Nova Scotia, Canada
When Mike Keiser started poking around for land near a large body of water in the early 1990s, his friends chided him. When he settled on a parcel along the Oregon coast, his colleagues advised against such folly. Twenty years on Keiser’s name is associated with as many world top 100 courses as any architect!
So what do you do if you share Keiser’s vision for fun golf – a game best enjoyed on sandy soil by the sea and buffeted by the wind – but don’t have the financial wherewithal to pursue your own ‘dream golf’?
This was the very dilemma facing Ben Cowan Dewar in 2005 when he entered into an agreement with the town of Inverness on Cape Breton Island to develop a golf course along 160 acres of open space sprawled between the town and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cowan-Dewar needed to partner with the right person, someone who shared his vision and also had the resources to bring the project to fruition. Of course, Keiser is that man with the know-how to build walking only, public courses in remote settings that attract golfers in flock. Yet getting on his calendar is no small feat. Cowan-Dewar and I met in Chicago to lay out the opportunity with Keiser who ended up agreeing to meet us in Nova Scotia the following March to inspect the property.
Alas, the charms of the site were not on full display that gray March day in 2007. So much for the light sparkling off the water, sea gulls fluttering, and people strolling along the surf! Fortunately, Keiser saw past the winter aberrations and became intrigued by the project as well as the opportunity to purchase additional coastal land two miles north. Keiser clearly appreciated Cabot’s greatest asset: The sight of the ocean from every hole coupled with rhythmic waves resonating in the background.
Central to Keiser’s enthusiasm was the support that the project enjoyed with both the town of Inverness and regional government entities. In fact, the town had off and on since 1969 pursued the notion of building a course. Architects Graham Cooke and Jack Nicklaus had done routings but financial backing never materialized. Still, the town persevered and this time support came from the government. Similar to how the Keltic Lodge and the Cape Breton Highlands Golf Course on the northeast side of Cape Breton had attracted world travelers for seven decades, both the community and all levels of government felt that Cabot would also. Appreciative of an opportunity to work in harmony with both town and government, Keiser committed to the project.
With Keiser’s participation assured, Cowan-Dewar did something that few developers ever would: He moved his family to the project site. Relocating from Toronto to Inverness was the ultimate “all-in” committal and was shared by his wife, Allie, who abandoned her career. There could be no doubting their commitment to both the town and to Keiser. While Cowan-Dewar’s eye for architecture is as sharp as anyone (he is on track to become the youngest person to play the world top 100 courses as ranked by GOLF Magazine), he was unproven as a project manager. Yet, all that know him were sure that his passion, determination and work ethic would more than compensate for any lack of experience. By all measures that has proven to be the case.
Of course, central to any successful golf venture is matching the architect to the task at hand. In addition to partnering with Keiser, the employment of Canadian Rod Whitman created another cornerstone that ultimately ensured the project’s success. Well known in golf architecture circles as being one of the best “dirt guys” in the business, Whitman’s resume features several heralded designs in western Canada, including Sagebrush, Blackhawk and his first solo effort, Wolf Creek. All are ranked among the thirty best in Canada. Whitman’s mentor was Pete Dye but he had also worked closely with his friend Bill Coore on projects in Indonesia, France and on several of Coore & Crenshaw’s highest profile courses like Friar’s Head and Old Sandwich. Unlike many golf architects whose names appear on the office shingle, Whitman immerses himself personally in each project and does a lion share of the earth moving and shaping. Ultimately, what a developer gets when he hires Whitman is ….. Whitman!
Abandoned as a coal mine in the 1950s, the Cabot property is bordered by a long shoreline to the west, a working harbor southerly, and on the east by the town of Inverness. Views of the Margaree Island and of the Gillis Mountains are afforded to the north. For Whitman the canvas at Cabot represented the finest opportunity of his three decade long career and he was keen to show the world what golf insiders already knew. Following Cowan-Dewar’s lead, Whitman moved to Inverness and spent three years building the course, realizing that there were three broad objectives to meet in order to bring the best golf to this site.
