Every amateur golfer has had that same pipe dream – of opening their own golf course for them and their buddies to play. Usually, it's discussed over a few beers and never entertained ever again. After all, nobody would be mad enough to actually act on that impulse… right? But once in a blue moon you find an individual with the drive and the means (and that little touch of madness) to bring that fantasy to life. Meet Ben Cowan-Dewar, co-founder and CEO of Cabot.

In December 2004, a 25-year-old Cowan-Dewar drove to Inverness, Canada, to inspect a parcel of land that would later become the home of Cabot Links. Among the rugged remote scenery of Cape Breton Island, he envisioned a golf course that enthusiasts from across the world would flock to in order to experience. Seven years later, the course would open to wide acclaim, followed by Cabot Cliffs on the same property in 2015. Both courses now sit comfortably inside the world's Top 100 with booked tee sheets filled with international golfers. That old Field of Dreams quote comes to mind: "If you build it, they will come." 

World domination, in a geographical sense, has ensued since. Courses in the USA, Scotland, and indeed the much-touted Point Hardy Golf Club in Saint Lucia have each opened to fervent praise from all comers. It is no exaggeration to say that Cabot and Cowan-Dewar are on the cutting edge of transforming golf's fuddy-duddy image into something modern, convivial and, dare we say, fun. 

We sit down with the architect of Cabot's stratospheric rise to find out more about his extraordinary journey to the upper echelons of the sport. 

Cabot Cliffs golf course, aerial view

When was the first time you picked up a golf club?

I was around six years old when I first held a golf club and would practise in our yard at my family’s farm in eastern Ontario. In 1986, when I was six, I watched Jack Nicklaus win the Masters and I was hooked. I grew up playing in Florida with my granddad and as I got older, my dad and I would go on golf trips together. I cherish those memories to this day.

Were you a natural?

I wouldn’t say a natural, but I was a fast learner. I studied the pros on TV, poured over countless issues of golf magazines, and practised with my dad and grandad whenever I could. I spent the summer playing at a small local course playing 36 holes a day as a junior. I became obsessed with the game and courses – golf has been a part of my life ever since.

You started a golf business while still at university – tell us more…

As a university student, I came up with an idea that I thought could work as a business. The company, called Golf Travel Impresarios, essentially functioned as a tour operator and travel agency for golfers. I first began organising tours to play courses in Scotland and Ireland and it became a surprising success at a time when the internet was just starting to take off. It was the dawn of the digital age, and I saw an opportunity to help international courses market themselves to golfers around the world – a golf resort in Europe, for example, might have a hard time reaching a customer in America unless it was through print and mail, which was expensive. The digital marketing era changed that, and we were in the right place at the right time. My dream was to travel the world and play golf, and the business allowed me to do exactly that. A couple of years in, we had worked in over 20 countries.

At what point did you decide ‘I want to build a golf course’ – and how did you turn that dream into a reality?

I was always intrigued by golf course architecture and my dad and I built a golf hole on our property growing up. After seeing many of the world’s great golf courses, I decided I wanted to try and build one myself.

In December 2004, when I was 25, I walked the land that would become Cabot Links at Cabot Cape Breton, and in January 2005 I called Mike Keiser, whom I admired immensely. Up until that point, almost every person I met had told me it was a terrible idea to build a course in such a remote place, but Mike graciously took my call. I knew the land was special, and if I could get the right people on board, I believed we could transform it into something that would greatly benefit the region.

I built a golf hole on our property growing up. After seeing many of the world’s great golf courses, I decided I wanted to try and build one myself

At the time, Mike told me he had bitten off more than he could chew in remote golf – Bandon Trails was opening that June and he said, “I’m not your guy, but you need to get more land.” I barely had enough money to build the first course, but he told me that I would someday be successful and would need more land to build a second course. It was a polite brushoff, but I took his advice and started looking for ways to buy the land that would become Cabot Cliffs. As a young and naïve entrepreneur, I invested every penny I had in this dream. Two years later, Mike agreed to become my partner.

By the time Cabot Links opened, it ranked No. 2 on the SCOREGolf course rankings and Bob Weeks, the great Canadian golf writer who had been the long-time editor there, told me it was the highest debut ever. We then got to work building Cabot Cliffs.

Cabot Links has become renowned as one of the best courses in Canada. Did you always think it would be such a success?

I had always hoped it would be a resounding success, but what it has become is beyond my wildest dreams. Mike Keiser liked the motto, “If you build it, they will come,” and thankfully, that has been a true testament at Cabot Cape Breton. I am extremely grateful that both courses have resonated with golfers around the world in such a meaningful way, and that we were able to play a part in revitalising the town of Inverness through the many jobs the property created.

Point Hardy Golf Club, Cabot Saint Lucia
Point Hardy Golf Club, Cabot Saint Lucia

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

We have certainly had challenges. The 2008 recession hit when we had just started construction at Cabot Links. Everyone thought we were crazy, but we stuck with it. Golf Digest reported we were one of only four golf courses in the world still under construction. Everyone else had stopped. But when we opened in 2012, we knew we did the right thing – there were no other new golf destinations opening at that time, and the reception was overwhelmingly positive.

Two months after we started construction at Cabot Saint Lucia, Covid-19 hit. Mike told me, “Well, we’ve already got the playbook for this, we just keep building.” Thankfully, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s team, including the great Trevor Dormer, stayed on the island to keep pushing forward. Our Cabot Saint Lucia crew chose to stay on the island to keep the project moving forward, despite flights being halted for months and not knowing when they would get home to see their families. It was a very tough time, but we kept reminding ourselves that building through the crisis meant we would open on the other side of it. When we celebrated our grand opening last December, it felt surreal and was extra special after all that our team had poured into it over the years.

You have courses in Canada, Florida, the Caribbean and Scotland. Where’s next?

I am a big believer in serendipity. My goal has never been to grow at a particular pace, but to follow the philosophy of finding truly exceptional pieces of land in remarkable locations. We are eyeing a couple of new destinations and will have exciting news in the coming months.

If you could only play one more round of golf, where would you play?

I think I would choose to play Cabot Links. Rod Whitman’s design remains one of the greatest I have ever seen. No other course holds as much significance for me as the very first one we created. The growth of our Cabot portfolio all started with Cabot Links, and my three kids were born in Inverness, so it will always have a special place in my heart.

What would you tell the 20-year-old you?

My favourite motto is work hard and be nice to people. And also…buckle up, the road will get tough, but it will all be worth it. Keep dreaming and never lose sight of all those who helped you along the way.

For more information, thecabotcollection.com

Ben Cowan-Dewar, CEO and co-founder, Cabot