INVERNESS, NOVA SCOTIA | Ben Cowan-Dewar has long been drawn to golf. As a 5-year-old, he was sketching his own designs of golf holes on pieces of paper. Soon, he was thinking of becoming a course architect, and he was only 10 when he and his stockbroker father built an actual hole on their farm outside Toronto.
One year later, Cowan-Dewar began organizing golf trips in and out of Canada for members of his family.
So it is really not that surprising that Cowan-Dewar, now 32 years old and the father of two young children, is deeply immersed as an adult in the royal and ancient game. As the head of a tour business called Golf Travel Impresarios. As one of the fellows running Golf Club Atlas, the wildly popular website and forum dedicated to golf course architecture. And as the co-owner and founder of the much-anticipated Cabot Links golf course in this small Canadian fishing village on Cape Breton.
Cowan-Dewar first visited the Cabot Links property seven years ago, in December 2004, when he was living in Toronto. And he was so enthralled with the land’s potential that he returned a few weeks later with the notable Canadian architect Rod Whitman.
Cowan-Dewar was not the first to have considered the possibilities of building a course there, as designers such as Jack Nicklaus had checked it. But the Ontario native was the only one who got beyond “ooohing and aaahing” over the scenic site along the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
He led the acquisition of land, buying 13 parcels totaling some 180 acres over two years. He hired Whitman to design a links-style track and took care of the permitting and planning. In addition, Cowan-Dewar brought in Mike Keiser of Bandon Dunes fame as his partner, giving the project instant credibility in golf circles – and giving him a very savvy person with whom he could work as well as a nice infusion of cash.
Last summer, Cabot Links opened 10 holes for public play, and the full 18 is scheduled to come online in June. And Cowan-Dewar has undeniably aced it, for the finished product is a delightful track with a beguiling mix of holes that compels golfers to employ a more traditional ground game. It is as much a challenge to play as it is a treat, and it seems entirely appropriate that it lies in a province whose name translates into “New Scotland,” especially when players consider the pot bunkers that proliferate as well as the fescue fairways and greens and the ways golfers have to be creative with so many of their shots as they use every club in their bags. The water of the Gulf and the wind that blows off of it evoke the Old World, to be sure, and so does the sight of Sea Wolf Island just off shore, looming beyond the layout just like the Ailsa Craig at Turnberry.
Cowan-Dewar describes the feeling of seeing and playing the completed Cabot Links as “surreal,” and that emotion is easy to understand given how arduous the building process has been. For several years, he commuted to Inverness from
Toronto, leaving his young wife, Allie, behind for days at a time as he began to put his plan in motion. Then, in early 2008, they moved to this rather isolated outpost with a shade more than 2,000 residents, Allie pregnant with their first child, and set about building a life together there as well as a golf course.
“As with any new venture, there were many risks, and many times I was not sure how things were going to work out,” Cowan-Dewar explains. “It could be daunting, but it always felt better whenever I was out on the land itself, smelling the salt air, looking across the Gulf and watching the golf course start to take shape. It was amazing piece of property, and I felt pretty confident that the course we were building was going to be pretty good.”
In many ways, it feels like the end of something as Cabot Links opens for business and golfers start to play the course. But Cowan-Dewar knows it is also only the beginning. “It took a lot of hard work to get here, but there is still so much more to be done, to make sure this is an exceptional property and that it stays that way for many years to come,” he says.
There is also the matter of a second course, to be designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore on 430 acres of land Cowan-Dewar and Keiser bought just down the road from Cabot Links.
“Mike and I have talked about getting started on that track if we do 20,000 rounds on Cabot Links next year,” Cowan-Dewar says. “If the demand is there, we will do it.”
Clearly, the game is still drawing him in.