INVERNESS, Nova Scotia – As a golf writer and course-architecture maven I like to explore the game far and wide, which is why I recently was enraptured during a trip to Cape Breton, the northern island in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. It just might be the latest hotbed of world golf development.
A group of Golfweek’s Best raters spent two days exploring the intriguing ground of Cabot Links in Inverness, along a stretch of reclaimed mining that overlooks the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There, architect Rod Whitman, formerly a protégé of Pete Dye’s, recently has debuted a rambling, rollicking collection of holes that evoke the feel and look of everything from Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald to Portrush, Royal County Down and Cruden Bay. Principal developer Ben Cowan-Dewar teamed with Mike Keiser, the founder of Bandon Dunes, to create a layout that’s fun, engaging, windswept and very old-fashioned – replete with broken-edged bunkers that were designed to look like they are partially collapsing.
The par-70 golf course, which stretches to 6,803 yards, is rated at 72.7 and carries a slope of 129 – both numbers seemingly low and likely to be re-evaluated by representatives of the Royal Canadian Golf Association. More interesting is the unbalanced scorecard, with pars of 37-33, thanks to only one par 3 on the front nine and four on the back. That adds up to a yardage difference of 841 between nines – 3,822 going out, 2,981 coming in. Whatever. They are only numbers.
The real joy is in the ground game, the swooping greens and the options off the tee to wide, well-contoured fairways. The all-fescue course needs time to fully mature and firm up to maximize ground roll. Already, the tee sheet is jammed, which is good news for the locals. The course is the centerpiece of an intimate, 46-room boutique resort sitting amidst a decrepit old mining and fishing town. Inverness surely will enjoy a revival thanks to the influx of visitors making the trek 210 miles northeast of Halifax.
It’s all part of a marketing strategy that emphasizes not “location” but “remoteness.” So sure are Cabot Links’ developers of this site that they are well under way with plans for a second course a mile to the north, located on a bluff 110 feet above the gulf for which Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are now completing the routing. It will be called Cabot Cliffs and be part a second, affiliated hotel complex, with a likely opening date of mid-2014.
There could be more golf news in store for Cape Breton. The island long has been famous for an iconic work by Canadian-based designer Stanley Thompson called Highland Links, opened in 1939 and ranked No. 3 on the Golfweek’s Best Canadian Classic Courses List. Highland Links, in the town of Ingonish, features an epic eight-mile walk from first tee to 18th green along a coastal inlet and up into the mountainous ground of Cape Breton National Park. It is owned and operated by the federal government and suffers perennial maintenance neglect that undercuts its design heritage.
Now comes word from Parks Canada that the agency is preparing a formal request for proposals to turn over day-to-day management of the golf course and hotel to a private firm. Some major golf-management operations – possibly including Keiser and Kemper Sports, which manages Bandon Dunes – are likely to be looking into bidding for that contract.
The upside could be synergy with Cabot Links/Cabot Cliffs. The downsides are considerable: a two-hour drive separating the Cabot development from Highland Links; more problematic is the amount of capital improvement that Highland Links and its hotel, Keltic Lodge, badly need if they are to keep drawing folks from afar. It will take some considerable investment to overcome years of decline – everything from poor drainage and too much thatch on the golf course to rundown, inadequate hotel rooms. If an operator can muster the capital, the payoff to Cape Breton and the wider golf community would be tremendous.
Stay tuned to your trusted Northern correspondent for further word.