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Sand, Water & Time

Aerial image of Cabot Links

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As Daniel MacLean shoulder-pressed a large white garage door upward, it dawned on me that I knew only two things about the contents of the hundreds of dusty barrels he’d just splashed with daylight.

The first was that I couldn’t call it scotch. Even though Nova Scotia—literally “New Scotland”—is about as close as you can get ethos-wise, that title is reserved for the barrels and bottles across the Atlantic. This is not something you mess around with; the Scots don’t take their brown liquor lightly. In 2009, the Glenora Distillery that we were standing in was taken to the Supreme Court of Canada by the Scotch Whisky Association over its use of the word “Glen” in its Glen Breton 10 Year. Ultimately, Glenora won the case, but no, I would not slip up and call this scotch.

The second thing was that these barrels were old. The one that was sitting in front of me as MacLean led us to the back of the dirt-floor warehouse was sealed up at about the same time 21 years ago when Tiger Woods won his first Masters in that baggy Canada-red Nike jumper.

MacLean is the master distiller here at Glenora. He’s a semi-serious man, which is why I knew he was only semi-joking when he told me to climb down the banks of the politely babbling stream that runs through Glenora’s property. On his careful instruction, I filled up my glass with what he assured me was drinking water and inserted up to, but no more than, three drops of the water into the small glass of whiskey he handed me. I took a sip. 

Even in the confines of my unrefined palate, the whiskey swelled into a magnificent sensory overload. Anxious to take full advantage of the experience, I asked Daniel what exactly my taste buds should be searching for. 

“I don’t like playing this game anymore,” he said with a laugh. “Whatever I tell you to look for, you’re going to convince yourself that you’re tasting it.”

A fair point, I conceded. But what about a real pro? What would they be hoping to resurrect from the past 21 years?

“The barrels will pick up everything that’s around them,” MacLean said. “Around here, there’s an orchard, there are maple trees, spruce trees, even just plain dirt. Technically, all of those notes should get into that whiskey.”

It’s a heady concept: an environment slowly but relentlessly seeping into a subject over time. It’s a far more abstract thought than my next question. 

“But what does the distillery do for 10 years while it’s waiting for this stuff to age?”

“Well,” he said, “you try to do whatever you can to stay open. You sell food or open a bar. It’s quite a leap of faith knowing you aren’t going to get a return on your investment for 10 or 15 or 17 years.”

And it’s this idea—the thought of jumping off a cliff and hoping that people and the environment will catch you a decade later—that reminds me of the reason I’m in this distillery in the first place. And of the guys who built a golf resort down the street.

*

Coal mining began in Inverness, Nova Scotia, in 1880. It stopped in 1958 and much of the town’s industriousness halted with it. It’s the same story that’s played out in rural towns on both sides of the border: The core industry leaves. Then the kids go off to college and eventually people stop moving back.

As a new identity failed to materialize, Inverness began to decay. The wood-slab miner housing sagged in the middle. Between the town and the ocean, the beautiful seaside landscape was covered in gray mine tailings that the locals say would suck the boot off your foot. The population, once topping out at around 4,000, plummeted as unemployment soared. One local recalled a time when Main Street featured 14 shuttered businesses. 

“You could shoot a gun down Main Street and not worry about hitting anyone,” said the man, middle aged and posted up at one of Inverness’ handful of watering holes.

“Let’s put it this way,” said Eddie Maceachern, a retired schoolteacher who has found a new career as a caddie. “I loved growing up here, but you didn’t see many people touching their brakes on the way through town.”

Maceachern’s father, and his father’s father, had been lifers in the Inverness coal mine. His generation was the first that had to figure out how to make a living on top of the land instead of under it, and options were limited.

Golf had always been in the back of people’s minds as a potential life raft. With the large number of expat Scots living in Nova Scotia, it wasn’t much of a stretch of the imagination to picture a true links course sitting atop the gray dunes. For decades there were whispers about a new course coming to town. Rumors spread that Jack Nicklaus had just completed a routing plan. It wasn’t just the fantasies of a desperate township: Developers and architects in the golf industry spoke in hushed tones, calling the property one of the 50 greatest sites left for golf on the planet.

But none of the plans pushed through, and the false starts had instilled an understandable skepticism in the locals. The parcels of land needed for a course were owned by a grab bag of volunteer groups, provincial groups, government groups and private owners; getting everyone to agree on one vision had been too big a roadblock to overcome.

It took years for the right combination to click.

At a 2004 dinner in Toronto, Ben Cowan-Dewar, then 25 and the owner of a golf-travel company, was seated next to Rodney MacDonald, Canada’s minister of tourism. The two began discussing golf, and MacDonald told Cowan-Dewar about one of the world’s greatest undeveloped golf sites, up on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Cowan-Dewar was well-traveled in the golf world and his instinct was to simply roll his eyes.

“When he started telling me about this site, I said, ‘You know, with all due respect, every farmer with 200 acres thinks they have a great site for golf,’” he said. “But you could see immediately from the photos that there was a mile of ocean frontage and sand beach and it looked like the ideal place for links golf.”

Then he had an altogether different instinct.

“I was 25 years old and I didn’t have anywhere near the amount of money to build a golf course,” he said. “I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea. At that point I had seen most of the world’s great courses and felt like I had a good sense of what ingredients were needed to build a good course. I guess I thought that was enough.”

Cowan-Dewar did have experience building golf courses. Kind of. When he was 10, he built a 195-yard hole on the family farm east of Toronto. It may have been a short design career, but he still proudly points out that it promoted optionality with a number of different tee sites. As he grew up, he kept drawing golf holes and dreamed of becoming a course designer. Eventually he settled on building a company focused on organizing golf trips. That company took him to 20 countries and nearly all of the world’s top-100 courses. Convinced that he had learned enough from these travels to try developing his own course, he followed up with MacDonald and traveled to Inverness to have a look at the fabled site. Once there, he immediately moved on to figuring out how to raise the funds needed to make his course a reality.

The model for this resort—minimalist golf in a far-flung destination—was obviously Bandon Dunes. So one of Cowan-Dewar’s early phone calls was to Mike Keiser, the visionary behind the Oregon resort.

“When I first approached him, he had just opened Barnbougle in Tasmania and was about to open Bandon Trails, so he was a little long on remote golf,” Cowan-Dewar said, adding that even if he did get help from Keiser, it was still up to him to solve the puzzle of assembling the land. “But Mike was one of a pretty small handful of people that was very encouraging about the idea and told me to keep in touch as things progressed.”

Another piece of advice from Keiser was to make sure he didn’t stop when he had secured the land for one course. He needed to get enough for two. Once the first course opened, he reasoned, it would be a hell of a lot tougher to buy more land. 

“One course is a curiosity,” Keiser told Golfweek in 2012. “Two is a destination.”

“When you’re that young and you don’t have the money to build the first course,” Cowan-Dewar said, “it doesn’t seem like the natural decision would be to try to get more land for the second course. But you have to believe Mike.”

It took three years of negotiating to secure the land agreements needed to turn Inverness into a golfing destination. By that point, in mid-2007, Keiser agreed to come on as a partner, providing not only the remaining capital needed, but nearly a decade of lessons learned from his Bandon experience.

“Getting Mike involved is kind of the intersection between hitting the life lottery and the golf lottery,” Cowan-Dewar said. “He’s just an amazing man and amazing leader and amazing visionary. And none of this would have happened without him.”

cabot

In March of 2008, Cowan-Dewar and his wife, Allie—35 weeks pregnant at the time—packed up their apartment in downtown Toronto and moved to Inverness, Nova Scotia. Allie was in tears during the move and told The New York Times on Cabot’s opening day that she felt like she “had moved into witness protection.” But there wasn’t much time for culture shock: They had to start turning an abandoned coal mine into a golf destination, hoping that when the goods inside their barrel were ready, enough people would be willing to hop on an airplane and take a sip.

The first order of business was Cabot Links. Construction kicked off right in the middle of the financial crisis of 2008, and while the project never stalled, it went slowly.

Keith Cutten, an associate of Canadian architect Rod Whitman, was the first to arrive in Inverness to start working.

“When I first showed up, the site was so desolate and cold and it was kind of a ghost town. I remember the gas station was the only place you could find a cup of coffee in the morning,” he said. “But you could just see golf holes. You could see hundreds of them. Yet, at the same time, you could see where the coal mine had been remediated, because huge sections were completely dead flat.”

For much of 2008 and 2009, Cabot Links was one of the only active golf-construction projects in the world. For most of it, Cutten was a one-man bunker crew. He dug the thing, did the drainage, capped it and moved on to the next.

“That’s how slowly things were going on that project,” he said. “If I did three-quarters of a bunker in one day, that was a really good day.”

The slow pace meant that the small, skilled crew could take its time with the details, and it shows today in the intricacies of the bunkering and shaping.

The Inverness locals had been rightly skeptical that the project would ever get off the ground. But once it did, they saw a much-needed job opportunity. A handful of the people who had planned to head as far west as Alberta to find two- to three-week stints of work in oil fields were suddenly able to hop on machinery in the morning and sleep in their own beds at night.

As the project found its feet, Inverness began to make its mark on Cabot. Each barrel is a product of all of its surroundings, after all. From the barstools of the Cabot Public House, the elegantly low-key pub on campus, employees and locals share little stories about the ragtag early days, including rumors of the original caddie master getting paid in gift cards. Locals even volunteered when the money got truly low, but as the operation scaled up, new jobs became available in the caddie yard, the restaurant, the pub, the hotel and more. What started as cautious optimism from the locals turned into a warm embrace. 

