How best to describe Cabot Links and its two (and, apparently, soon to be more) marvelous courses?
Let’s start with its bar; specifically, the outdoor patio, which sits adjacent to the 18th green of the Links Course. And when I say adjacent – there’s less than ten yards between the three-foot high stone fence that borders the patio and the green (amazingly, in the three days we spent there, only one approach shot from the fairway of the 447-yard finishing hole actually found its way to the patio). The atmosphere is congenial among the patrons as we watch golfers finish up, rewarding good shots and putts with golf claps and encouragement and less than stellar ones with good-natured jibes.
The patio, the accompanying bar, and the formal restaurant upstairs (as well as the lodging) all face to the west; a good portion of the Links Course and the Gulf of St Lawrence provide a stunning backdrop. A steady flow of golfers and caddies (both courses are walking only) make their way around starting at 7:00 AM and continue well into dusk, the players at that point silhouetted against a gorgeous sunset.
About 50 or so yards up a hill, the Cabot House is serving up pub fare while Celtic musicians from Cape Breton Island perform for a mix of appreciative locals and curious golfers. Fiddlers of all ages rotate with the band; on the night Sharon and I attend, the evening climaxes with a 12 year old girl playing the hell out of a Scottish dance tune. An elderly local woman notes our appreciation – “The youth here – they’re born into this music.” We believe.
Oh – and about the golf . . .
Cabot Links is located in Inverness, Nova Scotia, an old coal mining town that one would not necessarily associate with golf. But Cape Breton Island is a place full of Scottish immigrants, and along with their love of music, there is also a strong golf tradition. Stanley Thompson’s Highlands Links, located on the Atlantic side of the island next to the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish, was long ranked in various Top 100 lists, and there are several other worthy tracks (Bell Bay in Baddeck, in particular).
And then Michael Keiser came along.
Keiser is the man responsible for Bandon Dunes, the multi-links course paradise located on the southern Oregon coast. Unlike his chief rival in the golf resort business, Donald Trump, Keiser prefers a low-key approach, seeking out sites that have potential despite their remote locations, hiring first rate course designers/architects (Tom Doak, Ben Crenshaw/Bill Coore), and allowing golfers to seek them out.
Cabot Links definitely fits that bill. When we cross the causeway linking mainland Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island, there is a small blue traffic sign directing the driver to Cabot Links – and then nothing more until one arrives in Inverness, where a washed driftwood sign announces the entrance to the lodge. The town itself is, on the surface, unremarkable – but as we engage the locals, visits the local pubs, consume the fresh seafood and local brews, and drive the Cabot Trail, the place grows on us exponentially.
Oh, right – the golf . . .
We tackle the Cliffs Course first. A Crenshaw/Coore effort; it’s the newer of the two tracks and has already appeared in Golf Magazine’s World’s Top 100 list. It’s a dazzling effort, consisting of 6 holes each of par 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s. If I were to compare it to a Scottish course, Kingsbarns would come to mind – not exactly a true links, but with fantastic views of the sea from every hole. There are several forced carries from the tee box that have me reconsidering my tee choice (I played the Cliffs at 6,300 yards, which on the surface seems manageable, but when one considers that 6 of the holes are par 3’s, that number becomes considerably longer). But I soldier on, accompanied by my faithful caddie Thomas Watts.
Thomas is as every bit as knowledgeable and supportive as any caddie I’ve had in Scotland (Sharon reported the same about her looper, Robert), and when I actually execute his instructions, the results are quite pleasing – we get to the 6th, a medium length par-3 whose green is nestled amongst several dunes. “Don’t shoot at the flag, Gary,” Thomas admonishes me, “the right side of the green is where you want to be.” Sure enough, my shot catches the right side of the green and, taking a circuitous route, winds up about 6 feet from the hole. I manage to resist the urge to lift my head on the putt and drain it for a nice birdie.
Unfortunately, I don’t heed his advice on the very short par 3 12th, opting to hit a gap wedge instead of a pitching wedge. The wind knocked down what looked to be a perfectly struck shot and left me in a nasty bunker. From there on in I was extremely obedient.
While I could go on about each hole at the Cliffs, the real stunners are the finishing 3, starting with the jaw dropping 16th, certainly the most dramatic par-3 that I’ve played. While not particularly long (176 from the tips; I teed it up from 148), it’s all carry with really dire consequences both short and right, with those jagged cliffs staring you down.
