Cabot Cliffs 2015 Preview
This summer Cabot Cliffs was in preview. While the landscape couldn't be mistaken for anything other than a golf course, the agronomy was incomplete. The greens were young and slow. Smaller details remain roughed in, bunkers often awaiting their payload.The course has not yet been rated nor the holes handicapped. Despite all of this, the course was quite playable, and revealed a playful and beguiling personality. Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw pack a lot in. The track moves decisively over a changing landscape, the course taking on the character of the immediate surroundings while reinforcing the seaside setting and inscribing memorable, truly unique shot situations.
The setting is stunning. The walk to the first tee, climbing a modest hillside, reveals a 270 degree view: a banked headlands, deeply wooded as the land rises from the cliffside, opposite the sea. Situated on the back side of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, this view includes sunsets over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the elevated setting enjoys a bath of nautical twilight colors. The town of Inverness lies to the south, Sea Wolf Island to the north. With the trees strategically removed on some holes, the views get even more spectacular.
This summer the signs of civilization are limited to a yurt that has been pressed into service as the pro shop and a clutch of patio furniture that offers a preview of the planned clubhouse views. The storybook quality of the course on the bold use of a variety of terrain. The course offers grassy highlands, freshwater marsh, hardwood forest, linksland dunes and dramatic cliff edge.
Interestingly, these first holes strongly echo the opening of Cabot Links, and covering similar ground: running from the heart of the headlands, south, down the incline, into the freshwater wetlands, then cutting inland, taking on elevation rapidly and finishing the reprise with a classic cape hole that cuts into the tidal waters that run to the ocean.
The course opens with a generous par five that minimizes breakfast balls in the gaze of the starter. A green-in-regulation is a reasonable expectation as it's relatively easy to avoid the bunker complexes that define the fairway on the right.
The second hole is a standout of the course, a classic Coore/Crenshaw puzzle hole. The tee is elevated, sitting on the highlands, while the fairway, split into a compressed "Y" shape, sits past a wide marsh that runs toward the sea. Second shot is a short, forced carry over more marsh to an elevated saddle-shaped green resting above a steep banks and guarded by sand. The pin position dictates the second shot of course, but also the first. Being on the pin-side of the fairway means an easy attack with room for error. Being on the wrong side means a blind shot to a narrow depth. Quite a feat to make the stakes equally challenging regardless of pin position--a hole that feels like it would offer unique challenges for many rounds.
Number 3 heads inland. The view from the tee is a carry over marshland, into a welcoming but undulating fairway. The preferable position of attack is on the left, which is elevated. But it's easy for a drive to lose the slope and run downhill to the right, forcing an approach from the depths.
Number four is a classic par 3. Strangely, the course features six par threes and six par fives. In the hands of the architect this unusual quality appears to have freed them up for more experimentation within the routing, requiring more shots and more invention. In this regard, the first par three of the routing is no exception. The hole features two green complexes, an upper and lower. Our pin was stuck in the forward narrows of the upper green, tantalizingly close, but jealously guarded by bunkers.
INTO THE DUNES
Five is a par 4 cape with the far corner of the dogleg sitting on dunesland that rises above both the tee and green, complicating matters for those who don't attempt to cut the corner. Naturally, there's safety away from the elbow of the cape, but the rough is high, and even lies are difficult to find.
The path from the fifth green enters grassy dunes. Number six is reminiscent of Enniscrone, with a wide bowl green at a moderate distance and dramatically framed by grass-capped dunes.
Number seven crosses the routing and presents the golfer with a demanding carry to a banked fairway. This par 5 is relentlessly uphill, and the fairway is split by an elephant back ridge line, running deeper in to the forest than previously. Despite the encroaching spruce trees, the ocean is never out of view. Number eight turns around and returns to the ocean via another par 5, which opens with a narrow and undulating landing area. The second shot is easier and the green relatively receptive, with room to miss.
Number nine marks the first encounter with the true cliff's edge, by way of another characteristic Coore/Crenshaw par 3: an extremely short approach to a complicated green.
