Course Review — Cabot Links

For my piece on the Cliffs course at Cabot Links, click here.

Our trip to Cabot Links on Cape Breton Island was a year and a half in the making. After returning from Scotland in late September 2014, we only made it about three months before succumbing to the allure of planning our next golf trip. It was set for the beginning of August 2015, which was ambitious both because of our bruised post-Scotland bank accounts and because the main attraction — Cabot Cliffs — wouldn’t be fully open for another year.

The Cliffs course — a visually arresting, bluff-skirting layout a mile north of the Links — was opened for a limited number of “preview play” rounds at discounted rates in the summer of 2015. Being golf-obsessed yet money-conscious dudes in our mid-20s, that sounded like the chance to play a world-class course at a bargain price. And who wouldn’t jump at that chance?

Alas, that adventure ended before it could begin, and ironically, it was with a jump. In late June during a men’s league basketball game, I went up for a layup, got hit, landed on my hand, and broke my wrist badly enough to need surgery. No sports for six weeks, and no golf, with its constant hand and wrist stresses, until the fall.

We were all summarily disappointed, but we did get another year or so to put our finances somewhat in order (minus the necessary expenditures on friends’ weddings, corporate happy hours, and grossly overpriced bar beers). We booked a make-up trip to Cabot for the weekend of June 4th, 2016, just a few days before the grand opening of the Cliffs course.

And after a 12-hour drive that featured a motel check-in at 2:30 AM local time, one failed driving range search, one successful (but deeply forested) driving range search, and more cheese balls than we knew what to do with, we arrived along the shores of Cape Breton Island.

And man, was it worth the wait.

This video was taken from the edge of the practice putting green, which is about five feet from one of the main lodging buildings. All the rooms on the property face the course and the ocean, and have enormous panoramic windows that act as a sort of reverse aquarium, allowing golfers to watch play on at least a half-dozen holes from their rooms. Also, that grass-topped hobbit hole about halfway through is the starter’s hut. Pretty cool.

Before getting into the course and the holes, just a quick note about the overall experience at Cabot. A lot of times you’ll read about resorts or destination courses that are “just about the golf.” It’s a phrase that I’ve read countless times, and I thought I knew what it meant until I got to Cabot.

I’m not suggesting you ditch the family for a long weekend with the boys; far from it. There are three restaurants on the property, a beautiful beach and boardwalk for strolling, swimming, and general merriment, and the town of Inverness isn’t so small that you can’t find something to amuse yourself with for a few days. Plus, gift shops.

But from the first minute you arrive, you’re given the distinct impression that everyone there, both the employees and the guests, care about golf as much as you do. When we hopped out of our rented, Easter Egg-like chariot at the entrance, we looked like a group of college kids after a long night: disheveled, sweatpants-clad, and covered with cheeseball dust. After making sure that we did in fact have a reservation for the weekend and weren’t just lost on the way to the local drug dealer, the first question one of the greeters asked was “Will you be wantin’ to play a quick 18 tonight?”

It was 5:30 PM, we had been driving since 9 AM, we all needed naps, and we looked, smelled, and felt like homeless people.

We almost accepted the offer on the spot, though we probably would have contentedly fallen asleep for the night on the fourth green.

After a night of sleep akin to that of Christmas Eve for a second-grader, we showed up at 8 AM sharp for our 8:24 tee time. Here’s the inaugural tee shot, taken by a Mr. Greg Hall.

1 tee

It’s a medium-length par 5 with a bunker chomping into the landing area from the left, which makes the hole play significantly more difficult than it should. Clearing that bunker on the left leaves an open look at a deep and receptive green, but playing safe along the right side leaves an approach blocked out by a bunker and some fairway humps and hollows.

Here’s the view if you don’t quite clear that bunker on the right on your approach (featuring someone finding the putting surface):

2 tee

The second plays alongside the town as well, and is the furthest hole from the water on the property. It’s a demanding, long par-3, though the green does accept run-up shots. Here’s a view from the second tee, looking back up 1 and then down towards the second green.

The second green has a pronounced swale in the middle of it, somewhat reminiscent of the 16th at North Berwick.

3 tee

This hole, at least for me, was a goddamned disaster. We played the course twice, and I think I lost three balls from this tee. Contrary to almost every other hole on the course, there’s nowhere to miss either right or left on this short par-4.

Having said that, it was still one of my absolute favorite holes on the course. It’s such a natural setting for a hole, and it brings you down from the town towards the ocean with an inviting (but obviously treacherous) tee shot and a seemingly simple approach complicated by a large mound in front of the green. If I could play one hole on the property over and over again, this is on the short list. At only 313 yards from our tees, and playing downhill, a stiff wind could make for a driveable green. At the same time, a headwind turns anything wayward into the gorse or the marsh. This is a seriously devious short par 4.

4 tee

The fourth is an excellent medium-length par 4 playing away from the water. The draw at Cabot is obviously the ocean — you can see the Gulf of St. Lawrence from practically every hole on both courses — but neither Links nor Cliffs use that as an excuse to trot out subpar inland holes.

Here, after (hopefully) finding the landing area between the two closest bunkers, you’re faced with an uphill approach over two yawing greenside bunkers to a green with two fairly distinct tiers. It’s a tough but fair hole, and offers some pretty beautiful photo backdrops:

5 tee

The second par 3 at Cabot Links brings you alongside a coastal estuary, and when you reach the green you get a glimpse of one of the course’s many signature holes: the Cape-style sixth. This hole is set on a plateau, so going right or long is out of the question. Like a lot of the holes here, run-up shots are accepted, and the green has at least one major ridge running through it from front right to back left.

