Cabot Cliffs: A Canadian Masterpiece

Many thanks to Christian Hafer for his spectacular photos of Cabot Cliffs, follow Christian on Instagram @hafe_life

As a golf destination, everything about Cabot Links is top notch, from the service to the food to the accommodations. And of course, the golf, as the undisputed star of the show, is world class. But not all world-class courses are created equal.

Behind the 16th green

The Links course is tremendous. Rumpled fairways, grassy dunes, double greens, a huge variety of holes, and stellar views from every hole. But the Cliffs course is something else entirely. Ron Whitten, in his piece for Golf Digest crowning Cabot Cliffs as the best new course of 2015, described it as no less than “the second coming of Cypress Point.” In the same piece, architect Bill Coore (half of the Coore & Crenshaw design team responsible for this masterpiece) gushed that the property had "more variety in terms of its natural holes, without doing anything to them, than any site we've had.” And though I’ve never played Cypress Point, and haven’t done more than gaze wistfully at photos of many Coore & Crenshaw tracks, I have trouble finding fault with either of these statements.

The majestic views of Cabot Cliffs Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

Golf writers and architects talk a lot about the movement of the land upon which a golf course is built. Some of the best courses in the world are laid out over land that may only have a few dozen feet of elevation change across the entire property. The Old Course, Seminole, and Winged Foot West are great examples of this. And while courses like these prove that there is no one way to build a dynamite golf course, it’s hard to argue that starting with a rolling, heaving, rollicking piece of land increases the chances of building something truly extraordinary.

A look at the scenery. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

Though the Links and Cliffs are separated by only a few minutes’ drive, the topography of the two courses couldn’t be more divergent. At the Links course, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re playing along the Firth of Forth on the east coast of Scotland. At Cliffs, the comparisons to different golf locales depend on which hole you happen to be playing. 

The stretch from 4-6 running along a tidal wash and then hard by the beach evokes the British Isles. The back-to-back par-5 7th and 8th, slashing into and then out of a rolling pine forest, look like they’re cut straight from a Rocky Mountain travel brochure. And the drop-shot par-3 9th, backdropped by the pulsing surf of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, would not be out of place on the Monterey Peninsula. And that’s just the front 9.

In the Tiger Woods PGA Tour video game series (RIP), you could unlock these outrageous fictional golf courses. One was in the middle of Central Park, another took you around a Greek island, and a third snaked around and through some ridiculously heaving Australian topography. These were the kinds of courses you couldn’t imagine ever existing in the real world — the elevation changes were too severe, the greens were perched too precariously, and the terrain was simply too wild and unrealistic to actually hack out enough space to lay a few golf holes.

Cabot Cliffs is the closest thing I’ve seen to that kind of video game course.

If you’ve read any reviews of the track, you’ll have heard about the even distribution of par 3s, 4, and 5s; the massively diverse terrain; and the jaw-dropping final three holes. It’s all true. But it’s everything else that makes Cabot Cliffs so mind-bendingly awesome.

First, the approach. You’re shuttled from the clubhouse at the Links off the property and through about a mile of pine forests before turning left down a long, winding, two-lane driveway. The anticipation builds, and builds, and builds. Until, finally:

Don’t mind me discussing whether the temporary clubhouse was a hut or a yurt.  

As you can see, the course was still slightly unfinished — the open space to the left is going to be the driving range, and there were still some piles of rocks and building materials here and there. But if you think that detracted from our enjoyment of the round, you’re sorely mistaken.

This is the view from just left of the first tee. It starts down the first fairway, then pans along the 10th (running the opposite direction of the first) and across to the stretch of the 17th and 18th, with the cliffs of the 16th visible in the background.

On to the holes.

