Has any Canadian golf course been more eagerly anticipated than Cabot Links?
Touted as the country's first true links, the dramatic seaside layout on Cape Breton's west coast is set to become an international flagship for the struggling Canadian golf industry and, not incidentally, the saviour of Inverness, a former mining town that has seen hard times since the coal shafts closed in 1953.
Built on land uncovered when the sea receded and designed more by Mother Nature than man, a true links (such as Scotland's famous Old Course) is characterized by sandy soil, undulating terrain and native vegetation. There are fewer than 250 true links courses in the world, and almost all are found in Scotland, Ireland and England. Cabot Links - which will open 10 holes July 23 for preview rounds in anticipation of the official launch next spring - joins just four other courses in North America that are generally considered to qualify for the designation.
"Cabot Links could be the biggest thing to happen to Canadian golf in years," says Stephen Johnston, the president of Global Golf Advisors, a Toronto-based consultancy firm. "The recession has brought golf-course construction almost to a standstill across North America. Cabot Links is a real shot in the arm for golf in Cape Breton and Canada."
Cape Breton, a ruggedly beautiful island of charming villages and spectacular vistas along the Cabot Trail, has long ranked among Canada's top golf destinations. Located in the quiet north shore community of Ingonish is Highlands Links, a Stanley Thompson-designed masterpiece that has anchored Maritimes golf since 1941 but which, despite its name, is not a true links. Rounding out a strong roster are Bell Bay Golf Club, The Lakes Golf Club, Le Portage Golf Club and Dundee Resort and Golf Club.
But from the moment it opens, Cabot Links is almost certain to rival even the fame of Highlands Links, which Golf Magazine has ranked as high as 57th among the world's top courses.
Constructed between the town and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cabot Links sprawls along a wind-buffeted shoreline that trails down into the dunes along the ocean and then back to higher ground. Each hole of the subtly moulded and strategic design by Canadian architect Rod Whitman, best known for his work at Edmonton's Blackhawk Golf Club, offers panoramic sea views.
Especially memorable is the par-five second hole, where a well-protected green is set high on a dune. Just as good is the long par-four ninth, with the harbour running along the entire length of the fairway.
And destined to become one of Canada's signature holes is the diminutive 14th, a 102-yard par three featuring what's described as an "infinity green." All that's visible to the golfer from the tee is the green and the seemingly endless ocean.
Already under construction is an elegantly understated clubhouse overlooking the 18th green. And planned for completion in time for the opening of all 18 holes next spring is a string of 60 guest rooms.
When finally at full operation, Cabot Links will provide dozens of jobs for groundskeepers, caddies (in traditional links fashion, the course will be cart-free, except for those with medical conditions) and service staff in a community of 2,000 that has long dreamed of building a golf course as a way to revive the local economy.
The road to completion was littered with obstacles, but perseverance by key players is finally paying off: The provincial government cleaned old mine tailings off the site, Toronto entrepreneur Ben Cowan-Dewar bought the land and worked with Enterprise Cape Breton Corp. He was joined by Chicago businessman Mike Keiser - renowned for Bandon Dunes, a golf resort he financed on the Oregon coast that includes four championship courses, including three of North America's true links.
Inverness is already displaying the first signs of its anxiously awaited civic renewal. Stylish new houses are under construction, real-estate prices are climbing, and plans are afoot to spruce up the tired-looking main street.
"There's tremendous excitement in town," says Tom Ryan, a board member of the Inverness Development Association. "We always knew what an ideal piece of land this is for a links course."
Until now, local tourism has focused on tours of the nearby Glenora Inn and Distillery (Canada's only producer of single malt whisky), salmon fishing on the Margaree River, and the twice-weekly harness races at Inverness Raceway. Townspeople also boast that their beach offers the warmest ocean waters north of the Carolinas, reaching summertime highs of more than 20 C.
But soon golf may become as essential to the fabric of life in Inverness as it is in Scotland's St. Andrews.
Just as in that seaside town, glimpses of the green and rumpled links are visible from almost everywhere. A long public boardwalk extends between the beach and the fairways closest to the sea, enabling strollers in Inverness to feel a part of the action.
Land for a possible second course has already been purchased to the north of Inverness on a choice stretch of coastline cut by ravines and offering panoramic views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Links golf, the saviour, has come to Cape Breton.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: WestJet flies to Cape Breton's Sydney Airport direct from Toronto. Air Canada flies to Sydney via Halifax.
Where to stay: Glenora Inn and Distillery, 13 kilometres south of Inverness, offers comfortable rooms in the inn and in chalet cottages. Room rates from $169 a person. glenoradistillery.com
The courses: Cabot Links. Canada's first true links. Preview green fee: $54 for 10 holes; $40 in October and November. cabotlinks.com
Highlands Links. A Stanley Thompson-designed jewel in the town of Ingonish. Green fee: $89. highlandslinksgolf.com
Bell Bay Golf Club. An award-winning design by Tom McBroom in the resort town of Baddeck. Green fee: $79. bellbay.ca
The Lakes Golf Club. A rolling Graham Cooke design near Sydney. Green fee: $79. thelakesgolfclub.ca
Le Portage Golf Club. A beautifully conditioned and scenic layout in the Acadian community of Chéticamp. Green fee: $59. leportagegolfclub.com
Dundee Resort and Golf Club. The West Bay course's roller-coaster routing offers commanding views of the Bras d'Or Lakes. Green fee: $57. dundeegolfclub.com
For more information, visit golfcapebreton.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail