Inverness, Nova Scotia – Links golf is to me the most appealing golf of all. While playing Cabot Links , I'm reminded of all the reasons I've felt this way since I first visited Scotland in the early 1970s. I was taken with the open spaces, the wide and long views over the links I played, the way my feet felt on the firm terrain, the bounce in the ground and of the ball, the integration of the courses with the towns and villages, and the sea views. Cabot Links offers all this, and I'm sure the sense of attachment to the village of Inverness will only deepen. The developer Ben Cowan-Dewar and his partner Mike Keiser are making sure of this in many ways.
Here's one way, and while it has nothing to do with the course itself, it has everything to do with why the project has been a success since it opened a year ago. As we approached Inverness, John R. Fontaine, the gentleman driving us in from Halifax, pointed out a building on the right side of the road. He said this would soon be the new Dancing Goat. Dancing Goat? Well, it's a café/bakery/gathering spot in Margaree, Cape Breton, some 30 minutes from Cabot Links. Ben, who lives with his wife Allie and their two children – a third is on the way – in Inverness knows that such a place can become a focal point in a community. The main street in Inverness needs such a spot. Ben and Keiser went to the folks who own The Dancing Goat and asked if they would like to open in Inverness. Ben and Keiser are providing financial support. The second Dancing Goat is expected to open in July. Being a fellow who spends many hours in cafes, I know I'll be a regular when I return to Cabot Links.
Then, of course, there's the main attraction now in the old mining town. That's Cabot Links itself, of course. Logan Taylor, the young man who took care of my wife Nell and me during our first dinner in the Panorama Restaurant that overlooks the links, told us that his grandfather Wallace remembers talk about a possible course on the property from back in the 1950s, when the mining operations stopped. The property was left a mess, but the government cleaned it up before Cabot Links took shape. Logan's grandfather, now 94, was part of the opening ceremonies on June 29, 2012. Now, 11 months later, Cabot Links is talked about everywhere in golf circles, and Cabot Cliffs, a second course, is starting to take shape about a mile down the road. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are designing the course.
While at Cabot, I used my trusty set of nine clubs: Driver, three-wood, 3, 5, 7, 9, pitching and sand wedges, and putter. That's my usual complement when I walk a course. I guess I'm old school. I don't mind having an idea of the yardage to a hole, but on the other hand I don't care to have a specific yardage. I grew up in the era of 150-yard markers or bushes at the sides of fairways. That was plenty of guidance. Anyway, links golf is less about yardage than it is about feeling the shot and using the contours of the ground. That's true right from the first hole at Cabot Links, which we were playing at 325 yards. I'm a play it forward kind of golfer. Back tees are a thing of the past for me. Speaking of tees, I like the simplicity of the markers that point the golfer to the next tee at Cabot. Understatement is preferable to exaggeration, simplicity to adornment.
The tee shot at the first is blind in the sense that one hits over a rise in the ground to the fairway beyond. There's nothing wrong with an occasional blind shot in golf, and a lot that's right. Tom Simpson, a terrific and too little-known English architect who lived from 1877-1964, put it this way: "Good visibility is indispensable if the holes are to present a problem which needs to be thought out with thoroughness in the matter of attack. But visibility should not be unduly stressed, and blindness of a kind can be a virtue." Now that's golf writing.
I missed right into a nasty bunker during my first round–the sort of bunker that Nell calls a "big-hair bunker" because of the vegetation that surrounds it. But I found the fairway the next time. I had taken a slightly less aggressive line at the right side of the fairway, which meant the bunker wasn't as much in play–if I hit my line, that is. I did, and the ball took the slope of the ground and finished in the middle of the fairway. I had only about 90 yards to the hole, and chose what amounted to a long chip shot. My running 9-iron scooted along the ground and on to the front right of the green.
