2/9/17

A Canadian masterpiece: Cabot Cliffs

An in-depth profile of the Coore & Crenshaw designed Cabot Cliffs

by

As a golf destination, everything about Cabot Links Resort is top notch, from the service to the food to the accommodations. As the undisputed star of the show, the golf is world class.

The Links course at Cabot is tremendous. Rumpled fairways, grassy dunes, double greens, a wide variety of holes, and stellar views from every hole. But the Cliffs course is something else entirely. Ron Whitten, in his piece for Golf Digest crowning Cabot Cliffs as the best new course of 2015, described it as no less than “the second coming of Cypress Point.” In the same piece, architect Bill Coore (half of the Coore & Crenshaw design team responsible for this masterpiece) gushed that the property had “more variety in terms of its natural holes, without doing anything to them, than any site we’ve had.” Though I’ve never played Cypress Point, and haven’t done more than gaze wistfully at photos of many Coore & Crenshaw tracks, I have trouble finding fault with either of these statements.

Many thanks to Christian Hafer (@hafe_life) for contributing his photos to this profile. Thanks too to Riley Johns (@IntegrativeGolf) for use of his terrific course art.

Cabot's stunning scenery

Golf writers and architects often talk about the movement of the land upon which a golf course is built. Some of the best courses in the world are laid out over land that may only have a few dozen feet of elevation change across the entire property. The Old Course, Seminole, and Winged Foot West are great examples of this. And while courses like these prove that there is no one way to build a dynamite golf course, it’s hard to argue that starting with a rolling, heaving, rollicking piece of land increases the chances of building something truly extraordinary.

Though the Links and Cliffs are separated by only a few minutes’ drive, the topography of the two courses couldn’t be more divergent. At the Links course, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re playing along the Firth of Forth on the east coast of Scotland. At Cliffs, the comparisons to different golf locales depend on which hole you happen to be playing.

Course map by Riley Johns of Integrative Golf

The stretch from 4-6 running along a tidal wash and then hard by the beach evokes the British Isles. The back-to-back par-5 7th and 8th, slashing into and then out of a rolling pine forest, look like they’re cut straight from a Rocky Mountain travel brochure. And the drop-shot par-3 9th, backdropped by the pulsing surf of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, would not be out of place on the Monterey Peninsula. And that’s just the front 9.

In the Tiger Woods PGA Tour video game series (RIP), you could unlock these outrageous fictional golf courses. One was in the middle of Central Park, another took you around a Greek island, and a third snaked around and through ridiculously heaving Australian topography. These were the kinds of courses you couldn’t imagine ever existing in the real world — the elevation changes were too severe, the greens were perched too precariously, and the terrain was simply too wild and unrealistic to actually hack out enough space to lay a few golf holes. Cabot Cliffs is the closest thing I’ve seen to that kind of video game course.

If you’ve read any other course reviews, you’ll know about the even distribution of par-3s, 4s, and 5s; the massively diverse terrain; and the jaw-dropping final three holes. It’s all true, but there is even more that makes Cabot Cliffs so mind-bendingly awesome.

First, the approach. You’re shuttled from the clubhouse off the main property and through a mile of pine forests before turning left down a long, winding, two-lane driveway. The anticipation builds, and builds, and builds, until you arrive at the first tee.

The course

HOLE #1 – 581/568 yards – par 5

Hole diagrams credit: Cabot Links Resort

Similar to the Links course, the first hole at Cabot Cliffs is a par-5 with an extremely wide landing area. Along with their innate ability to create natural-looking courses, Coore & Crenshaw pride themselves on designing golf holes with multiple routes of play, and the fits that bill. Take on the fairway bunkers along the right, and you’re given an opportunity to thread the needle and run an approach onto the putting surface in the distance. Opt for a drive down the left, and you may catch a speed slot for a few extra yards, but a fairway rise and a small coffin bunker complicate matters in front of this deep, receptive putting surface. The green sits at the edge of a wooded hillside, so anything long is in trouble.

HOLE #2 – 402/379 yards – par 4

Stepping on to the 2nd tee, I knew that the remaining holes could be no better than my second favorite. The way this hole is designed shows you a lot about the philosophy of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The footprint is absolutely immense.

From the tips, it’s only 402 yards, but the insane width of the fairway, combined with the elevated tee and Olympic ski-jump carry, give this hole an overwhelming sense of grandeur. Even the diagram doesn’t contextualize this hole properly. When you’re playing your approach shot, it feels like you’re perpendicular to the fairway’s intended line. C&C could have gone anywhere with this particular plot of land. They could have created a dogleg left, swinging golfers around towards the dunes and the beach. They could have gone the opposite way, perching the green site high in the dunes and challenging golfers with an uphill approach to a green at the water’s edge.

