Cabot Links: If you love golf, you’ve got to go

So.  Every superlative you’ve heard about Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs is dead-on accurate.  And if you’re tired of reading about these courses over the last few years, I’ll give you permission to move on, right now.

But if not, let me regale you with my experience, this past, late-September weekend.

Playing golf after mid-September is always a bit iffy in Canada.  For a golf purist, the start of Autumn in these here parts offers solid odds that you’ll be playing in the “pure” climatic conditions that golfers in the UK, from Mary Queen of Scots on down through five centuries, are used to.

And so, it was that my two sons, one of their brothers-in-law, and I ventured off to Cabot for an intense, 36-a-day weekend pilgrimage to what may already have established itself as Canada’s golf Mecca.  Not really trusting weather forecasts at this time of year, we all packed clothing that would work in July, and in December… not easy to do when you’re trying to get away with a carry-on.

Let me digress for a moment and tell you about getting there.  We flew direct on Air Canada, from Toronto to Sydney.  Many people, especially from other departure cities, have to fly into Halifax.  From Sydney, it’s about a two-hour meandering drive across Cape Breton to get to Cabot’s home in Inverness, on the west coast of the island.  From Halifax, add another 75 minutes or so.

In our case, never having been to this part of the province, and never expecting to return, we decided to take the scenic drive from the airport, paying a reverential visit to one of Canada’s perennial 10 Best golf courses, at Highland Links in Ingonish, up on the east coast.  Sadly, we didn’t have time to play it, but at least I can say “been there” if not “done that” when I meet Saint Peter.  The rest of the drive up and around and down to Inverness was not the breath-taking motor tour I had expected, but it was interesting, and I’m glad we made the effort.

Especially because of what awaited us upon arrival, at Cabot.

We stayed in double lodge rooms at Cabot Resort, each a 30-second walk from the Pro Shop, and a step from the light rough bordering 1 or 18.  Because I’m not really a travel writer, and because this whole trip was a joint Christmas and Birthday present to me from my sons (love ya, guys!), I can’t tell you what the room tariff was because I was prevented from knowing.  It wasn’t cheap, I can assure you, and from what I could tell, there are no Hampton Inns or mini-Marriotts down the road offering competitive options.  But if you don’t stay on the property at Cabot, you’ll miss half the pleasure of the experience… the morning view from your west-facing room, across three fairways down to the ocean, is gorgeous and highly motivating, and the evening sunset version of the same vista just makes life worth living.  Providing, of course, you’re lucky enough to have the sunshine.

The other benefit of staying right on the property is that your tummy can be most suitably filled without having to walk more than 100 steps.  The Cabot Bar, twenty steps from the 18th green at the Links, is a perfect 19th hole, with pub food if you’re too tired to walk upstairs.  Upstairs is the Panorama Restaurant, which is still informal but more upscale, with a view that would even make a bagel taste gourmet.  And about 100 steps further back from there is the Cabot Public House, with fine ales and pub food that seem like an oasis for your tired body and wind-dried palette.  I’m told there are a few fine options for dining off-property (and we did venture a hundred yards up the road to the Route 19 brewery and restaurant, which didn’t disappoint at all).  But I must admit, the site of three 30-something guys, and one 70-year-old (moi), basically crawling and moaning their way to their table after walking 36 holes would be somewhat off-putting to other diners, so we tended to stay on-site with the other crawlers and moaners.

Note to motor-cart lovers: you can only use a motor cart if you have Doctor’s approval.  The walk on Links is not arduous, the walk on Cliffs is more challenging.  Push carts are complimentary, but the best way to enjoy the golf is to walk with a caddie carrying your bag.  Most of the looper lads (and a few ladies) are local, and their conversation only adds to the depth of your experience.  Caddie fees range from $50-$70, plus tip.  Well worth it.

As it happened, our two days of golf were blessed with three seasons’ worth of weather.  We had rain and wind on our first morning round on the Cliffs.  The wind picked up, but the clouds dried up for our afternoon round on the Links.  Next day, we had sun and chill in the morning on the Links, but by the back nine, we were in shorts and short sleeves, which carried over into our afternoon round at the Cliffs, until we were forced to put the sweaters back on for the final few holes as it got dark.  (Note to the moron playing in front of us: as the sun went down and we all hoped to finish in daylight, hitting five tee-shots on the postcard par-3 16th hole was not appreciated by our group or those behind us.  I’m sorry if you were offended by the name I called you. Eventually, thanks to you, none of us could see our approach shots into 18.)

