At the base of the Selkirk Mountains in southeastern British Columbia, the band is back together.
There’s golf and tourism developer Ben Cowan-Dewar, the driving force behind Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton. There’s Brad Allen, the former superintendent at Cliffs and assistant at Banff Springs, Canada’s first- and seventh-ranked designs. And there’s architect/sage Rod Whitman, with a sheaf of Canada’s best modern courses to his name.
Every bit of their collective expertise counts because the stakes at Cabot’s new project in Revelstoke are very high. The team’s open ambition is to build a course that rivals Banff Springs and Jasper Park in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta for the title of Canada’s best mountain golf course.
Allen is touring me through a rough-cut clearing below Mount Mackenzie. A flagstick is sticking out of the muck, marking the approximate spot where the 14th green of the new course, to be called Cabot Pacific, will eventually sit. But there is some debate over exactly where it should go. It’s one of a thousand finicky decisions yet to be made.
“Where do you want it to be? Where would you put it?” asks Allen, who is managing the construction project at Revelstoke. He truly isn’t sure where the green will end up, and he wants to hear my rationale. For an amateur design enthusiast like me, it’s like being asked to consult on a Picasso at the sketch stage.
In truth, my meagre ideas will almost certainly have zero influence over the future 14th. These decisions will get made by Whitman’s team and Cowan-Dewar, who have already proven themselves to be more than adept at making them in Cape Breton, where Whitman designed Cabot Links, Canada’s No. 5-ranked course in ScoreGolf magazine’s new rankings, and lent a substantial hand in helping old colleagues Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw shape No. 1-ranked Cabot Cliffs.
For Cowan-Dewar, 43, and his burgeoning Canadian tourism brand, it’s a fresh stake in the ground. Cabot Cape Breton was an unlikely success story, a remote golf project that barely survived the dark days of the 2008 financial crisis. But it transformed Nova Scotia’s tourism outlook, elevated Canadian golf’s international reputation and made an international name for the native of Kingston, working in partnership with American developer Mike Keiser, 76, of Bandon Dunes fame.
Cowan-Dewar’s empire is expanding to 10 courses at five properties: There’s Revelstoke, likely to open in 2024. There are the two full-length courses plus a new par-three course in place in Cape Breton. There are three courses of varying lengths at Cabot Citrus Farms in Florida, a redevelopment of the former World Woods complex. There’s Point Hardy in St. Lucia, a buzzy piece of eye candy that travel enthusiasts are slavering to see finished for 2023. And now there’s Castle Stuart in northern Scotland, officially added to the portfolio the morning I left Revelstoke this summer, with one highly regarded existing course and another to come soon from American designer Tom Doak.
The opportunity is also not lost on Whitman, a soft-spoken 67-year-old native Albertan. Whitman has mostly flown under the radar in his home country for decades, working around the world for big-name American designers like Coore and Crenshaw and Pete Dye, while Canadians including Tom McBroom, Doug Carrick, Graham Cooke and Les Furber built out this country’s last golf-course boom.
But Whitman’s work at Cabot took him mainstream, and if Cabot Pacific meets the team’s lofty expectations, he will have had a distinct hand in five of Canada’s top 20 course designs. The top of that list would be dominated by Whitman (Cabot Links and Cliffs, plus Blackhawk, south of Edmonton, and Sagebrush, west of Kelowna), national icon Stanley Thompson (Banff, Jasper, Highlands Links, Capilano, St. George’s, Westmount) and Englishman Harry Colt (Toronto, Hamilton), one of the most influential golf-course designers in history.
Whitman is on site during my visit, having driven six hours from his home in Vancouver to convene with the rest of the Cabot team, including Cowan-Dewar, Allen and design partners Keith Cutten and Dave Axland. Whitman is typically given to wry observation more than self-promotion, but it’s clear he’s considered the legacy aspect of this project.
“That’s the idea, to build something that rivals Banff Springs,” he says. “It’s exciting to have a crack at a Banff or Jasper of our own.” He describes visiting Banff, three hours to the east, for the first time as a 12-year-old. He sat dumbstruck as his father drove him up the entrance drive to the course, pinched by two mountains, two rivers and the castle-like Banff Springs hotel. He returned later in his teens and was captivated by the imposing visuals of Thompson’s old first tee, now the 15th, where guests launch drives across the Spray River toward the hulking Mount Rundle.
For him, Cabot Pacific won’t be about aping the style or holes of Banff or Jasper – or West Vancouver’s private-club entrant, Capilano. It’ll be about matching their quality.
The mountain peaks loom large at both Banff and Jasper, but for all their majesty, both courses are relatively flat, on valley floors. By contrast, Cabot Revelstoke rambles over – and plunges off – a strip of benchland that lies below Mount Mackenzie and above the floor of the Columbia River. It’s already proving to be much more of an engineering project than its famous cousins.
