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Bandon Dunes East In Canada?

Cape Breton was always a remote, rus¬tic part of Canada that in golf circles was home to Highlands Links, the country’s great public course. Since it first opened more than 70 years ago, Highlands has been the lure for those searching for a course unlike any other. Rumpled fair¬ways like the surface of the moon. Wild, unrestrained greens. A sea-to-mountain course that will never be replicated.
That experience has been accentu¬ated – many would say eclipsed – with the opening of the hyped Cabot Links, backed by golf entrepreneur Mike Keiser. Now with a second course at Cabot going for¬ward, and word that the Canadian federal government, which operates Highlands Links, will seek a new operator for the legendary track, Cape Breton suddenly isn’t all that sleepy. In fact, if it plays out the way many hope – and that Keiser takes a run at leasing Highlands Links – this island in eastern Canada could turn out to be Bandon Dunes East.
Highlands Links opened in 1941 as part of a make-work project conducted by the Canadian federal government at the height of the Depression to build courses in national parks. The government has operated the course in the isolated north part of the province ever since, even as it leased similar facilities across Canada to private operators.
Given that, it didn’t surprise many when the government announced earlier this month it would seek outside parties to take over the course on a long-term lease. The course, which has struggled with condi¬tioning in past years, is in the midst of a comeback under architect Ian Andrew, who has led an extensive restoration of designer Stanley Thompson’s masterpiece.
That restoration was necessary as the course, one of only two Canadian courses in the top 100 in the world in (ital) Golf Magazine, (end ital) had fallen on hard times. Overgrown with trees, and strug¬gling with maintenance practices that were wildly out of sync with a course of its quality, Highlands Links’ brilliance was ob¬scured. Rounds had dropped and it began to lose a lot of money – around $500,000 annually, according to the government.
As Highlands faltered, Cabot Links cap¬tured the imagination of the golf media. Billed as the only links on the east side of North America, Cabot was the brainchild of Toronto entrepreneur Ben Cowan- Dewar. Keiser, fresh from his incredible success at Bandon Dunes, brought his millions and connections to the project in 2008, with Cabot fully opening this July under a media spotlight bright enough to light up the night sky.
Keiser and Cowan-Dewar could have stopped after Cabot Links. But Keiser purchased several hundred acres along the ocean north of the existing course with the intent of building a sequel. Where Cabot, created by Canadian designer Rod Whitman, looks like a traditional links, set on land wedged between the town of Inverness and the sea, the second course, rumored to be called Cabot Cliffs, will sit high above the ocean with more than a mile of open sea views. It might sound like hyperbole, but the jagged coastline the course will sit beside looks like Pebble Beach – on steroids. A par 3 in the rout¬ing proposed by designer Bill Coore, with a shot over the ocean from cliff to cliff, is reminiscent of the famed 16th at Cypress Point, only higher above the water.
Keiser says the second course is now a go, with full construction starting next year. Coore, the genius behind Sand Hills in Ne¬braska and Friars Head in Long Island, has visited the site several times. Keiser came back to Cape Breton a number of times in recent months to investigate routing pos¬sibilities with Coore, whose design partner, Ben Crenshaw, will also be involved, and decide how to proceed.
But it isn’t just Cabot Cliffs that is on Keiser’s mind. He also has ventured up to see Highlands Links. The hurdle of his in¬volvement is that the current proposal the Canadian government is floating includes the struggling nearby hotel, the Keltic Lodge, along with Highlands Links. The lodge, which is badly out of date and would require millions to bring it up to modern standard doesn’t interest Keiser at all.
“I’d say I’m interested in Highlands Links, but not the lodge,” Keiser said on phone from his Chicago office.
Keiser is fond of the course and having the three best public courses in Canada, all located within two hours of one an¬other, is a tempting proposition. Keiser often says that when he added the second course at Bandon Dunes, the success of the resort rose exponentially.
Would adding Highlands Links to his already impressive stable of timeless courses increase the chances of success at Cabot?
That’s what Keiser is deciding.
At the very least, he’s hopeful any new operator at Highlands would recognize the opportunity presented by a close relation¬ship with Cabot. They’d be remiss not to.
If the restoration is completed on High¬lands Links, and Cabot Cliffs, which is still a few years away from opening, lives up to its potential, Bandon Dunes may have finally found a rival – this one on the east coast of Canada.


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