Ben Cowan-Dewar's big ideas

Ben Cowan-Dewar's big ideas
Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

A few years ago, Ben Cowan-Dewar was a Toronto-based golf travel operator. Now, he’s living in a tiny town in Canada’s far east, at the helm of one of the world’s most heralded new courses, and poised to push the button on a second eighteen. Adam Lawrence travelled to Cape Breton to talk about Cabot Links

Anyone who starts a high end golf travel business at the age of 20, giving it a name like ‘Golf Travel Impresarios’, and then moves his family from the big city to a remote, down at heel small town in pursuit of a dream has to be worth listening to. But when you are standing, a few kilometres north of that small town, staring at a sandy bluff, a small stream and the Gulf of St Lawrence, knowing that what you are looking at could be the finishing hole of one of the world’s great golf courses in a few years, it is hard to pay close attention.

Talk to Ben Cowan-Dewar about the eight years he’s spent working on Cabot Links, the new golf resort that opened in the former mining town of Inverness on the west coast of Cape Breton, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he’s a man who trusts his instincts. Take his recollection of his first visits to the property, back in the winter of 2004/5. “I first visited the site in December of 2004,” he says. “I walked the site, it was a gorgeous day, warm and sunny. I came back three or four weeks later with Rod [Whitman, the architect who would build Cabot Links], and it was not a nice day – windy, cold and rainy. But by that point, I was sold 100 per cent on the property and the concept.”

The quietly-spoken Whitman, though, was less effusive. “Rod is so low key,” says Cowan-Dewar. “He does what Pete Dye used to do – says things like ‘Well, I can probably do something here’. That’s just how he is. It was a rough day in mid-January, and even then, we were struck by the obvious sites for greens and tees. But what really surprised me was that, in the 21st century, you could find a property like this.”

What makes the Cabot Links property – much of which was formerly a coal mine – special is not just its position by the ocean, but also how closely embedded it is with the town of Inverness, which has gone through some tough economic times since the pit closed. Cowan-Dewar says the connection between town and property was a key part of its appeal “I love links golf, and I love the relationship of links golf and the towns, in places like St Andrews, or Dornoch, or Lahinch. In the early days of pitching the town on my vision – they had to believe in what I was doing – I was showing slides of Bandon Dunes, and of all the small towns in Ireland and Scotland. It wasn’t a massive property, but it was expansive enough that you could do something good. So much development recently has required massive swathes of land, here we always had something more compact in mind.”

Bandon Dunes has been a huge influence on Cowan-Dewar, proving that North Americans love links golf, and don’t necessarily have to go to Scotland or Ireland to get it. Bandon owner Mike Keiser, Cowan-Dewar’s partner at Cabot, gets a lot of credit from the developer for his pioneering work. “If Bandon hadn’t existed, I would probably have thought ‘Well, this is neat, but it can’t work’,” he says. “Mike always says that the Bandon concept was proved a hundred years ago with Dornoch and St Andrews, but until Bandon, people thought people went to Ireland and Scotland not just for the golf, but for the whole cultural experience. Bandon proved that links golf was a big draw in itself. With the success of Bandon, it seemed to me that Cabot wasn’t that risky – we have a huge potential market within a short flight of us. Barnbougle Dunes seemed much riskier, given that the Australian market is that much smaller.”

With Cabot Links open and well ahead of revenue forecasts for its first season, a spectacular 600 acre parcel of land north of Inverness acquired, and the routing for Cabot Cliffs almost complete, one might assume that Cowan-Dewar’s plans for the project have always been grand. He denies this, though, arguing instead that it was only as Cabot Links progressed that he could see the scale of what was possible. “I don’t think there was one moment when I realised we were going to do something big, but the plans just got ratcheted up a level as we went along,” he says. “When I first saw Rod’s final routing, I knew the course would be really good – it evoked links golf in a way that nothing we’d seen before did. Obviously Mike coming on board was a huge boon. But the moment it all really sank in was in 2009. We were in one of the greatest crises in golf construction ever – a true depression in our industry, and Rod, along a tiny crew, and on a tiny budget, spent the year on a bulldozer, rough shaping all eighteen holes. In late October 2009, I walked the property with Mike and we were really in awe of Rod’s design.”

Asked what he has learned from his illustrious partner, Cowan-Dewar points to Keiser’s ability to draw the best work out of a diverse range of people, all with the goal of improving the final product. “Mike can create an environment where everyone is happy to share their ideas,” he says. “If anyone comes up with a great idea, he embraces it. It’s an amazing person who can do that – at any point Mike could say ‘Rod, do that’, but that’s not his style. It takes a certain degree of modesty, but really it’s about self awareness – to let people go down paths that you might not be sure of where it’s going. When I first heard about the concept for Old Macdonald [the fourth course at Bandon Dunes, designed by architects Jim Urbina and Tom Doak, with the collaboration of writers George Bahto and Brad Klein], it sounded like a green committee. Design by committee, well, people have never been positive about that, and the fact that it turned out so well is, I think, down to Mike.”

With this in mind, Cowan-Dewar is quick to stress the collaborative nature of the Cabot Links development. “I honestly can’t remember whose good idea everything on the golf course was,” he says. “That wasn’t an important part of our process. Rod deserves the credit for the course, but it doesn’t feel like there needs to be a score card as to whose great idea everything was. It was the community’s dream to have golf here, not mine. They first talked about golf on this property in 1969, which predates me! So I can’t claim that as my idea. A group of volunteers formed a committee in 1994, and begin to push the idea. It was ten years after that I heard of it. They were looking for an economic engine that would help the town move forward and retain population. When I arrived in 2004, you could really scent the passion across the community. Were it not for that really clear and forceful desire, it would have not have happened.”

Cabot Links has been acclaimed, and with Cabot Cliffs set to start construction next spring, the resort looks set to become one of Canada’s leading golf retreats. Indeed, many would say that Cabot Cliffs, on a site that is certainly more spectacular, and with the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw doing the design, could overshadow the first course. Cowan-Dewar isn’t worried. “You could argue that Pacific Dunes overshadowed Bandon Dunes, certainly from a ratings point of view, but it was having two courses of such quality that elevated Bandon to iconic status,” he says. “Cabot, like Bandon, will always be first. It’s subtler, and the ground for golf is hardly flat – it’s all moving and rolling, and thus in some ways is better suited for golf than Cliffs. I think 50 per cent of people I take up there greatly prefer Cliffs and the rest are clear that Cabot is better land for golf. Robert Thompson [the golf writer for Canada’s National Post and a long-time friend] said that Cabot Links could be the best course in Canada. Well, if Bill can do better, and you have two of the best in Canada, what more could you want?”

This article appeared in issue 30 of Golf Course Architecture, published October 2012