Fergal O'Leary's trip around the Cabot Trail

Fergal O’Leary’s trip around the Cabot Trail

Fergal continues his quest to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. He recently travelled along the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, Canada.

July 2013

Cabot Links
With just 12 months of operation under its belt as an 18-hole golf course, Cabot Links has already established itself as Canada’s only authentic links with a breath-taking future ahead of it. Nestled between the rural town of Inverness and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the golf course offers a magnificent view of the ocean from each hole and certainly gets your heart beating. There is a welcomed sense of convenience and reward at this isolated club. Golfers have everything they need in one spot and with world-class accommodations and cuisine onsite, all you’re literally left to worry about is how many shots you have to give on each side! Ben Cowan Dewar partnered with Mike Keiser and first visited the land in late 2004. Most of the usable links land in the world has been developed and the few remaining pieces of land have been snapped up (e.g.: Castle Stuart and Trump International). During our visit, we had the great fortune of playing the course three times, each of them vastly different from each other. Our first round was in a 35mph wind from the black tees at 6,854 yards, followed by two more rounds from the green tees at 6,455 yards with different wind directions each time. Mother Nature ensures that most shots will be played along the ground, and if you don’t instinctively know how to hit a low stinger, then don’t worry, the links at Inverness will quickly force you to figure it out. The entire golf course is made from fescue grass seed. One impact that this has on such a young course is that the greens are never going to get above 8.5 on the stimp metre (by design). There is so much undulation on the greens, and the slower speeds actually contribute to faster play. Once you convince yourself to hit the putts a little harder than you want to, you’ll appreciate what the architects were doing with the fescue feature.

Cabot LinksOn first glance, the course looks nicely packed between the town and the nearby oceanfront, but it’s only until you get out on the property that you realise how vast it is. There are huge distances between some of the parallel fairways as the land tumbles all around you. The 10th and 11th holes are even across a road on a somewhat separate piece of land surrounding Mac Isaac’s Pond offering some of the best holes at Cabot. With the wind flapping in your clothes and the waves hurdling towards you, this golf course is an incredible experience and is a tough slog despite being just 6,854 yards from the tips. On the front side, the 2nd hole is the index 1 par five measuring 620 yards which we somewhat farcically played into the wind. It’s not too often you hit a driver followed by two 1 irons just to get to a green in regulation. The 3rd moves away from the clubhouse, with the 4th and 5th bringing you back in. The fairness of this golf course is that although a par four may be 450 yards into the wind, you rarely have two holes back-to-back in the same direction. The architects made brilliant use of the prevailing wind while imagining the routing, and yet maintaining an awareness of golfer’s playability. The first par three is the 7th hole, but it measures 247 yards from the tips. With the wind howling in our face, out came the drivers once again. We joked walking towards the understated Biarritz green that “when was the last time you hit driver on the opening 7 holes of a golf course, including a par three?!”. This hole really grew on us and its topology is wonderfully incorporated into the surrounding dunes. As the hole is so long and the holes don’t have descriptions in the yardage book, the Biarritz hits you by surprise and offers fabulously challenging pin positions.

The 450-yard 9th hole has a tight tee shot between bunkers and its raised green only adds to the yardage for the approach, inevitably into the wind. There was an understandable feeling of exhaustion after just nine holes of breathtaking golf. The anticipation for the back nine was off the charts and it didn’t disappoint. Once you cross the road and behold the par three 10th hole, you’re greeted by a green wonderfully fitted into a splendid back-drop with brutal fall offs all around the dance floor. It’s a very large green complex and at 178 yards from the back tee, it could be a two club green. Yes, Cabot Links even has a Cape hole. This Cape hole doglegs sharply left around an estuary filled with local fishing boats. Bite off as much as you want, you’ll still have a tough approach shot no matter what. The fishing nets probably have as many golf balls as fish! Crossing the road brings you back to the par three 12th hole. This hole was recently reconstructed and moved to its current location. The green is pushed back closer to the water and despite a 192-yard tee shot, the hole has a punishing fall off the back side down a slope towards the hay. We learned to play the front yardage and pray that it holds up. This is true links golf!

Cabot LinksThe 13th is parallel to the 4th and they have a shared green. It’s wonderful to see this unique feature and draws an immediate comparison with the Old Course. With only thirteen holes played, it’s arguable that the best is just unfolding. Who would think that the town of Inverness would offer a 95-yard downhill par three playing towards the Gulf? In my opinion, it’s more spectacular than the 7th at Pebble Beach. Words don’t do justice to this treacherous hole. Everybody talks about it and everybody looks forward to it. Short is death, left or right isn’t much better and if you go long, you may as well pack a wet suit. The vista is stunning and the demand for a perfect “chip” would give you heart palpitations. The 15th and 16th are the signature holes running along the water with fairways pitching towards the waves and most of your photographs will come from this spot of land. As mentioned above, you cover a serious amount of land on your way around the routing, with each hole being a complement to its predecessor. Making the turn for home gets you up to the par three 17th green with a long iron before you prepare yourself for the toughest 18th hole I’ve ever played in my life. Index 2 at 475 yards into the wind to a narrow plateau fairway, leaving you a very long club into a narrow green which sits just inches from the glass clubhouse! It’s the type of championship finishing hole where par feels like eagle. I still shiver just thinking about the tee shot and then things don’t really improve when you stare down a 250-yard approach with nothing in your favour. The deep bunkers don’t help either; although they are wonderfully created and each throughout the course is as natural as the landscape.