As I walk the land with them on consecutive days, Allen, Whitman, Axland and Cutten point out slopes that will need significant cuts and fills to make level fairways, and rocky outcroppings that will need to be either gently exposed or completely dynamited. Giant stacks of timber and cut brush lie in stacks around the property. Some of these will get incinerated and some will get sold. Revelstoke gets plenty of precipitation, and everywhere, the cleared areas are sprouting patches of giant ferns.
Whitman likens the project to a rainforest golf course he worked on in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, in the 1990s. But instead of deadly tropical snakes, the Cabot team keeps a watchful eye out for the Canadian equivalent: black bears. Walking the 18th fairway, Cutten, Axland and Whitman joke that a bear could only ever ingest two of them at a time – the odds are good that at least one of the three will survive to put their name on the course as architect of record.
Like Banff and Jasper, Cabot Pacific is shaping up to be defined by a handful of dramatic short holes. Between the visuals and the challenging terrain, par threes are probably the easiest kind of holes to build in the mountains, and Cabot Pacific’s eighth is bound to be a topic of conversation among those who play it. From the back tees, it will be a whopping 230-yard carry across a ball-swallowing chasm, although most players will tackle it from something more like 170. It’s such a striking spot that it could also work played backward. The 17th will be another frequently photographed hole, plunging from a high point across a boulder-strewn gorge to a green site backed by long views of snow-dusted Mount Macpherson.
Revelstoke’s famous snow has already made it a thriving winter ski and heli-ski destination, so the new Cabot operation will fit snugly into a pre-existing tourism footprint. The Trans-Canada Highway and Canadian Pacific rail line both bisect the town. Mount Revelstoke National Park rises to the north and Glacier National Park is just down the road. Downtown is already studded with hotels, restaurants and craft beer pubs. Revelstoke’s small airport is less than a kilometre from the first tee, although for now the play is to fly into Kelowna, two hours to the southeast.
Cabot is partnering with Northland Properties and Revelstoke Mountain Resort to develop the golf course. New Cabot-branded lodging and real estate are in the works, aimed at destination travellers and vacation-home buyers. A road is being rerouted to accommodate the course, and one of Whitman’s tasks will be to insulate a small meadow of holes from views of a nearby condo development.
A top-20 golf course would drive a new summer economy for Revelstoke, whose official tourism plan (subtitled “The Real Stoke”) makes the development of year-round infrastructure a priority: more rooms and more things to do. Revelstoke’s existing municipal golf facility is already projecting fuller tee sheets after the new course opens and starts luring destination tourists in 2024 or 2025.
For now, the Cabot band is fully focused on the tasks at hand. Permits need approvals. A bird expert is on site, studying nesting sites. Allen is jumping into the truck to give another tour to a new visitor.
But Cowan-Dewar’s mentor and business partner, Keiser, has always evangelized the idea that destination golf requires not one but two courses to be successful – that 1+1=3. Maybe Revelstoke’s plus-one is another course – Cowan-Dewar has already scouted the area for additional land. Or maybe it’s a bigger piece of the winter tourism economy that the town has already built. I prod a bit, asking Cowan-Dewar just how ambitious his plans are for Revelstoke and for the brand.
“One piece at a time, Guy,” he says, eyes twinkling.
The writer travelled as a guest of Cabot, which did not review or approve this article.
Mountain classics revisited
Jasper Park Lodge
Jasper Park Lodge was Stanley Thompson’s first major design coup when it opened in 1925, funded by Canadian National Railroad money. The bulging bunkers, alpine grassing and clever hole concepts, aligned to distant peaks, revealed Thompson’s flamboyance – his ninth hole, nicknamed “Cleopatra,” had to be dialled back to make the view from the tee less overtly voluptuous. But it made Thompson’s name and set the young Canadian on track for a long and fruitful career. It rests easily beside the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, which at 100 years old this summer still manages to be simultaneously rustic and luxurious. The estate cabins beside Lac Beauvert offer postcard views and ready access to rental paddleboards, kayaks and canoes.
Thompson believed Jasper was “unspeakably beautiful,” but when Canadian Pacific came calling for more of the same at Banff, Thompson outdid himself. He reimagined the existing course and built another mountain masterpiece, unveiled in 1928, with flashed sand traps and immense fairways, scaled to compete with their dizzying surroundings. Today’s fourth hole, “Devil’s Cauldron,” remains the stuff of magazine covers to this day – a dizzying plunge across a glacial lake to a bowled green at the very foot of Mount Rundle. The clubhouse and first tee connect by shuttle to the restaurants, terraces, lounges, shops and conference facilities of the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, built with limestone quarried from the same peak. The audacious hotel, Fairmont’s “castle in the Rockies,” offers heroic views of the Bow River Valley and nearby peaks.
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