Hitting the Mike Keiser lottery was one thing, but Inverness itself seemed to be another winning ticket. Part of what pushed Cowan-Dewar to consider the project was the long odds of ever finding another site quite like it. Where else was he going to find a mile of relatively untouched seaside dunes…that happened to be surrounded by a town…that happened to be in his native Canada? Beyond that, he said, the only thing that matched the physical beauty of the place was the beauty of the people who lived there. It sounds like an overdone Canadian stereotype, but seemingly everyone you meet in town is polite, friendly and happy you’re there. Outside the resort, things are warm and idyllic. And they really love golf. There’s even a backyard golf course a local named Robert Lemal built on his property for anyone who feels like teeing it up, free of charge. 

“As long as they don’t leave any trash down there, that’s his only rule,” said his wife, Kim, who works at the halfway house at Cabot.

“They really are the shirt-off-your-back people,” Cutten said. “It’s almost comical sometimes how nice these people are. It made the experience just that much better.”

Cowan-Dewar knows the change wasn’t always easy to watch, especially in a place where change is so rare.

“We came in and demolished a bunch of buildings and built a bunch of new ones,” Cowan-Dewar said. “We majorly transformed this site that had sat idle for a long time. But I think that the integration of the town into this place—take, for instance, our first 32 caddies; they all had degrees and they really were there to help us out more than we were helping them out.”

Like other Keiser properties around the world, the resort seems to take the best of what Inverness has to offer and pairs it only with pure golf. From the beds to the menus, the amenities are quality but never gaudy and include tips of the cap to the local character while providing exactly what you need to focus on your next round.

Golfer at Cabot

For the architect, Cowan-Dewar said there was never much of a selection process. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Whitman would do the first course and Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw would do the second. Whitman is a major proponent of the design-build philosophy—planning a routing and then hopping on the bulldozer to make it a reality. He had worked with Coore on numerous projects, including Friar’s Head.

“There are quotes from Bill floating around out there,” Cutten said. “If they get a site and Rod’s there, they give Rod the most boring, uninspired piece of ground that Bill doesn’t even know what to do with. And Rod will create brilliance.”

That was exactly the skill set needed with much of Cabot Links, where one of the major challenges was making the flat, remediated land flow into the natural dunes that surrounded it. The dramatic par-3 14th is a prime example: It tees off from a man-made hill that Whitman made the backdrop for the now-famous 30,000-square-foot double green that connects Nos. 4 and 13.

“I think he took his cues from the natural contours, but he also wasn’t afraid to build his own,” Cowan-Dewar said. “I think that’s what’s cool a decade later: No one can tell what were the original contours and which were the ones that Rod crafted with the blade of a bulldozer. That’s how good he is.”

Cabot Links held its grand opening in 2012, and before the first tee was in the ground, eyes drifted to the second course and the bluffs overlooking the sea.

Whitman’s track at Cabot gets better each time you play it—one of the highest compliments one can pay a course. It’s so much more subtle than its younger brother would become, but throughout my trip to Cabot, the same response kept popping up when I asked people which course they preferred.

“If I had to split 10 rounds between the two, I might play eight of them on Cabot Links,” it begins. Pause for effect. “But if I was going to die tomorrow, I’d want to play Cabot Cliffs one more time.”

Cabot Cliffs is dramatic.

Sections of the two courses are only about a half mile apart, but the land that each sits on feels starkly different. Cabot Links lives up to its name, a timeless Scottish links that winds and coils within itself, making the best use of its footprint. It feels vast and wide open and you can see many of the faraway groups battling it alongside you, as well as all of the challenges that lie ahead.

But Cabot Cliffs is a stunner. And it’s intimate. The routing takes you through three distinct sections that feel completely different yet entirely connected. Ron Whitten of Golf Digest called the land the “second coming of Cypress Point.”

Coore & Crenshaw start in the linksy dunes you saw down the road. After a gentle handshake of an opening par 5, you’re thrust into the choose-your-own-adventure par-4 second. It’s only 379 yards from the tee most guests play, but you have to choose which side of a massive dune you want to take. (It’s another man-made wonder by the shaping team, a “Frankendune,” as one of the shapers called it.) It got its nickname, the Lobster Claw, from the way the fairway splits around this dune.

“Don’t get pinched!” my caddie Archie repeatedly yelled at me throughout the hole. (His warning was ultimately for naught, as I seemed to catch a temporary shellfish allergy.)

After the dunes, you’re taken through some winding corridors up into the forests of Inverness, where at times you feel like you’re playing Bandon Trails with an occasional ocean view.