First, there was the challenge of getting the golf to stand up to the dramatic coastal environment. Anyone can route holes along the sea but can the golfing quality of those holes match the setting? Seaside terrain is extremely precious and the critics’ knives would be out if the 2,600 yards of ocean frontage wasn’t utilized in a most inspiring manner.
Second, there was the necessity to have the holes that didn’t enjoy such natural blessings meld admirably with those that did. Obviously this is true with every course but here it was especially important because Cabot’s coastal holes reckoned to invite comparison with the best in the world. Indifferent inland holes would stand in marked contrast to the ocean ones and potentially devalue the entire course.
And third, there was the need to blend the remaining vestiges of the 1950s mining operation to that of a links course. Stark man-made features from the mining era needed to be softened and knitted harmoniously with the surrounding linksland.
Because of Keiser’s unflinching commitment to the project (and remember this was during the 2008 recession that gripped North America) and Cowan-Dewar and Whitman living on site, something special slowly emerged from the landscape. All eighteen holes opened for play on June 29th, 2012. The result is there for all to enjoy but it was the interactions between these three men that lead to something out of the ordinary being created.
Holes to Note
Please note: The vast majority of the photographs in the Holes to Note section are by Australian photographer David Scaletti. For more information on David’s work, please refer to his March 2008 Feature Interview.
First hole, 540/515 yards; In March 2007 when they first walked the property together, Keiser turned to Whitman and said, ‘What are you going to do here?’ The question was apropos because this and the next hole occupy the least interesting portion of the property. Whitman demurred without specifics, knowing that the answer would evolve after spending months on the property. What transpired neither man could have foreseen. During the following two springs, Keiser had Whitman and Cowan-Dewar travel to the United Kingdom in search of ideas to be incorporated into the final design. One of their very favorite courses was Prestwick and those little humps and bumps to the left of its all world par five third inspired the humps and hollows found to the left of Cabot’s gentle opener.
Second hole, 245/220 yards; Over the past twenty years so much has been written about golf course architecture that even the casual observer knows that one measure of quality is the variety found among a course’s one shot holes. Cabot scores well in this regard as the difference between the shortest and longest one shot holes is 145 yards (i.e. a full fourteen clubs)! Depending on the day’s hole location, this 47 yard long green can require as many as five different clubs for one’s approach shot. Even playing short of the green makes sense for certain front right hole locations. Holes beyond the three foot deep trough that bisects the middle of the green are significantly more difficult to access.
Third hole, 330/290 yards; When a group of armchair architects toured the course with Whitman during construction, they all exclaimed the same thing when they reached this future tee: Ten at Riviera! Here was an elevated tee to a straightaway fairway and a green site angled 45 degrees to the fairway. Under certain wind conditions the hole would be drivable. The excited party busily chatted about this bunker and that à la Riviera. Whitman smiled, understanding the concept yet visualizing something altogether fresh and different. His long-time friend Dave Axland helped bring it to fruition. Unusual for a drivable par four, the fairway is huge and there isn’t a single bunker. This is in stark contrast to the other short par four, hole nine, which is the most heavily bunkered hole.
Fourth hole, 450/405 yards; This is the only hole on the course that plays directly away from the water. As such, it climbs gradually uphill and finishes at a green sitting near the base of town. Whitman always (somewhat mysteriously) considered this among his personal favorites. He explained: ‘The gradual upslope and a plateau that was very suitable for a green were two fine natural features. The upslope helped me create some of the most intimidating bunkers on the course and the natural plateau lent itself to some of the boldest green contours. This hole was always going to be a winner as it had such good things going in its favor.’ This is hardly true at other courses where holes lead away from water. Royal Portrush with its awkward fifteenth and Pebble Beach’s uninspired eleventh are but two examples of major letdowns during the transition from coastal to interior holes.
Fifth hole, 180/170 yards; The task of any architect is to take the player on a tour of the property and to highlight its best attributes. Different in character, this pocket of land is sandwiched between a hillside left and the harbor right. Aside MacIsaac’s Pond the stunted vegetation associated with a links is replaced with greener, lush plants like Labrador tea and bayberry that rustle in the wind.