Cape Breton's Cabot Golf Links Golf Course

Reprinted with permission from Golf Odyssey.

Cabot Links, Canada's only true links course, is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of our northern neighbors' very best golf destinations. If you're looking for a quick getaway that combines brilliant golf with a unique and distinctly foreign cultural experience, Cabot Links merits consideration. With its rousing walking-only links, the involvement of Bandon Dunes' visionary owner Mike Keiser, and a second and likely even more spectacular eighteen by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw slated to open in 2015, many refer to Cabot Links as Bandon Dunes East. For those that have visited Bandon, you can appreciate that this is steep praise and may well be apropos. In fact, the catalyst for our most recent visit was the chance to tour the site of the second course with partners Ben Cowan-Dewar and Mike Keiser.

Despite all the comparisons, there is one area where Cabot Links strikes us as distinctly different from Bandon Dunes. Its West Coast cousin is a testosterone-laden experience-probably the ultimate guys' golf destination. On the other hand, Cabot Links strikes us as having much broader appeal, both to golfing couples and families where everybody enjoys the game. In part, it's the intimacy of the setting, but the larger factor is the Cabot Links lodging and dining experience which is a distinct step up from what one finds at Bandon Dunes.

It's tough to overestimate what the golf course did for the people of Inverness, an old coal-mining town mired in depression and rampant unemployment ever since its mines completely shut down in the 1960s. The community had long hoped that a seaside golf course could be its salvation, but courtships of architects such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer fell through. The bond between the town and golf was finally cemented when Ben Cowan-Dewar (who you may know as the moderator with Ran Morrissett of the encyclopedic golf course architecture resource GolfClubAtlas.com) embraced the site for his own life quest to build an authentic links. Cowan-Dewar moved his family to Inverness from Toronto and threw all his energy into the project. Unfortunately, the timing-smack in the throes of the global recession-was terrible.

Nonetheless, Ben and his chosen architect-little-known but highly regarded fellow Canadian Rod Whitman-persevered, and when Mike Keiser signed on as a principal partner, full-scale plans for the resort moved forward. Preview play on 10 holes began in the summer of 2011. All eighteen opened in June 2012.

Although the golf course alone would merit a journey, a visit to Cabot Links and Cape Breton Island (located in the Atlantic time zone) is nothing if not an adventure. The closest commercial airport is Halifax on the Nova Scotia mainland, 3.5 hours away. (Private fliers can use Port Hawkesbury Airport, 50 miles from Cabot Links.) From the moment you start driving, you know you're in a different country and in for a unique experience. While Cape Breton's natural scenery is ruggedly beautiful, it's population is sparse. Commercial establishments tend to be unprepossessing mom-and-pop stores and eateries, not chains. In many ways, you think you're in a time warp. The town of Inverness has Scottish roots and parades Gaelic culture. Gaelic music is everywhere. Elsewhere on the island, Arcadian influences are evident.

If getting to Cabot Links takes some effort, once you arrive you'll find it is an ultra-convenient place where relaxation becomes second nature. The accommodations, main restaurant, golf shop, and pub are all first rate (not to mention fascinating in their own way) and mere steps from the golf course. The ocean is also never far from view. There's a beach right nearby, and thanks to the Gulf Stream, the waters are surprisingly warm. For those who wish to sample local culture, Cabot Links is intimately connected to town. Locals have made Cabot Links a popular hangout, especially on nights when there's live fiddle music and step dancing.

Cabot Links is a great spot for a weekend escape for anyone in the Northeast. Buddies will love it, and couples and families will enjoy its well-rounded "personality" as well. For those who are hesitant because of the daunting drive, Cabot Links can provide shuttle transportation from Halifax in comfortable Mercedes Sprinters. Peak season is July and August. September is also usually very nice, and we had luck the first year we visited in October. Cabot Links closes for the year in mid-November and opens again in early May.

For added adventure, consider extending your Cape Breton getaway to include famed Highlands Links. Prior to the creation of Cabot Links, this circa 1939 masterpiece by the renowned Canadian course architect Stanley Thompson was unquestionably the premier golf attraction in the Canadian Maritime provinces. Thanks to some restoration work and improved maintenance it is once again one of Canada's best layouts. Highlands Links, which lies within Cape Breton National Park, starts by the ocean, races into the mountains, and then finishes on a bluff. Alas, it's a 2.5-hour drive from Cabot Links. The good news is it is right on the Cabot Trail, one of North America's most scenic byways. For our last review of Highlands Links and other golf and cultural highlights along the Cabot Trail, see GOLF ODYSSEY, September 2005.

