Cabot Links puts Cape Breton on map

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It is, fittingly, named after one of the first explorers to set sights on this scenic slice of land.

More than five centuries after Italian navigator John Cabot spotted the wind-swept island from his ship, Cabot Links has put Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton on the international map of must-see golf destinations.

Designed by Alberta boy Rod Whitman on an old coal-mining site, Cabot Links has been open for less than a month and is widely considered a shoo-in to be named the best new course in Canada — and likely, anywhere in the world — this year.

The flags are already stuck in the ground, but the modern-day explorers are arriving with their Callaways and Footjoys to find out what all the fuss is about.

“It seems like in the early days, it’s the bell cows or the scouts that go out for their buddies,” marvelled Ben Cowan-Dewar, the Ontario-raised founder and managing partner of Cabot Links.

“The feedback we’ve been getting is so positive, and that’s really the most rewarding thing. You hear, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be back with seven of my buddies’ or ‘I’ll be back with 11 of my buddies.’ I think, obviously, that’s exactly how Bandon Dunes grew to become what it has been — because the early scouts loved what they saw and returned in droves with their pals.

“It feels like that’s what we’re seeing. Time will tell, but we’re pretty excited about the early response.”

Cowan-Dewar certainly isn’t the first guy to mention the brand-new setup in the sleepy town of Inverness, N.S., in the same breath as Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, and the comparisons are not far-fetched.

In fact, Cabot Links has been occasionally called Bandon East.

Cowan-Dewar’s business partner on the project is Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser, the brains behind what’s now ranked as the No. 1 golf resort in the North America and considered the definitive proof golf nuts will go great distances to tee it up at a special place.

Like the five courses at Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links is an authentic links layout, considered the first of its kind in Canada by the purists and historians of the sport.

Like Bandon Dunes, it has all the necessary resort amenities — rooms, restaurant, kegs of ice-cold Alexander Keith’s — on site.

Like Bandon Dunes, it’s a long ways to go for just one round of golf, but there are already plans for a second course on the cliffs of Inverness, which would be mapped out by the design duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw — the creators of Bandon Trails and Bandon Preserve — and could be under construction as soon as next spring.

“Bandon is the greatest golf resort in the world,” Cowan-Dewar said. “It’s become so iconic, so I love when we’re compared to it. And I think there are a lot of similarities.”

Unlike Oregon’s jagged coastline, though, Cape Breton was already home to a golf course worth going out of your way to get to.

Designed by the late, great Stanley Thompson, Highlands Links was rated sixth on SCOREGolf Magazine’s most recent ranking of the Top 100 Courses in Canada. Better yet, it was included in Golf Magazine’s latest list of the Top 100 Courses in the World, one of only two tracks anywhere in the Great White North that can make that claim. It’s only a matter of time before Cabot Links, with views of the ocean from every hole, becomes the third.

Zig-zagging through Cape Breton Highlands National Park and operated by Parks Canada, Highlands Links boasts the same combination of scenery, challenge and intrigue as Thompson’s treasured layouts at Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.

As a result of an extensive improvement and restoration project completed over the past few years, the bunkers and greens now look a lot like they did when the first pins were cut in 1941. Selective stacks of trees have also been cleared to open up the original views of the ocean and mountains.

A life-sized statue of Thompson will be installed in September near the starter shack and there have even been whispers about changing the name of the course back to Cape Breton Highlands, especially with a legitimate links course now in the same part of the province.

“We just wanted to bring back that spirit of the course,” explained manager of operations Graham Hudson, who helped spearhead the makeover of Highlands Links.

“Over time, with so many people tinkering with it, it had lost some of its shine. It’s a major tourism draw, and it’s going to complement Cabot Links. It just all made good sense to keep the product as good as we can, and the best way to do that was to bring it back to the original form.”

For years, golfers have been planning summer getaways to Cape Breton to cross Highlands Links off their bucket lists.

With Cabot Links generating almost-unprecedented buzz, there are twice as many reasons to justify the flight to Halifax and a few hours in the rental car. There is also regional service to Sydney and Port Hawkesbury, a bit closer to the action.

Separated by a two-hour drive on a scenic stretch of highway named for you-know-who, out-of-towners would be crazy to take their clubs to Cape Breton without booking tee-times at both.

“Highlands Links was one of my favourite courses anywhere before I started this,” Cowan-Dewar said. “I think Keiser’s line is ‘One course is a curiosity, two is a destination,’ and I think that’s true. We love Highlands Links, we love the Cabot Trail that connects us, and I think we’ve suddenly created a pretty strong golf destination.”

For more information, visit to www.golfcapebreton.com.

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