Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Cabot Links

How many real links courses are there in North America? Not many. A real links golf course is one "built" on sandy soil near the sea and was formed over the millenium. The British Isles are chock full of links courses. In the U.S. and Canada, they are a lot rarer. The book True Links, published in 2010, lists only four true links courses in all of North America: Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes, Old Macdonald and Highland Links*. Cabot Links joins this small and special group.

Cabot Links is located on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in Eastern Canada. This part of Canada is one time zone east of New York. Given the course's location, it would be natural to think that the course is located on the Atlantic facing east; however, it is not. Cabot is located on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the largest estuary in the world, which is on the Western coast of Nova Scotia. The location is blessed for a variety of reasons. First, because it is set right on the water; second, because this area is located in a micro climate and is impacted positively by the trade winds. This means it gets warmer weather than you would expect for this part of the world. Water temperatures can reach up to 74 degrees! And third, because of its western orientation, the sun sets over the water, creating some fabulous sunsets for those who play at twilight.

For our trip to Cabot we flew into Halifax, which is an hour and 20 minute flight from New York. This part of Nova Scotia is famous for the Cabot Trail, a scenic drive full of quaint Bed and Breakfasts and a haven for campers, hikers, canoeing and whale watching. The multi-hour drive up from Halifax was a scenic delight.

The golf course was designed by Canadian Rod Whitman, whose design philosophy is "strategic design coupled with great contour." His mentors were Bill Coore and Pete Dye. Cabot Links is located in the old coal mining town of Inverness, a classic company town whose early housing, built at the turn of the century, still stands today, and can be seen as you drive into Cabot. Mining ceased in Inverness in 1958; the town also has a fishing heritage, as is common in Maritime Canada.

The full eighteen holes were not open at Cabot Links when we played. They are expected to fully open in July 2012. We played the ten holes that are open, currently organized into a front five and a back five.

The hole numbers in this post reflect those that will be used in the final 18 hole routing. The second hole is a par five of 619 yards from the tips and plays up a very large sand dune. Your approach shot to the green will be a blind one to a putting surface whose entire right side falls down into an abyss. Approaching from the left gives the golfer a lot more options and some great bump and run choices.

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The 2nd green at Cabot with the abyss to the right

The sixth hole is a tricky, very short par four. Although only 307 yards, you have to drive the ball between a marshy area on the right side of the fairway and scrub on the left hand side. It really shouldn't be that hard a shot, but there is a big chocolate drop mound down the left side of the fairway in the driving area that makes the fairway seem considerably smaller. The green is long and narrow and set over another chocolate drop which is situated right in front of the green. The day we played, the pin was positioned right behind the chocolate drop, making it very difficult to hold the ball anywhere near the pin. The hole plays into the prevailing wind coming off the Gulf, making approach shots even trickier. The hole reminded me of two short holes at Cruden Bay: its third and eighth holes. They are reminiscent because of the dunes landscape and their quirkiness.

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The tricky, short par four sixth hole with its chocolate drops

Right behind the sixth hole is a charming, meandering boardwalk that predates the course and runs parallel to a handful of holes.

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The meandering boardwalk behind the 6th green

The eleventh hole is a very good par five of 582 yards that plays parallel to the ocean. Like many of the tee shots at Cabot, there is a forced carry off the tee, this time over what looks like an expansive Saskatchewan wheat field.

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The par five 11th hole from the tee

A good drive will leave you with a completely blind second shot over a sand dune that runs right through the hole, perpendicular to the water and your line of play. Similar to the second hole, your second shot will be a blind one up over the dune toward the green. The green is part of a double-green complex and the flag you are shooting for is to the left. The green and the area in front of it is pure links golf and an absolute joy to play.

As you would expect on a true links course, Cabot offers plenty of opportunities for bump and run shots that can either make you look like a brilliant golfer if you pull them off, or can make you look like a complete fool if you don't. I experienced both at Cabot, and I must say it is exhilarating to hit a long punch shot and watch it bounce along the humps and hollows and bound its way close to the hole. It is not so rewarding to stuff your wedge into the side of a hill and advance the ball five feet!

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The sand ridge running through the eleventh fairway

The eleventh green is a challenging one with almost no flat spots on it. The hole was my favorite on the course.

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The eleventh green as seen from a dune above, part of a double green complex

The short, 102 yard, par three fourteenth hole plays from the highest point on the property back down toward the water and directly into the prevailing wind. How can you dislike a hole with this water backdrop and when you get a birdie the first time you play it, like I did? The drop from tee to green is severe, so with no wind the hole will play as a half wedge shot. I have a feeling given the winds, though, that many mid-irons (or longer) will end up being hit here.

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The fourteenth green as seen from the elevated tee

The next hole, the fifteenth, is in my view the prettiest on the course. A par four of 418 yards, it is a gem. Standing on the tee box you could be forgiven for mistaking that you are at Royal County Down with the beautiful Gillis Mountain in the distance. As you play the hole, the water is lapping on the nearby beach, the links landscape unfolds in front of you in a beautiful fashion, and the mountain backdrop has a similar shape and feel to that of the Northern Irish beauty. The hole itself requires a forced carry from the tee, and the green is well protected by a bunker right in the front. The contouring of the land around and in front of the bunker allows you to play some bank shots on your approach if you want to. The small, kidney shaped green has subtle contours.

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A view of the gorgeous fifteenth hole as seen from the fourteenth tee

People often ask, what the best part of playing all these courses is? The answer is that it is moments like these, standing on the sixteenth tee at Cabot Links. Reminiscent of Maidstone's ninth hole, the sixteenth hole has a tee box right next to the water and the beach. All is good in the world as you stand here.

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The water view from the 16th tee box could just as well be at Maidstone

Aside from the view, a beautifully laid-out hole awaits you. The drive on this hole looks rather straightforward, but it is not. There are two hidden bunkers over the ridge on the right side of the fairway and one hidden over a hill on the left side.

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A view of the 16th green from the right side of the fairway

If you manage to navigate them, the approach shot requires finesse. As a true links, Cabot plays firm and fast; no hole more so than the sixteenth. All the golfers in our group learned the hard way on our first time around that on this hole, you MUST land it short and run it up to the green. The penalty for not doing so is to be in a small bunker behind the narrow green, which requires a delicate sand flop shot across the neck of the green, else you risk ending up in the small bunker in front of the green.

What separates a good golf course from a great one? The quality of the holes that are not natural locations for a golf hole. In other words, designing holes near the ocean or dramatic landscapes is no doubt a lot easier than designing inland holes, especially on a site like this. While many of the remaining holes still to open at Cabot are not as close to the water, if they are anything like the 171 yard par three seventeenth hole they will be equally as good as the holes along the water. Hint: the hole plays longer than the yardage and avoid the deep bunkers.

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The tricky par three 17th hole at Cabot Links

Cabot is a walking course and is an easy walk. We played the course in late September in short sleeve golf shirts. Lodges are in the process of being built, and a second course is planned to be built on headlands located nearby. The concept is to develop an East Coast Bandon Dunes and I would say they are off to a smashing start.

The service and food at Cabot were great (I recommend the fish chowder), and the people of Nova Scotia are naturally very, very friendly. At first, it's a little off putting sitting in a restaurant having strangers come up and talk to you. One of the rules of walking the streets or taking the subway in New York City is to never make eye contact with anyone; so my immediate reaction when approached by a stranger is to put up my guard and think, ok, what do they want? The truth is they don't want anything; they are just friendly to a person: gas station attendants, store clerks, waitresses, the caddie master, the course rangers, the golf pro, etc.

We played Cabot Links on a Friday afternoon and as the evening went on the locals started coming out to play. As a links located directly between the water and the town, it could just as well have been in North Berwick or Prestwick. The laid-back atmosphere of the town combined with a world-class set of holes creates a great environment. It's really not too much of a stretch to imagine you are back in the homeland. Nova Scotia is after all Latin for "New Scotland".

Post Script

I look forward to a return trip to Cabot in the summer months with the Mrs., while she enjoys the wide beach and I can play a guilt-free round of golf. I would especially like to play the holes designed around the harbor that weren't yet open to play.

* While True Links is a nice book, not including Maidstone on its list of true links courses is inexcusable.


Anonymous said...

Actually, Newfoundland is 1 and 1/2 time zones to east of NYC. It's 9:30 am there when it is 8 am in NYC. Strange but true.

Golf Driving Tips said...

It absolutely depresses me that I've never played true links golf! Someday. By the way, why doesn't Canada ever get consideration for the PGA? This course looks perfect for it. Why not? Does the PGA always have to be played in the US?

Anonymous said...

Actually, this course is in Nova Scotia not Newfoundland so it is just one hour difference from NYC

Anonymous said...

Nice review, it looks lovely - An east coast bandon dunes sounds like a laudable pursuit. Do you think it will go straight into the top 100? Why do you think Maidstone is a links? Because it is by the sea and many holes look linksy? It doesn't play like one at all - wrong grasses...

Anonymous said...

Er, yes, but the course is in Nova Scotia, one time zone later than Eastern.

Anonymous said...

Well Cabot is in Nova Scotia(i live 15 minutes from the course) not Newfoundland.

Top 100 Golfer said...

Having played scores of the world's links courses, Maidstone is definitely a links. It is right by the Ocean, has natural sand dunes and a sandy base and the course changes every day based on the wind, which is its primary defense, like all links courses. On every hole you can also play along the ground, ie. bump and run shots, so it is most decidedly not a classic American style target golf course or parkland course. And it plays fast and firm, like a links course should. If that isn't the definition of a links course, what is?

Caper57 said...

As a Golf Digest and ScoreGolf (Canada) Course Rankings Panelist,(originally from Cape Breton, now living in Halifax) I'm looking forward to playing Cabot Links, hopefully next year when all of the holes are open.


Anonymous said...

This is unrelated to Cabot, but I didn't know where else to write this. About myself: I am a one handicap and have played 17 top 100 courses in the US (on my way- I'm only 26!). I'm from Boston and thought I would let you know about a couple local courses that I think should be in the top 100 but are unrecognized for whatever reason. You may have heard of/played of a couple of these, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts. They are all Donald Ross courses:

1: Essex County Club- a top 50 course in my opinion. Fantastic and diverse course.
2: Charles River- think it is somewhere just inside the top 100.
3: Plymouth Country Club- no one knows about this course, but it is a great track. Some fantastic holes there. (although I heard Doak mentioned it in his book)

Benny said...

Nice review, I'm lucky enough to be working at Cabot this year and am very excited to see the course.

As someone setting out to see as many great courses as possible it would be great to hear how you got access to some of these courses.
I'm planning on spending a month playing courses in the USA in November / December and would appreciate your some help.