1st hole – 581/568 yards – par 5

Similar to the Links course, the first hole at Cabot Cliffs is a par-5 with an extremely wide landing area and a wealth of playing corridors. Along with their innate ability to create natural-looking courses, Coore+Crenshaw pride themselves on designing golf holes with multiple routes of play, and the first at Cabot Cliffs does just that. Take on the fairway bunkers along the right, and you’re given an opportunity to thread the needle and run an approach onto the putting surface in the distance. Opt for a drive down the left, and you may catch a speed slot for a few extra yards, but a fairway rise and a small coffin bunker complicate matters in front of this deep, receptive putting surface. The green sits at the edge of a wooded hillside, so anything long is in trouble.

2nd hole – 402/379 yards – par 4

In my Cabot Links post, I talked about how several holes on that course had a chance to be my favorite hole of the trip. But in truth, they were all playing for second. Because this hole was an absolute beauty.

This was taken from the right side of the first green; the second tee sits on the cliff’s edge ahead to the right. The way this hole is designed shows you a lot about the philosophy of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The footprint of this hole is absolutely immense.

From the tips, it’s only 402 yards, but the insane width of the fairway, combined with the elevated tee and Olympic ski-jump carry, give this hole an overwhelming sense of grandeur. Even the diagram on the club’s website doesn’t contextualize this hole properly. When you’re playing your approach shot, it feels like you’re perpendicular to the fairway’s intended line. Like if you eliminated the green and tee and just showed someone an aerial photo of this fairway, they would definitely guess that the tee was on the fairway’s left and the green was on the right. It’s wild. C&C could have gone anywhere with this particular plot of land. They could have created a dogleg left, swinging golfers around towards the dunes and the beach. They could have gone the opposite way, perching the green site high in the dunes and challenging golfers with an uphill approach to a green at the water’s edge.

Instead, they opted for width. They created a fairway that looked like a regular hole’s fairway turned 90 degrees. They terminated the fairway with a gorgeous stream running in front of the green, with what looks like an oversized beaver lodge directly in the center. They left a monstrous mound in front of the green alone, scooped two bunkers into it, and built a green site that mirrors the fairway in both shape and size. And they built a hole that looks just as beautiful from the green as it does from the tee. It’s not easy to design a hole this fun that also demands this much strategy. Because of that shaggy mound bisecting the green, hitting the correct portion of the fairway is crucial if you want a good look at the pin. All in all, this hole is tremendous.

The 2nd tee shot Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The scale and rugged look that dominates Cabot Cliffs. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

3rd hole – 389/374 – par 4

It’s hard to follow up something like the 2nd, but this is Cabot Cliffs, where impossible is nothing (shout out to Adidas). Another long forced carry with a generous landing area, but this one’s a little more complicated. That smudge in the middle of the fairway is a very penal bunker, which we were all happy to avoid. The green falls away to the back, right, and front, and is guarded front left by a tall and steep-faced bunker.

Thus, the more you flirt with the bunkers edging the right side of the fairway, the clearer shot to this elevated green you’ll have.

The rolling 3rd fairway Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

4th hole – 221/205 yards – par 3

The fourth hole has two greens. Like, two very distinct, not in any way connected, separate, greens.

It’s the first par-3 you encounter at Cabot Cliffs, and it’s more than a little weird. I don’t know how they decide which hole you’re hitting to, but both rounds we played were on the same day and we took aim at the far green (it was the only one with a flag in it). Also, stick around to the end of that video to see the third green, and the monstrous lump front left which is the backside of that juicy greenside bunker I talked about earlier. The fourth green bumps right up against this tidal river, so anything long or left is in serious trouble. I know this from experience, as I overcooked a five wood and went swimming.

The beautiful 4th hole. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

5th hole – 345/322 yards – par 4

This hole is just awesome. It’s a beefier version of the sixth at Cabot Links — an incredibly severe dogleg left, with a ghastly bunker on the right side of the fairway reminiscent of some Island of Doctor Moreau-type hybrid of the Himalayas and Big Nellie bunkers from Royal St. George’s and Royal Portrush. Look at this baby.

The 5th green.

This was taken from the top of the hill, with the offending bunker visible on the right side through the fairway. It’s hard to get a good sense of its size from here, but just know that the wall of sand is about 20 feet high.  

