Cabot Links: A Taste of Scotland in Nova Scotia

Every travel-minded golfer in the Eastern Time Zone has Cabot Links pinned to the top of their bucket list. The closest thing that North America has to the old sod of golf’s birthplace, Cabot occupies the site of a former coal mine along the shores of Cape Breton Island. Every hole on this 2011 Rod Whitman design boasts water views, either of the Gulf of St. Lawrence or MacIsaac’s Pond, the tidal inlet that shelters a picturesque working harbor beyond the sixth green.

From the first hole it’s clear Whitman was blessed with two distinct advantages on this project before he even picked up a pencil. The first was a plot of land that mimics those of some of the greatest links courses in Great Britain and Ireland – a strip of sand-based turf that runs from the water up towards the small town of Inverness, Nova Scotia, and contains enough humps, hillocks, and hollows to make a hobbit feel at home. The site is roughly rectangular, with a long edge running along the coast that offers enough land for a variety of stunning seaside golf holes.

And the second was the financial backing of Mike Keiser, the patron saint of modern golf construction.
Cape Breton Island was already on the world golf radar thanks to Highlands Links, a Stanley Thompson masterpiece in the top northeast corner of the island that seamlessly blends mountains and ocean into one of the most diverse collections of 18 holes in North America. But with the addition of Cabot Links in 2011 and its sister course, Cabot Cliffs, in 2016, one of Canada’s outermost regions is getting its time in the spotlight.

These photos were taken the first weekend of June 2016, which was (crucially) the final weekend of spring rates before the high season rates kicked in. The weather cooperated, and the winter hats were only necessary for the morning round. By the afternoon 18, short sleeves were preferred over jackets, and the driving distances and scores reflected this.

After going back and rewriting this post a few times, one thing stood out to me that I didn’t notice as we played each hole individually. Namely, you’ll almost always be rewarded for playing up the left side. Not all the trouble lurks to one side or the other on this course, but with very few exceptions, the left side presents the clearer path to the green. And with that, let’s get into the holes.

1st hole - 540/530 yards - par 5

The first sets the tone for the round - a gettable par 5 that runs away from the clubhouse along the top edge of the Cabot Links property. It’s a perfect opening hole, as you’re encouraged to take a full-blooded rip at the drive with only the threat of a bunker chomping into the landing area from the left. If you’re looking to post a score early, you’re wise to challenge the trap, as clearing it and staying on the left side of the fairway 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):

2nd hole - 247/230 yards - par 3

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 with an enormous putting surface that is open across its entire front. 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, similar to a biarritz and somewhat reminiscent of the 16th at North Berwick. On the day we played it, the pin was on the back plateau, making any shot hit without the requisite mustard into a very tough up and down for par. 

3rd hole - 330/313 yards - par 4

One of the signature holes at Cabot Links, this reachable par 4 offers peril at every turn. This hole, at least for me, was an utter 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 left or the marsh right. This is a seriously devious short par 4.

4th hole - 450/410 yards - par 4

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:

I rarely describe golf courses in these terms, but I think Cabot Links is a textbook example of a second-shot golf course. Thinking back over every single tee box I stood on during our two rounds on the course, I don’t remember a single shot that had me nervous to swing the club. Conversely, when I had found my (often wayward but still playable) first effort, the approach shot presented a plethora of options for players of all skill levels. After three holes that accepted run-up shots to the green, the fourth green sat perched on a hilltop, reminding you that while golf ought to be fun, it shouldn’t be monotonous.

5th hole - 178/172 yards - par 3

The second par 3 at Cabot Links brings you alongside the tidal wash of MacIsaac’s Pond, 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. It’s a fun tee shot to play, as the infinity green seems to fall off back into the pond, and the framing of the hole makes it look like there’s less room to miss left than there actually is.  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. 

6th hole - 465/440 yards - par 4

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 back to front and is tilted, as the entire hole is, towards the pond. It’s a gorgeous hole.
I also like it because I birdied it the second time.

7th hole - 192/186 yards - par 3

The third par 3 on the front nine is the dunesiest hole on the course — it feels like you’re playing in the British Isles with the water behind, the long-grassed dunes, and the deep pot bunkers hiding beside this green. It’s also the one hole where the way forward isn’t apparent right from the tee box, which is actually a refreshing change. Most of the holes at Cabot present your challenge head-on: hit this fairway, then attack this quadrant of the green. The 7th green sits in a depression amongst the dunes, but it’s not readily apparent as you stand on the tee. After you pick out the fluttering flag, you’re tasked with placing your tee shot over the shaggy hillocks and down into the correct depression in the seaside landscape. It’s honestly the closest I’ve ever felt to just dropping a ball while wandering around near the ocean and hitting it. 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:

8th hole - 580/550 yards - par 5

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, a trait that this hole shares with the uber-long 11th. 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.

The 8th hole at Cabot Links Photo Credit: Evan Schiller

9th hole - 360/340 yards - par 4

A short par-4 to finish up the front 9, this hole presents you with some of the only central hazards on the course. It’s the hole on the course that demands the most strategy, as these bunkers force you to pick a line from the tee. After playing the hole for the first time, however, you may want to rethink that first go-round. The green is elevated, slopes hard from back to front, and includes a sharp false front on the left side that sheds approaches down into a tightly mown collection area. If you stayed well clear of the bunkers and steered your drive right, threading your approach between the false front and the falloff/dunes/bunker right of the green looks mighty tough. Find the short grass left of that first bunker, and the width of the green is open to approaches. For an inland hole that could have been lost in the shuffle, the 9th stands as an excellent test of golf.