Instead, they opted for width. They created a fairway that looked like a regular hole’s fairway turned 90 degrees. They terminated the fairway with a gorgeous stream running in front of the green, with what looks like an oversized beaver lodge directly in the center. They left a monstrous mound in front of the green alone, scooped two bunkers into it, and built a green site that mirrors the fairway in both shape and size. The hole looks just as beautiful from the green as it does from the tee. It’s not easy to design a hole this fun that also demands this much strategy. Because of that shaggy mound bisecting the green, hitting the correct portion of the fairway is crucial if you want a good look at the pin. All in all, this hole is tremendous.

HOLE #3 – 389/374 – par 4

It’s hard to follow up a hole like the 2nd, but this is Cabot Cliffs, where impossible is nothing. Another long forced carry with a generous landing area, but this one’s a little more complicated. That smudge in the middle of the fairway is a very penal bunker. The green falls away to the back, right, and front, and is guarded front left by a tall and steep-faced bunker. The more you flirt with the bunkers edging the right side of the fairway, the clearer shot to this elevated green you’ll have.

The rolling fairway on the 3rd

HOLE #4 – 221/205 yards – par 3

The fourth hole has two greens. Two very distinct, not in any way connected, greens. It’s the first par-3 you encounter at Cabot Cliffs, and it’s more than a little weird. I don’t know how they decide which hole you’re hitting to, but both rounds we played were on the same day and we took aim at the far green (it was the only one with a flag in it). The fourth green bumps right up against a tidal river, so anything long or left is in serious trouble.

The two greens at the 4th at cabot Cliffs

HOLE #5 – 345/322 yards – par 4

This hole is a terrific two shotter. It’s a beefier version of the sixth at Cabot Links — an incredibly severe dogleg left, with a ghastly bunker on the right side of the fairway reminiscent of some Island of Doctor Moreau-type hybrid of the Himalayas and Big Nellie bunkers from Royal St. George’s and Royal Portrush. From the top of the hill, the offending bunker is visible on the right side through the fairway. It’s hard to get a good sense of its size from a distance, but just know that the wall of sand is 20 feet high. If you’re feeling pumped and jacked, you can try to cut off 80% of the hole and take one deep over the corner. Fail, and your ball will end up landing where Frank Costello wants his bodies dumped.

The play here is a sweeping draw over a corner of the muck, as the fairway kicks everything downhill towards this semi-punchbowl green. The green is ringed along the left and back by bunkers, which serve more as a braking system for overclubbed approach shots than as a traditional hazard. The fifth is one of only a few holes on the Cliffs course to encourage running approaches, as the tumbling fairway feeds down into the green at the hole’s lowest point.

HOLE #6 – 186/171 yards – par 3

If you were shown a picture of the 6th hole at Cabot Cliffs and asked what country you were looking at, no one would fault you for guessing Ireland. This dune-ringed par-3 runs parallel to the shoreline, and the green sits in a natural amphitheater that offers a brief respite from the gusting winds. As the hole’s layout is relatively tame, Coore & Crenshaw ratcheted the fun meter up to 11 at the green site. The surrounds are all cut short and funnel down towards the putting surface, which features a shelf in the front right and a crazy deep back-half punchbowl.

The wild green at the 6th

HOLE #7 – 589/566 yards – par 5

The 7th and 3rd share a tee box, which can make for an interesting situation where you have to wait for a player in the adjacent group to tee off before you hit your tee ball. Seven is the first of back-to-back par-5s, and marks the turn away from the water and into the forest. The tee shot offers a heroic carry over the same valley that houses the 2nd fairway (which sits across the path to the left of the 7th). The landing area features a significant ridge along the left side – anything left or short of this rise gives you effectively no chance of reaching the green in two. A monster tee ball that flirts with the right-hand bunkers and woods leaves a player with the opportunity to go for it, though the green is fronted by a deep collection area and falls off hard to the left.

HOLE #8 – 542/515 yards – par 5

The eighth is the less daunting of these consecutive five pars, as it plays back down towards the water and offers a wide landing area. The tee shot is complicated by a centerline bunker which forces you to pick a side. The left offers a shorter approach to the green, but also brings a large bunker on the left into play for any lay ups. The eighth green is extremely deep, with an open front and a subtle back to front slope.

The approach into the 8th

HOLE #9 – 126/114 yards – par 3

Seven brings you away from the water, and eight returns you to it. But the 9th, reminiscent of 14 at Cabot Links, uses the ocean to confuse your depth perception – and your emotions. A little beauty.

