Review: Cabot Cape Breton (Links)

Information:

  • Links course
  • Inverness, Nova Scotia
  • Public — Resort
  • Rod Whitman (2012)
  • 5th in Canada (4th in Canada, Beyond The Contour)

On a trip that included both Cape Breton Highland Links and Cabot Cliffs, I was most excited for Cabot Links. I have been lucky to see all of Rod Whitman’s Canadian work (and even the ones less people know about, like small renovations at Lacombe), but not Cabot Links… yet. And after numerous delays due to the Atlantic Bubble (thanks, COVID-19), I had finally arrived at Cabot Cape Breton.

As far as I know, Rod Whitman spent a lot of time on property, shaping and crafting most of the landscape. Truthfully, the site which Links sits on is not truly authentic links land. Rather, an abandoned coal mine-turned-linksland. If there was any doubt on Rod Whitman’s talents, they are happily put to rest after the 18th hole. In fact, the landforms look so natural, that I am still skeptical about that tidbit to this day!

Regardless, we were first off at Cabot Links, our first golf course of the trip. 7:46AM—here we go.

Opening the golf course, the 540 yard par 5, 1st is a softer introduction to the golf course, but truthfully, Rod likes it like that. At both Wolf Creek’s in Alberta, a short 4 awaits (the Old doglegs right, the Links to the left). Sagebrush and Blackhawk both feature uphill holes, with the former being a par 5, and the latter featuring a short 4. When Cabot Revelstoke opens, the same will hold true, although it will play much closer to the original par 4, 1st at Links, currently played as the 10th.

The best part about the opening hole here? It looks rather benign, with a fairly straightforward second shot… or so it seems.

Upon further inspection, that bunker “short right” of the green disguises a collection area, where balls will funnel down. Not a terribly difficult up and down, but one that gets the hands involved early. A sneaky feature off the bat, with an excellent green to boot. Here. We. Go.

The routing has switched a couple times, but we now arrive at the Biarritz on the par 3, 2nd. At 247 yards, this will be all most have. A good version of C.B. Macdonald’s template, and very unexpected from Rod Whitman!

I must admit, I am a little interested to know why this is talked about as one of the better par 3’s at Cabot Links. While a good long par 3 (especially in contrast to the holes it borders), it is just a Biarritz, after all. Nonetheless, a strong version of an iconic template.

The 330 yard par 4, 3rd is one of Canada’s great drive and pitch holes, and a strategic marvel. Two grassy knolls, one in the layup zone, and one near greenside, dictate strategy around the marshland on this bunker-less par 4.

This hole is beautifully simple on paper, yet difficult to execute property. On either the layup or trying to push it as close to the green as possible, the grassy knoll short left will make anything from the left side difficult coming in. Ideally, those keep it up the right for a better angle, especially when the pin is on the left. In a recent debate with a friend, I argued any pin on the right would be driver as it gives you more room, and anything on the left would be a layup. To me, this difference in strategies depending on the pin is what makes this such a great short 4.

Heading inland and back towards the town, the 450 yard par 4, 4th is a strong golf hole with a slew of bunkers in the fairway.

Truthfully, only the bunkers you see left and right come in play. The one in the middle and the other two in the background are greenside. Together, they all blend together and create some visual tastiness, but do not directly affect play on the tee shot. On the approach shot, however, the greenside bunkers definitely come into play, while the centreline bunker is a pretty good aiming line to the middle of the green from the middle of the fairway.

Also note the cameo from The Annex, which we were told was a good restaurant (although did not have time to visit, Whit’s got us!). Intentional or not, Cabot’s HQ in Toronto is located directly next to The Annex in Yorkville.

Moving forward, the 5th is an idyllic par 3 tucked into the corner of the property. While close to the town, it feels hidden and remote. “The vibes” are a welcomed addition to the 178 yard three-shot hole.

The green complex is so good here, with a central knob dictating putts and creating some unique putting opportunities. Whitman is at his best when his greens are sporadic and random, often producing head-scratching moments. In the modern game, nobody builds greens like him.

