A Cape Breton Exposition

Our GPS reads 2:42AM from Halifax’s airport. Not exactly an ideal arrival time into Inverness, Nova Scotia, although the precipice of a bucket-list buddies trip plagued by a cancelled flight, multiple flight delays, and the general airport circus means we are just lucky to have arrived at all.

The drive goes smooth, if a little underwhelming. On my first visit to Nova Scotia, my introduction is in the pitch black. No views, just dark, windy roads. In some respect, this made our early wake-up call for the first tee time of the day even more dramatic. The buddies trip is a group of young lads, so no Cabot Links resort accommodations for us, but our Airbnb does the job. It also allowed for us to drive into the resort—granted, only 5 minutes up the road—but the early journey revealed Canada’s only links course (by most respects, Links barely sneaks in; Cliffs does not count). Our itinerary could not have been better: day 1 included Cabot Links, Cabot Cliffs, and The Nest; day 2 was 36 holes at Cape Breton Highland Links, at the recommendation of many friends who encouraged a second spin.

First up: Links. I have been lucky enough to see all of Rod Whitman’s Canadian work prior to Cabot Links, and loved them all. Sagebrush, dashing up and down the Nicola Valley hillside in British Columbia was my favourite until this point, but Blackhawk, both Wolf Creek’s, and Algonquin’s extensive renovation are all among my favourite places to hit a ball around in the country.

Sagebrush’s dramatic drop shot par 3, 4th

Yet, Cabot Links provides something so different than the rest. Sagebrush is modern adventure mountain golf; Wolf Creek is as close to a Pete Dye golf course as Canada will get; Algonquin, due to its history, blends Donald Ross with Whit’s style; and Blackhawk is authentically Whitman coming into his own shell.

Cabot Links

Cabot Links is, in short, arguably Canada’s most perfect golf course, a suitable golf course to be #1, although Cliffs gets the nods these days from magazines. The routing, over rather suitable terrain, effortlessly glides over the hummocks, hills, and ripples. In the world of architecture, this is a course worthy of study for the decades to come.

It starts in the actual town of Inverness, or so it feels. I have yet to journey over to Scotland (although if you read a Lorne Rubenstien book or article, you feel as if you have been), but Links feels like Inverness, Scotland. The highlights come hard and often, as a top 10 golf course does. The Biarritz 2nd is a nice surprise, if questionable. On any of Whitman’s other golf courses, a template hole is only that of architecture folklore. In fact, the closest I have ever seen from Mr. Whitman is the 10th at Algonquin, mimicking elements of the Redan, although never actually delivering a “yes, this is a template” feeling. The 2nd is a well-executed rendition of such a well-known template.

Back to the highlights. The “Harbour Hole,” a meaty par 4 north of 450 yards, is of course excellent, and I suspect many folk’s favourite on the front nine. Understandable in my eye. The dogleg left literally plays around Inverness Harbour, testing nerve early. Whitman is, by all accounts, a great player, so it makes sense that there are chances for the good player to seperate themselves. Yet, the playability of such hole, with the green sitting on-grade in the hillside tilted left favouring shots from the left, although never taking anyone entirely out from the right, is the work of a magician.

The Harbour Hole at Cabot Links

In reality, the ability to wax poetic about such a joyous golf course has never been easier than at Cabot Links. Instead, keeping it inside a word count appears to be a much harder ask. Regardless of skipping beautiful holes such as the simplistic par 4, 3rd, or the double green shared by the 8th & 13th, the real highlight at Links is the routing. Sure, the ocean is the main attraction, and Whitman’s carries us out to the coastline on the 7th, 8th, 14th, 15th, and 16th, but the central hillside near the resort’s HQ is the difference maker in the micro.

In total, the golfer interacts with the hillside for a third of the golf course. By my count, the 8th, 11th, and 13th play into the hillside. On the yang, the 9th, 12th, and 14th play down. It is at the 14th that the golf course begins its climax, a drop-shot par 3 heading towards the ocean.

The 8th, 11th, 13th, and 14th greens all in sight from the beach

Naturally, on such a property, reflection almost happens throughout. A sense of place is a key componant of an enjoyable experience. Nova Scotia is “New Scotland,” translated, and in Whitman’s tribute to the Old Country, he does his best to mascaraed Canada as Scotland. Take the 16th for example, for my money, the best hole at Links. In golf lore, sheep used to nestle into the sandy terrain to avoid the wind (or weather, in general). As a result, bunkers were conventionalized. On the long par 4, 16th running parallel to Inverness Beach, bunkers are scattered as if they were randomized by nature. Here, a straight drive is sometimes not ideal. Instead, width asks the golfer to choose his preferred line to get the ball in the hole quicker than his opponent.

It becomes difficult to imagine that it gets better than Cabot Links in this country, yet magazines have Cabot Cliffs higher. The expectations were certainly lofty. Truthfully, lunch at Panorama Restaurant felt more like a pre-game meal than a leisurely lunch. Links blew us all away, how much better could it be?

