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Game changer. The words are utterly straightforward. Applied only in the rarest of circumstances. There are few times when a golf facility can truly serve to change the storyline of a given area — enticing visitors primarily because of what’s been added to the landscape. The 36-hole golf facility called Cabot Links  from Cape Breton Island Golf, is such a place and will surely be on the bucket list for true lovers of the game. Located on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada the story of Cabot Links is about seizing initiatives — when many might have opted for caution. Ben Cowan-Dewar, a former resident of Toronto, who now lives on Cape Breton Island with his family, owned a golf travel company and traveled to distant corners of the globe in fulfilling his passion — playing the top golf courses on the planet. Included among his personal ambitions was to take his love of the game to an even greater height — building a golf course of significance himself.

8th hole Cabot Links

8th Hole Cabot Links, Courtesy of Golf Cape Breton

The ball started rolling during a dinner meeting in Toronto with the Minister of Tourism for Nova Scotia in March 2004. The Minister pointed out a specific piece of former coal mining land left vacant for a prolonged period of time in the small community of Inverness on the west coast of Cape Breton adjoining the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Interestingly, the discussion of a golf course on the property was something even local people had discussed going back to 1969 — years later a volunteer committee organized in 1994 in order to steer things more directly. Ben’s desire for golf was something key locals saw as a major plus. The community of Inverness is less than  3,000 people and the infusion of Cabot Links has added a clear economic benefit. At the same time — the local community is clearly tied to the facility as many of the day-to-day positions are filled with townspeople since the facility is nothing more than a simple walk from the heart of what is “downtown” Inverness.

Cowan-Dewar’s first visit came in December of 2004. Seeing the promise of such a site — he returned three weeks later with architect Rod Whitman – an Alberta-native Ben knew from playing a few of his designs in Canada. Whitman agreed to do the design and after a series of related real estate purchases were made in and around the course — ground was officially broken in 2008 — during the height of the worldwide recession. For many facilities the outside economic forces could have proven insurmountable — to Ben’s credit he met on property in March of 2007 with Mike Keiser — the man responsible for the acclaimed genesis of Bandon Dunes — the renowned Oregon coastal facility that has sparked a renaissance for classic golf architecture in concert with the creation of courses that marry spectacular vistas where land and sea merge together. Later that spring Keiser became an active partner. Keiser’s involvement added an even greater air of credibility and his involvement was crucial in moving matters along when few courses anywhere in North America were thinking of building or adding holes to their respective properties. A 10-hole version of The Links Course opened in 2011 and the full 18 had its debut on June 29, 2012. The reactions was overwhelmingly positive — the resulting momentum a nonstop whirlwind with players from around the world making a visit.

14th Hole Cabot Links, Courtesy of Golf Cape Breton

14th Hole Cabot Links, Courtesy of Golf Cape Breton

Since its opening on June 29, 2012, the Links layout has changed slightly. The green at the former par-3 12th hole was replaced by another green — now the 7th hole – playing to a max of 192 yards. The initial routing has also changed — allowing players now to play only 9-holes if they wish. The original routing featured a short par-4 as the starting hole — now the 10th followed by the par-5 2nd — now the 11th — one of the most exacting par-5 holes in all of North America. The hole plays into the prevailing wind much of the time and at 620 yards is a three-shot hole for even the best of players.

The Links Course ends in glorious fashion — the final five holes – like much of the course — exposed to whatever Mother Nature has up her sleeves. Wind can be ferocious at times. The failure to skillfully flight one’s golf ball trajectory can mean a trying day. The short par-3 14th is but 102 yards but it’s lack of length is more than made up for the total control one must display with a short iron. The Gulf of St. Lawrence frames the view and when the pin is placed in either the extreme left or right corner it will take a herculean effort to get close enough for a reasonable birdie attempt. Going long over this hole will likely mean a “X” on the card. Three of the remaining four holes are par-4’s and the shortest is the 15th at just over 410 yards. The green is elevated above the fairway and pinched in the front with bunkers — should the pin be in the forward area the demands for making a par go up immeasurably. Although the final hole doesn’t play immediately adjacent to the Gulf of St. Lawrence — the 475-yard par-4 calls for a blind tee shot over a rise that eventually tumbles downhill for a moment before ending with a putting surface placed immediately next to the clubhouse. Pull one’s approach here and out-of-bounds is clearly an issue that can insert itself quickly. At 6,854 yards from the tips and playing to a par-70 — Cabot Links provides for a ebb and flow with the ground game elements a must for any player to incorporate when encountering even the slightest of breezes. And be forewarned — the breezes do pick up considerably for those who opt for an afternoon tee time. How strong? It’s not unlikely that a 4-5 club wind can happen when playing. Not everything works perfectly — the 6th hole which features a “cape” design is really less of a risky choice to be made at the tee — one must simply play the tee shot to the safe right side and approach from there. Best of all, after my visit to Cabot in October of ’12 I have since returned and the overall maturation of the turf is clearly apparent.