Ben Cowan-Dewar with our caddies
I played with Joe Robinson, the head pro, in my first round, and with Ben in my second round; we enjoyed the walk with caddies. Joe first saw the property 20 years ago. "I knew right away it was a golf course," Joe told me. Ben, who was headed for a career in investment banking–or so he thought until he let his passion for course architecture take over–was in the golf travel business when he came on a familiarization trip to Cape Breton. He saw the architectural gem Highlands Links. Hmm. Golf in Cape Breton, the beauty of the landscape. He eventually was at a dinner in Toronto where he met Rodney MacDonald, Nova Scotia premier from 2006-2009. The Premier suggested to Ben that he visit the property between Inverness and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Ben did, and it wasn't long before he was moving with his wife to Inverness. The house that was being built and was supposed to be ready didn't have windows. No problem. Ben and Allie lived elsewhere for three months until the house was ready. Needless to say, the house offers views of the links.
Joe and I moved on to the second hole, which plays 625 yards from the back, or Black, tees. The hole rocks and rolls and rises from the left to the green, with the Gulf of St. Lawrence in full view. I was playing the hole at 490 yards, and it was still plenty of golf hole. By my second round, I'd learned to play left all the way, at least for the drive and second shot. There's too much in the way of badlands to the right. Whatever one's shot, it's good to be up top and looking to the green and the sea beyond.
On we went. The par-three seventh and 10th holes have massive greens, which take some knowing. The 11th hole plays right to left around a vast wetland and finished on a green with the harbour and fishing boats as the backdrop. This is an entertaining version of what's called a Cape Hole, where the green sits, effectively, on a cape surrounded by water on three sides. Charles Blair Macdonald designed the original Cape hole, the 14th at the National Golf Links of America. The fifth at the Mid-Ocean club in Bermuda is also a Cape hole. Over time, many observers have concluded that the risk-reward aspect is the essential feature of a Cape hole, in that the golfer can try to take a chance and drive across the diagonal, leaving a shorter shot to the green. But, in fact, the risk-reward aspect was not the significant consideration in original iterations of Cape holes. The carry wasn't very long in any case, and it was more important to drive down the straight line and deeper into the fairway. The green would open up more from that angle. But, as power golf came to ascendancy, reducing strategy to a lesser value, the long drive across the diagonal came to be seen as the essential feature of a Cape hole. I respectfully disagree. I also think that the carry across the diagonal on Cabot Links' Cape hole is simply too long to try. The carry approaches 300 yards from the Black tees. There's far too much risk for too little reward on Cabot's Cape hole–the Cape on Cape Breton.
Then there's the 14th hole, all of 102 yards from the Black tees. Even I can still get to the green from there; every tee is elevated on this hole, by the way. I chipped a 7-iron the first day to a back right pin. The ball landed an inch short of the green and scooted over and near the rear tee on the next hole. The backdrop to this green? The Gulf of St. Lawrence. It's a visual treat. I hit a pitching wedge to a front right pin in my second round, but pulled the shot to the left edge of the green. The trick on such a short hole, as at the famous 7th at Pebble Beach, is to take something off the shot. It's the golf equivalent of a change-up, and all too rarely seen in this day of "play to a full swing" yardage.
My golf at Cabot Links ended when I went out for a smorgasbord of eight extra holes after my second round. Nell accompanied me. My long approach to the 18th green, which sits about as close to the clubhouse as the final green does at Royal Troon–and that's close–finished on the front right of the green. I had about 45-feet to the hole. Nell attended the flagstick. My putt lipped out. Later, at dinner with Ben and Allie, I learned he was watching and cheering me on. That's Ben. He cheers for every golfer at Cabot Links. His vision, more than anybody's, made Cabot Links happen. It's happening, and it's a happening. Once an eyesore, the landscape where coal-miners once worked for $1.25 a day, has become eye candy. Cabot Links is one sweet spot, or, more accurately, 18 sweet spots. And it won't be long before Cabot includes 36 sweet spots. That will happen when Cabot Cliffs is completed in a couple of years. I toured the property with Ben on my last morning of the Victoria Day weekend. More on that in the third and last entry of my Cabot diary.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein