Global Edition

THE GBN INTERVIEW: Ben Cowan-Dewar, CEO of Cabot

2.54pm 11th September 2023 - Interviews

Ben Cowan-Dewar, the co-founder and CEO of Canadian-based golf course development company Cabot, talks to GBN about his plans for Cabot Highlands, the Scottish links venue formerly known as Castle Stuart that joined the Cabot portfolio 14 months ago, and is shortly to see the addition of a second golf course, along with accommodation for visiting golfers.

With golf properties in Canada, the US and St Lucia, was it always part of the masterplan to add a Scottish venue to the Cabot portfolio or was it more a question of happenstance that you came to buy Castle Stuart?

Scotland has long had great appeal to me, both as a golfer and just a lover of the country. I’ve spent a lot of time there, travelling around and playing golf, but I think there was always a special magic in the Highlands for me. 
I actually walked the course at Castle Stuart with Stuart McColm [the club’s then and current general manager] in 2009, just before it opened. I sort of marvelled at it and I spent some time with the owner Mark Parsinen, who had developed it. I felt a kinship with it because it opened around the same time as our Cabot Links course in Nova Scotia, and both are modern courses built close to the sea and both being highly regarded. From that initial tour, it had always stuck in my mind and, when the opportunity came about, and the chance to do something in Scotland, it was just too good an opportunity to miss.
Mark [who died in 2019] was a visionary and he was already thinking of what was next for Castle Stuart prior to his death. A second course was part of that, and there were already plans for lodgings, so the idea of picking up the baton from Mark’s vision was very appealing. 
We want to make Cabot Highlands a destination. We really like it the way it is, but we want to build a second course and some accommodation and start working our way towards having the same level of infrastructure that we have at some of our other properties, so that golfers can come and stay and enjoy what the Inverness region has to other, rather than just play the course and move on somewhere else. 
The club’s location, between the town of Inverness and being just a few minutes from Inverness airport, is just remarkable for the travelling golfer. It’s so convenient – so that’s another big plus for the site.

Castle Stuart changed its name Cabot Highlands last year

You’ve hired Tom Doak to build the second course. What is it about his work that you thought would make him a good fit for the site you have?

I’ve known Tom for over 20 years and the opportunity to work with him is very exciting. I’ve been trying to find a project for us to work on together and I think this ticks all the boxes. Tom came over to look at the site in 2020, when we were going through the initial surveys, and he spent two days looking at it and was on board from the start. There is a lot of room for creativity, and having played a lot of the courses Tom has built around the world, I just knew that he would be the perfect for the site we have. It is such a spectacular piece of land. We want to get the most out of any golf site we do – fun, great golf is always our goal – and Tom is the man for that job.

How will the Doak course vary from what’s currently on offer on the Castle Stuart Course which was designed by Gil Hanse?
It’s just a wildly different landscape, so it will be a very different playing experience. The course will play down and around the 400-year-old castle and out and along the water. If you’re standing on the third green of Castle Stuart, you’ll see it – it is the land that wraps along the bay. Unlike the existing course, where almost every hole plays straight back or straight into the wind, the new course will have holes where players will battle a crosswind. 
The routing is quite unconventional, with some shared fairways and hazards that come into play on different holes. There’s also a stream that comes into play on three holes around the turn. The par-five 15th will run alongside the estuary that feeds into the Moray Firth, which must also be carried from the tee on the par-four 16th. It will be a really great complement to the original course and one that I think will be a lot of fun to play. 

A map of the routing for the proposed new Doak Course at Cabot Highlands

Will you be giving the courses equal billing in terms of green fees?
Yes. The lesson we learned from when we built two of our other courses in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia – Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs – is that you can have two courses located less than half-a-mile from each other and they can both be as good as each other. They’ve recently been ranked number one and two in Canada, so that’s as good as you can get.
In terms of rounds played, they both do almost the exact same number of rounds each year, and when you ask guests which one they prefer, it’s almost an even split too. So that is what we always strive to do, and if we didn’t think we could build a golf course that was equal to the first we probably wouldn’t have bothered. So that’s been the thinking with Cabot Highlands, and why we have made it a priority in hiring one of the greatest golf course architects in Tom [Doak] to add to the incredible work that Gil did on the Castle Stuart course.

The site on which the new Tom Doak designed course at Cabot Highlands is being built

Could you see a time when you would look to get the Scottish Open back to the club after what was regarded as a very successful hosting in 2011?
People still talk about that Scottish Open with a lot of fond memories, and it’s something we’re certainly open to, but I think right now the focus is on building the second course and the lodgings. But given the success of the tournament without any of that in place certainly gives us the potential to think about hosting big events like that in the future.

What has been the reaction from the local community in Inverness to your plans? 
You know, it’s been very well received. Any sort of investment around Inverness, which obviously attracts a lot of tourists for other reasons, can only be good for the overall destination. Hopefully the lodgings and the second course will create a hub so that golfers stay around Inverness for longer and experience some of the amazing things that the region has to offer besides great golf. 

