Cabot Links brings golf, and hope, to a troubled town

The second hole at Cabot Links.

INVERNESS, Nova Scotia -- Sunsets in this town of 1,700 are among the most extraordinary you’ll ever see. When night is approaching, some locals park their cars along Central Avenue just to enjoy the setting sun over the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Until recently, the view was blighted by what Garrett Kennedy, manager of Seaview Flowers & Gifts, called “garbage-filled fields” – remnants of seaside coal mines that were shuttered 60 years ago, sending the town into a long, downward spiral.

Now residents and visitors to this town on Cape Breton’s western coastline look out over Cabot Links, which sits atop the old mines. The course is not just the most anticipated opening in North America this year, but also a long-sought lifeline for an economically depressed town.

“It’s definitely the engine that’s going to drive our economy,” said Tony MacDonald, president of the Inverness Development Association.

If the vision for Cabot Links lay with the town, the credit for making it happen is owed to a young, transplanted Torontoan named Ben Cowan-Dewar, who had never developed a golf course before taking on the project in 2005.

Cowan-Dewar, 33, grew up reading the “World Atlas of Golf,” drawing golf holes, even building one on family land, and planning his family’s golf vacations.

“I loved golf, but really I loved golf courses,” he said.

Cowan-Dewar initially pursued his passion as a golf tour operator, traveling the world to see all of the great courses. But that wasn’t enough.

“The first time I went to Bandon (Dunes Resort), I had this pang of jealousy that someone could execute golf that well,” Cowan-Dewar said.

Now he finds himself in business with Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser, who serves not only as the majority owner of Cabot Links, but the wise man charged with advising Cowan-Dewar on operations at the new course and, they hope, future courses here.

Already there are signs that the new course, which has created 125 jobs, is having the impact the town had long hoped it would.

Kennedy, whose shop is located just across the street from the Cabot Links Lodge, said his business had been in decline in recent years.

“Now it’s just going up,” he said, thanks in part to traffic he is getting from Cabot Links.

“Without them, I think we’d all have to leave,” he said.

Robin’s Donuts recently opened a store just down Central Avenue, and resident Hattie Larade, who was visiting with Kennedy, noted that a kayak shop also is opening.

“Oh, it’s good,” Larade said, waving her fist in the air and smiling. “We’re all happy about it!”

• • •

There are inevitable comparisons between Cabot Links and Bandon Dunes, but Inverness’ itch for golf actually predates Keiser’s paradigm-shifting resort. From the outset, the town’s vision was to build a true oceanside links. That’s probably not surprising; many Scots immigrated to Nova Scotia, and surnames beginning in “Mac” are common here.

Local economic-development officials hatched the idea for a links in 1972, but the concept didn’t really gain steam until the nonprofit Inverness Development Agency formed a golf committee in 1993, according to John MacIsaac, who chaired the panel.

Canadian architect Graham Cooke, who was doing work at Highland Links in the 1990s, presented three design options, and there also was a flirtation with Jack Nicklaus.

“The big hurdle was remediation of the site,” said Rodney MacDonald, the former tourism minister who later served as premier of Nova Scotia from 2006 to ’09, and the man who initially enticed Cowan-Dewar to visit the site in late 2004.

For the first half of the 20th century, Inverness was a thriving coal-mining town. At its height, mine No. 1, located on what is now the Cabot Links site, employed 725 workers and a second mine, No. 4, employed several hundred more, according to MacIsaac. But No. 1 closed in 1954, and other area mines closed soon thereafter.

The town’s population plummeted from a high of about 4,000, with many residents heading west to pursue jobs in Alberta’s energy sector. In 2001, according to government data, the unemployment rate in Inverness County had hit 21.9 percent, and it was 15.2 percent as recently as 2006.

To advance the golf-course project, MacIsaac said local officials essentially shamed the province, which had owned mine No. 1 before abandoning it in 1958, into cleaning up the site. The mine was capped with 3 feet of clay and grassed over.

“Once that happened,” Rodney MacDonald said, “people believed a golf course could happen and there would be other opportunities.”

• • •

Keiser said he gets about three calls every year from people saying they’ve found the land for the next Bandon Dunes. (That included a call just a few weeks ago from a fellow pitching an oceanfront site near Halifax, 215 miles south of Inverness.) More than five years ago, Keiser dispatched KemperSports president Josh Lesnik, whose firm manages Bandon Dunes Resort, to scout Inverness and report back.

“It was hard not to be taken by the whole thing – the new Scotland thing, the Celtic music, how the land tilted down toward the ocean,” Lesnik said. Of the land, he added, “Despite being a reclaimed site, it really felt like a natural site.”

Keiser’s first reaction was less enthusiastic. He visited in March 2007, in gray, gloomy weather. “I thought to myself, ‘Josh, why did you waste my two days on this?’ ” Keiser said. But Cowan-Dewar coaxed him back and Keiser, seeing the potential, signed on, turning the town’s decades-long dream into an inevitability.

Like Keiser, architect Rod Whitman was somewhat ambivalent about the site when he first saw it on a dreary day. But when he returned to spend a few days walking the site, he came to a different conclusion: “This could be pretty special.”

In 2009, Keiser rented a bulldozer and asked Whitman to spend a few months “massaging” some of the unnatural shapes left from the mining days.

“When he did that, my expectations were much higher, because then I saw Dornoch, Turnberry, that kind of thing,” Keiser said.

Architecturally, Cabot Links ticks off all of the boxes on links aficionados’ wish lists. It’s a windswept fescue layout with a mile of oceanfront that, because of the tilt of the land, is visible from every hole on the course. The young greens are not yet up to speed, but the rest of the course plays fast.

Whitman, at Keiser’s suggestion, created a swooping, 30,000-square-foot double green that connects Nos. 4 and 13, and calls it “one of the best I’ve ever designed and built.” The par-4 fourth, which requires a forced, semi-blind carry over a rise, hints at the 11th at Royal County Down. There is a Biarritz green on No. 7, and No. 11, a demanding cape hole, culminates at a green overlooking a small marina, reinforcing the notion that you’re playing golf in a small Canadian fishing village.

The par-70 layout at times has a pleasant quirkiness. There are five par 3s, including four on the back, and they require every club from a half-wedge to driver, the latter on No. 7, which plays 247 yards into the prevailing wind. A mound in front of the second green can obscure the short approach to the par 5, while a thumb of fairway that juts out to the right provides a clear look if you can reach it. The dainty, 102-yard 14th, the only hole played in a true crosswind, points directly at the gulf and seems destined to become the links’ most photographed hole.

• • •

Early on, Cowan-Dewar said, Keiser advised him to stockpile plenty of excess land for additional courses because he wouldn’t be able to buy it after the first course opened. Cowan-Dewar owns or has options on an additional 600 acres.

He and Keiser say they would like for Cabot Links to post 15,000-20,000 rounds before breaking ground on a second course, but they’re plainly eager to move forward. On the same weekend that Cabot Links and its lodge opened, architect Bill Coore was walking along the bluffs 11⁄2 miles up the coast, trying to develop a routing for a course whose working name is Cabot Cliffs.

“One course is a curiosity; two is a destination,” Keiser said.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence is known for its unusually warm waters – swimmers enjoyed water temperatures in the low 70s on Cabot Links’ opening weekend (June 29-July 1) – and Cowan-Dewar is hopeful that portends weather that will extend the golf season into December.

Regardless, Cabot Links already is transforming Inverness and the surrounding community.

“Inverness is going to look like a different place 10 years from today,” Rodney MacDonald said, “and I think that can only mean great things.”

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