Cabot Cliffs

If Links is the sum of its parts to achieve a common goal, Cliffs is a competition between eighteen holes for which one blows you away more. For me, it comes early at the par 4, 2nd. From atop the hillside, the golfer tumbles down to a Y shaped fairway. A Principal’s Nose bunker built into a sandy knoll short of the green dictates play: if the pin is left, the left part of the Y is ideal; right, and—well, you get the point.

Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw are admittably bigger names than Rod Whitman. Winning The Masters helps, but with a résumé that reads Sand Hills, Friar’s Head, Bandon Trails, Barnbougle Lost Farm, Sand Valley, and more, their ability is undisputed. It comes as no surprise that the momentum rarely lets up. Truthfully, Only the 1st, 8th, and 11th are relatively tame holes in contrast to the rest of the golf course. Every other hole has something worth considering, debating, understanding, or taking in.

The middle stretch, following the awful rendition of a “Cape” hole at the 5th, is a bit of a mixed bag. The par 3’s at the 6th (“Punchbowl,” even if the criticisms of the green are valid) and the 9th are contrasting fun. At the 6th, a blind-ish par 3 bowls in the middle. At the 9th, a short par 3 repels everything. The 9th is a panorama view of Inverness Beach with views down the coast of Links; the 6th, you are tucked into the dunes, truly submerged in the experience.

The par 5’s are also contrasting, although in quality. The 7th is tremendously difficult, playing over a gorge flanking up the right. Any questions on whether Cliffs is an authentic links golf course is best solved here (hint: no). The 8th is a waste, while the 10th is fun, if a bit redundant by the time you play the better version at the 18th. With the wind, which seemingly always blows a bit on the coast, the 10th and 18th’s flexibility makes far more sense than the wasted 8th. When the 18th is downwind, the 10th is into the wind and vice versa, meaning one of two times the golfer will have a heroic carry over the canyon coming home in two.

As opposed to Links, which feels like a boxer bopping and weaving in and out to avoid getting hit, Cliffs operates with a “front ten” loop, returning to the 1st tee for the 11th tee shot up the hill for the “back ten.” Truthfully, I felt as if the 11th-13th was just a route to get to the top of the property. In some respects, the 14th is similar, although the rock outcropping shy of the green is quite enjoyable, and really: the hole is gorgeous. The 11th and 13th climb dramatically, with the 12th acting as a reprieve from the incline.

Once atop, the dramatic 15th tumbles us back to the coastline, but is not as simple as that. One could sit at the top of the hill, after a perfectly placed drive avoiding the centreline bunkers, and hit that second shot into the green for hours and still find enjoyment. The 16th and 17th have gotten all the buzz and media, yet the 15th is the better hole (by a wide margin, too), and is as beautiful. This is the Coore & Crenshaw I came for.

The 15th (left) is a superb par 5 divided by bunkers up the middle, while the 16th (right) is the signature hole most will recognize

When budgeting time for trips, pace of play is the most difficult thing to account for. Our tee times were 7:45 at Links, 1:36 at Cliffs, and 7:00 at the Nest. One thing left out, however: Cabot Cliffs is pace of play purgatory. Granted, you could take out the camera every hole and take a multitude of photos. It is a sneaky hard golf course for the high-handicap golfer as well, so the slow play made sense. Luckily, night golf was back and we were able to push our time back to accommodate the pace.

The Nest at Cabot Cliffs

In contrast to other resort par 3 golf courses, The Nest is illuminated Friday Night Lights style. Also fun: almost anything goes. Shoes are optional, large groups encouraged, and a whole lot of fun to be had. Truthfully, Whitman’s work around the greens is better than a Bandon Preserve to me, although Preserve’s site is far better. The nest sits above Cabot Cliffs, next to the 13th and near the clubhouse, where Preserve plays below Bandon Trails and next to Bandon Dunes.

The variety is off the charts here, and as a result, The Nest is extremely enjoyable. On the opening two, the greens sit on-grade into the surrounds, whereas the 3rd is absolutely diabolical, sitting up around the surrounding collection areas. The 4th and 9th share an expansive double green seemingly inspired by the ocean waves. On first assumption, a double green welcomes a lot of room to play. Further examination proves that to be somewhat true, although there are small pockets of devilish features surely to wreak havoc. The routing dips into the trees, but the highlight, at least in my eye, is the clever short par 3, 8th hiding behind a ridge line, obstructing the views (and bounces, because it is firm).

Even with mostly wedges in hand, The Nest is a difficult golf course fully playable with a putter (minus the 5th). For the record, the course record is a shocking -3 by Mackenzie Tour player Jared Du Toit, although a spin around reveals why. Realistically, if someone goes out to The Nest with a score in mind, they have missed the point. A fivesome with music, beers, lights, and golf to cap off a great day is the perfect compliment to a resort built for a return trip. I am already itching for a return trip, if not for the Pub’s fried chicken alone!