6th Hole Cabot Cliffs, Courtesy of Golf Cape Breton

6th Hole Cabot Cliffs, Courtesy of Golf Cape Breton

A companion 18 to the original was already in the mixture when I first visited four years ago. Smartly planned the second 18 — aptly called Cabot Cliffs — is set on land noticeably more elevated than the original course. Just as Keiser did at Bandon Dunes — the second course was carried out by a different architectural team with the premier tandem in golf design today — Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. Crenshaw, the two-time Masters champion and World Golf Hall of Famer and long time partnered with Coore who has been the point man for all key projects carried out by the duo. The golf designs they have created have been at the forefront in a renaissance for classic golf architecture with the likes of Sand Hills in Nebraska, Friar’s Head on Long Island, Streamsong / Red in Florida, Clear Creek near Lake Tahoe and Kapulua / Plantation in Hawaii, to name just a few, among their most striking successes.

The 6,765-yard par-72 course is rather unique in one noticeable way — there’s an equal number of par-5, par-4 and par-3 holes. The desire to add such a feature was deemed worthy given the routing ultimately agreed upon. The Cliffs starts with an uneventful par-5 but the tone and style changes dramatically with the par-4 2nd. The hole is reminiscent of something found at Pine Valley — the naturalness of the land works seamlessly as if it’s always been there. Crenshaw & Coore are renown for providing multiple options and playability in their efforts. Even in days of heavy wind — The Cliffs can provide such elasticity. The land on much of The Cliffs is a good bit rolling — much more so than its big brother course next door. The sweeping grandeur of the property allows for plenty of room to hit driver but in nearly all cases there’s a preferred position to attain in order to have the more direct and easier approach given the way the putting surfaces are angled and within many of them contoured to both accept and repel approach shots to them. The par-5 10th brings the players back to the starting point and it is the final 8 holes which really elevate the majestic nature of the layout. Using the land is the hallmark of Crenshaw & Coore and the concluding stretch of holes at The Cliffs builds to an epic finale. Even inland holes away from the water such as the long par-3 12th and the strenuous uphill par-4 13th are brilliant counterpoints for the golfer to overcome as varying wind velocities can impact those two holes most especially. Much has been written about the final quartet of holes and for good reason. The plunging downhill par-5 15th gives an opportunity to take the bold play off the tee — just be sure the execution is present.

What follows at the par-3 16th is truly captivating. Much has been written about the glories of such holes as the par-3 15th at Cypress Point — the 16th at The Cliffs goes far beyond that and plays to a max of just under 180 yards. Interestingly, there was an early desire to extend the hole to a greater distance but the adjoining property owner declined to sell that piece of land. Just standing on the tee at the 16th is a spellbinding experience. The hole sits atop an extended promontory and the Gulf of St. Lawrence simply adds to the grandeur of the setting. When the pin is placed in the far right corner – only the supremely talented or foolish will go for the most daring of shots. The short 17th is a superlative risk-and-reward hole par-4 hole. Hitting across the Gulf the green is barely visible from the tee but the key is using the land to propel one’s ball to the target. Hitting further away left is the most prudent of choices. The concluding 18th is a solid par-5 closer that provides one last opportunity to end the day in a fine fashion. Does having an equal number of par 3, 4 and 5 holes work? I’m not sold on that concept but the Cliffs is able to overcome whatever deficiency there is in having a stellar array of holes that keep you on your toes at all times. Having two additional par-4 holes would have added more on the diversity side and likely made the course even more notable. The most pressing issue for Cliffs is getting green speeds to reach an optimum consistency. Extremely slow greens only marginalize the necessity in shaping shots to secure the best position on the putting surfaces. Green speeds need not be excessive because of the nature of weather when playing — but having to make shoulder turns on putts is not a plus given the fascinating contours Crenshaw and Coore have created  when playing the Cliffs course.

Cabot Cliffs Hole 16, courtesy of Golf Breton

Cabot Cliffs Hole 16, courtesy of Golf Cape Breton

Cabot now provides 72 on-site lodging rooms and 19 golf villas — 2 and 4 bedroom varieties. What’s really neat is that each of the lodging rooms features a golf quote on the door. The rooms are neatly appointed and serve one’s essential needs for any stay. Each provides a clear view of the Gulf. The Panorama is the chief dining option and provides quality food as well as an intoxicating view as the sun glides away turning daytime into nighttime. You can also take the short stroll from the property to the downtown area of Inverness and sample the shops and restaurants present.

One of the best choices is the Cabot Public House — there’s live music and plenty of good food, drink and company. The facility also opened its practice area — by the Cliff Course — this past July. Getting in a warm-up prior to playing is most beneficial. Most importantly, especially for Americans, the current exchange rate is a bonanza with the US dollar gaining roughly 25-30% in value when heading across the border. For those who make the trek the spirit of the game comes alive when walking the fairways at either of the two courses. The golf experience is especially enhanced by having caddies available for hire. Thankfully, Cabot doesn’t have power carts traversing the property in a hideous manner which would only serve to mar the magnificent landscape. In years past – the only way to truly experience what Cabot now provides was to head across the pond to Ireland and Scotland. The vision to bring golf to Inverness took some time — but the staying power to see it through makes for a golf moment that is magical, alluring and clearly memorable.