From the town, to the dunes tucked away, to the harbour on the 465 yard par 4, 6th. From a drama perspective, the 6th will be the first “wow” moment for most. Rightfully so, this Cape style par 4 around Inverness Harbour is pure class.

The view from the tee on the 6th

Unlike the 5th at Cabot Cliffs, there is no real ability to cut the corner. Instead, golfers hugging the left will be treated to a slightly easier approach shot in. From the right, the golfer fights the aggressive tilt to the left, increasing the difficulty of getting the ball close.

It is a subtle difference, and one that would reveal itself on multiple plays, but the small details around the greens at Links is the difference maker for me. At Cliffs, the way the ball bounces around the greens is fairly predictable. Around Links, small detail makes Links feel much more authentic to the cause of links golf, and as a result, plays more interesting.

Following the introduction to salt water on the Harbour Hole, the 192 yard par 3, 7th brings the golfer out to the coastline. Truthfully, this is a hole I would like another crack at. Visually, it is difficult to figure out exactly what is happening, and as a result, the first spin around is dizzying. The green complex is the highest, however, with lots of movement off the left.

Slightly more is revealed walking up to the green, but there are secrets in this dirt only multiple plays can speak to.

The second of three par 5’s comes at the 580 yard 8th, now flanking the Atlantic Ocean down the left. To me, a weird tee shot visually, as the line is much more right than it looks. As part of the fun, the golfer crosses the fescue/marshy landscape that the 3rd played around.

This is an awesome/heroic second shot, playing way up over a topographic ridge. The bunker cut atop the hillside is a good sightline on this entirely blind second shot, and essentially, the bunker acts as the left goal post saying “don’t go left.” The hole joins up with the 13th near the green, so room right is not the issue.

The approach plays to the left flag of the double green shared with the 13th.

This is a green that needs to be seen to be believed, with so much movement, little spots for pins, and a ton of variety. I want to putt on this green for hours! Below is a drone overview showing the massive complex, measuring over 100 yards wide.

The 14th green (far left), with the 11th green in the background left, plus the star of the show: the par 5, 8th (closest pin near the bunker) and the par 4, 13th (background, right green)

Heading back to the main resort area, the 360 yard par 4, 9th plays off a central hillside that generally affects a large majority of the routing. In total, the 8th, 11th, and 13th all play into the hillside, while the 9th, 12th, and 14th all play off the hill. At the outward finishing hole, a slew of bunkers complicates a rather short par 4.

The approach seems fairly nondescript in the camera, but the detailing in the actual putting surface is truly A1.

Starting the inward nine, the exhilarating par 4 hole is better suited as the 10th hole than it was as the 1st. Unlike Banff Springs, the routing switch does not dramatically overhaul the flow of the golf course. In this instance, it actually improves: now, at the halfway mark, the downhill 385 yard par 4 welcomes the golfer back to the roller coaster that is Cabot Links following a slight reprieve on the 9th.

With a bunker cut exactly where you would want to land the ball to a green running away from the player, this is a sneaky difficult second shot on a relatively short hole.

Generalizations are a crutch for poor writing, but (*proceeds to generalize*) usually, long par 5’s are the best way to get the golfer from point A to point B. On great golf courses, the connector doesn’t feel like a skip on an album. Rather, great golf courses with a long 5 often feel like golf’s version of Stairway to Heaven, where it feels like the main draw. At the 620 yard par 5, 11th, the journey to get from the 10th green back to the central hillside for the 12th, 13th, and 14th is anything but pedestrian.

Those who challenge the right side (at the small trees) will shave some distance off and be better off coming in.

Following a downhill tee shot, the second shot heaves up the hillside back to the 9th tee. The bunker cut on the right side is a good right goal post. On my initial look, I thought maybe a good place to aim and the ball might trundle down towards the green, but that is not the ideal line.

As mentioned, right of the bunker is no bueno. Stay left!

A clever green complex slotted into the hillside, anything left will come back, while the right falls off to oblivion. This reminded me a bit of Streamsong and some of their green complexes, but in the best way possible. I had a blast putting around this green and trying to make it off the slope (which is possible!).

