INVERNESS, NOVA SCOTIA | Cabot Links is only one golf course, mind you, and a golf course still under construction. But the Cape Breton layout is soon coming on-line, with 10 holes opening on Canada Day (July 1) and the rest by next spring. And when that happens, the track, being developed in part by Bandon Dunes visionary Mike Keiser, will make a visit to the maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island even more of a golfing imperative.
None of that is to say that there already isn’t some very good golf to be had there. Highland Links on Cape Breton at the northern tip of Nova Scotia, for example, is a Stanley Thompson gem constructed in the late 1930s that runs along the Atlantic Ocean and through forests of white spruce. I particularly like the par-5 sixth, which hugs the Clyburn River and is regularly ranked among the best golf holes in the world. And I love its name. Thompson dubbed it “Mucklemouth Meg,” after a loud-mouthed woman of Scottish lore, due to the yawning bunkers on either side of the green.
Almost due south, just outside the modest town of Baddeck, is a newer Cape Breton layout that turns some very learned golfing heads as well – Bell Bay. The name Bell comes from inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who lived and worked on his summer estate just across a bay from the course Canadian Thomas McBroom designed in the late 1990s. Golfers catch glimpses of Bell’s old workshop from the second fairway as well as the 18th tee – and gaze across the vast Bras d’Or, which is Cape Breton’s inland sea, and the majestic boats that cut across it. Some holes duck over hills and into hollows, forcing players to hit approach shots over gorges and ravines – and allowing them to experience the woods there as much as the water.
To the west on Prince Edward Island, there are a number of very solid tracks from among the 32 that have been built there. One of the best is the Links at Crowsbush, another McBroom design with several holes routed by a vast beach and in and around stands of birches and firs.
Just as good is Dundarave, created by American architects Mike Hurdzan and Dana Fry. It gives new meaning to the term “parklands” course because Dundarave truly feels as if you are playing in a park. A national park, that is, of almost indescribable beauty. I am so enthralled after I draw my tee shot on the par-4 eighth, a short, well-bunkered dogleg with water all the way down the left side and behind the green, that I holler “O Canada!” As my voice echoes in the pines, a clam digger working a nearby sand bar looks up in wonder.
To be fair, no one is going to be holding major championships on those two layouts, and they each have a hole or two that could stand some tweaking. But generally speaking, the courses are as fun as they are visually compelling. And they project a feel as comforting as PEI itself, a low-key, pastoral isle where churches hold weekly haddock fries, and lobster pots are stacked on lawns. Hay, barley and corn flourish in fertile fields of brick red soil, and so do several varieties of potatoes, the province’s most famous and delectable agricultural export. Vegetable stands abound, lining many of the often-empty island roads and existing entirely on the honor system.
They call PEI the gentle island, and Nova Scotia boasts a similar ethos. They are calm and quiet, drop-dead gorgeous in a natural sort of way and reminiscent of kinder, perhaps better times.
“I wish I had a dollar for everyone who ever told me it reminds him of his hometown 50 years ago,” a local golfer opines after a round, as we pick through a bowl of tasty Prince Edward Island mussels, which are served complimentary at many 19th holes. “People love it here for that.”
That is certainly part of what makes me like the Maritimes so much. The golf, too. And I can’t help but believe that love is going to grow much stronger when Cabot Links finally comes to be. Because of what the course there will offer, and because of the ways it will force others to elevate their golf offerings even higher.
I feel sure of that when I walk the property at Cabot Links, which is named after the Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto, the first European adventurer to come to North America (and who the English-speaking world long ago took to calling John Cabot). With me is the man behind the project, Toronto entrepreneur Ben Cowan-Dewar. Cowan-Dewar put together the deal for the 200 acres on which the course is being laid out, a complicated process that involved 11 different parcels and included an old coal mine locals had worked for years. He is also the one who brought in Keiser and hired Canadian architect Rod Whitman to do the course design.
Cowan-Dewar completed the land acquisitions in 2007 and began course construction a year later. A former associate of Pete Dye, Whitman laid out the track between the shore and the scenic, two-lane roadway called the Cabot Trail that cuts through the town of Inverness (pop. 1,800). The mix of holes is enticing, the fairways wide and the greens ample. The sandy soil drains just as links land should, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence is visible from every hole.
The plan is for Cabot Trail to have accommodations for golfers by the time the golf course opens in the spring of 2012 as well as a pro shop and clubhouse with the usual amenities, including first-rate food and drink. It will be a big day for its backers when all that is done. And an even bigger day for Canadian golf, and the people who want to play there.