With Cabot Links and the forthcoming Cabot Cliffs, Mike Keiser charts a Bandonesque future for Canada’s Cape Breton Island.
Cabot Links, Cape Breton Island
One of the deepest truths about travel is that—more often than not—what we discover is not what we set out to find. At Cabot Links, golf ’s newest remote mecca hard on the shore of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in the Maritime Province of Nova Scotia, this truth is real—and a part of the region’s rich history. John Cabot, around whom so much of this experience revolves, personifies the axiom. Inspired by Christopher Columbus, Cabot won a commission from the King of England in 1497 and set out to find a northwestern passage to Asia. In 1498 Cabot landed somewhere along the wild north shore of Cape Breton Island and claimed for the English throne what he thought were the outlands of Asia. Instead, he had stumbled upon a land that remains mysterious to this day and enflames the greatest of passions among those who undertake the trip—a real and genuine sense of discovery.
Tethered to Nova Scotia by a causeway, Cape Breton Island is a wilderness Valhalla, rich with virgin forests, dramatic mountains and rushing rivers. Here, the explorer’s spirit kindles inside you, for you have truly arrived at an edge of the world. And if you have brought along your golf clubs, then you, too, will delight at what Ben Cowan-Dewar and Mike Keiser—golf ’s modern-day Tom Morris—are bringing to life in the tiny burg of Inverness.
Cabot Links Brings Rebirth and Renewal
Today, Inverness is abuzz with activity. What was once a dying mill town at the western terminus of the breathtaking Cabot Trail is humming with pride and anticipation. Cabot Links, with its acclaimed Rod Whitman golf course, which features ocean views from every hole, opened in July of 2012. Next year, a second course—Cabot Cliffs, wrought by minimalist masters Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and featuring an even more dramatic cliffside perch—will turn the sleepy village from a curiosity to a true destination.
Brenda Campbell, an Inverness native who works part-time as a starter at Cabot Links, wipes away tears as she describes with the transformation has meant for her and for her hometown. “This,” she says, sweeping her arm past the first tee toward the coast holes below and the gulf beyond, “this place has brought me back to life.”
Brenda’s has a personal story—she left Inverness after meeting the love of her life, an executive with a global firm. She lived abroad, visited the world’s greatest cities, learned to play golf and generally enjoyed the spoils of a privileged and modern world. After her husband’s unexpected death and in a profound depression, she moved back to Inverness only to find a town seemingly as down as she was.
“Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done without this, what we would have done. The entire area is so proud. Our children are coming home to spend summers working here, or working in the businesses that are growing up around the resort. We feel like we have a future now, and isn’t that all anyone really wants?”
What started as a personal story has become a spiritual and social philosophy for Brenda, and for many like her who never dreamed they would see such life breathed into their community. And for this, they credit the vision and tenacity of Ben Cowan-Dewar.
Vision Attracts Vision
Cowan-Dewar had that unique combination of youthful exuberance and beyond-hisyears experience—along with a passion for links golf. Cowan- Dewar came to Inverness in 2004, scouting the property of a former coalmine, which had long been considered a potential site for golf. He fell in love with the site, the idea and town. He soon went all in, moving his family from cosmopolitan Toronto to a hillside home overlooking the property and the gulf.
“The site had 60 years to naturalize,” Cowan-Dewar says, referring to the fact that coal mining ended in 1953. “So you ended up with these big, sweeping contours and features. It reminded me of Scotland and Ireland. The question was how to get the idea from the drawing board to the field.”
Enter Mike Keiser. Cowan-Dewar had done the land assembly, had won the necessary approvals and concessions. Now he was looking for a partner. And if anyone understood the process of bringing a worlclass links golf ethos to a remote area unfamiliar with the game, it was Keiser, who had already sown links golf greatness into the land at Bandon, Oregon. Keiser had much-needed capital and the experience of opening a frontier resort.
“Mike believes in seeking the right answer,” Cowan-Dewar notes. “Creative friction is not his style. We just shared so many beliefs and so many favorite courses. He’s amazing in his ability to bring everyone in and give everyone input but create a unified voice.”
The Links Journey
Keiser certainly has opinions on links golf, however, and is willing to stand up for them. Course architect Rod Whitman chafed at first when Keiser suggested certain changes to the sequencing. Most dramatically, he insisted that the first hole move directly toward the sea. And today, any visitor would agree that few starting holes in golf tell more of a story than the 385-yard first hole, which plays over a small hill, creating a reveal of the oceanfront holes and the breaking surf.
From there, Cabot Links is a rollicking adventure, worthy of mention among the top links experiences in the world. The 620- yard par-five second is perhaps the most spectacular on the golf course, with an uphill approach over a ravine to a limited-sight green. Already, the golfer knows that this is a round with the opportunity for heroism and the necessity for strategy.
As the course works inland, the more subtle genius of Whitman’s green complexes becomes apparent. Take a few moments to study them, however, because the impossibly scenic ocean holes are coming. But in a brilliant homage to such legendary links brethren as Royal County Down, Saint Andrews and North Berwick, Cabot Links swings back toward the village of Inverness on the mid-length par-4 ninth. Savor the walk toward town and steel yourself for what is to come as you head back out at the long and difficult par-4 11th, which plays toward the charming alcove of the Inverness harbor, where the fishing boat that delivered tonight’s dinner are docked.
And if the commitment of Cowan-Dewar and Keiser isn’t fully confirmed in your mind just yet, consider the par-3 12th. The course opened with a perfectly wonderful one-shotter, but Keiser in particular saw another alternative—a hole just to the west of the original that would play to a bluff and eliminate foot traffic past the eighth green. The problem? Cabot didn’t own the land. But that changed in mid-2012, and today, the “new” 12th is already in play.
From there, the course descends upon one of the most breathtaking stretches of golf on the planet. The par-5 13th, the spectacular 100-yard 14th, the 15th and 16th all play alongside the beach. You’ll get a wonderful view of the soon-to-be-completed Cabot Cliffs as you play 15 and 16, and then turn back toward town and the original (two more are already under construction) lodge and clubhouse.
If Cowan-Dewar and Keiser had a concern, it was whether the course and accommodations would entice multiple-round visitors. “Return business is always the challenge and the hope,” Cowan-Dewar admits. The second course will take care of that concern once and for all. But I can say that my companion and I played the course three times, from three different sets of tees, and each delivered a unique and memorable experience, showcasing different challenges and strategies.
Cabot Links elevates Canadian designer Rod Whitman immediately to the fore of modern architects. That Coore & Crenshaw are consulting closely with him as they finalize Cabot Cliffs should give all early visitors to Cabot Links a sense of comfort— and a desire to return.
But I find myself coming back time and again to the story of Inverness, to its rebirth and renewal, and to the reassuring idea that golf—as insignificant and silly as it might seem—does indeed impart something special and leave something worthwhile in the wake of those who travel to such ends on the promise of a singular experience.
“To be handed this baton and to carry it through is very rewarding,” Cowan-Dewar says. “The town feels like it has life. It’s an economic success story, and it is humbling for sure.”
On my last night in Cabot, I walked out toward the shoreline at dusk. The sun was sliding into the gulf, and the air had taken on a late-September golden glow. To my left, a hare bounded out of the tall grass, and behind him a fox. Three hops and a cloud of dust later, the fox had prevailed in an age-old rivalry, and I was reminded again why we make these journeys, why we love these small hamlets and burgs that welcome us. And indeed, why golf remains the greatest of games.