The giant bunker at the 5th Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

If you’re feeling pumped and jacked, as Pete Carroll used to say, you can try to cut off about 85% of the hole and take one deep over the corner. I tried this, and it ended with my ball landing where Frank Costello wants his bodies dumped. The play here is a sweeping draw over a corner of the muck, as the fairway kicks everything downhill towards this semi-punchbowl green. The green is ringed along the left and back by bunkers, which serve more as a braking system for overclubbed approach shots than as a traditional hazard. The fifth is one of only a few holes on the Cliffs course to encourage running approaches, as the tumbling fairway feeds down into the green at the hole’s lowest point.

The 5th green. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

6th hole – 186/171 yards – par 3

If you were shown a picture of the 6th hole at Cabot Cliffs and asked what country you were looking at, no one would fault you for guessing Ireland. This dune-ringed par-3 runs parallel to the shoreline, and the green sits in a natural amphitheater that offers a brief respite from the gusting winds. [Missed a pic here, need one though. Sick hole] As the hole’s layout is relatively tame, Coore+Crenshaw ratcheted the fun meter up to 11 at the green site. The surrounds are all cut short and funnel down towards the putting surface, which features a shelf in the front right and a crazy deep back-half punchbowl.

The diabolical 6th green. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

7th hole – 589/566 yards – par 5

If that view looks familiar, it should. The 7th and 3rd share a tee box, which makes for a pretty interesting situation where you have to wait for a player in the adjacent group to tee off before you hit your tee ball. Seven is the first of back-to-back par 5s, and marks the turn away from the water and into the forest. The tee shot offers a heroic carry over the same canyon that houses the 2nd fairway (which sits across the path to the left of the 7th). The landing area features a significant ridge along the left side of the fairway; anything left or short of this hummock gives you effectively no chance of reaching the green in two. A monster tee ball that flirts with the right-hand bunkers and woods might give you the confidence to go for it, though the green is fronted by a deep collection area and falls off hard to the left.

The 7th tee shot. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

A look at the 7th green from behind. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

8th hole – 542/515 yards – par 5

The eighth is the less daunting of these back-to-back par 5s, as it plays back down towards the water and offers a wide landing area. The tee shot is complicated by a centerline bunker which forces you to pick a side. The left offers a shorter approach to the green, but also brings a large bunker on the left into play for any lay ups. The eighth green is extremely deep, with an open front and a subtle back to front slope.

The approach to the 8th. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

9th hole – 126/114 yards – par 3

Seven brings you away from the water, and eight returns you to it. But nine, reminiscent of 14 at Cabot Links, uses the ocean to mess with your depth perception — and your emotions. Look at this little beauty.

I thought Greg would be upset with me for filming him, so I said “I’m not filming you.” He told me it was OK, I could film him.

He promptly chunked it into the bunker. 

The approach to the 9th. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The look at the undulating 9th green. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

10th hole – 557/521 – par 5

I’ve done a lot of reading about Cabot Cliffs, and it seems like Ben Cowan-Dewar’s guiding principle for Coore and Crenshaw was to build the best golf course they could, regardless of normal golf course architecture principles. Hence the six holes of each par, the stretch from 7-10 where par is 5-5-3-5, and the fact that the 10th hole returns players to the clubhouse in much the same way that many 9th holes do. I guess if you want half a round here, you’re either playing the front 10 holes or the back 8. As far as straightaway par-5s go, you can’t do much better than the 10th at Cabot Cliffs. The hole is strung above the course’s namesake bluffs, making anything left an absolute disaster. The hole’s right side is delineated by a series of grassy dunes and bunkers that separate it from the first. 

The walk up to the 10th

The walk up to the 10th

Here’s a photo of our heroes approaching the green, which is fronted by a thin section of the cliff that snakes in to create a kind of brushy gorge. 