What have you learned from your previous projects that you are bringing to Cabot Highlands?

I hadn’t developed anything when I started at Cabot Cape Breton, but in the ensuing years, we’ve learned a lot and grown a team that is committed to the same vision. Mike Keiser said when we started Cabot that it would be different than Bandon Dunes in 20 different ways – we just didn’t know what those were yet. And he was right – there were geographical differences, different climates, and different people in each project. We’ve never taken a cookie cutter approach to what we’re trying to do. There are differences between Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, which are a response to the land and the market. We listened to the guests who told us what they are interested in. Each time you learn a lesson, they go into the tool kits we can use at other properties.

One thing I noticed at Castle Stuart, which I had never seen at another course before, was the arrangement of seating right by the 18th green. It seemed like some sort of post-match chill-out zone. Is that a Cabot thing? 

We introduced them at Cabot Cliffs a few years ago – just a couple of couches to the side of the 18th green where golfers who had just come off the course could kind of unwind a little, discuss their round, have a drink, and generally relax before heading inside to the more formal area of the clubhouse. They were whimsical and fun, but who knew they were going to be so successful? 
We were out at Cabot Saint Lucia a few months ago trying to figure out where to put the couches on the 18th at Point Hardy Golf Club. And we’ve done the same at Cabot Highlands. What can I say – people love the Cabot couches! And that’s the kind of thing you pick up with each project you do. 

The Cabot couches have proved a popular addition to post-round relaxation at Cabot venues

Apart from the couches, what links all these seemingly diverse properties?
Each property starts with an amazing piece of land. The goal is to build incredible destinations in places that have magic. Certainly, that’s true of Cape Breton, Scotland, Saint Lucia, Revelstoke, and Florida. And we want to continue that in the years ahead. I get a lot of joy out of doing what I love with the people I love and I want to continue finding great destinations to build this vision.

You started your career in golf travel, but what got you into the golf development business?
Well, I started drawing golf holes – like any normal kid – when I was about 10 years old. And I built a golf hole on our family farm when I was 12, so the signs were there from an early age, I guess. 
I started an online golf travel business right at the beginning of the internet when I was at university, and so that really got me started in the golf industry. I had a tour operator and travel agency and then I got to travel all over the world and see the world’s great courses, which led to the natural next step for a 24-year-old to believe that I could build my build my own course. And here we are, 20 years later, and it’s an overnight success!
But having seen and played so many great golf courses, I had a real vision of what I wanted to do. And again, we’ve been blessed to work on remarkable sites and I’ve been lucky to work with some great people, like Mike [Keiser], my partner for 17 of those 20-odd years. There’s no-one whose had more success in developing courses than Mike. Wherever we can combine truly great golf and remarkable locations, we’ve been able to build a great business around it. Some, like our courses in Nova Scotia, we’ve built from scratch, while others like World Woods in Florida we have renovated, and, of course, Castle Stuart, where we have bought an existing site and are looking to enhance it with a new course.

Are there any synergies in having a global portfolio of courses?
Of course, in terms of building the Cabot brand there are lots of synergies. We’ve built a brand in Nova Scotia and we have a built up a following of people who like what we’re doing and will hopefully seek out other Cabot courses to play around the world. We recently had a group over from our St. Lucia site come and play Castle Stuart, and I’m sure those kind of trips will only become more regular in the future. Hopefully our Canadian customers will soon find their way to our properties in Scotland, St Lucia or Florida in the off-season and vice versa, and it will grow from there. 
As a company with several thousand employees and multiple locations it also gives us an opportunity to move our talent around, so that can they experience working in different environments and widen their horizons and develop their careers.

Cabot Saint Lucia

With the weather shutting down golf in Canada over the winter, how important is it to have sites that can operate all-year round like the ones in Florida and St Lucia?
Certainly, that was part of the attraction of developing the St. Lucia site, where it’s 83 degrees and sunny virtually every day of the year and certainly every day of the winter. The golf season in Nova Scotia is not totally dissimilar to the highlands of Scotland in that it’s really April to November. I know you can play in Scotland during those months, but you probably wouldn’t play much golf in in the Highlands in the depths of winter, so that’s why we close Cabot Highlands during that period. So having courses in Florida and St. Lucia to play in the off-season was very appealing.  

Are there any other sites you’re currently looking at? 
You know, we’re always looking, but it’s very rare that something like Castle Stuart comes along, and we count our blessings that it did. But there’s still lots to do and we’ve got a 40-year time horizon, which gives us lots of time to think, plan and hopefully execute some more great locations.

One final question. If you could play only one golf course for the rest of your life – and it can’t be a Cabot venue – which one would it be? 
There are a handful of courses that I love. My top three would be the National Golf Links of America on Long Island, Cypress Point in California, and the Old Course at St Andrews. If forced to pick one, it would probably be the Old Course. I’ve played it many times over a 25-year period and each time it reveals something else of itself. I mean, you can have a hole play entirely differently depending on the wind or depending on the pin position. Each time feels like a new experience and that’s the mark of a great golf course.


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