Cabot Cliffs – Why It’s Canada’s New #1 Golf Course

Cabot Cliffs, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia - Saturday, September 24th, 2016

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Every two years Score Magazine publishes a list of the top 100 golf courses in Canada. The ratings are established by a panel of no less than eighty different golfers, most of whom are very good golfers, but some who are just ordinary 90 to 100 scorers who love the game. So how is it possible that a golf course that did not even exist for the 2014 rankings ends up being #1 in 2016? I’m about to find out as I, and a group of good friends, play Cabot Cliffs, the latest tour de force from  the Coore and Crenshaw design team.

The story begins with a chance pairing of Rodney MacDonald and Ben Cowan-Dewar at some non-memorable event in Toronto about ten years ago. Rodney, who’s highest and best use was as a fiddler and gym teacher, had inexplicably become premier of Nova Scotia. Ben Cowan-Dewar is an entrepreneur and business partner of Mike Keiser who is responsible for building some of the best golf courses in the world. Keiser’s so good at what he does that he’s pissed off Donald Trump to no end. Trump buys existing courses, tarts them up and declares them “so great”, but they never rate anywhere near the top in independent rankings. Keiser builds them from scratch and gets them in the top 100 in the world from day one. Here’s a good article in Fortune that describes their rivalry.

Anyway, it’s Cape Breton’s good fortune that Ben and Mike were persuaded by Rodney to come to the then slowly dieing former coal mining town of Inverness and take a look at the mile long beach that fronts the community. At that time it was a complete mess, strewn with the detritus of a century of coal mining. They, however, did not see what was in front of them, but rather what could be and so Cabot Links was created. Opened in 2012, it was the first true links course in Canada and immediately vaulted into second place in the Score 2014 ratings.

The success of Cabot Links led to the idea of a second course on somewhat higher ground a mile north that had a striking resemblance to the terrain at Pebble Beach, arguably the most scenic golf course in the world. When Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were brought in to look at it, they were blown away with the potential. It’s now 2016 and that potential has been realized in a course that has rocketed to the #1 ranking in Canada. Won’t you join me and my friends as we find out why?

Flag, Cabot Cliffs
Cabot Cliffs Flag

The Ambience at Cabot Cliffs

While the experience of playing a golf course is undoubtedly the primary reason one might want to come back or not, there are other more subtle things that also figure into the equation. I found that to be especially true at Cabot Cliffs. It starts with the blue lobster logo, which I have to admit, at first glance, I thought was stupid. But then, thinking about why they would choose this as their logo, two things came to mind. First of all blue lobsters are extremely rare and secondly they are a symbol of good luck for the fishermen who might catch one in a lifetime. So here we are, on an absolutely gorgeous day in late September, with the good fortune to be playing one of the best golf courses in the world. These chairs and sofas are set up with a view of almost the entire golf course.

Lounge at Cabot Cliffs
Lounging at Cabot Cliffs

The people of Cape Breton are justly renowned for their friendliness and that comes through in spades for the employees of the Cabot Links resort. While we were warming up in the practice area the course pro came over, introduced himself and asked if we’d like any help in getting ready to play. The tips he provided, gratis, unquestionably saved strokes on the course. Later on the first tee, he was happy to tell us about his experience walking the land with Bill Coore and the legendary Ben Crenshaw, when it was basically a forest. All he could see was the trees, while they saw great golf holes.

OK, time to play. I’m going to describe the course hole by hole as I experienced it, but if you’d like to read what Coore and Crenshaw had in mind for each hole click this link.

Cabot Cliffs #1

#1 - Cabot Cliffs
Cabot Cliffs #1

We are playing from the Silver tees which is just over 6,000 yards, but #1 playing at 544 yards makes it seem like we’ve chosen the blues. A number of us playing today, played in Ireland in 2015 and I’m immediately struck by the similarity of this hole and everything around it, to a number of the courses we played there. The traps and the mounds on #1 are particularly reminiscent of  Portmarnock, just outside of Dublin.  As opening holes go it’s pretty fair as long as you can hit three good shots in a row or two in the case of Frankie Duguay, who has an eagle put right off the bat. For a course that just opened in 2016 for full play, the fairways are in remarkably good shape. The greens however, will still need a year or two to mature, and are much slower than those at Cabot Links, not than I’m complaining. 

Cabot Cliffs #2

Cabot Cliffs #2
No. 2 – Cabot Cliffs

The second hole is truly stunning. This photograph does not do it justice. From an elevated tee, our foursome had a lengthy discussion about the proper club to hit as there is a creek that you need to lay up to. On the other side is this massive dune that completely blocks the view of the green if you go straight off the tee. The proper play was to go right so you could see the pin on the second shot. Needless to say, I know that now after playing it. Then, I chunked my second into the fescue on top of the dune and racked up a double. Still, it was such a unique golf hole that I didn’t care.

