Review: Cabot Cape Breton (Cliffs)

Reading Time: 11 minutes


  • Cliffs course
  • Inverness, Nova Scotia
  • Public — Resort
  • Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw (2016)
  • 1st in Canada (Beyond The Contour)

Expectations are a funny thing. Cabot Cliffs is, and has been since opening in 2016, the unanimous #1 golf course in this country. With such title, the expectations are lofty, especially following a morning round at Cabot Links, the 5th best golf course in Canada. Does it really get much better than that?

The opening hole is a fairly beefy par 5 at 581 yards, but with a gentle tee shot, it is a welcoming introduction to the golf course.

With firm conditions and a potential southbound wind, the possibility for a long drive and second shot looms, but most days, a layup is what is in store.

This is an interesting green to start, and with a ton of movement towards the back edge, I would likely want a full wedge, or at least something I can try and put some spin on. The front bunker is far enough back that it most likely will not be in play, but a front pin and firm, downwind conditions could mean that the play is just directly over the bunker letting it release down.

After a straightforward opening par 5, the second is perhaps the best hole on property, and I would venture that it is the best middle length par 4 in Canada. Atop a dune, or a hill (not sure), the tee shot tumbles down into a valley to a “Y” shaped fairway.

The central knoll, masquerading as a Principal’s Nose bunker complex, is what dictates which part of the Y one wants to play to. When the pin is left, the left side is better; on the right, and you must play up the right. No other hole in this country during my travels better exemplifies the use of width, angles, and strategy like the 2nd at Cliffs.

From the ideal position in the left fairway to a left flag
Over to the right about 15 yards, and the view is obstructed

I am not quite sure I fully understand the 398 yard par 4, 3rd, but that does not necessarily mean I did not like it. On the contrary, I feel it is a fine golf hole, though one where the split fairway is confusing.

On the left, a more difficult tee shot gives way to a flatter approach shot, and certainly a better angle to the back right flag we played. From the lower right portion, an easier tee shot, and slightly uphill, but a clear view in. From the left, the bunker potentially intrudes the line of sight, especially to anything on the left.

I reckon this hole is one that reveals itself over multiple plays. To a left pin, would the right fairway make sense? The back right flag is obviously more accessible from the left. Maybe that’s the thought behind this hole: no direct route is the obvious answer strategically.

The first of six (!) par 3’s greets golfers at the 4th, with a bit of a curveball. The right green is 154 yards from the back, whilst the left, or the more common one, is 221 yards.

I would say that other than the 70 yard difference, the right (upper) green is more difficult, whereas the lower left green is longer, but balls funnel down.

After a very solid opening four holes (even with some minor criticisms, like a double green on 4), the 402 yard par 4, 5th is the first of a handful of poor holes, at least in my opinion.

I find the tee shot to be fairly one-dimensional, where great “Cape” holes do not have that feeling. To cover the bunker from the back, a 275 yard carry downhill. While this seems like a lot, it felt like the only real option off the tee. The tee shot that would lay up was more uncomfortable, and the width when cresting the hill is minimal for the strategies of the Cape. Truthfully, a good Cape hole can have as much width on the outside as possible, but I did not get that feeling here.

This is a very attractive hole nonetheless, but in contrast to the Harbour/Cape Hole on Cabot Links, much weaker in its integrity. The approach plays into a very natural green site, tucked into the bottom near the Ocean. Anything up the right will feed in, so bailing right is not a bad idea.

I had heard mixed feelings on the 186 yard par 3, 6th—titled “Punchbowl”—but I liked this hole and its flexibility. True, any criticisms that the front do not play like a Punchbowl are correct. When the pin is up front, it plays more like a traditional dunes par 3. However, when it is in back half, the elements of the punchbowl comes alive. To me, the variety in day-to-day play and how you would attack this hole is one of the reasons this hole gets two thumbs up from me.

The green, tucked into the dunes, is one of the better natural sites I have seen.

The routing is rather playful here, working its way from the flats high above the ocean, down to the beach on the 5th, and then back up to the highlands on the par 5, 7th across a canyon. This is a rather difficult tee shot, with bunkering cut across the hillside. There is room left.

At 589 yards, most, if not all golfers will layup.

The green complex, tucked into the hillside, is photo-worthy.

The 8th is the second of back-to-back par 5’s, and truthfully, is about as much a connector hole as possible. 549 yards on the card playing downhill, I got the same feeling as Sheep Ranch at Bandon (also a C&C), where I just got up and hit it as hard as I could with little consequences. This does not automatically mean bad hole, but it does mean that it feels watered down.

This is a well-done green complex, with the back end built up enough to be an infinity green.

This is a big green, but the bunker on the left dictates play. So much so, that a running draw is essentially required to hold the green and avoid the bunkers in the back.

I am not in the camp that believes great golf courses must have a short par 3, but I can think of far more great golf courses with one than without. The 126 yard par 3, 9th is quite the short one-shot hole, even if the routing is slightly janky to get here, crossing over the 2nd tee and walking backwards.

I loved the green on the 9th, and worth mentioning, that view is spectacular.

Heading back to the 1st tee, the par 5, 10th completes the front ten holes. Worth noting, this 557 yard par 5 is the third par 5 in four holes—that is a lot of par for most golfers, but for good players, a crazy stretch of golf to score.

