Story by Adrian Brijbassi Vacay.ca Managing Editor
Cabot Links’ Joe Robinson tees off on the newly opened back nine of a golf course that has gained a lot of notoriety around the world. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)
INVERNESS, CAPE BRETON, NOVA SCOTIA — Joe Robinson steps up to the tee box on the 14th hole of Canada’s most talked about golf course and even with the Gulf of St. Lawrence spreading out in front of him, his gaze turns down. He’s transfixed on the pin nearest to us, a smile on his face like a trickster who’s eager to say, You don’t know what you’re in for.
But Robinson is from Cape Breton, one of the friendliest places you’ll find, and the words he speaks are not nearly so sinister. “Don’t you just love this hole?” he asks before positioning his tee and looking again at the pin, which is a 30-foot drop from the tee box and only 92 yards away. It is a charming challenge that captures the best of Cabot Links, whose back nine holes opened on June 29 to much fanfare in the golf world. All 18 holes run alongside the water, have fast greens and no trees, making this Canada’s only true links course. Fashioned on Bandon Dunes, the Oregon wonder that has surpassed California’s Pebble Beach as Golf Digest‘s top-ranked North American course, Cabot Links has welcomed golf writers from the New York Times and Forbes magazine in recent weeks, as well as players from around the world.
It gives the planet another reason to visit this 10,310-square-kilometre jewel of an island with rocky green cliffs, wind-swept tall grass and water, blue and endless and always peeking through a forest or up over the terrain. It’s alluring, the water surrounding Cape Breton, which is why I find it so amazing Robinson can focus away from the scene. He tees off and watches with a grimace as the ball flies past the target and rolls off the green, descending toward the boardwalk that goes through the course and the tiny town of Inverness. “That’s links golf for you,” Robinson says, still smiling after the wayward shot.
For three decades, Robinson was the pro at Highlands Links Golf Course — consistently ranked among the top 100 courses in the world by Golf World magazine — before jumping aboard the hot new development on the other side of Cape Breton. Cabot Links plans to open a second course, Cabot Cliffs, by 2015 and it already has a restaurant with an award-winning wine list and a 48-room hotel adjacent to its conference centre. It employs 120 people in a part of Nova Scotia that needs employment with the decline in coal mining and fishing.
Although there have been critics of the course’s multimillion-dollar development, Cabot Links has been keen to celebrate the Cape Breton coastline rather than infringe upon it. The hope is it will create an experience unlike any other for North America’s hard-core golfers while also offering reasons to visit for those who don’t play. Even for a novice golfer like me, the course is not frustrating. The views are so spectacular that they stifle any swear words that would normally come out of my mouth when I knock the ball into a bunker or slice it (again) into a rough patch.
Cabot Links is the vision of co-owner Ben Cowan-Dewar, a Torontonian who once worked on Bay Street before pursuing his passion of golfing the world. After running the golf travel company GolfTI, Cowan-Dewar wanted to create as authentic a golf experience as you can find in North America and figured the site where Celtic culture endures most fiercely on this side of the Atlantic would be perfect. (On Cape Breton, road signs appear in Gaelic as well as English and there are ceilidhs, community gatherings focused on Celtic music, in every town.) Like many courses in Scotland and elsewhere in Europe, Cabot Links doesn’t offer golf carts (except for those in poor health) or the use of GPS devices that measure yardage and suggest club selections the way a caddy would.
“This is golf the way it’s meant to be played,” says Robinson. “And we want to support the caddy business.”
Along with the 14th, which has only been aced one time and is reminiscent of the seventh hole at Pebble Beach, Cabot Links’ highlights include a green shared by the 13th and fourth holes, and thick, auriferous fescue running at the edge of the course, giving it the feel of Europe. Not all golfers will be instantly won over, however; and Robinson knows it.
“North American players will have to adjust. The game they’re used to playing is about yardage. They want to always hit it in the air. In links golf, you can roll it on the carpet and it will get to the green,” he says. To prove his point, Robinson uses his putter on the fairway of the 11th hole, a 465-yard par 4 that he effectively three putts for par. “There are really three or four different ways that you can play any shot in links golf.”
But Mike Earle, a Nova Scotian who has played more than 300 courses around the world, says links-style golf is often too aggravating for the effort. “A lot of times you want to hit the ball far but in links someone can just bounce it up to the green and once you’re on the green, it can easily roll off. You want the ball to stop and have it come back. That doesn’t happen in links golf,” says Earle, who has yet to try Cabot Links and names courses in Prince Edward Island as his favourites.
While it may take North American golfers time to adjust to a course like Cabot Links, what’s for certain is many will be coming in big numbers over the next few years to give it a shot. A course of this pedigree and reputation will be a draw. For Cape Breton, for Nova Scotia and for Canada, that’s a good reason to hear “Fore!”
MORE ABOUT CABOT LINKS Location: 15933 Central Avenue, Inverness, NS. (see map below). Inverness is a four-hour drive from Halifax, the Nova Scotia capital, and about 45 minutes to the Cheticamp entrance to Cape Highlands National Park, the heart of the magnificent Cabot Trail. Greens fees: Rates until October 14 are $110 for resort guests and $130 for those visiting just for golf. The rates drop significantly from October 15 to the to-be-determined season closing date. Twilight rates are $90. For full greens fees, visit the Cabot Links rates webpage. Hotel nightly rates: Rooms start at $225 until October 14 and then drop to $165 per night through fall and winter. Visit the accommodations rates webpage for details and reservation information. Contact info: Call 1-855-652-2268 for reservations.
Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and his articles are frequently syndicated by the Huffington Post and appear in the Globe & Mail. He makes regular appearances on CTV News, TSN Radio and CJSF Radio, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. A former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing and fiction, and has visited more than 30 countries. He is also a judge for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and spearheaded the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada list that debuted in April 2012.