The 17th is a short but deadly dogleg right par-4 that can result in scores that range from 2 to 7 (or more). Depending on the wind and the golfer’s nerve, one can use anywhere from driver to mid-iron off the tee, but the shot needs to be perfectly placed, or it’s either the drink on the right or the junk on the left. I managed to reach the top of the hill, leaving a short, downhill pitch. Sharon’s tee shot was even better; it trundled over the hill, took the contour, and rolled to about 30 paces in front of the green.
The finish is quite worthy, a straight away par-5 that invites one to let out as much shaft as he can . . . but the landing area is the left side of the fairway, which gently slopes to the right and can direct what seems to be a safe shot towards a watery grave (I learned the hard way).
The only complaints that I can make about the Cliffs Course are 1) lack of a warm-up range and 2) immature fescue greens that are at times painfully slow. The first is being immediately addressed and the latter will most certainly improve over time. But as a combination of beauty and challenge, the Cliffs Course is hard to beat.
After our round at the Cliffs, Sharon and I met up with a non-golfing friend of ours at the patio back at the Links Course. It was Canada Day, so in addition to the already convivial atmosphere present there, we took in a marvelous fireworks show. A lovely end to the day.
The weather during our first few days in Inverness was, to borrow from Dan Jenkins, dead solid perfect. We had expected much cooler temperatures than the blistering 95-plus degree furnace blasts that we were experiencing in Dallas/Ft Worth; while that was case, it was still warm enough for us to ditch the cool weather gear we had packed.
But when it comes time to tee it up at the Links Course, it’s definitely a day fit for a Scot, overcast and quite breezy, which seems quite perfect for that day’s round. The Links, with its firm, rumpled, and largely treeless terrain and wildly undulating greens, lives up to its name, encouraging the style of golf that one would play on its Scottish and Irish counterparts.
Sharon and I are paired with a couple from Connecticut, Carol and Ray Underwood. Ray is a player of some note on the Amateur circuit in his home state, and is a lot of fun to watch. He and Carol rented push carts while Sharon and I took caddies (Wesley and Tom, respectively).
While serious about his game, Ray is quite friendly and possesses the golfer’s penchant for fatalistic humor. When I hit a good drive on the 6th hole, he tells me that it was a “mother in law shot.”
“It looks good going away.”
Meanwhile, Sharon and her caddie seem to be clicking; she’s striking the ball really well and playing some really nice bump and run shots. We get to the par 5 11th – and then the wind really picks up. Number 11 is hard enough as it is at 580 yards, with a tilted fairway and severely uphill second shot. Into the wind makes it seem impossible. Even Ray struggles here, making bogey – the first one he’s made all day.
When we get to the 14th – a par 3 that measures a mere 95 yards – Tom smiles and says, “Ah, I think you’ll find this an interesting one.” It is, indeed, somewhat reminiscent of the famous 7th at Pebble Beach. Bunkered front, left and right, and if the shot is long it’s in danger of sliding down to the beach some 50 feet below the green. The problem today is that the hole is playing dead downwind; all four of us hit what look to be perfect shots . . . and then watch helplessly as our balls run through the green; fortunately, the grass is high enough to keep us from rolling too far down the hill in back of the green.
We get to the 18th – where we’ve been watch folks come in from the patio the previous two days – and all I can think about is not embarrassing myself in front of the guests. As it turns out, I needn’t worry – a perfect drive, a well-struck 4 hybrid that is just off the green pin high to the right, and a nifty chip that winds up less than a foot from the hole ensures a par. Unfortunately, the cloudy, windy weather has left the patio pretty much empty, save for an attendant offering cold post-round towels. I politely decline.
There’s something pure about Cabot Links; it’s comfortable without being pretentious. Most everyone we spoke to were first time visitors like ourselves, and were utterly charmed by the courses, the surroundings, and the staff.
It’s the latter that is particularly gratifying about our stay. Inverness (and much of Cape Breton, really) has been economically depressed since mining operations shut down back in the 1970’s. Building this resort has brought some much needed (albeit seasonal) revenue to the area (currently, in addition to the restaurant and lodging staff, there are also some 200 caddies employed, and most of them stay pretty busy). The freshness and optimism of the enterprise is evident with everyone who works there.
We are told that Michael Keiser is on property at least once a month to check up on operations while scouting locations for additional courses. A site for a par-3 course has already been chosen, and there is talk of a third 18-hole track as well. A spa and exercise facility is also in the plan, hopefully ready for next year.
Sharon is ready to go back. And so am I. So should you.