The final act brings you to the namesake of the course. The cliffs frame the backdrop of the reachable par-5 15th and they are the focus at the most-photographed hole on the property, the all-carry, leap-of-faith par-3 16th. Coore & Crenshaw spend the two remaining holes daring you to focus on the shot at hand instead of the waves rolling into the Cape Breton landscape.

“Cliffs just sort of feels like you are in this beautiful walk in nature,” Cowan-Dewar said. “Both courses put the focus on the same things—on width, on running the ball, on optionality—but they feel so different, and that was the goal. I have three kids that are completely different, but share a lot of similarities. That’s sort of how I think of the two courses.”

The question when course No. 2 opened was obvious: What’s the deal with No. 3? And while there are still no details to release on that, the resort is taking another play out of the Keiser book in 2019: Whitman and Coore & Crenshaw associate Dave Axland, an accomplished designer in his own right, are breaking ground on a par-3 course similar to the popular Preserve at Bandon Dunes and the Cradle at Pinehurst.

Beyond that, the immediate focus is on fortifying the operation. They still need to build a clubhouse at the Cliffs course. But No. 3 remains on the periphery. While there is now far more demand for real estate than was predicted, when the right piece of land pops up, they’ll be ready.

“We’re trying to find a piece of ground that is as special as Links or Cliffs,” Cowan-Dewar said. “But you know from seeing them, that is a really tall task.” 

Golfer st Cabot Links
The right land in the wrong hands could’ve been a tragedy. Instead, the likes of Keith Cutten, Ron Whitman, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were brought in to work their considerable magic. Cutten and Whitman tackled the first course, while Coore and Crenshaw took on the second. The result is two courses with distinct personalities that still manage to fit wonderfully together.

The Cabot story can be framed like a golf fairy tale: A wealthy group of do-gooders uses the game to save a dying town. More than 600 people in the tiny town now make a living through the resort. Everyone appears happy. Of course, it makes the skeptic want to dig deeper, to uncover the dark chapter missing from the story. And there is a small handful of locals willing to show you their notebooks. But they mostly prefer to do it anonymously.

Over pints of Moosehead they’ll tell you about how the town sold itself short by offloading its coastline, its greatest asset. And they’ll question whether seasonal jobs without benefits are really such a godsend.

But for every one of the unimpressed, there seems to be an army of people in line to praise the resort and what it’s provided for the town and the region. As I chatted at one of the bars with the naysayer described above, a construction worker walked over and gave an unsolicited summation of his position on the issue.

“There are people that like it and there are people that don’t,” he said. “And the people that don’t? Fuck ’em.”

The local construction industry is surely one of the biggest beneficiaries of the development. But it doesn’t stop there. Main Street has dusted itself off and reopened. The pizza place moved into a new building. There’s a new brewery going in. College kids have summer work in their hometowns.

“I mean, considering what it was, this place is like L.A. now,” said one bartender. (In a town with so few bartenders, they prefer not to be named.)

MacLean, the master distiller at Glenora, had a different way of describing it. When I asked about the impact Cabot has had on their business, he told a story.

“There were a couple guys that walked into the bar the other night,” he said. “There were maybe eight other people at the bar. And these guys had their golf sweaters on and they sat down and said, ‘Let me get a round for everyone here of the expensive stuff, the 25-year.’ It was about four or five hundred dollars.…That’s the kind of stuff that wasn’t happening before Cabot.”

The distillery had 24 employees back when MacLean started in 1994. Today they’ve ramped up to 76.

“When things were bleak around here, it was a matter of trying to find work,” MacLean said. “Now our problem is trying to find more employees.”

Cowan-Dewar echoes that problem at the resort. 

“Inverness still has its challenges, of course,” he said. “But they’re these challenges of growth. They’re challenges we would never have predicted 14 years ago. I never would have thought there would be a housing shortage. But the community has a great group of entrepreneurs that are ready to step up and solve these problems.”

Before we left, I asked Cowan-Dewar about the whiskey analogy, about what it’s like to throw your idea into a barrel in the hopes that it will pay off a decade into the future. And what it’s like to wait for it.

“Whenever people talk about the whiskey business, I think the golf business sounds like it makes even more sense,” he said with a laugh. “But when I reflect on it now, I think about Royal Dornoch being 400 years old. And St. Andrews being 500 years old. And I think about the pace at which so many things are being disrupted in the business community. Yet if you can build something that is of that ilk and truly great, and not lose sight of delivering a great product and value, then it feels like it isn’t as anxiety-producing as it seemed.”

As MacLean took a sip of his whiskey—now we were onto a smoky, 13-year-old peated variety—he considered the premise and chuckled.

“I’d like to say that what they were doing was as nerve-wracking as waiting for a barrel to age,” he said. “But meeting and getting to know those guys, I think they knew what they were doing way before they even got here.”