THE BACK NINE
The back nine returns to the top of the headlands by way of the cliffs. At this point from the tee we're made keenly aware of the the cliff as the number 10 fairway gives the impression of being cut in two: the right hand clinging to Cape Breton Island, the left hand having perhaps slid into the sea. Righty slicers may relax and swing away, but they'll have their own challenge on the finishing hole, which offers a mirror image look. The fairway is heavily bunkered, and the par 5 demands some strategy as the second shot landing area lies just short of a deep gully. Beyond the gully is the green, flat, wide and generous. In a way, it plays like a par five version of 16 at Bandon Dunes. The option of bailing out inland is tempting, but access to the green is compressed and leaves little room to go long.
Eleven is a two-shot hole that traverses inland, again toward the forest, and features a measured climb with significantly raked waste areas on the right. Next is the longest par three of the course, with a punch bowl green the plays in classic links style, rewarding the option of running an iron in from the left fairway or even rough.
TO THE WOOD
Thirteen marks the last hole to face inland, and sets up a dramatic race to the sea and the finishing holes packed with drama from the cliff's edge. A complex charmer, the two-shotter demands thoughtful shot placement, with a multi-tiered, narrow fairway. One of the finer elevated views is at the players back.
Fourteen is maybe the most fun of the par-threes: sticking to the ridge line, requiring a yawning mid-range shot to a squarish green guarded by a massive knuckle of exposed granite. The rock is kept company by a cluster of sand traps eager to collect any shot just short.
Number fifteen steps up the drama and challenge, creating a finishing sequence with few rivals. This par five that starts with a choice: aim left to a closer, elevated landing area, or right for a more distant, hidden lower fairway. The elevated position means a longer second shot, with a clear view of the hole, which sits just off the cliff side. The lower location puts the green easily in range, but the shot will be blind, over an optically imposing bunker. Whatever the second shot, the cliff edge here is at its steepest and a genuine distraction from the green.
Next is the hole that seems destined to define the course: a dramatic par three to a tiny green shaped like a bike seat, with the nose pointed to the Atlantic Ocean. The longest tees demand a long carry over the cliffside. The first shot is demanding, but the green appears to reward accuracy with reasonable shaping.
Like many celebrities, sixteen may stay famous because it's so easy to photograph. Seventeen is different: hard to see, a challenge to decode, and perhaps destined to be even more renown. Cabot Cliffs resembles Pebble Beach in some generic ways, given the common cliffside setting and brilliant ocean horizon. In spots however, the comparison is deeper. Seventeen plays like an intriguing riff on the famous eighth hole at Pebble. The Cabot hole is much shorter, with deeply offset tees, which provide different blind shots to an elevated cliff-edge fairway, which then runs steeply downhill into a large, guarded green complex. From the longest tees, the flag may be visible and a direct shot to the green a possibility, especially with a big fade. In a way, the hole inverts the elements of Pebble's eighth: the carry is early, not late.
The final hole inverts the challenge of the tenth: a narrow fairway, running along the cliff, this time with two cutting ravines, one off the tee, and the other one hundred yards shy of the green. The first shot is demanding, perhaps to the narrowest landing area on the course. The second shot provides options: missing left of the gully is a clean option and offers a fair recovery to the green, which on the cliff side appears to roll right out to the ocean below.
The course is an evenhanded test and a memorable story, a journey through a swiftly changing landscape. Often the look from the tee is a tease: more difficult in appearance than in reality. While the greens were far from polished, they promise to perform like we'd expect from a Coore/Crenshaw track: half of the game will be heroic avoidance of unexpected three-puts.
Throughout, shot values are so compelling it's easy to loose track of how much the setting varies. From headlands to wetlands, from dunes, to forest, from cliff to cliff: the experience flies by and offers the mindful golfer plenty of challenge within, not just views without. Similar to the Coore/Crenshaw's perhaps more technically challenging Bandon Trails, the course makes the most of the land, and plays like a hybrid of traditional linksland golf and American parkland. The course has the beauty and depth to draw players for generations on a pilgrimage for great golf.