 

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Highland Links Hole 16, courtesy of Golf

Highland Links Hole 16, courtesy of Golf Cape Breton

There is additional golf on Cape Breton and the most famous course is one that came into being through the handiwork of the famed Canadian architect — Stanley Thompson. Highlands Links, located in the extreme northeast area of the island in the town of Igonish, opened in 1941. Originally planned for nine holes it was quickly expanded to a complete 18. Thompson was the most prolific of course designers throughout Canada and was co-founder of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 1948. For many years — when the subject of great Canadian golf courses was discussed — Highlands Links was always mentioned prominently as one of the country’s ten best. Highlands Links is set on land that takes the golfer through an incredible journey — views of the North Atlantic can be seen from a number of the holes and there other holes that plunge the golfer deep into the adjoining woods where your isolation allows for a total connection to the game. Thompson used the land to create holes where using the terrain can provide clear advantages. The missing component — getting the turf conditions to the point where the bounce of the ball is clearly entwined with the shotmaking. Right now it’s not. The holes still play well — most notably the long par-5 7th aptly called Killiecrankie — named after a long and narrow pass in Scotland. To be totally blunt the golf course, until recently was more in decline than on the rebound upwards. With the recent involvement of GolfNorth — a Ontario-based golf management company — the situation is now making strides to return to its true roots.

Benefiting from a near 50-year lease GolfNorth is now the main party responsible for the golf course and the adjoining Keltic Lodge — a grandiose building that provides the quintessential location — jutting out where land and water collide. Like the golf course — the Lodge went through many years in simply existing without all the fine tuning and upgrades needed to stay relevant. Having GolfNorth involved with both makes things much easier in coordinating the improvements in a coherent and lasting manner. GolfNorth is committed in making improvements and if such progress can be sustained there is every reason to believe Highlands Links will return to its rightful high position on the golf totem pole. We shall see.

Bell Bay Course, courtesy of Golf Cape Breton

Bell Bay Course, courtesy of Golf Cape Breton

For those inclined to play other courses Cape Breton does have other courses which provide good choices in which to marry golf and touring. Be sure to spend a good bit of time in Baddeck — located in the heart of Cape Breton. The town has a solid mixture of lodging locations and the golf contribution comes from Bell Bay — a quality par-72 7,037 yard 18-hole layout —  the handiwork of Canadian architect Tom McBroom. The course is routed smartly in climbing a bedeviling slope but never does so in an excessive manner — you also have numerous views of Bras d’Or Lake when playing. For those bent on history — the course is named for Alexander Graham Bell, the creator of the telephone to name just one contribution — who regularly summered here. If time allows be sure to visit the museum honoring his life and contributions just minutes from the course.

Just north of Cabot is an 18-hole layout called Le Portage in Cheticamp. The par-72 course, just under 6,800 yards, is fairly straightforward in its design and challenge. Just south of Sydney — the largest community on Cape Breton with roughly 33,000 inhabitants — is The Lakes Golf Club at Ben Eoin. Located just east of Bras d’Or Lake the layout has been the host site for a number of top tier golf events. Designed by Graham Cooke — the par-72 6,904 yards layout — works its way up and down a hill side and there are a few quality holes of note. The downhill par-4 5th at 456 yards is clearly a rigorous test for both length and accuracy. The main issue with The Lakes is that it’s in need of an upgrade — both turf wise and in upgrading the layout given the improvements in ball and club technology. With just a few improvements the facility can be that much better. One final word on playing The Lakes — be forewarned the bugs can be vicious at times. Spray oneself thoroughly or pay the consequences when playing.

Dundee

Dundee Hole 8

A sleeper of a course located roughly 20 minutes from the bridge that takes you onto Cape Breton Island is Dundee Resort & Golf Club. Located on the southeast side of Bras d’Or Lake — Dundee provides a very affordable golf option with lodging as well. The course is not overly difficult — max yardage is just under 6,400 yards / par-72 — but it is quite hilly and requires a deft touch and overall placement of shots. The only minus deals with the 1st and 10th holes — mirror images of each other. They are slogs directly uphill in both cases. Nonetheless, the course provides for an interesting array of holes — the pitching nature of the terrain also calls upon players to work the ball correctly. Often for longer hitters, keeping the driver in the bag is the smarter choice. Dundee is often overlooked by many coming to Cape Breton — be sure to include it among your golf choices when visiting.

If you go … *Nearly all air transport to Cape Breton goes via Halifax — the province’s capital and largest city. That leaves you roughly three (3) hours to drive from the airport to the Island. The build-up is indeed slow but well worth it. You can access Sydney via certain air carriers but more than likely you will need to change planes in Toronto and fares will be slightly higher when using this option.

For additional info go to www.golfcapebreton.com

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