Ben Crenshaw was playing his and his partner Bill Coore’s stunning rethinking of Pinehurst No. 2 the day after The Masters when he turned to a reporter in his foursome and mentioned that there’s a lot of buzz about the Cabot Links course in Inverness, Nova Scotia. He’s right. There is. But there should be as much buzz about Rod Whitman, the designer. He prefers not to call himself a golf course “architect” because he doesn’t have a degree in the subject.
Cabot Links promises to be extraordinary, situated as it is between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. The ground heaves, the ball will bounce, and Canada will have its only authentic links when the course opens. Ten holes will open July 1, Canada Day, and the entire course will open next year.
Whitman should be getting a lot more attention for his work, but then that’s always been the case with the iconoclast, who prefers to take himself to the woods in his native Alberta for a few weeks, camp out, hunt, and be alone rather than attend cocktail parties to promote his work. He’s a genius at moving ground and a self-confessed hopeless case when it comes to marketing himself. But he simply doesn’t care about those aspects of the business, because he has never cared to think of it as a business.
The guy is an artist, that is. His idea of a break while working on the Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club in Quilchena, B.C., with Richard Zokol and Armen Suny, was to walk into a local saloon in this area reminiscent of the wild west, take off his ten-gallon hat – it looked like one, anyway – and mingle with the locals. He thinks of what he does as playing in the dirt, not sitting at a desk and employing CAD (computer-aided design).
None of this is surprising for folks who know more about Whitman’s background. His first job on a course was on the maintenance crew at the Waterwood National Golf Club in Huntsville, Tex., for Coore. He went on to work for Pete Dye as construction supervisor at the then-new Austin Country Club. Playing in the dirt, he got an opportunity to design his first course in Ponoka, Alta., where he sculpted the Wolf Creek course. It has been considered a superb example of his minimalist philosophy since it opened in 1983, and was the site for many Canadian Tour events.
Whitman was getting his hands dirty and his shoes muddy, and he didn’t want to stop. He worked for Crenshaw and Coore on the design and construction on the acclaimed Friar’s Head course on Long Island in 2002. It wasn’t long before Crenshaw advised Zokol to consider Whitman for the golf retreat he was planning in the highlands of the B.C. interior. Zokol had played the PGA Tour for some 20 years, won twice, and was clear about what he liked and didn’t like. He liked rugged golf that could be played on the ground. He liked options and strategy. He hated one-dimensional golf. Zokol had great respect for Crenshaw, and so he contacted Whitman.
But when Whitman first saw the property Zokol had in mind for a course, he wondered, “Huh?” The property was on the side of a hill. Whitman, never one to hold back his views, asked Zokol if the plan was to ski or golf. But he also didn’t mind a challenge, and so he got to traipsing the ground high above Nicola Lake, where the views seem to extend to forever. He saw ways to get golfers to flat spots where they could play golf rather than ski. He along with Zokol and Suny saw massive greens and bunkers and some fairways 150 yards wide.
Sagebrush followed. Golf Digest named it the top Canadian course in 2009. Now, Whitman’s Cabot Links is all but ready across the country. Still, only golf insiders know about Whitman. Ask Canadians to name the country’s top architect of earlier days, and if they know their golf history, they will come up with Stanley Thompson as the No. 1 guy. True.
Modern architects, whoops, designers? Canadians, and anybody else who ventures to the country, will mention Doug Carrick, Tom McBroom and, perhaps, Graham Cooke. Those in the know will mention Jeff Mingay, a sharp young man who worked with Whitman on Sagebrush and also Cabot Links. But Whitman himself?
No chance. Sure, he has a website now, but that’s the extent of his marketing and media strategy. It’s ridiculous to even term his efforts as constituting a “strategy.” His only “strategy” is to do what Ben Hogan did with a golf ball. Dig it out of the dirt, that is.
Whitman digs his courses out of the dirt. Golfers who play them also dig them. “I get charged up just walking on a property,” he says.