Cabot Cliffs #3

Cabot Cliffs No. 3
No. 3, Cabot Cliffs

This is the first of a number of holes that, from the tee box, seem like impossible carries for the average golfer. Actually they’re not, but the trepidation involved inevitably leads to swinging too fast and the predictable result – at least I’m speaking for what I did. That trap up near the green is massive, certainly the largest in Nova Scotia and probably eastern Canada. Needless to say if you are in it, forget about a sand save, just think of surviving.

Cabot Cliffs #4

Cabot Cliffs No. 4
No. 4, Cabot Cliffs

The first of the par threes and if this is typical, then it’s going to be a long day. It plays almost 200 yards and there’s a prevailing left to right wind. The flag is just over that huge bunker on the right and there are more bunkers behind it. The only choice is to hit at the left side of the green and hope the wind doesn’t affect it too much. Fat chance. Three out of four balls were pushed into the bunkers. The good news is that the sand in these bunkers is soft and predictable. As hard as they are to avoid, they are very easy to play out of – a fair compromise by Coore and Crenshaw.

Cabot Cliffs #5

Cabot Cliffs No. 5
No. 5, Cabot Cliffs

OK, I’m standing on the tee and there’s nothing but marsh between me and the green, some 290 yards away as the crow flies. I’m not John Daly, so wtf do I do on this hole? The answer is to play it up the right hand side, but how much can I safely cut off? A lot as it turns out. A good drive will be rewarded by a long roll down toward the green and an apparently easy second shot. The only problem is that the green slants toward the marsh and landing it on the green will almost certainly lead to a bad result. By now I’m starting to realize that you cannot play Cabot Cliffs like a typical North American course. The ability to bump and run the ball onto the green is invaluable. Too bad I never learned how. Just wasted my best drive of the day.

Cabot Cliffs #6

Cabot Cliffs #6
No. 6, Cabot Cliffs

You don’t find many blind tee shots on par threes. I always thought they were unfair because you would never get to see a hole in one. Anyway, this tee shot isn’t just blind, you’re not even sure where the hell the green is. Amazingly, after what only one of us thinks is a good tee shot, the three who thought they missed are on with birdie putts and the apparently good tee shot is long.

This is what you see as you round the dunes.

No. 6 Green, Cabot Cliffs
No. 6 Green, Cabot Cliffs

Pars all around to make up for the debacle on 5.

Here’s the view from #6. Pretty spectacular.

View from No. 6
View from No. 6

Cabot Cliffs #7

Cabot Cliffs No. 7
No. 7, Cabot Cliffs

This is a hole that can give you the screaming Mimis. Two holes ago I lamented not having the length of John Daly, now I’m wondering if even he could make this drive. Once again, like #3, it’s not as long as it looks, but you’ll certainly need to unclench your buttocks as you watch your ball flight. Even though there’s no view of the ocean on this hole, it’s very beautiful with the marsh, the forest and the distant fairway.

Once you make the fairway, by way of drive or drop, this is the view. What seemed like a very wide fairway suddenly becomes quite narrow with traps on the left and instant death on the right. So much for being rewarded for making a great drive. Never felt better to make a six in my life.

No. 7 fairway, Cabot Cliffs
No. 7 fairway, Cabot Cliffs

Cabot Cliffs #8

Cabot Cliffs No. 8
No. 8, Cabot Cliffs

The third par 5 on the front and thank God, a bit easier than the first two. Take your drive out right and it plays longer than the posted 493 yards, but have some guts (or luck) and play it down the left side and you’ll get a lot of roll. A real chance for a birdie until you get to what is a Biarritz green, which means it has a huge swale in the middle, making a three put a real possibility. What a piss off for the average golfer to get to a par 5 in two and then only get a par. Such is golf.

Cabot Cliffs #9

Cabot Cliffs # 9
No. 9, Cabot Cliffs

You can see from the difference in the sky from #8 to #9 that it’s starting to cloud over so the pictures won’t be as nice from here on in, but trust me, the holes get even better. Bill and Ben were up to the same tricks on this par three as on #3. The prevailing wind is left to right, the pin is on the right edge of the green and there are bunkers all down the right side. The wind here is much stronger than on #3. It looks like a fairly benign hole from the tee, but it’s not. The safe play here is to forget the pin, go left and hope for a two putt. Of, course, I never heed my own advice, so mark down a four out of the bunkers.

Cabot Cliffs #10

Cabot Cliffs #10
No. 10 Cabot Cliffs

You know right off the bat that the back nine is going to be different from the front. Whereas, the sea was in view on most of the front nine holes, none actually played along it. No. 10 is the first of a number of holes that do play along the water. The view from the tee of Margaree Island reminds me of Ireland’s Eye, off Portmarnock.

