Inverness, Nova Scotia – Anticipation is building. It's Sunday May 19th, and I am en route from Halifax to Inverness, where I will spend a couple of days at Cabot Links. The buzz about this course that opened on June 29th, 2012 has been intense and widespread. A retired fellow I know only as John, who works for Cabot, and his friend Bert, who works in maintenance in a new local nursing home, picked me and my wife Nell up at the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax. The drive through Nova Scotia, where one is never more than 55 km from the ocean, will take about three and a half hours.
We pass signs that point to Bible Hill, and Monastery. Now we are very near Inverness; I know this because I see a sign for the Glenora Inn & Distillery. Up a hill, and there's the links, made real on an old mining site by Toronto-born Ben Cowan-Dewar, with financial and moral support from Mike Keiser. Keiser knows the appeal of remote golf at the edge of the sea. He's the creative fellow behind Bandon Dunes in Bandon, Oregon, where the game is about walking and wandering on terrain and holes that invite the golfer to play with imagination; Keiser made his money in the greeting card business and believed there was a place in the game for golfers who want to walk and who see the game as an adventure. The fairways at Bandon are wide, as fairways should be; one must place shots carefully to get the best angle into where the holes are cut on the vast greens. The golf is welcoming; the game is for golfers of all abilities. One must think; the long ball is a help, but it's of much less importance than at courses that punish more than they please.
We turn into Cabot Links. The lodge overlooks the course, and each of the 48 rooms has a view of the links and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It's been cold since our arrival in Halifax on the Saturday of Victoria Day weekend, and it's still blustery but improving. In Halifax, the marathon is on. Runners were getting ready in the hotel lobby as we left. Now, at Cabot, I settle into our room. On one wall, there's a framed black and white photo of golfers at Royal St. David's in Wales, with Harlech Castle looming over the links. On another wall, the photo is of golfers at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. I step out on to the balcony of our room and see the 18th green to my right, the first tee straight ahead, with seven pull carts there for players, and, to my left, the hilltop fifth green. The ground heaves. The ball will bounce and run.
I have brought a set of only nine clubs, and a light Mackenzie Golf walking bag. I'm wearing a jacket with a Royal Dornoch logo that I picked up during one of my visits to the links an hour north of Inverness, Scotland, in the Highlands. I'll be back there in July before the Open Championship at Muirfield. I'll also attend the Aberdeen Asset Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, which happens to be in Scotland's Inverness. It, like Cabot Links, is a new links. I walked the property with co-designers Gil Hanse and Mark Parsinen (also the developer) while it was growing in. Hanse is designing the course in Rio de Janeiro that will host the golf competition during the 2016 Olympics.
Rod Whitman designed Cabot Links, with input from Keiser and Cowan-Dewar. He's involved in shaping the second course here, which is expected to open in 2015 and which will be called Cabot Cliffs. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are the architects. I'll see the property during this visit.
Before I head out for my round, Nell and I have lunch in the Cabot Bar, where floor to ceiling windows offer views of the links and the sea. I have the seafood chowder, which incorporates haddock, scallops, and lobster, all locally sourced, as is all the food here. Nell has a grilled vegetable panini. We each have a half-pint of Garrison Irish Red Ale, from the Garrison Brewing Co. in Halifax. This is all part of the experience at Cabot, in the same way as the food and lodging are part of the experience at Bandon Dunes.
It's time to get out on the course. The weather has warmed up to about seven degrees, and the wind has moderated from the near gale we felt in Halifax to something playable. Links golf allows one to play in the wind because the golfer can use the ground. There's only one forced carry at Cabot Links, and that over ground and not water and from a back tee. Island greens or fronting water hazards? No way.
Joe Robinson, the head professional, joins me for the round. Joe is 63, and he was the head pro at the famous Stanley Thompson-designed Highlands Links in Ingonish. Joe worked there for 39 years before Ben Cowan-Dewar came calling. Joe and I played Highlands nearly 20 years ago. Here we are again, ready to tee it up at Cabot. I have a caddie. This is Don Clarke, a former firefighter in Ontario. He lives most of the year in Brighton, Ont. an hour and a half east of Toronto. Clarke, 68, caddied for George Knudson in some Canadian Opens and in other tournaments around Ontario. He caddied for many other pros in Ontario as well. Don will tell me stories all the way around.
Because of more rain this spring than all of last year, the links is greener and lusher than Joe would prefer. But the ground will firm up; it will "brown" up. Meanwhile, the ball still does scoot along. On the par-four 13th, Don tells me I have 155 yards left to the hole after my drive. The wind is strong enough into my face that I need a knockdown shot. I'm carrying odd-numbered irons only, and so I choose a 3-iron. My swing feels more like a chip shot than a full swing, but it comes off as I want, turning right to left toward the hole and running up into the middle of the green.
"That's a links shot," Joe says. We walk along. Don tells me that Knudson liked to sing while he played, and that he was a good singer. I knew George well, but I didn't know that.
We walk along, and finish our round in two hours and 45 minutes. I don't worry much about fast play or slow play. I prefer the former, but try not to get worked up about the latter. I always think of something Knudson told me. "People get all worked up about slow play," he said. "The way I see it, it just means spending a longer time in a nice place."
I part company with Joe and Don, and return to my room to catch the last hour of the HP Byron Nelson Classic. Nell and I then enjoy dinner in the Panorama Restaurant above the Cabot Bar, as the sun lowers and night settles over the course. We learn more about the town and the course from Logan Taylor, our waiter. More later about Logan, his 94-year-old grandfather Wallace, and our dinner. Suffice it for now to repeat what Logan told us.
"This little town is coming back to life [because of Cabot Links], and it's nice to see,' Logan says. "Look at it out there. Isn't it gorgeous?"
It is. I'm happy to be here, and I'm excited about my next walk on the links. What better way to spend Victoria Day weekend, than at Cabot Links in Cape Breton?
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein