Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links: A world apart in Nova Scotia


INVERNESS, Nova Scotia — As the Titleist flies, it’s about 2,400 miles from Nova Scotia to Old Scotia, a distance that melts away as you drive down Central Avenue in Inverness. Many a small Scottish town gives a sense of having grown around its golf course, as though a reminder of what came first. In Inverness, perched on the western coast of Cape Breton Island, the golf course also swaddles the main street, but here it’s more a signal of what comes next.

The last coal was mined here a half-century ago, leaving behind a town to wither on the vine. Today there are a handful of boutique businesses on Central Avenue, all looking across the street at the reason for their existence: Cabot Links.

It has been eight years since Cabot Links opened. There was one course back then, the eponymous layout designed by Rod Whitman, who had earned his spurs working with Pete Dye, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and who won plaudits for work north of the border, like Blackhawk, Wolf Creek and Sagebrush. That was mere prelude to his finest work, which came atop this disused coal mine flush against the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Links, which is ranked No. 2 on Golfweek’s Best list of modern Canadian courses, begins and ends in the center of Inverness. In between, it tumbles down to the harbor of MacIssac’s Pond then doubles back along the beachfront. Throughout it is eerily evocative of its antecedents across the Atlantic in that the most interesting part of a ball’s journey begins after it hits the ground and starts riding heaving contours.

The thoughtfulness behind the design is apparent early. The long par-3 second hole sports a Biarritz green. The sixth is a beguiling Cape hole wrapped around the aforementioned pond. The 14th is a drop-shot par 3 set green against the Gulf, just 102 yards, its defense just a couple of pot bunkers that somehow find their way to the forefront of one’s mind on the tee. There are blind shots, a double green, perilous hazards, rumpled fairways that hug the coastline and the most Scottish touch of all: an 18th green perched barely a gimme from the bar.

Cabot Links as seen from the sea (Courtesy of Cabot Golf)

Cabot Cliffs, ranked No. 1 on Golfweek’s Best list of modern Canadian courses, is just a couple miles down the street from Links but in many respects feels a world away. While Links is low-profile and subtle, Cliffs is quite the opposite. It’s high-profile — literally, it sits on a dramatic site well above the shore — and as in-your-face as quality golf course design gets, a series of ever higher notes that culminates in a clifftop crescendo that rivals anything you’ll find in golf. Anywhere. Yet the same guiding principle of links golf applies: using the contours to reach one’s destination. 

Cliffs was designed by Coore and Crenshaw and stands fair comparison with anything else they have produced. The closing holes get all the attention here. No. 16 is a short par 3 (from the sane tees) that sits on a rocky clifftop outcropping. That’s followed by a reachable par 4 with a tee shot that’s entirely blind — just pick your spot above the cliff-face and rip it. The closer is a par 5 that can be had even by medium hitters.

No. 9 on Cabot Cliffs (Courtesy of Cabot Golf)

No. 16 is the most photographed and a fun little hole, but far from my favorite. That would be the second, another short 4 with an enormously wide fairway and a green tucked over a marsh and fronted by a dune. It’s a unique hole that reinforces the value of angles: The fairway is hard to miss, but being on the right side of it for the pin location is even more important, and essential to success. You won’t see the likes of it anywhere else.

That’s a recurring thought at Cliffs, which is no mean feat on a course that has six par 5s, six 4s and six 3s. That can be a dangerous gambit for designers — toss in a reachable 4 and that’s a lot of one-shotters — but here it never feels as though you’re answering the same question twice. Picking highlights at Cabot Cliffs is like snatching snowflakes from a blizzard.

The sublime Cape at the fifth; the semi-blind par-3 sixth that echoes the Dell at Lahinch in Ireland; the stout par-3 12th, where the smart play is often using the slope right of the green to feed in a shot between the bunkers; the shorter par-3 14th, its front bunker dominated by a large boulder that the architects opted to leave in place. There is scarcely a dull shot to be found here, which is not often said of modern courses.

No. 14 on Cabot Links (Courtesy of Cabot Golf/Jacob Sjöman)

Cabot Links remains a resort in progress. Whitman is back on site now designing The Nest, a 10-hole, par-3 course just inland from Cliffs that opens in July 2020. Work is also underway on the Cliffs clubhouse, along with more accommodations. A spa will follow in time, not that it’s necessary. The folks eager to walk 36 a day at Cabot tend to find their balm at the bar, not on a massage table.

What distinguishes Cabot Links from its Scottish roots is the style factor. The rooms and cottages have an upscale design aesthetic, more comfortable than the comparatively spartan offering at Bandon Dunes, for example. The Panorama restaurant overlooks the Links course, and the food matches the view, while the Cabot Public House menu is more down-home. 

If you need those elements that tend to clutter the experience in so many places — lush, over-tended courses, luxurious spas, more restaurants than you have nights on property — try someplace else. There is an authenticity to the Cabot Links experience. Nothing is overdone. No needless bells and whistles. If you love golf, it’s all you need. And all you’ll want.

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