There really is nothing quite like playing oceanside, and when the wind blows, even better. As a result of the constant winds, the 1st and 10th are executed quite well, running in opposite directions. If one is downwind (and potentially reachable as a result), 10 is directly into the wind. On the day we played, the 10th was directly downwind, turning this usual three-shot hole into a reachable par 5.

Yet another very pretty green-site, I like how it narrows in the back and wings out in the front, giving funky pin locations in the back, front left, and front right. If the pin is in the middle, that is the green light pin. Everything else could cause issues if the player is not attentive.

Returning back to the 1st tee, the 404 yard par 5, 11th starts the journey back into the highlands that the 7th teased.

I do like a good uphill approach that uses the hillside to attempt to disguise the green complex. Here, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw do a nice job, and visually, it becomes difficult to gauge where the green starts, and where the edges are.

At 245 yards playing downhill, the par 3, 12th is the most perplexing hole on the golf course. Truthfully, I find this shot rather silly. On long 3’s, for most people, a running approach is the most probable way to play the hole. Here, the slopes on the right (where one would think to play to) bring the ball to the bunker short. The left bailout area is lower than the green complex, making pitches more difficult, but manageable. Either way, it felt like a dogleg par 3, where the probability of hitting the green was minimal. In fact, I would go as far to say this is no different than a Nicklaus or McBroom hole in terms of how I would hit this shot: the Hail Mary from range.

The 398 yard par 4, 13th is one of the more interesting holes on property, and certainly one that will likely have golfers scratching their head.

This is one of the most unique strategic golf holes in Canada. This benign-looking dogleg right does not ask the usual strategy of “left or right.” Instead, the question is: how much do you want to see? If you prefer to see the flag, laying back to a distance you can see the flag from is the play. If you want a shorter iron or wedge in, driver all day, although you will likely be blocked by the hump in the front. Be forewarned: the slope is nasty, and any balls landing on it have a chance of ending up in a less-than-ideal spot.

The green is somewhere up there!

Now high up in the property, the 188 yard par 3, 14th is a personal favourite view. The discussion will likely come on the ocean, but this is one of the better looks on the golf course, thanks to an attractive green cut into the hillside, and a bunker complex/rock outcropping combo.

The 2nd is the obvious standout at this point, but the 560 yard par 5, 15th gives it.a run for the title of best hole at Cliffs. A split fairway, divided by bunkers separating the upper-left and lower-right, if the first obstacle.

A good hole sets up a severely downhill approach shot, and one I venture even middle length hitters can attempt to get home in two. The dilemma: a bunker in the centre some 40 yards back from the middle is perfectly situated for the ideal shot coming home.

This is just a stunning green complex beautifully guarded by bunkers, and sitting so elegantly into the natural slope of the terrain.

At 176 yards, there is no question that the par 3, 16th is extraordinary. This par 3, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, is among the most dramatic holes in the world, and without question in the conversation for the most idyllic spot for a golf hole in Canada, alongside Greywolf’s 6th and Banff Spring’s 4th.

There is a question of the merits of such hole, however, given the lower right portion of the green, and how difficult it is to keep balls on this green. Is it too much? Perhaps, but I do think this is a hole they had to build given the location of the “Cliffs” course, and certainly considering the photogenic nature of the hole these days (is there a more photographed hole… anywhere?). The green is below, and open for discussion. For what it’s worth, the best par 3 on Cliffs comes at the par 3, 9th, and I think 16 is 3rd in the group of six, but I understand why this hole is the way it is.

The 17th is in a similar class as 16, and as a result of the previous hole and the name of the golf course, I get why the 331 yard par 4, penultimate hole is the way it is. Nonetheless, I find this hole to lack strategy, with the only reason to lay back being a lack of confidence in ones own skill. At no point does this hole entice the golfer to not go for the green, and as a result, I find this to basically be a long par 3 instead of a short/drivable par 4.

An intimidating shot no doubt, although far more room left than it looks. I happened to make eagle here hitting the worst drive of the group way left, so you really have more room than you think!

From the top of the hill, the famous putter shot awaits for those who either layup, or mishit driver. Well worth dropping a ball and trying it as well.

Finishing off the round at the #1 golf course in Canada, a pleasant 532 yard par 5 along the coast.

In contrast to the 10th, which feels very similar to the finishing hole, the gully comes into play on the layup more than the approach.

To close it out, a beautifully situated natural green-site rests at the base of the famous Cabot Cliffs patio/chair setup. A nice way to close out a day.

There is no question that Cabot Cliffs is an excellent golf course. Is it Canada’s best golf course? Not in my book. The 5th, 12th, 16th, and 17th are not my cup of tea, and I found the collection of six par 5’s to be too much to be considered the best golf course in what I consider a strong top 10. In fact, I could likely put together a stronger argument for outside the top 5 than inside, but alas.

Regardless of any criticisms I can fling at Cliffs, this is a bucket list course at an exceptional resort, and one every Canadian golfer must make eventually. I understand why people think Cliffs is #1, as it competes with Banff Springs for Canada’s prettiest golf course, but I might choose the original at the resort before Cliffs.

Have you played Cabot Cliffs? What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below.


  • 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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