This is a continuation of Part I: Cabot Barrens. To read the first half, click here.
Following the completion of Kyle Franz and Daniel Knight’s tour of Cabot Barrens, we returned to the previous World Woods clubhouse, now acting as Cabot’s on-site office until a more permanent solution is built, and switched SUV’s to head over to The 21, an innovative 21 hole golf course—comprised of The Ace, a short course, and a ten-hole course with anything from one-shot holes, to a three-shot long hole. Rather than Franz and Knight, Mike Nuzzo and Don Mahaffey, the visionaries behind the golf course, show us around.
Off the bat, I ask the duo, who are responsible for the highly celebrated and extremely exclusive Wolf Point, if they have more flexibility to be creative with concepts, shaping, and hole styles when par, score posting, and “normal” are not a part of the equation. Mahaffey smirks, “We have gotten pretty creative, people will have fun.” The ‘out of the box’ thinking is evident on the ten hole, bigger loop. The 3rd, a short par 3 sitting atop a fall off on the left, is so aggressive you wonder if it would ever be built on a bigger, full-length golf course (think Shinnecock Hills, but falling off the Rocky Mountains… is that hyperbolic?). That boldness is immediately followed up by the 4th, The 21’s only hole that would likely be defined as a par 5, with some of the most extreme micro contours and undulations I have ever seen.
I am getting ahead of myself, though, as the tour begins on The Ace, an eleven hole par 3 course that Mike Nuzzo says you could play with a putter if you wanted to. Even on the dramatic par 3, 5th, only 90 yards in length, there are teeing areas that allow the golfer to putt if they so choose.
Most of The Ace, the front ten on The 21, and the new driving range is where the original short course and the massive
wasteful circular range are. Stripped back, it reveals fruitful terrain with a sandy base, perfect for golf. Further, it will be enjoyed late into the night under the Florida sunset and the lights similarly to The Nest at Cabot Cape Breton. For fans of Wolf Point, the greens on the short course will not be as severe, but that is part of the design. At The 21, the greens are much smaller and as a result, the slopes will match the size, though they will provide enough interest to keep everyone engaged (I might be underselling it, slightly).
Perhaps more than any other golf course on property, The 21 is unique in not only the concepts, but the number of holes, the dynamic, operationally (lights!!), and the vibe. Play the front, play The Ace, or combine them both. A match? Sure. Stroke play? I guess. Putters only? On The Ace, yes! The best part of projects like this is they allow the flexibility to do (almost) anything you want, and with exciting architectural concepts, like the aforementioned 3rd and 4th on the ten hole loop, the 5th on The Ace, or the green surrounds on the opening on the short course, it will bring excitement, laid-back vibes, and a chill place to enjoy the day.
The tour concludes on
Rolling Cabot Oaks, the used-to-be Augusta homage from Tom Fazio, which has now been taken over by the trio of Kyle Franz, Mike Nuzzo, and Golf Club Atlas/Golf‘s Ran Morrissett following the departure of Riley Johns & Keith Rhebb due to scheduling conflicts.
Unlike Pine Barrens, I never played Rolling Oaks, although friends spoke highly of it. What I do know, however, is the property is impressive. The reputation was always Pine Barrens was the sandy, brawny golf course over gently rolling terrain, if occasionally flatter, while Rolling Oaks had the heaving landscape, rising and falling constantly in an impressive feat for Florida. Still, Cabot Oaks benefits from the rolling topography through the mossy oaks and distinct vegetation. For a property to have two different courses with naturally separate identities is a pretty good head start to success, and no doubt Cabot is benefitting off the previous vision, but perfecting it in their own way.
Given the landscape and how much more it (*cough* *cough*) rolls, the architecture is much more subdued than the flamboyant, dramatic Barrens. Even more than the landscape benefits, Cabot Citrus Farms will have two very distinct golf courses that will surely cause a debate. The two previous iterations really only had Pine Barrens coming out ahead; Rolling Oaks was a cult classic, a favourite of some who were vocal it was better than Barrens, but those people were rare. Moving forward, there will be a very passionate discussion on which is better. For those who sider with some Golf Club Atlas members who think Cabot Barrens might be too much—sensory overload, of sorts, which it has the potential to blow people back—Cabot Oaks is here to ease those sorrows. If Barrens is the uncle that tells you about his trip to Cancun at Christmas as soon as he walks in the door (albeit, they are pretty wicked stories) without you asking, Oaks is the aunt that sits in the corner, observing the room, and chimes in with the most poetic phrase heard all night at the right time. They are different, yet equally deserve a seat at the table. With a table full of quiet aunts, nobody would say pass the butter because everyone would be silent; a table full of Barrens and you would be tired of hearing about the endless dramatic stories that seem to upstage the previous one. A ying to a yang, and they balance out nicely.