HOLE #10 – 557/521 – par 5

Based on my reading about Cabot Cliffs, it seems like Ben Cowan-Dewar’s guiding principle for Coore & Crenshaw was to build the best golf course they could, regardless of normal golf course architecture principles. Hence the six holes of each par, the stretch from 7-10 where par is 5-5-3-5, and the fact that the 10th hole returns players to the clubhouse in much the same way that many 9th holes do. As far as straightaway par-5s go, you can’t do much better than the 10th at Cabot Cliffs. The hole is perched atop the course’s namesake bluffs, making anything left certain death. The hole’s right side is delineated by a series of grassy dunes and bunkers that separate it from the first.

HOLE #11 – 404/376 – par 4

Eleven is an interesting hole; an uphill short par-4 with a subtly S-shaped fairway and a penal fairway bunker on the right. The plateau green sits at the top of a small rise, with closely mown falloffs front, left, and back. It’s one of the only holes on the course that doesn’t offer some sort of backdrop for the eye when approaching the green, which can definitely hinder depth perception.

Approaching the skyline 11th

HOLE #12 – 245/225 yards – par 3

The 12th is a long par-3, with a carry over brush and a few bunkers short of the green that catch any drives not laden with the requisite mustard. It’s a similar green situation to the 11th, where the high right side is the correct area to miss, and anything short, left, or long is dead. The severity of these drop-offs around the green shows the genius of Coore & Crenshaw who realized that the toughest defense of par is sometimes a big hill with short grass.

HOLE #13 – 398/362 yards – par 4

The 13th is another severely uphill par-4, this one playing to a fairway canted heavily from left to right. The green is obscured by a gargantuan mound. Players cannot see any of the green from the fairway. Take at least one, maybe two, extra clubs on the approach, because if you don’t clear this mountain your ball may well roll back close to 100 yards.

The approach to the 13th, with flag barely visible

HOLE #14 – 184/168 yards – par 3

This stretch of 11-15 plays along, down, up, and then back down the same long, rolling hillside, and the way the course is routed and cleared allows you to see this as you’re playing it. The best view comes on the 14th tee, where the entirety of the 13th is visible to your left, with the green of the 12th beyond that.

Fourteen is a beautiful hole – a downhill par 3 fronted by 3 bunkers and framed by a stand of trees behind the green. A prominent rock sits directly in front of the green, and I can only imagine the chaotic ricochets possible for the unfortunate soul who clocks that thing directly. The steep falloff to the left of the green means that this hole plays like an all-carry par-3, although the back-to-front sloping green offers a receptive target for recovery shots.

HOLE #15 – 562/529 yards – par 5

Kudos to the folks responsible for the tree clearing on the 14th and 15th holes. The pines frame the back of the 14th perfectly, and act as a shield to hide the rolling, tumbling 15th from view until the perfect moment. This hole, more than any other on the property, begs you to uncork a missile with the driver. The fairway is split into two levels, with the upper left portion acting as a massive ramp to feed balls down towards the cliffs and the green. While the left portion of the fairway is guarded by several bunkers, the open right side is undefended, until you reach your ball. Then you realize you need to hit a completely blind second shot over a tall fairway bunker. The contours of the fairway help everything hit towards the green funnel down into a collection area short right.

HOLE #16 – 176/148 – par 3

If you Google “Cabot Cliffs,” this hole dominates the results, and with good reason. It’s an absolute 10. Until you see it in person, you don’t realize just how large this green is. Firing at the pin when it is cut on the thin promontory of green that has had a hand in vaulting this course into the top 20 in the world rankings is risky, to say the least. But the green splays out left and back from there, offering a large upper plateau ripe for more pin positions (and safer tee shots).

HOLE #17 – 331/277 yards – par 4

The drama continues at 17. Like many holes at Cabot Cliffs, the 17th had a ribbon of teeing grounds rather than defined tee boxes. It’s not a major difference from a traditional course, but it keeps the sense of fun and childish excitement high. The best play is to crush a drive over the highest point in the bluffs with some fade, and let the large, sloping fairway funnel the ball down onto the green. The sense of wonder and excitement when you reach the crest of the hill and find your ball is unmatched, but the hole is so good that I wish I could have seen my shot during its roll-out, and not just at its final resting place.

HOLE #18 – 528/509 yards – par 5

The 18th is a mirror image of the 10th, with a gully slicing into the right side of the fairway about 50 yards from the green. This allows you to land an approach short and run the ball onto the surface, and takes away some of the fear in going for the green in two — which only adds to the allure of a closing par-5.

Even after all these words and photos, I haven’t done enough to capture the feeling of playing Cabot Cliffs. Conveying the thrill and joy of it is nearly impossible. All the slopes are more dramatic than you imagine, the fairways are wider, the carries more daunting (but somehow more confidence-inspiring as well). The views are incomparable. The variety of landscape is unsurpassed. The shot values are high, and the sense of discovery and wonder is even higher.

Cabot Cliffs is a true golfing gem of the highest order, and I look forward to getting back up there sooner rather than later.

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