The 10th fairway Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The rugged 10th green. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

11th hole – 404/376 – par 4

Eleven is an interesting hole; an uphill short par-4 with a subtly S-shaped fairway and a penal fairway bunker on the right (into which I PLUGGED my drive, necessitating a mulligan from the tee). The plateau green sits at the top of a small rise, with closely mown falloffs front, left, and back. It’s one of the only holes on the course that doesn’t offer some sort of backdrop for the eye when approaching the green, which can definitely hinder depth perception.

The 11th approach. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

12th hole – 245/225 yards – par 3

The 12th is a lon par-3, with a carry over some brush and a few bunkers short of the green that catch any drives not laden with the requisite mustard. It’s a similar green situation to the 11th, where the high right side is the correct area to miss, and anything short, left, or long is dead. This hole's severity of some of these drop-offs around the green, shows the genius of Coore & Crenshaw who realized that the toughest defense of par is sometimes a big hill with short grass.

The 12th tee. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The left runoff area on the 12th.  Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The 12th green at Cabot Cliffs. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

13th hole – 398/362 yards – par 4

The 13th is another severely uphill par-4, this one playing to a fairway canted heavily from left to right. The green is obscured by a gargantuan mound. I mean, you literally can’t see any of the green from the fairway. Take at least one, maybe two, extra clubs on the approach, because if you don’t clear this mountain your ball may well roll back close to 100 yards.

The rolling 13th fairway. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

14th hole – 184/168 yards – par 3

This stretch of 11-15 plays along, down, up, and then back down the same long, rolling hillside, and the way the course is routed and cleared allows you to see this as you’re playing it. The best view comes on the 14th tee, where you see the entirety of the 13th to your left and the green of the 12th beyond that.

Fourteen is a beautiful hole: a downhill par 3 fronted by 3 bunkers and framed by a stand of trees behind the green. A prominent rock sits directly in front of the green (and, during our rounds, the pin), and I can only imagine the chaotic ricochets possible for the unfortunate soul who clocks that thing directly. The steep falloff to the left of the green means that this hole plays like an all-carry par 3, although the back-to-front sloping green offers a receptive target for recovery shots. Also, I did one of those “Just for fun, I’m gonna hit another one” shots after I hit my first tee ball. Landed it two inches from the hole, stopped a foot past. Practice makes perfect.

The 14th tee Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

A closer look at the 14th.  Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The nasty yet beautiful bunkering. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

15th hole – 562/529 yards – par 5

My compliments to the folks responsible for the tree clearing on the 14th and 15th holes. The pines frame the back of the 14th perfectly, and act as a shield to hide the rolling, tumbling 15th from view until the perfect moment. This hole, more than any other on the property, begs you to uncork a missile with the driver. The fairway is split into two levels, with the upper left portion acting as a massive ramp to feed balls down towards the cliffs and the green. While the left portion of the fairway is guarded by several bunkers, the open right side is undefended, until you reach your ball. Then you realize you need to hit a completely blind second shot over a tall fairway bunker. The contours of the fairway help everything hit towards the green funnel down into a collection area short right.

The remarkable 15th Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The approach to the 15th. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

A close look at the 15th green. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

16th hole – 176/148 – par 3

If you Google “Cabot Cliffs,” this hole dominates the results, and with good reason. It’s an absolute 10.

The jawdropping 16th hole. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The jawdropping 16th hole. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

Unless you get an aerial view (or you visit), you don’t realize just how large this green is. I made the mistake of firing at the pin, which was cut on the thin promontory of green that has had a hand in vaulting this course into the top 20 in the world rankings. But the green splays out left and back from there, offering a large upper plateau ripe for more pin positions (and safer tee shots).

A closer look at the 16th. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

A closer look at the 16th. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The various things that happened on the 16th in our two rounds at the Cliffs show just how volatile this little devil can be.

•    Tim played it safe and hit the left side of the green both times, then pulled a very Phil Mickelson-esque move by softly pitching the ball from the upper plateau to the lower (no divot, obviously) for short looks at par.

