Cabot steps up as world player with opening of new courses at Citrus Farms, Saint Lucia

Cabot effectively was a niche golf operator for much of its existence since the Canadian company opened its first course in 2012 on the remote shores of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.

The original layout, Cabot Links, was exceptional, and it was followed a few years later by the even more highly ranked Cliffs course. More golf was added in 2020 in the form of a new short course, The Nest. The destination was a home run for company co-founder and CEO Ben Cowan-Dewar, who wisely put the emphasis on best-in-class golf at the Cape Breton property that was aided by the interest and investment of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort founder Mike Keiser.

But like Bandon Dunes, Cabot Cape Breton is a long way from most anywhere, and the Canadian golf season that far north runs just six months. While the Cabot brand represented the peak of modern Canadian golf, a world-class destination not to be missed by any seasoned golf traveler, for most of its existence the company wasn’t quite a major world player.

That has changed.

Cabot has grown up, and much of the globe is now its playground. By purchasing existing properties when promising and building from scratch when necessary, Cowan-Dewar has expanded Cabot’s operations south into the United States and across the Atlantic Ocean to Scotland. He has developed a focus on high-end accommodations, frequently manifesting in the form of aspirational real estate. And without defining how far he hopes to take the Cabot brand, he doesn’t plan to slow down.

Cabot Citrus Farms
Cabot Citrus Farms

The split-fairway, par-5 15th at Cabot Citrus Farms’ Karoo Course (Courtesy of Cabot/Matt Majka)

The growth has come fast and furious in recent years, most notably with the concurrent introduction of two courses in two different countries.

The built-from-scratch Point Hardy Golf Club – on one of the world’s most jaw-dropping pieces of golf land – opened to its members in December at Cabot Saint Lucia in the southern Caribbean. It soon will be followed in late January by the public-access Cabot Citrus Farms in Florida opening its first course, named Karoo, for preview play on the site of the former World Woods Golf Club.

All that is on the heels of Cabot having purchased Castle Stuart in Scotland in June of 2022, rebranding it to Cabot Highlands and announcing plans to add a second course designed by Tom Doak slated to open fully in 2025. And don’t forget Cabot Revelstoke, a mountainous destination planned to come online in 2025 with a layout by Rod Whitman, who designed the original Cabot course at Cape Breton. Revelstoke is in Canada, but this development is on the opposite side of the continent in British Columbia. Both these properties also will feature residential opportunities.

All the sudden, Cabot has become a year-round operator with developments that span nine time zones. It is now a company on which the sun will never set during the long days of a Canadian summer.

“We’ve always got a lot of irons in the fire,” Cowan-Dewar said in December while he overlooked a tropical marina not far from Point Hardy, trying to relax for a few minutes during a casual interview the day before his private Saint Lucia property hosted its members’ first rounds. “Did I ever conceive it would play out just like this? Of course not. But we did have plans to grow.”

Cabot Saint Lucia
Cabot Saint Lucia

From left, Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw, Mike Keiser and Ben Cowan-Dewar at Cabot Saint Lucia (Courtesy of Cabot/Jacob Sjöman)

The golf always came first for Cowan-Dewar, whose early ambitions drew the attention of a like-minded Keiser. The American developer serves as a sounding board for the Canadian, and from the beginning his advice has been to build great golf holes, then establish a business model around them.

That starts with the course architects. For Saint Lucia it would be the acclaimed team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who also designed the Cliffs at Cabot Cape Breton, rated by Golfweek’s Best as the top modern course in Canada. At Cabot Citrus Farms just north of Tampa, Cowan-Dewar selected the up-and-coming Kyle Franz for the Karoo course and is employing Franz alongside Mike Nuzzo and advisor Ran Morrissett for the second full-size 18 named The Roost, still in development and ambitiously slated to open for preview play in the spring of 2024.

Then it’s just a matter of giving the architects enough latitude to create something special on beautiful pieces of land ideally suited for golf.

“We’re hiring some of the greatest people to ever practice their craft,” Cowan-Dewar said. “How many times in your life do you get to work with some of the greatest artists at a moment in time when they are the best? And we’re lucky to do that. So we want to give them the biggest canvas possible with no limitations. Trust in the architects, and we can figure out the rest around that.”

That trust has led to two very different golf courses in Point Hardy and the Karoo at Cabot Citrus Farms.

Cabot Saint Lucia and Point Hardy Golf Club

Cabot Saint Lucia
The point that contains Nos. 16 and 17, both par 3s, is one of the most dramatic spots at Point Hardy Golf Club at Cabot Saint Lucia. (Courtesy of Cabot/Jacob Sjoman)

Point Hardy sits atop some of the prettiest cliffs ever to serve as golf obstacles. Think of the world-famous Cypress Point, or Pebble Beach Golf Links, or even Keiser’s four oceanside layouts at Bandon Dunes (of the resort’s five total 18-hole courses) in Oregon. Point Hardy is a match for any of those layouts’ aesthetics, with eight holes playing directly above the ocean and most of the rest playing with the sea in view.