10th hole - 385/355 yards - par 4

Despite playing to similar yardages, the 9th and 10th present two very distinct challenges. On 9, you drive from an elevated tee (the back portion of that “crossroads” mound I referred to earlier) into a sunken fairway and climb to a raised green. Your next tee shot is blind, hit over a raised berm that hides the rest of the fairway and green site from view. The land slopes towards the water here and the ocean is in view from the tee, making this a memorable tee shot as you send your Titleist sailing over the ridge towards the distant ocean. After cresting the rise, you’re left with a ticklish short iron to a green that slopes away from front right to back left. Both the 9th and 10th utilize bunkers set a few yards forward of the green to confuse your depth perception. On the 10th, an added hazard comes in the form of a trough-like greenside bunker that makes up-and-down escapes less than likely.

11th hole - 620/580 yards - par 5 

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 speed slot 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.

I can see how this hole would be a nightmare for someone who’s fighting a right miss during their round. All the trouble on this mile-long hole is right, with steep fall-offs into the brambles along the entire length of the hole. Fortunately, a safer left side offers acres of short grass and a sloped area left of the green that helps to feed long second shots along the ground towards back hole locations.

12th hole - 450/425 yards - par 4

The 12th is a slight dogleg right par-4, with a bunker carving out the inside corner of the fairway. Similar to 9, the 12th 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 gives you an angle to attack the long but relatively narrow green. The green you see in the top left of the photo is the 2nd.

13th hole - 440/420 yards - par 4

The 13th brings the third par 4 in four holes, and the second one with a blind tee shot. This is probably the toughest and most confusing tee shot on the course, as the fairway is completely blocked by a bunker-riddled hillside. Those three bunkers are about a 180-yard carry from our tees, slightly uphill, and give you no indication of where the fairway lies. 

It’s one of the few times during our stay when I wished we had hired a caddie, as it was really a “hit it and hope” proposition on the first go-round. 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 left hand 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.

14th hole - 102/95 yards - par 3

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.
An interesting architecture note - when the Links course first opened in 2011, the front and left bunkers were nowhere to be found. They frame the hole nicely while keeping the infinity green intact, and I’m fairly certain I visited that front bunker during my travels around this tiny one-shotter. Job well done by the architects, I say.

The 14th green and look at the 15th. Photo Credit: Evan Schiller

15th hole - 413/385 yards - par 4

This short-ish par-4 hugs the coastline and elicits memories of the tee shot at the 8th. The closer you stay to the left hand side of the fairway, the better angle you have into the green. The fairway does slope towards the ocean, which helps balls feed down into better playing positions. The left side of the fairway was under repair during our round, and the grass was just about fully obscured by sand right in the ideal landing area. It definitely did not help our approaches, almost all of which came up short of this perched green site. Though smaller, this green definitely had personality. It’s an inverted L shape with its long side facing directly at the fairway, and the leg of the L jutting off at the back right. In the armpit of the green is one of the most treacherous bunkers on the course, which dictates strategy on every shot until you’re inside 10 feet. I would not be surprised to learn that this was the most-visited trap at Cabot Links.

The 15th at Cabot Links. Photo Credit: David Scaletti

The 15th Photo Credit: Evan Schiller

A great aerial shot of the 15th. Photo Credit: Evan Schiller.

16th hole - 457/430 yards - par 4

This is the ideal links golf hole. Oceanside from beginning to end, central hazards, a rumpled fairway, rewards for pulling off the risky play, an open green front, and an abundance of options on both tee and approach shot for golfers of all skill levels. Similar to the 6th and 13th, the green rewards approaches sent running onto the putting surface from right to left. After putting out on the 16th, you’d be remiss for not taking a moment to look back along the coast and get a bit wistful at the stretch of seaside golf holes you’ve just completed. The double-green 13th, drop-shot infinity green 14th, seesaw 15th and strategic 16th compose a world-class four-hole stretch. But the final two inland holes do not disappoint.

The 16th at Cabot Links.

The 16th at Cabot Links from the fairway. Photo Credit: David Scaletti

17th hole - 170/142 yards - par 3

Another hole where the slope of the green mimics that of the overall hole. In this case, the tee shot is played slightly uphill to a green that cascades in three distinct tiers from back left to front right. This green was outlandishly fun - I think I remember dropping a few balls after finishing the hole and hitting 50-footers with 9 feet of break in them just for the hell of it. The bunkers act more as frames for this hole than true hazards, as the green is plenty wide enough for any short to middle iron to land safely.

18th hole - 475/452 yards - par 4

The final test to pass at Cabot Links comes in the form of a long par-4 finishing hole with a blind tee shot. In some ways the absence of a fairway to target settles the nerves - if a match has come down to the final hole, it’s time to aim at the corner of the clubhouse, grip and rip, and hope for the best. There’s ample room to miss right, provided you hit it far enough, as the 18th blends into the fairway of the 10th. But, as usual, staying up the left side leaves the cleanest look at the green. In true links fashion, the clubhouse (and more importantly, the bar, with its huge panoramic windows) looms over the final green, giving everyone a front row seat to your stirring triumph (or colossal failure). 

The 18th at Cabot Links. Photo Credit: David Scaletti

The view from the 19th hole at Cabot Links.

A quick story from my 18th hole experience. My approach ended up nestling against the bar during our first round, so I gave myself a one club length drop (per the universal rules of mini golf that I adjusted as I saw fit). 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.

 

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