6 tee

This hole was absolutely stunning. Even after playing the Cliffs, which supplied me with probably 4 of my favorite 5 golf holes of all time, this might still be the one hole I’d return to play over and over. The clearance over the bay is just short enough to be enticing, but long enough that nothing short of a great tee ball will do it. Alternatively, you can play up the right and leave yourself a short iron (or a bouncing long iron) into a green that slopes from a hillside towards the water. It’s a gorgeous hole.

I also like it because I birdied it the second time.

7 tee

The third par 3 on the front nine is the dunesiest hole on the course — it feels like you’re playing a course in the British Isles with the water behind, the long-grassed dunes, and the deep pot bunkers hiding beside this green. Here’s a panorama from the tee box, as you can see most of the fourth hole and portions of a few more from this exposed tee box:

8 tee

Eight is a classic Cabot hole in that it has a ton of landing space in the driving area, but it takes a well-placed drive to give yourself a look at birdie or possibly eagle. It’s a par 5 with a blind second, and the closer you stay to the left side of the fairway, the shorter (and clearer) path to the massive double green you’ll have. And when I say massive, I mean massive:

And here are some people, for scale.

The eighth and 13th greens at Cabot are connected, and both are framed by what came to feel like the crossroads of the course — a large mound that housed the 9th, 12th, and 14th tees.

For whatever reason, I neglected to photograph 9 and 10. They were both par 4s, nine had a few bunkers in the landing area and led up to a well-guarded green near the starter’s hut and practice green. Similar to 4, actually. The 10th featured a blind drive over a hill where the best line was over the intimidating bunker cut into the right side of the fairway, then a short pitch onto a green which sloped away from the player and towards the water.

After these two relatively bland par 4s, you’re faced with a hole roughly the length of Interstate 95.

11 fairway

Apologies on the blurriness, but that only serves to make this hole’s mythical proportions feel even more enormous. This was the hole that best prepared me for the monstrous scale of Cabot Cliffs. At 580 yards from our tees, it was easily the longest par 5 I’ve ever played. The tee shot plays to a fairway sloping left to right, and longer hitters can reach a downslope that gives you a few precious extra yards. From there, it’s anybody’s guess how you’ll reach this green.

Do you opt to lay up onto the peninsula of fairway jutting towards the ocean about 100 yards back from the green? Or do you stay up the left side, flirt with that hilltop bunker, and give yourself a wedge shot with the entire green open to you? I tried both, and came away with a bogey from the first attempt and par on the second. The green is benched into the mound I discussed earlier, and it sometimes feels like people are teeing off right above your head on 14.

12 tee

The 12th is another par 4 that plays downhill from the tee and then back up to the green. Because of this, it looks like a fairly level hole from the tee, and both times I played the hole I found myself coming up short on the approach as I didn’t factor in the mound in front of the green. Staying to the left on this hole is the best option, as it takes the inside corner bunkers out of play. The green you see in the top left of the photo is the 2nd.

13 tee

Probably the toughest and most confusing tee shot on the course.

Those three bunkers in the hillside are about a 180-yard carry from our tees, slightly uphill, and give you no indication of where the fairway lies. After two trips around, we still really couldn’t figure out the correct line here. Like, Tim’s effort in this video did end up being lost, but Chris hit one over the right side of the righthand bunker which we were all sure was gone, and it ended up in the middle of the fairway. And I hit two perfect drives (albeit one was a 3 from the tee) over the center of the middle bunker that almost ended up in the left rough.

In any case, the more right, the better, as this hole plays up to the other side of the giant double green that’s shared with the eighth. The lefthand side is peppered with mounds of fescue and a greenside bunker, while the right allows running right-to-left shots to find the massively undulating putting surface.

And then, the signature 14th.

14 tee

There’s not much to say about this beauty. Tim captioned it perfectly: too short, and you’re in the bunker. Too long, and you’re in the ocean. The card reads 95 yards, but depending on wind, it can play anywhere from 50 to 150. Pick your club, trust your swing, and let it fly.

I think a combination of factors contributed to the fact that no one took a photo of any holes after 14 at Cabot Links. These most likely included fatigue, grinding in an effort to win matches, rain, fading light, an unspoken feeling that nothing can match up to the 14th hole, and another unspoken feeling that it’s sometimes better to just play the holes and enjoy them rather than trying to document them all for posterity.

The 15th and 16th holes were about as opposite as two par 4s running the same way along the beach could be. The first was relatively short, severely undulating, and left a short iron up the hill from a tight (and super sandy) lie to a very teeny green. The second was an extremely long, flat drive towards a large green.

Like all great golf courses, one of the final three holes (17 in this case) was a par 3, an uphill middle iron to a distinctly three-tiered green. Very fun, I could have dropped balls on that green and putted around contentedly for a few hours.

The 18th is a blind drive back towards the clubhouse, with acres of fairway to land in. The easiest approach comes in from the left, along the clubhouse and bar, and you end up putting out not 15 feet from the patrons in the bar (who have a perfect view of you through the massive panoramic windows).

My approach ended up nestling against the bar during our first round, so I gave myself a one club length drop. Then I noticed a couple of older gentlemen sitting about 5 feet from me through the glass. Through the age-old art of golfer sign language, I managed to ask if I should open the face on a wedge and flop it up there, or take a less-lofted club and play the ground game of the sport’s inventors.

At a place like Cabot, where the focus is on golf from the moment you arrive, there was really only one answer.

I promptly skulled my six iron over the green and into the bunker, and turned around with a sheepish look on my face to find the two guys doubled over in laughter.

Golf’s a funny game.