And in a rare thrill not offered even at most seaside courses, Point Hardy offers players the opportunity to knock a ball over elevated cliffs and across open water on five oceanfront holes – Nos. 8, 15, 16, 17 and 18 – while trying to avoid the abrupt and most definitely in-play drop into the salty drink on either side of the short par-3 seventh.

“It is something that sets Point Hardy apart from the vast majority of oceanfront courses,” Coore said of his routing with so many holes crossing a piece of the ocean. “It may happen once or twice, but more often than not you’re playing shots alongside the ocean or playing perpendicular to the ocean, not over the ocean like at Point Hardy. It does leave a lasting impression, without question.

“No matter how your shots might end up, just the thrill of hitting a golf ball literally over the ocean and the crashing waves, from one cliff to another, it’s pretty special.”

Cabot Saint Lucia
The second green is perched high above the ocean at Cabot Saint Lucia’s Point Hardy Golf Club. (Courtesy of Cabot/Scott Powers)

Coore will tell you the cliffside holes were the easy part at Saint Lucia. He was focused more on building enjoyable and realistic golf holes on an extremely hilly site, especially inland of the cliffs. Point Hardy climbs from a shelf atop the cliffs to a higher second shelf inland, where most of the non-cliffside holes have been placed. It’s a steep landscape, and that presented daunting challenges to a design team determined to make the playability match the views.

“In spite of all my reservations, knowing how spectacular the site was but how difficult it was going to be to construct a golf course – not just physically, but to build a course that would be interesting and enjoyable on a repeat basis – it was a tall challenge to say the least,” Coore said. “Knowing all that and all that went into it and all the difficulties encountered along the way, you look at it today and you go, it’s probably worth it.”

That understatement, typical of the gracious Coore, proves why he’s a great architect and not a salesman. Simply put, Point Hardy instantly became one of the most desirable tee times in global golf.

Cabot Citrus Farms in Florida

Cabot Citrus Farms
Exposed sand at the Karoo shows one of the best features of Cabot Citrus Farms: the potential for firm and fast turf. (Courtesy of Cabot/Matt Majka)

Cabot Citrus Farms, by contrast, doesn’t have the cliffs or the trade winds or the Caribbean accents. What the Karoo does have is sand, and for golf architects and developers, that’s like sticking a shovel into the ground and striking gold.

A sandy base provides ideal drainage, allowing for firm and bouncy playing surfaces across which a ball can roll great distances. Sand is at the heart of all true links courses in Great Britain and Ireland, and it was sand that Keiser sought when he was introduced to the coastal site that became Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which served as inspiration to Cowan-Dewar.

Perched on a landform known as the Brooksville Ridge that is blessed with ancient sand dunes, Cabot Citrus Farms sits atop the former World Woods Golf Club, which was home to two courses designed by Tom Fazio and opened in 1991. Those courses ranked highly, playing through oaks and pines with occasional exposed sand, traversing gently rolling hills that equate almost to mountains in typically flat Florida. But the club was never a financial success under previous ownership, and playing conditions often suffered.

Enter Cowan-Dewar, who bought World Woods in January of 2022 and kicked into frenetic pace a top-to-bottom plan to reinvigorate the property in the wake of a golf boom that started during COVID-19.

“We had thought, this might be the time to buy a couple of assets,” Cowan-Dewar said. “To see the progress and how we were able to get that turned and to market is pretty extraordinary.”

Cowan-Dewar said that from the start, Citrus Farms was a simpler project than Point Hardy, the site of which he first visited eight years ago. Planning permissions were easier to obtain for a site that already held golf courses, and its U.S. location also helped put Citrus Farms on the fast track, with Franz designing the Karoo in the footprint of World Woods’ former Pine Barrens course.

Franz cut his teeth as an associate for other designers two decades ago, including interning for Tom Doak at the exquisite Pacific Dunes layout that opened in 2001 at Bandon Dunes. Franz has gone on to several solo original projects but might be best known for his historic restorations to Mid Pines, Pine Needles and Southern Pines, each a Donald Ross design near Pinehurst, North Carolina.

In those well-received restorations, Franz was focused on reinstating the design vision of one of the game’s masters. At Cabot Citrus Farms, he wanted to take what he had learned from studying the masters and apply those concepts in new ways. And he certainly didn’t want to build a typical Florida resort course, rife with water hazards and soft conditions.

Cabot Citrus Farms
The short par-4 15th offers two fairway options divided by sand at Cabot Citrus Farms’ Karoo Course. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)

“We definitely wanted something different,” he said from behind the 18th green in December of 2023, watching a handful of golfers wrap up an early preview round on the Karoo.

And different, it most certainly is. Players who experienced World Woods might hardly recognize the place. Thousands of trees were cleared, opening the landscape to light, breezes and long views. Franz dug into the precious sand, exposing vast swathes of waste area that frequently come into play. Most of the holes play through the same corridors installed for the old Pine Barrens, but Franz reversed the playing direction for several holes.

Seven holes of the Karoo offer split fairways, either with cross bunkers and center-line traps or, in several cases, with entirely separate fairways that make a player choose left or right, tacking to best approach the hole location on a given day. These tee shot options are a strength of the Karoo, forcing players to choose a line, pick a club, then commit – a mistake with any of those three will likely lead to a ball in the sand. The 18th hole even has what amounts to a triple fairway divided by sand, playing much like the finisher at the famously defunct Lido on Long Island (recently recreated in Wisconsin at Sand Valley Resort.)

Unlike Coore and Crenshaw – whose shaping is frequently described as minimalistic, unobtrusive and naturally low to the ground – Franz’s work at the Karoo is much more in a player’s face. He introduced sometimes extreme mounds, bounces, traps and roll-outs, using classical strategic principles in new ways that can be described both as bold and frequently frustrating for a player.

The Karoo’s greens are huge, many of them 50 yards deep or more with plenty of slopes – both within the greens and among their surrounds – to deflect golf balls. Nos. 1 and 6 share a massive double green that stretches for some 100 yards. With tiny and tough-to-approach sections often hidden by mounds within the larger overall putting surfaces, these greens offer plenty of chances at 3- and even 4-putts.

Several greens have tiny bunkers set deep within their general outlines with flanks of putting surface on either side, much like some of those constructed by George C. Thomas Jr. at Los Angeles Country Club, site of last year’s U.S. Open. The green at the par-3 16th doesn’t have such a bunker within its confines, but it does feature a finger of taller grass carving up the middle, the putting surface curved somewhat like a horseshoe around it – it will be entirely possible that players will select a wedge when playing from one side of the green to the other.

Architects Pete Dye (of TPC Sawgrass, Kiawah Island and Whistling Straits fame, among many others) and Mike Strantz (Tobacco Road, Caledonia and a handful of others) were known as bold designers, welcoming the opportunity to constantly challenge players with extreme mounds, deep traps and challenging green shapes. Franz’s shaping at the Karoo definitely brings their work to mind. There has been a surge of interest from a new and frequently younger group of golfers in recent years looking for an adventurous and unconventional style of golf, and the Karoo certainly fits that description.

Cabot Citrus Farms
The Squeeze at Cabot Citrus Farms is a 10-hole short course with many half-par holes. Courtesy of Cabot/Matt Majka)

Cabot Citrus Farms also will be home to The Roost, which was still in rough shaping as of December – its 18 holes will need to be finished and quickly grassed to meet the targeted opening for preview play in the spring of 2024.

Already in play are the 11-hole Wedge and 10-hole Squeeze, each a short course that plays very differently than the other. The Wedge features shorter holes, and it’s ideal for players looking to carry just three clubs for a fun hour hitting to creative little par-3 greens. The Squeeze, meanwhile, features longer holes and a scorecard full of half pars – many of the holes play just at or beyond most players’ driver distance, offering a fun chance to whack balls at flags 250 yards away.

Combined with a huge putting course and a technology-laden driving range, the entire golf atmosphere should be a blast for resort guests looking to play and practice all kinds of golf shots. As Keiser advised Cowan-Dewar, put the golf first – the game in all its various forms is certainly the emphasis at Cabot Citrus Farms.

Homes available

Cabot Saint Lucia
A rendering displays the level of the real estate offerings available at Cabot Saint Lucia. (Courtesy of Cabot)

The courses and settings aren’t the only differences between Cabot Citrus Farms and Point Hardy. Planned to open fully in the fall of 2024, Citrus Farms will be a cottage-based resort with plenty of amenities in a village environment. Point Hardy is a private club, with the company saying it will offer chances to play to prospective members and invited guests.

The residential element will be prominent at each destination. Luxury homes at Point Hardy will costs millions of dollars and offer dreamy views from homesites perched atop hills overlooking the course and the ocean. At Citrus Farms the plan is for the upscale, two- and four-bedroom privately owned cottages to be available for rental in the village. Clubhouses are currently under construction at both destinations.

Cowan-Dewar didn’t initially include real estate as part of the puzzle at Cape Breton, focused as he was on the golf. He slowly introduced that element, for once not following the direct advice of Keiser, who has resisted building homes at Bandon Dunes. But Cowan-Dewar said he was following a different kind of advice from Keiser when he decided to include homesites at the Cabot properties.

Cabot Citrus Farms
Cabot Citrus Farms will offer cabins available to resort guests as part of a rental pool. (Courtesy of Cabot)

“It’s one of Mike’s amazing lessons: Listen to the market,” Cowan-Dewar said. “I think the market will tell you. When I first said I wanted to sell real estate at Cabot, he looked at me like I had a third eye. But I said, I think there’s a market here. So we just tried things. We got a lot of things wrong and paid a lot of tuition, but I think it comes back to, just listen to the market.”

That market has proved very fruitful for Cabot, in Canada and now well beyond.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek