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.
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 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.
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.
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.