A former coal mine on the remote west coast of Cape Breton Island is the site of Canada’s first authentic links golf course. The property also bucks an unprecedented rash of course closures in the industry.
Cabot Links, which is surrounded by dunes and rolling hills, sprawls along the Nova Scotia shoreline of Inverness on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It’s the latest creation of greeting card magnate Mike Keiser, whose Bandon Dunes property along the Oregon coast boasts 85 holes and is ranked as the No. 1 golf resort in the U.S.
Cabot Links, which opened last weekend, is among a handful of 18-hole courses scheduled to debut in North America this year. The course, nicknamed “Bandon East,” epitomizes the build-it-and-golfers-will-come belief shared by the new destination designs, which have been in the works as more than 400 U.S. courses have closed since 2006.
“If someone could figure out why Bandon Dunes works and multiple other attempts have not, they’d turn their attention to predicting the stock market and make a killing,” said Jim Koppenhaver, president of golf-consulting firm Pellucid Corp. “I personally believe that it has to supersede a ‘great location’ or a ‘superior product’ and has something to do with word-of-mouth and buzz.”
Like Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links isn’t easy to get to. From New York, it’s a flight of about two hours to Halifax and then a drive of three to four hours to Cape Breton. There’s also an airstrip for private planes in Port Hawkesbury, about 50 miles from the course.
Yet Keiser said he expects that, like his resort in Oregon, the experience will draw avid golfers and that the solitary location is part of the allure. Bandon Dunes, with four 18-hole courses and a 13-hole par-3 course, had more than 100,000 rounds played last year as golfers from around the U.S. made the pilgrimage for a links style of play found in Scotland or Ireland.
“Golfers love links golf, why else would we go to Scotland and Ireland year after year,” Keiser, the founder of Chicago-based Recycled Paper Greetings Inc., the third-largest U.S. greeting card company, said in a telephone interview. “Bandon Dunes, now that it has five courses, is an easy way to go to Scotland and Ireland. To me, this is new formula.”
It’s an equation he’s sought to replicate at Cabot Links with co-owner Ben Cowan-Dewar, the founder of executive travel company Golf Travel Impresarios. Two other golf projects similarly sought sites off the beaten path.
The Streamsong Resort is finishing two 18-hole courses on more than 16,000 acres of formerly mined phosphate land in central Florida, about a one-hour drive from Tampa and 1 1/2 hours from Orlando. Next year, a second 18-hole layout is set to open at the Dismal River Golf Club in the Sandhills of Nebraska, 382 miles from Omaha and 366 miles from Denver.
These courses are in contrast not only to their surroundings but to the rest of the industry, where many clubs are closing and other projects that had started, including one by Tiger Woods in North Carolina, halted development.
In 2011, there were more than 150 closings of 18-hole courses in the U.S. versus 19 openings, according to the National Golf Foundation. After a boom that saw more than 4,500 golf courses built from 1986 through 2005, including 362 facilities in 2000, the market has experienced a “natural correction,” said Greg Nathan, the foundation’s senior vice president. The net reduction of 358.5 courses over the past six years represents a drop of 2.4 percent off the peak supply year of 2005, the NGF said.
“It’s still got a ways to go,” said Josh Lesnik, the president of KemperSports, which manages more than 100 golf properties, including Cabot Links and Streamsong. “More golf courses need to close than open for another 10 years before that supply and demand balance are even close.”
The Mosaic Company, the world’s leading producer and marketer of phosphate-based crop nutrients, owns and is developing Streamsong, which has one golf course designed by Tom Doak and the other by the architectural firm of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Both layouts, scheduled to debut in December, incorporate the dunes, lakes and contours left on Mosaic’s property from years of phosphate mining.
“I don’t think we would ever take the position that simply build it and you’re going to be successful,” Mosaic Executive Vice President Rich Mack said. “You’ve got to do it right. If you can add truly special golf courses, you are going to find there are high-end and affluent golf aficionados and golf purists that are going to have those locations on their list.”
The minimalist designs, which harken back to the Scottish golf architecture principles of using land in its natural state, are a far cry from usual Florida courses dotted with palm trees and alligator-filled lakes.
The Sandhills of Nebraska, a 20,000-square mile region atop the Ogallala Aquifer marked by sand dunes and prairie grasses, has proven to be similarly alluring for golfers. The private Dismal River Golf Club is joined in the region by the Sand Hills Golf Club, which in 1994 ushered in golf in the region, as well as courses such as the 36-hole Prairie Club, which opened in 2010 near Valentine, and Awarii Dunes in Axtell.
“We are very uncrowded, very remote and in a county with less than 1,000 people,” said Dismal River co-owner Chris Johnston, whose club has about 400 members and often no cell-phone coverage. “It’s pure prairie golf. It’s a little like Scottish and Irish golf here in the U.S.”
Like Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links is open to public play and, depending on how it’s received, the facility may grow like its Oregon predecessor. Keiser and Cowan-Dewar have purchased an additional 500 acres nearby that boasts more ocean frontage than Cabot Links and sits much higher off the water.
Coore and Crenshaw, who have designed 10 of the top 100 layouts in Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses including No. 1 ranked Sand Hills and No. 5 Friar’s Head on Long Island, would build the second 18 holes at the so-called Cabot Cliffs site.
“Mike sort of jokes that, ‘If you build it they will come,’ and now we have to prove that theory,” Cowan-Dewar said by phone from Cabot Links. “Assuming they do come, and we’re pretty confident they will, we’ll plow ahead with course two.”