Ireland's Eye
Ireland’s Eye

From No. 10 on you understand why the course is called Cabot Cliffs. The drop off on the left is very steep. You won’t be hitting any balls from down there as they occasionally do at Pebble Beach. This is the third par 5 in four holes and if you can avoid going over the cliffs you still have to cross a wide ravine right in front of the green. It’s very easy to think –  two three woods and a wedge for a birdie putt, but much harder to achieve in real life. The upside is that it’s just so damn pretty that you really don’t care what your score is. Unlike Mark Twain, I’m not going to let a game of golf spoil this wonderful walk along the cliffs.

Cabot Cliffs #11

Cabot Cliffs No. 11
No. 11, Cabot Cliffs

From this picture you might think that the clouds have dissipated, but I took it before we teed off. The 11th tee is actually just behind #1. This is a very tough par four as it is uphill and plays longer than the 358 yards it measures. Again, the scenery is mesmerizing.

Cabot Cliffs #12

Cabot Cliffs #12
No. 12, Cabot Cliffs

This is a just plain diabolical par three. At 195 yards, the pin, which is placed between the two traps on the right side of the green, is almost impossible to get close to. We all tried to land it right of the green and roll down to the pin, but all rolled into the front bunker. Once again, the outstanding views tempered the urge to toss a club.

Cabot Cliffs #13

No. 13, Cabot Cliffs
Cabot Cliffs No. 13

No. 13 is an uphill par four that has an unusual blind second shot. The green is shielded by a natural mound in front. The good news is that if you clear the mound, the green is bowl shaped so that you are likely to be closer to the hole than anticipated. Turned out to be an easy par for most of us.

Cabot Cliffs #14

Cabot Cliffs #14
No. 14, Cabot Cliffs

This is a beautiful looking par three that has a sharp pinnacle of gypsum sticking up well in front of the green. It’s not in play, but is intriguing to say the least. By now I’m starting to realize that the back nine is really quite a bit easier than the front, #12 excepted. If you chose the right club on this hole (hybrid 5 for me), the green is not hard to hold. The green itself is the least grown in of any on the course and you might want to play winter rules to guarantee that par.

Cabot Cliffs #15

Cabot Cliffs #15
No. 15, Cabot Cliffs

On paper this looks like a tough 500 plus yard par 5, but it’s really a paper tiger. If you can avoid the fairway bunkers off the tee (I didn’t), there is a steep drop to the green below. You are rewarded not only by the fantastic view on cresting the hill, but also by the fact your ball will roll forever. Getting on in two is possible, but it’s more likely you’ll be just in front and still have a good chance for birdie.

View of #15 Green
View of #15 Green

Cabot Cliffs #16

Cabot Links #16
No. 16, Cabot Links

If there is a signature hole on Cabot Cliffs it must surely be this out of the world par three.

It reminded me of #2 at Ardglass, only in reverse.

Ardglass #2
Ardglass #2

This hole is almost 100% carry over the cliffs to a green that has two levels.  From the silver tees it’s less than 120 yards, but the pin position and the wind make club selection probable. I chose a nine, hit it well and we all thought it had cleared the green. When I walked up it was eight feet from the pin  and I had my first birdie on Cabot Cliffs. I love this hole.

Cabot Cliffs #17

The 17th was so weird to figure out that I forgot to take a picture. It’s an easily driveable par four that appears daunting from the tee because it’s a blind shot with the ocean on the right. Since you don’t know where the green is the tendency is to go left out of caution, but actually that’s where the trouble is. If you do clear the hill with a three or five wood the ball will go straight for the green or catch one of the bunkers around. Either way, par should be easy and the possibility of an eagle is very real.

Cabot Cliffs #18

Cabot Cliffs No. 18
No. 18, Cabot Cliffs

What a superb finishing hole is 18. Assuming you don’t put it on the beach, it’s a relatively simple par five, but for two ravines that bisect the fairway. You need to clear them on your second and third shots so there’s two chances to screw up. Even if you do, the one thought in your mind will be “What a golf course!”

Closing Comments

Cabot Cliffs is a walking only course. I would seriously suggest you invest in a caddie as there are a lot of shots that require prior knowledge. At the very least, get a forecaddie for the group. The greens are not that hard to read, but that will probably change as they grow in and get faster. There are a series of rates for green fees that go from a high of $215.00 for non-residents not staying at the resort to as low as $60.oo for twilight play. No matter what the cost, Cabot Cliffs is a bargain. The great news is that its sister course Cabot Links is also a true links course and rated #4 in Canada while nearby Highlands Links, a Stanley Thompson masterpiece, is rated #7. We Nova Scotians have no idea how lucky we are to have these gems right in our backyard. Make it a commitment to play them at least once in your life.

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