Specifically, the laid-back vibe comes in the bunkering scheme, which relies less on the sandy, massive expanse, and more on strategically placed hazards. I count 30 bunkers, although some of those massive exposed bunkers do bleed over from Barrens and contribute to some of Oaks. Even so, the total acreage of the bunkering array is far less, and thus, less in your face.
This is the benefit of a better property, too, and one that the trio takes full hold of. On the par 4, 13th, for example, the flipped 14th hole on Rolling Oaks, the routing tumbles down to a green tucked next to a water hazard, sans bunkers. In fact, the 8th, what looks to be an excellent one-shot hole, 12th, a long par 4, and the aforementioned 13th are all bunker-less, but that speaks measures to how good the terrain is in that specific corner of the property is. Rumpled, rolling, varied, it is all there. Oh, and I guess Franz & Nuzzo’s prowess does not hurt, either. Morrissett has joined the project as an advisor, similar to Geoff Shackleford at Rustic Canyon or George Behto at Sleepy Hollow, and it is safe to say he has seen his fair share to put the finishing touches on anything conceptual.
Ace and 21 aside, I am most excited to see Oaks come through the dirt. Not because I do not think Barrens will be great—because as my 18 hole walkthrough in February proved, it will be—but because I played Barrens before. The 4th, 10th, 12th, 14th, and 15th are ~roughly~ the same as before, with some minor adjustments. For me, Oaks is brand new. I do not have to go into the experience thinking about the old and judging it against the new; something I fear others will do at both courses, and nostalgia will take hold, rather than evaluating what is here now.
At Oaks, the plan is adventurous, exciting, and wanderlust, venturing to the drinking pond, the hills, the sandy expanse. It takes us anywhere, everywhere, and somehow, all at once. We do not return after nine (granted, after ten), and there are numerous crossovers to find the best holes possible. In some respect, Oaks is the boutique course: Sunningdale’s New to Old, Winged Foot’s East to West, and so forth. If you ask the locals at those respective clubs, they prefer that. For the tourist with one round, they are going to the Old and the West and now the Barrens, but I suspect “come for Barrens, stay for Oaks” will echo across the resort akin to Cape Breton, where you come for Cliffs, and stay for Links as it reveals itself and its layers over time. Both excellent, with different reasons to love each, and is that not the perfect resort formula?
Individually, there are standout holes to be found. Like Barrens, the opening hole is a brilliant introduction to the routing, with a “S” shape dogleg right as suggested by the three bunkers. Interestingly, playing to the outside left corner will be preferred… from the right, the big bunker will block the slightlines. Playing to the outside corner of doglegs is straight out of William Flynn’s playbook, and one of the reasons why Shinnecock Hills is so tantalizingly difficult and brilliant.
The 4th, a good middle length par 4 with some of Barrens sandy escape bleeding over, has a “Y” shape bunker running down the middle, separating the left from the right fairway, and the green and its subsequent fairway on its own island. In fact, the stretch beginning on the 5th, continuing with the long, gently bending 5th and the dramatic, uphill drivable 6th is excellent. The drama’s met with an interlude at the 7th, a bunker-less long 4 that will ask golfers to avoid trees (yes, trees! They exist in modern architecture!). The tee shot is not overly tight, but missing the fairway will ask the golfer to shape shots to get home in regulation. The aforementioned 8th is excellent, and the par 5, 9th, one of the few holes that directly reminds me of Augusta National, brings us back to the natural pond that sits between the 10th and 18th.
On the back, 13 is a highlight, although immediately conquered by one of two early-Instagram highlights at the par 3, 14th, playing over a sinkhole to a dramatic green perched up above the front. It is no 16 at Cabot Cliffs, but that has an ocean. Regardless, the concept is similar: hit it here, or pay, and it is certainly dramatic in making itself known. Three holes later, the 17th might upstage the 14th for social media’s darling, with a drop-shot par 3 over a meandering water feature akin to Rae’s Creek feeding from the natural lake that splits 10 and 18, backed by a hillside. It is the perfect penultimate hole, with long views down the uphill, water-logged 18th; a grand finish to end.
It can be difficult to really grasp what you are looking at, but that is because Oaks is slightly behind Barrens in shaping (my guess is it requires a lot less earthwork, so Barrens seems ahead, but in reality, they are about the same place). Flying my drone around, Fazio’s old layout still dominates the layout. On the ground, thick topsoil awaits those who trudge through, especially as I wheel the ATV around to find places to take photos. Nevertheless, walking (or driving) through the trees provides a wild contrast against the open, expansive Barrens, and one I think the resort has already gotten right. In the 90s, the vibe was Augusta (Oaks) and Pine Valley (Barrens). Cabot’s two new golf courses might not be direct homages anymore—for the better, I say—but they do share elements. They continue to have their own identities while sharing the same property. That is a home run in itself, and one I cannot wait to experience with a ball and a tee.