Adam Lawrence was one of the first golf journalists to get a full tour of Cabot Links, the newest venture by Bandon and Barnbougle Dunes developer Mike Keiser, and found more of the old country there than at either of Keiser’s earlier projects.
No-one who has been to Bandon Dunes, the wonderful four-course links golf resort on the coast of Oregon, could complain about the experience. Bandon has everything the travelling golfer could wish for: four fantastic golf courses combined with great accommodation and hospitality. For North American golfers, Bandon has been a revelation: it has enabled them to play genuine links golf of the highest quality without flying transatlantic.
For all its virtues, though, Bandon can’t replicate the total experience of playing links golf in the UK or Ireland. The place is a resort, a very fine resort, perhaps the best in the world, but a resort nonetheless, and most Bandon visitors spend all their time on property, isolated from the real life of southern Oregon. As many a travelling golfer has found in Scotland or Ireland, much of the joy of the trip is après-golf: hanging out in the pubs and restaurants of the coastal towns where the ancient links are to be found.
That’s where the latest project in the portfolio of Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser may score. Cabot Links, on the west coast of Cape Breton Island in Canada, may or may not match the Bandon courses for the quality of its golf. But its location, right between the former mining town of Inverness and the Gulf of St Lawrence, means it will be a more communal, experience. Cape Breton is part of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia: the name, New Scotland, might just prove to be very appropriate in this case.
Keiser isn’t the lead developer at Cabot Links. The project is the brainchild of Canadian entrepreneur Ben Cowan-Dewar, founder of the upmarket golf travel company GolfTI, and his partner Ran Morrissett, the creator of the leading online golf architecture community Golf Club Atlas. Keiser’s backing has enabled the project to go full steam ahead, with architect Rod Whitman – something of a hidden gem in course design circles, little known despite his acclaimed work at Blackhawk and Sagebrush in Canada – busily shaping the course for a soft opening of ten holes in 2011 and a full debut the following Spring.
There’s something of Scotland about Cabot’s golf course too. It’s a bit of a cliché to characterise a Scottish links as being lower profile than its typical Irish compatriot, but like most clichés, there’s some truth in it too. Asked to describe a typical Scottish links, and most golfers will talk of St Andrews or Muirfield, places where relatively small-scale undulation in the ground defines the holes; the stereotypical Irish links, though, might be Ballybunion or Royal County Down, with towering dunes and deep valleys between them.
There are no towering dunes at Cabot Links. It will be a lower profile golfing environment than its sisters at Bandon, where big dunes dominate; the preferences of architect Whitman, who explained to me that he likes his greens to have complex but not massive contours, reflect this too. Authors George Peper and Malcolm Campbell, in their new book True Links, which seeks to be an authoritative inventory of the world’s genuine links courses, include a pre-opening profile of Cabot, thus anointing the course as a links.
That’s hard to argue with, but the Inverness property is not pure untouched linksland like Bandon, or like Donald Trump’s new course in Scotland. There are natural sandy features aplenty at Cabot, but part of the site is reclaimed from the coal mine that formerly gave Inverness its living, and other parts have a heavier subsoil that has been capped with sand mined elsewhere on the property. Purists and pedants can debate whether a course built on such property should be dubbed a links, but golfers will make their call on the playing qualities of the course, and here, for my money, there is no doubt.
The course moves through a number of different environments. The centre of the property, especially nearer the water’s edge, is the most classic linksland. The second hole is a brilliant par five, destined to be one of the world’s most acclaimed, with a green set high on a dune and fronted by a deep hollow. The second shot, often a disappointment on three shot holes, will be the key here, with option including a shot up the left to give a good angle to but an obscured view of the wide but shallow green, or placing the ball on the plateau in front of the deep bluff, which will leave a tricky pitch, but with perfect visibility. Great strategic holes are those that give players complex choices, not all or nothing decisions: this, I think, will be among those.
The southern end of the course, around the harbour, includes a lot of the old mine areas. The short par four sixth, modelled after the famous tenth at Riveria, is dominated by a mound to the left side of the green that will influence where players choose to place their drives. The long par four ninth, with the harbour all up the left side, is beautiful and a potential card wrecker.
The northern end of the course, typified by the par three seventeenth, has a more scrubby feel, with low trees and gorse-like vegetation in quantity. But it is the run up the coastline on the back nine that will really grab the golfer’s attention at Cabot. The tremendous long par five eleventh hole, one of the first to be built, already begs for a driver and a sleeve of balls, and the thirteenth, with which it shares its huge double green is a fine par four too. The fifteenth, with a massively long, narrow green will be another highlight, but for me the hole that will be most visitors’ strongest memory of Cabot Links is the tiny par three fourteenth.
Only 102 yards long, the hole features what developer Cowan-Dewar calls an ‘infinity green’. From the tee, you see nothing – nothing – except green and ocean, and the scale of the latter inevitably makes the former look small, even though it isn’t. Maybe it is eye candy, but who cares? I like eye candy, and so do most golfers.
In any case, Cabot Links is stuffed full of memorable, strategic holes, calling for good decision making and precise execution. There’s plenty of room out there for a hole that’s just plain and simple fun.
Building a destination
Great golf courses attract visitors, but to convince people to fly and drive for hours to get to a course, it helps to have as much as possible to offer them. Only Mike Keiser could tell us if, when opened Bandon Dunes in 1999, he truly envisaged the resort’s current scale, with four golf courses and a fifth (the new par three track) in construction, but it’s clear that his methodology, building brand and buzz while investing in improving the facility, has set the blueprint for Cabot Links.
The key difference between the two is that Cabot’s town centre site can’t accommodate multiple courses, unlike the huge tract of land that Keiser bought at Bandon. But the developers have considered the need for more golf, and have acquired more property to the north of the town.
The land for the second course – which is under consideration, but has not been officially confirmed, and which, according to industry gossip, would be designed by the team of Coore and Crenshaw, is very different from the town centre site. I spent my last afternoon in Cape Breton walking the property; it has a dramatic, rocky coastline, cut through by ravines, and, with fantastic long views up and down the coast is chock full of potential golf holes. It may not be classic rumpled linksland, but it’s a site that any architect would be overjoyed to work on. We await further announcements from the developers with anticipation!
This article appeared in issue 23 of Golf Course Architecture, published January 2011.