When I aggregate the design variety, the challenge, the hospitality, the passion, the adventure and the sheer brilliance to create an authentic links course, Cabot Links made me weak at the knees. The long drive from Halifax is worth it, but hopefully more convenient flight schedules will become available in the future to airports closer to the facility. With Cabot Cliffs destined to make its debut in 2015, the town of Inverness better prepare itself for a global golfing invasion. I was delighted to hear that Cabot Cliffs will have a driving range, which is probably the only feature that is missing from Cabot Links. Being in Nova Scotia on ‘Canada Day’ and getting to experience all the joys of Canadian traditions, means my next visit up along the Cabot Trail is just a matter of time.

Highlands Links
Designated a national park in 1936, Cape Breton Highlands covers 950 square kilometers and is one of the largest protected wilderness areas in Nova Scotia. Cape Breton Highlands National Park is part of a system of national parks protecting significant landscapes throughout Canada. The park is known for its spectacular highlands and ocean scenery. Steep cliffs and deep river canyons carve into a forested plateau bordering the Atlantic Ocean. One third of the Cabot Trail, a world-famous scenic highway, runs through the national park along the coasts and over the highlands. Inside the park is Highlands Links Golf Course routed along Ingonish Beach and is the creation of Stanley Thompson. Having being the mastermind behind splendid golf courses in other Canadian national parks, namely Banff and Jasper, Stanley Thompson was engaged to build 18 holes throughout the densely forested and rugged terrain of Cape Breton.

Having flown into Halifax airport, the sheer logistics of getting up to Highlands Links is mammoth. If you don’t like the option of connecting up to Sydney airport in a puddle-jumper, then get ready to spend time in the car. None the less, it’s all worth it and there’s always the chance to see a Canadian Moose along the way! An immediate observation about this course is that each hole has one thing in common: there’s a corridor of grass lined on both sides by tall trees. You’re either on the grass, or your ball is lost. Given that this is a municipal golf course with limited funding and run by park rangers, the maintenance of the fairway grass and the speed of the greens is something which you will just have to accept and focus more on the breathtaking landscape of the fairways and the spectacular nature of the green structures.

Highlands LinksBeing from Ireland, I loved the fact that each hole has a name of Irish/Scottish decent. Nova Scotia has a significant Irish/Scottish influence with many of the road-signs being written in both English and Gaelic. Even while speaking to the locals and hearing their accents, I felt like I could have been at Lahinch or Machrihanish! Never before have I played a parkland course with fairways that look like elephant burial grounds and pitch so dramatically from one side to the other. There is a continual ripple of bumps on each hole which begins right from the start. The 2nd hole is a downhill par four dogleg to the right and has been listed amongst the top 500 golf holes in the world. The downhill approach shot from a contoured lie makes this 447-yard hole a total adventure. The golf course offers a string of challenging short par fours, some of which only an iron is required off the tee. It’s amazing how Thompson created so many short holes that either the tee shot or the approach shot is blind. For example, I fell in love with the 324-yard 4th hole called “Heich O’Fash” which means Heap of Trouble. The green sits up high above the fairway in an upside down saucer shape and heavily bunkered. You can’t see the bottom of the flag, even with a 70-yard approach shot. The par three 5th hole was my favourite single shot hole on the course. It’s 164 yards downhill to a shallow, almost punchbowl green with a deep swale in front which repels balls that land short. Tremendous fun! You quickly begin to realise why this course is listed amongst the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. The par five 6th hole called Mucklemouth Meg has been listed as amongst the top 100 holes in world. The dogleg right takes you around the Clyburn River with wonderful bunker complexes lining the left-hand side. It’s a glorious sight from the elevated tee box, especially with a backdrop to render you speechless.

Highlands LinksThe back nine continues to deliver world-class short and long holes running in all directions. To think that horses pulled their way through the forests to cut out the holes all those decades ago is mind-blowing. The pitch on some of the fairways would even be difficult for today’s technology and machinery. Golf courses like this couldn’t be built today and it reminded me a lot of the charming nature of Swinley Forest. It’s a complete step back in time and the simple nature of the operation is a very welcomed break from the luxuries of many of the world’s top clubs. People here can put their shoes on at the back of the car and get right down to business. No shoe shine service or valet parking required here. If it wasn’t for the 5 hours and 10 minutes it took for our two-ball to play the course in a golf buggy, we could have played 54 holes in a heartbeat. I was enjoying myself so much that it broke my heart to finish the round. We all wanted to go straight back out, but we’ll just have to wait until next time. Please make every effort to visit this masterpiece as the renovations have done wonders to bring it back to its very best. Many of the tee boxes have a photograph of the hole from 1941, so you can compare how the hole looked over 70 years ago. If you don’t fall head over heels in love with Highlands Links, then you don’t love golf.

Article written by our US Consultant, Fergal O'Leary, who continues his mission to become the youngest person to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. Images of Cabot Links and Highlands Links courtesy of Cabot Links and Highlands Links.