Note: Even on days that exceed 80 degrees, temperatures cool off significantly at night. You won't regret bringing a sweater and a windbreaker. Rain gear is also highly recommended.


THE GOLF

As soon as we finished our first round at Cabot Links (Rating: A-), we couldn't wait to play it again. Rod Whitman's design provides an exhilarating and extraordinarily varied set of risk-reward challenges. Comprised of five par threes, 10 par fours, and three par fives, this par-70 runs mostly parallel to the coastline. You can see the ocean from virtually every spot of the golf course-something very few courses can claim. The fairways are spectacularly large, the greens are enormous, and the game along the ground is an essential element. Further, there's not a lot of big forced carries or even a lot of trouble. Although it's imperative to avoid the deep, grass-down-faced bunkers, Whitman showed admirable restraint in keeping them to a minimum. Best of all, anyone-notably seniors, women, and juniors-can get around from a distance standpoint. It's not a long course, even at 6,854 yards from the tips. The 3,691-yard Royal Blue markers are a nice touch for those who don't have the length for the four other standard sets of tees.

Cabot Links takes on many different personalities depending on the force and direction of the wind. Bipolar qualities may be evident between the morning and the afternoon. Upon our arrival, we played an afternoon round in relatively calm conditions, whereas earlier that morning the winds howled at over 30 miles per hour. When the breezes are down, this is a golf course that can yield a good score.

The presence of the ocean and the complete absence of trees play tricks with your depth perception. Some holes appear to be 600 yards long, whereas the actual distance may only be 350 yards. This optical effect is evident on the 1st, where a bunker that appears to be right beside the green is actually meaningfully short of it. Thankfully, Cabot Links has (optional) caddies to help you navigate your journey. You'll fare better if you take the advice of your caddie rather than trust your eyes. The good news is that the course actually plays somewhat easier than it looks.

The layout, which features a par-37 front nine and a par-33 back nine, defies categorization. The most memorable stretch starts after the par-three 12th, as the next four holes all hug the coastline. While you won't encounter heaving dunes, Whitman performed quite a feat in transforming flat slag fields into rumpled, humpy, and hollow-filled linksland. Perhaps owing to Whitman and Cowan-Dewar's design sensibility, the course has a few quirks that might seem gimmicky at first blush, but meld perfectly into the Cabot Links experience. For example, the 4th and 13th holes share a double green that must be 100 yards wide but seems utterly natural. Even the holes that aren't along the water are highly intriguing. In fact, the par-four 9th, which plays away from the sea, is actually one of our favorites on the golf course. Here, one is challenged to favor the trouble-laden left side to open up the best angle to a steeply elevated plateau green defended by a cavernous bunker on the front right side.

Cabot Links' par threes are particularly well done. The monstrous 7th plays slightly downhill and tops out at a formidable 247 yards. Tee shots can be wonderfully suspenseful as balls may roll the final 60 to 80 yards onto the green. On the other end of the spectrum, the exceedingly short 14th, which maxes out at 102 yards, is Cabot Links' take on the 7th at Pebble Beach. Without any wind, it's just a gap wedge. When gales are howling, however, you may have trouble reaching with a three-wood.

Some players express frustration over the slow speed of Cabot Links' greens. Although this is in part due to the course needing to mature, don't expect the putting surfaces to roll very fast even then. If the grass were cut too short, downhill putts would be like lightning and balls would literally blow off the green. As it is now, you've really got to whack an uphiller that's into the grain.

If you relish playing lots of golf on foot, this is the place to do it. Cabot Links is an easy (and mandatory) walk. The terrain slopes gently toward the sea and you simply roll off every green to the next tee box. Even after 36 holes in a day, you shouldn't be exhausted. For your assistance, Cabot Links has a contingent of outstanding local caddies. At present, the club lacks a practice facility.

Odds are the pro shop at Cabot Links will be successful in separating you from some money in your wallet. In addition to sporting one of the best logos around, the shop features an impressive and somewhat eclectic selection of merchandise. Much of the credit for the wide array of merchandise goes to Ben Cowan-Dewar's wife, Allie, the head buyer. The hat wall, festooned with a fabulous selection of hats, is perhaps the best we have ever seen.