Day Two

Our Cabot day ran late, but that was planned. As a result, two nights in Inverness and a drive to Ingonish the next day to make our 9:30AM tee time. Once again, awake for sunrise, but if you had to do it twice, the Atlantic Ocean is surely in the top ten places to do so.

Our struggles did not end with flight delays and cancellations. With a rental car shortage, prices were either too high, or there were no rental cars at all. Turo is an excellent option for budgeting or a rental car shortage, until the host cancels on you. Somehow, we had two cancellations, and there was only one car in our price range: a lime green Honda Civic coup. Three dudes over 6 feet with three travel golf bags made for a tight squeeze (spoiler alert: we made it, but barely).

Aside from the golf, Cabot Trail is an amazing part of the world, let alone Canada, so the two and a half hour drive was enhanced by some of the best scenery rubber wheels can get you. For my money, the Icefield Parkways takes the cake, but the combination of oceans and mountains makes the Cabot Trail a comfortable #2.

Cape Breton Highlands Links

Let’s make this short and sweet: anyone who goes to Cabot Links and misses Cape Breton Highlands Links has completely butchered their golf trip. Everything about Cape Breton Highlands Links is truly marvellous. Make no mistake, this is not second fiddle to Cabot Links. In reality, there is a really solid argument this is Canada’s best golf course as well, and potentially the best on Cape Breton.

The style of golf is very obviously different from the start. As is the demographic, for better or worse. Ingonish is noticeably older than Inverness; makes sense: Cabot Links, established in 2012, is seventy years younger than Stanley Thompson’s Highlands Links. Interestingly, the golf is of similar quality even with the differences. Rumpled, lay-of-the-land fairways are in-store, although Highlands Links is more parkland than links these days regardless of what the name says.

In reality, describing Cape Breton Highlands Links is like trying to describe why your favourite hiking trail is the way it is. Yes, the “mountains and ocean” golf course blending both, further enhanced by the river in the middle is extraordinary. But there are truly indescribable holes; perhaps that is why it is such a special golf course.

By my count, no less than seven world-class holes reside on this seaside property. This is more than either Cabot Links or Cliffs, although the lows are lower at Highlands Links than either. The seven world-class holes:

  • 2nd hole, par 4: 447 yards
  • 4th hole, par 4: 324 yards
  • 5th hole, par 3: 164 yards
  • 7th hole, par 5: 570 yards
  • 8th hole, par 4: 319 yards
  • 15th hole, par 5: 540 yards
  • 16th hole, par 5: 460 yards
The insane terrain at the 16th

In each instance, the reasoning for why each hole produces such a spirited sense of perfection is different. On the 2nd and 8th, for example, blind tee shots over a ridgeline, but the 2nd tumbles down the hillside to the right, whereas the 8th is drivable with a straight drive. On the back-to-back par 5’s at the 15th and 16th, the 15th tumbles down the hillside, using the topography to create a diagonal decision. The 16th goes directly uphill, abrasively fighting the contours and slopes. The collection of holes at Highlands Links is only slightly handicapped by the stretch from the 9th to the 12th, which is weaker in contrast and feels very tame. The opening and closing stretches are truly epic and considerably better than the rest of golf in Canada. The middle… well, not so much.

Granted, playing the golf course twice helped reveal much more. On the first spin around Highlands Links, a lot more questions than answers, and honestly, some mixed feelings in the group. There are some very unusual aspects of architecture displayed here, and even for the architecture enthusiasts, some rule-breakers out there. But the second spin revealed much more than the first.

The Journey Home

One of our friends from Cabot Links joined us for the second round at Cape Breton Highlands Links, a much-needed visit from an old friend who clearly is loving “island life.” With her drive back to Inverness, and our drive back to Halifax, we had to stop for dinner. One thing we noticed, is Cape Breton does not exactly have a lot of quick food options. In fact, we unfortunately went without coffee or breakfast prior to our opening round at Cape Breton Highlands Links, and lunch was less-than-spectacular at the Keltic Lodge.

A good final chapter on our Cape Breton journey was dinner in Beddeck, a shockingly wonderful little town I wish we could have spent more time in. Thomas McBroom’s Bell Bay resides in Baddeck, and while having heard mixed reviews, I have always wanted to play. But our food was not mixed reviews, a quaint little upscale dinner spot called The Freight Shed on the Great Bras D’Or.

Our time was limited, but we managed to pack in five rounds of golf, eleven hours of driving, three dinners, two lunches, zero breakfasts (oops), nine hours of sleep, and more in just about fifty-one hours total. To end, we stayed downtown Halifax, although our arrival time after two rounds of golf, five hours of driving, and dinner was long past midnight. A close-call missed flight and we were back in Toronto, day-dreaming about Cape Breton and replaying the rounds in our head for the days to come.

Author

  • Andrew Harvie

    Based in Toronto, but having lived in Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Arizona, and Texas, I have been lucky enough to see over 400 golf courses and counting!

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