Links: Awesome! It is fun. It is fair and, it’s only going to get better.
    I’d like to add a couple of great holes to your analysis: The hittable 8th hole is a GREAT risk reward design and the view is spectacular. I absolutely loved the dual green complex that holes 4 and 13 share. My least favourite hole (I didn’t dislike like it) was the par 5 6th hole. I did not find the tee shot set-up well and there was very little definition for the 2nd/3rd shot to the green.
    I played 2 rounds of the 4 from the back tee and holes 2, 4, 8, 9, 11, 13, 15 and 16 are significantly more challenging than the mid tees. I would recommend the back tees if the wind is less than 30k. The tee shot on #2 is a bear.
    My assessment would put CL in the top 3 courses in Canada right now and it is the best links course I’ve played in a long time-anywhere! Aside from RCD in Northern Ireland, I would prefer to play CL to the links courses in the UK. The weather was nice. The wonderful attitude of the staff at CL is much more enjoyable than the ‘nasties’ you receive in Scotland where the official word is ‘NNNNo’. The caddies at CL are very knowledgeable (about the course and local history) and friendly. (As I was ‘from away’, I received a very solid briefing on the current state of affairs in Cape Breton).
    I did walked the new property (Cabot Cliffs) and agree that it will be special as well. It will be nice to have a range to practice (as there is very little else to do in Inverness) and the vistas from atop the cliffs will be breathtaking.
    Cabot Links is a must play for all fans of golf. I cannot wait to go back next summer and do it again. A very hearty congratulations to Ben Cowan-Dewar and Mike Keiser. The golf course reminds me of the line from Field of Dreams; “If you build it they will come”. It’s built and the golfers are coming. The word is out and I have had many friends lining up trips. One of the nice surprises was the relatively short drive from Halifax. It was not as long as I expected and quite pretty once you get to the island. It’s also nice that the speed limits in the Province are 110 for the 4 lanes and 100 for the 2 lanes. Very civilized!

  • good review, I have not played yet, only received word from regular golfers who have visited. I hope it becomes great, superb pedigree, but it takes awhile to become a great course, to overcome the hooplah and prove itself takes a bit of time. St George’s has only recently become great again, Ancaster also.
    I hope when I get there that it’s close to the way I feel about Highlands (links). It can never be a National or St George’s, but Cabot can be the best for many.

  • […] in mid-August. Or for more Cabot takes I also suggest you peruse Bob Weeks’ blog here and Robert Thompson’s excellent musings on the property. From my own perspective I’ll simply tell you this: when you walk off the […]

  • 2nd hole is awesome. long meandering par five that requires 3 excellent shots over severely sloping terrain. One mistake and its disaster, high fescue or a gorge. Like all the holes from the back tee- confidence is everything. Scary golf – simply thrilling.

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