This, I was told, is typical Cape Breton weather, at least for eight months of the year, and we were fine with it.

Now to the golf…

Cabot Links alone is as good as any links course I’ve played in the United Kingdom.  I haven’t yet been to the Republic of Ireland or the north of Scotland, but I’ve done all the Must-Plays from Carnoustie to The Old Course to Turnberry to Birkdale to Royal St. George’s to County Down to Portrush… 14 in all.  Five holes here border the ocean, but you can see the water from all remaining 13.  It’s exhilarating, a word I don’t often use.

Course architect Rod Whitman must’ve thought he’d arrived in heaven when he first looked at the raw property here.  What he’s created is pure links golf… no gimmicks, no ha-ha got-ya’s, just solid golf hole after solid golf hole.  I have no idea how many bulldozers created the golfing ground, but you get the sense that none were needed.  My younger companions are all fine players, and were happy playing the green tees, which measure 6455 yards.  I’m too old for that, so the silver blocks (6020) were fine for me and allowed me to keep up with the boys.

What I loved about Links was the generosity of the fairways, even though I’m a straight driver.  I realized that wide fairways keep the pace of play steady, even for high handicappers ahead, and provide a real premium for accurate mid-iron approaches from many angles.  In two days and 72 holes, I don’t think I once complained about a bad or unlucky bounce, which is often a by-product of links.  I’m sure they’re there, because there are lots of bumps, but my ball got fair breaks everywhere.

My sons will tell you I moaned non-stop about putting, however.  As I do.  But we all found the greens fast and confounding, but certainly not unfair.  It helps if you can read grains – which I can’t after 65 years of experience – to avoid being hornswoggled by a fast first putt and a slow come-backer.

Still, I had two good scores on the Links, and I’ll be forever proud and grateful.

Cabot Cliffs was harder for me, partly because of the weather, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d say this one was just slightly more memorable because of the drama it provides to the eye and to the challenge.  Portstewart in Northern Ireland may have the most breath-taking, consecutive front nine holes I’ve ever played, but Cabot Cliffs is the most spectacular 18-hole layout I’ve ever walked upon.

Every single hole is fabulous – stunning to see, yet requiring serious thought before the backswing, skill on the strike, and hope on the outcome.  Add the prevailing west wind, and you’ll feel a real sense of accomplishment on every good result.  It’s a true links course for sure, but like many links, Cliffs also provides some inland holes to remind you that hills and trees and big rocks and bogs can also come into play.  There’s a three-hole stretch – 13-15 – that takes you away from the ocean and up the landscape, that I think most players will tend to underrate because they turn your view from the water, but which may be the best threesome on the course, if not the whole country.  Also, back-to-back par-5s on the front that would fit into any of the great courses of the world.

But hell, THIS is one of the Great Courses of the World!  (I haven’t played any other Coore-Crenshaw layouts, but after Cliffs, I’m now on a mission.)

By the time you get to the postcard 16th, a par-3 over a gorge that bottoms out near China, you’ll think to yourself, HOW can this course be even better?  16 requires a short iron so it’s not a killer, but you have to brace yourself, and in so doing don’t take too much club because there ain’t a lot of depth to the hard-pan green.

Putt yourself out there, then take five steps to the 17th tee, and you might start hyperventilating at the view here.  This is an intimidating tee shot up the cliff, that then turns out to be a bit of a pussycat of a par-4, but you won’t know that till you get up and find your ball.  Two of our group didn’t like the hole much, two of us loved it.

And finally, you get to 18, a 500-yarder that offers a fairly soft landing to your flight, as long as you keep your ball straight, and savour the excitement of what you’ve just been through.  The final hole caresses the ocean from tee to green, throwing in a chasm to avoid along the way, just to keep you honest.  You might have a lump in your throat at the end of it all, just for the sheer joy that (I hope) you’ve felt for the last four hours.

I’ve played a lot of golf courses.  Cabot Cliffs is not number one in my book (that honour remains with the Old course at Sunningdale), but it may now be number two… and it is certainly the top layout in Canada, in my view.  (For once, I agree with ScoreGolf’s ratings!)

Cabot Links is squarely in my Top Ten.

I’m trying to come up with a witty or pithy close for this essay, but I’m afraid I just have to borrow one… when it comes to Cabot, “for the love of golf, GO.”

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