•    Chris played the hole -1 through two rounds, sticking a picture-perfect iron shot to 8 feet on the second go-round and jarring the birdie putt.

•    I fell completely apart both times I played the hole, the second time landing in the front greenside bunker:  

…from which I promptly smoked one over the flag, over the green, and right off the cliff. I still had fun though.

The tough 16th green. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

Another look at the nasty front 16th bunkers Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

17th hole – 331/277 yards – par 4

The drama continues at 17. Like many holes at Cabot Cliffs, the 17th had a ribbon of teeing grounds rather than defined tee boxes. It’s not a major difference from a traditional course, but it keeps the sense of fun and childish excitement high.

The beautiful 17th hole. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The beautiful 17th hole. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

Your best play is to crush one over the highest point in the bluffs with some fade, and let the large, sloping fairway funnel your ball down onto the green.

This is one of those holes that I wish there was some kind of camera system where you could hit your drive, then look at a video screen on the tee box and see what your ball does. The sense of wonder and excitement when you reach the crest of the hill and find your ball is unmatched, but the hole is so good that I want to see my shot during its roll-out, and not just at its final resting place.

This hole also produced what was, until that point, the funniest moment of the trip. Chris and I were locked in a match-play battle in the championship of our little round-robin tournament (dubbed the Buff Chick Fing Calzopen). After being 3 up with 4 to play, I lost the 15th and 16th holes to set up a dramatic finish.

And remember how I discussed our widely varying fortunes on the 16th? Yeah, Chris birdied it while I made a triple. The rule for the week was that any time you made triple bogey or worse, you had to play the next hole with a Spongeball. What’s a Spongeball, you ask? This.

So after my disaster on 16, I set that little bastard up on the tee at 17 and absolutely annihilated it. Ended up in a greenside bunker, where it took me two shots to escape. I’m lying three, about 30 feet from the hole. Chris lost his tee shot left and finished with a double, so I have two putts for the victory. The hole’s cut on the far right side of the green, and I’m in the center — it’s a downhill, slightly left to right putt.  

The downhill approach to the 17th green. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

I line that Wilson logo up with my intended line and give Mister Squarepants a firm rap.

Dead center.

I walk over to the hole like that’s a normal thing that I do — make long-range putts under pressure — and calmly shake Chris’s hand. He asks to see the ball. I know he didn’t make a triple, so I’m nervous. He’s usually pretty even-tempered, but I can tell he’s hot under the collar.

The conversation went something like this: “Hey, let me see that ball.”

“No way, you’ll throw it in the ocean.”

“No I won’t.”

“You’re definitely gonna throw it in the ocean.”

“Dude, I swear to God I’m not gonna throw it in the ocean.”

“OK…”

I toss him the ball. He’s about 10 feet away from me, nearer to the water than I am. He catches it, turns away, whips his head back around to look at me, and drops the hammer: “I’m gonna putt it.”

Before I can even think of what to say, he drops the ball, pulls back his putter almost to knee level, and sends a screaming hot ground ball off the edge of the cliff and deep into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We all absolutely lost it.

18th hole – 528/509 yards – par 5

The 18th is a mirror image of the 10th, with a gully slicing into the right side of the fairway about 50 yards from the green. This allows you to land an approach short and run the ball onto the surface, and takes away some of the fear in going for the green in two — which only adds to the allure of a closing par 5.

The 18th tee. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

The 18th green. Photo Credit: Christian Hafer @hafe_life

Even after all these words and photos and videos, I haven’t done enough to capture the feeling of playing Cabot Cliffs. It’s almost impossible. All the slopes are more dramatic than you imagine, the fairways are wider, the carries more daunting (but somehow more confidence-inspiring as well). The views are incomparable. The variety of landscape is unsurpassed. The shot values are high, and the sense of discovery and wonder is even higher.

Cabot Cliffs is a true golfing gem of the highest order, and I look forward to getting back up there sooner rather than later.

 

Read more about the Cabot Vibe and Cabot Links.

 

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