The 12th is a 450 yard par 4. If I had to pick a weak hole at Links, it would be here, but even still, a worthy reprieve in a very strong start to the back nine. There is nothing wrong with the 12th, but it fails to really follow up the momentum the 10th and 11th builds, and becomes an afterthought with the holes following. Still, the merits make sense: keeping up the left and away from the bunkers subtlety changes the angle into the green that it feeds balls slightly away from the golfer towards the back/right edge.

Word to Mac Boucher: there is no backstop here. Instead, the green slightly runs off towards the back. In fact, landing the approach from left edge is ideal.

Even at as the weakest hole at Links (in my opinion), there is a lot to like.

Speaking of things to like, the blind tee shot on the 440 yard 13th is one of those. With railway tie bunkers that seem to call back to Rod’s time under Pete Dye, the golfer picks his line. Hint: a lot more room left, as we come back to the double green with the 8th. I like the smallest bunker on the left, but if I remember correctly, you can take it even further left of that and be in position A.

This is such a great approach shot back into the hillside, with a green complex rippled with intrigue. In my opinion, the 13th side of the shared green is the better of two, but they are both strong. The undulations are severe on this side!

In the same way the 7th transported the golfer to the ocean, the par 3, 14th does the same. Except this time, the ocean is the star of the show on the drop shot 102 yard hole. This is a superb infinity green.

Beginning a two-hole stretch flanking the ocean on the left, the 413 yard par 4, 15th is a standout hole. The tee shot is fairly straightforward, with a slight bend to the left.

The approach shot is likely my personal favourite on the golf course, with a small entrance up front eventually expanding out in the back to create three distinct pin-able areas. The right side of the front portion banks hard left off the bunker. Subtle details around the green is the secret sauce at Cabot Links.

As if it could get much better, Whitman follows up a classy middle length par 4 with long par 4 on Canada’s short list for best-in-class. At 457 yards, the tee shot is slightly obstructed visually, with the bunkers hiding.

Up the right, two bunkers await the ideal line into the green. From the right side, the golfer can use the slopes up the right to feed balls down the hill and onto the surface. From the left, a more difficult shot must attack a slight false front, or at the very least, more head-on detailing in the front.

I guess I was not paying attention, but my picture on the 170 yard par 3, 17th focussed on the native plants in front of the green and not the hole. Oh well! Here’s the photo still. Unfortunate, as I find this green among the best on either golf course at Cabot Cape Breton. There are so many little pockets you could stick pins, with the back being particularly fun. For my money: the most underrated hole on property, and likely because it follows the best stretch on property.

On every Rod Whitman original, a long, challenging par 4 coming home awaits. The same is true at Cabot Links, with the uphill 475 yard par 4 closing the book on Links.

Hit it over the bunker on the blind final tee shot

Cresting the hill brings one last view, although much different than the rest of the excellent views. The setting is superb, where the 18th green feels like it is built into the restaurant patio!

Given the glass on the restaurant is plexiglass, I am sure it has been hit. However, it is a long way left, and the setting, at the base of people eating and next to the patio, is superb. A strong finishing hole, and one I think is overlooked for the same reasons 17 is.

Is Cabot Links the best golf course in Canada? If it is not, it is well in the conversation and in my opinion, a better candidate than its more famous brother. Rod Whitman’s details around the greens will be a topic of study for years to come, and the routing, draped over rolling terrain highlighted by the ocean, harbour, and the central hillside, is among the best in the world.

In a ten round split, I might lean 7-3 Links over Cliffs. It is truly that good, and a course I continue to dream about often. In fact, I am already planning a return trip!

One of the more interesting comparisons I was looking forward to was Cabot Links versus the Bandon courses. Whitman, who has yet to build his own golf course in the States, would more than hold his ground at Bandon, so I was excited to see a direct comparison. In my personal opinion, Links would be among the very best at Bandon Dunes, and likely only behind Pacific Dunes. This is modern golf at its absolute pinnacle.

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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