THE LODGING

Not to draw too many comparisons with Bandon Dunes, but if Bandon is ultimately a male-dominated place, Cabot Links Lodge (Rating: A-) exudes a measure of feminine sensibility. The accommodations are great-just what we hope to find-and they far surpass the digs at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. They're the creation of noted architect Susan Fitzgerald. Using local materials, she created a lodge with an arresting minimalistic modern look. Glass prevails. All the guestrooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the links and the ocean. The most sought-after rooms also have balconies. Each chamber has one king or two doubles beds, quality linens, a sitting area, a flat-screen television, complimentary wireless internet, and voice over internet that enables guests to call anywhere free of charge. Highlights of the bathroom include a two-headed shower and L'Occitane bath products.

The staff at Cabot Links is eager, helpful, and friendly. When the project became a reality, it renewed hope and provided a livelihood for many townspeople. Everyone we met-from the caddies to the bartenders to the housekeepers-delighted in our being there. They appeared to enjoy being there themselves-and not simply because they were collecting a paycheck.


THE RESTAURANTS

The food at Cabot Links (Dining Rating: B+) is quite good. Breakfast begins as early as 6:30 every morning in the Cabot Bar. Try the oatmeal with real honey. Winning choices at lunch include the lobster Cobb salad and the wood-fired pizzas. The bar stays open all day and serves lunch and dinner. For dinner, the principal option is the Panorama Restaurant. Huge glass windows dominate the elongated dining room that overlooks the 18th hole and the ocean. Sunset views are exquisite. An extensive and well-conceived wine list complements a menu highlighted by regional ingredients and local seafood. We paired a Canadian chardonnay with our butter poached Cape Breton lobster. Over in the Cabot Public House, you'll find pub fare and snacks.


NON-GOLF ACTIVITIES

Cabot Links keeps the emphasis on golf. Other than the gift shop and the restaurant, bar, and public house, which has live music, the ocean is about the only other diversion. The golf course abuts Inverness Beach, where you'll find a snack bar and lifeguards on duty throughout the summer. The waters are said to be the warmest on the Eastern seaboard above the Carolinas. In town, the work of local artists is on display in the Inverness County Centre for the Arts. If you visit in summer, on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons you can lay a few wagers on the harness races at Inverness Raceway. For those looking to explore the island or play Highlands Links, the drive on the Cabot Trail in the northern part of the island showcases Cape Breton's most impressive scenery.

And Coming in 2015... Cabot Cliffs

We had a chance to tour the site of Cabot Links' second course, Cabot Cliffs. Located not far from the tee boxes of the second hole of Cabot Links, this Coore-Crenshaw creation is no more than a five-minute drive from the lodge. Much like Pacific Dunes at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Cabot Cliffs will likely be even more spectacular than Cabot Links' original eighteen. There are nine holes on the ocean, including 16, 17, and 18 for a spectacular finish.

When we spoke to Bill Coore about the project, he drew comparisons not with Bandon Dunes, but with Barnbougle Dunes/Lost Farm in Tasmania, another property that Mike Keiser has been involved with. Coore pointed out that Cabot Links and Tom Doak's Barnbougle Dunes are traditional linear seaside layouts whose holes run parallel to the sea. On the other hand, Cabot Cliffs, like Coore-Crenshaw's Lost Farm, features holes both parallel and perpendicular to the sea. The routing skirts a river that empties into the ocean. There's also a section that plays through spectacular dunes and an interior stretch of holes. Since the various holes ramble in a multitude of directions, wind will affect play from all points on the compass.

Rod Whitman has agreed to assist the Coore-Crenshaw team in the shaping of Cabot Cliffs. The new course will have its own clubhouse and restaurant. It will also be the home to an extensive practice area that will serve both courses. A 2015 opening is anticipated. We will keep you informed.

Craig Better is one of the founding editors of Golf Vacation Insider. In addition to traveling to 15 foreign countries, he has twice traveled across America to play golf courses in all 50 United States. Prior to joining Golf Vacation Insider, Craig was a freelance writer who contributed to GOLF Magazine, Travel + Leisure Golf, Maxim Magazine, USAToday.com, and co-authored Zagat Survey’s book, America’s Top Golf Courses.
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Cape Breton's Cabot Golf Links Golf Course
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