Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)



cliffhanger

It could be one of the most beautiful golf courses on Earth—will Cabot Saint Lucia live up to the hype?

March 28, 2023

The eyes of golf will burst when they see the 17th hole at Cabot Saint Lucia.

I was stricken as I stared at the Gibraltar-like escarpment of striated rock and trees rising high over a bay of aqua-clear ocean pummeling the stones below. Even in raw form, the would-be par 3 inspired the kind of tantalizing fear golfers feel when standing on elevated edges of land to strike shots over water, in this case 185 yards upward to an unseen green that would somehow be leveled into the opposite cliffside seven or eight stories above the sea. Pictures of this hole could be splashed on magazine covers, calendars, mousepads and dental-office posters embossed with scripted pearls of New Age affirmation.

In March 2020 I had joined architects Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw and their longtime associate Dave Axland to walk the routing of the nascent Point Hardy Golf Club, as the course would come to be called. Construction had begun only weeks earlier, and most of the land we traversed was virgin grassland or thickets of low bush through which trails and dirt roads had been cut. Just seven of the 18 holes were cleared, but it didn’t take an architectural savant to recognize that a golf course on this site near the northernmost point of Saint Lucia would have virtually no terrestrial peers in terms of relentless ocean engagement and raw visual power. Each nine climbs first into scenic uplands and then out to the coast for a series of heart-stopping set pieces that teeter on the rocky brink of land and sea. Five of the nine coastal holes require shots to be launched across sections of the Atlantic, including the 17th, the most emphatic of the quintet. For reference, Pebble Beach and Cypress Point each have three such holes. Words like spectacular and breathtaking are loaded and overused when describing golf courses, but at Cabot Saint Lucia they seem toothless.

/content/dam/images/golfdigest/fullset/2023/1/GD0323_FEAT_STLUCIA_02.jpg

SWEPT AWAY Fourteen holes like the par-4 second possess jaw-dropping Atlantic views.

Brian Oar

Crenshaw was seeing the land for the first time, and he had much to digest. Here and there he drifted off to get a vantage on a certain green site or feature, as if he were already playing the course and breaking it down tactically. Crenshaw was quiet and would often stand squinting in the charged Caribbean sun for minutes, peering metaphysically into the hole’s being. On his return he might say something like, “I think you should be able to enter this green from the high left side,” and everyone would nod, suddenly able to access the vision. Coore ribbed whoever was around him—associates, workers, sales representatives, writers—jabbing with wry verbal feints that landed keenly, keeping everyone loose. To be targeted in this parry-and-riposte was to be included, seen. Jeff Bradley, who has worked virtually every major project for Coore and Crenshaw since the early 1990s and is considered a visionary in terms of building bunkers, was clearing brush near the second tee. He hopped off the excavator when Bill and Ben arrived to look over the expanse of the broad par 4 that drifted naturally across a high plain, million-dollar horizons in multiple directions.

“This is looking rather good, Mr. Bradley,” Coore said. “I have to say, it’s not looking bad at all. What’s the saying about a blind pig?”

Bradley, after a beat, said, “Every once in a while.”

“That’s it.”

Bradley smirked. “‘Every once in a while’ has kept me around for a long time.”

A GOLF COURSE ON THIS SITE WOULD HAVE NO PEERS IN TERMS OF RAW VISUAL POWER.

Unlike most architects since World War II, Coore and Crenshaw don’t draw grading plans, elevations or technical blueprints. They work loosely, refining their holes with each pass, relying heavily on their shapers and associates to interpret their concepts and find the details in the field, and to add their ideas when inspired. Nothing is rushed or even conceived until its time is right.

We were at the bottom of the first hole, an immense par 5 that charges directly up an imposing foothill. Coore was musing on drainage and the difficulty of getting the hole to work when Rory Hutchison, who worked with ONCORE, the independent construction company helping build the course, asked him where the tees were going to be. Coore feigned incredulity.

/content/dam/images/golfdigest/fullset/2023/1/GD0323_FEAT_STLUCIA_03.jpg

ISLAND HOPPING The 16th (foreground) and 15th are two of five holes that play across ocean coves.

Brian Oar

“Now, why’d you have to bring up the tees? I was just starting to feel good about this hole,” he said. “There’s always one person who knows how to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.” Two holes later Coore was still razzing him. Crenshaw had gone off in another direction, but when he returned, Coore pointed to Hutchison and said, “Do you know what this guy just said to me down on one?”

Hutchison, who is from South Africa, took it with humor. He later told me that though he had been on Saint Lucia only a short time, working with Coore and Crenshaw was revealing. Hutchison has helped build courses for the most prolific names in the business, but the Coore-Crenshaw method of constructing them was different. “At every other job I’ve been on, the directive is to go faster, move-move-move. Here, Bill is telling us to slow down and look at it more closely. I love it.”

I asked Axland, who has been with Coore and Crenshaw since the late 1980s and has run projects for them from Friar’s Head on Long Island to Lost Farm in Tasmania, what he thought of the site. He stomped his foot on the ground and said in his deep voice, “It’s a volcanic island. We’re trying to build a golf course here on solid rock.”

This wasn’t the first attempt to build a course here. In the 2000s, a resort operation called Raffles acquired more than 350 acres for golf and housing, and Nicklaus Design began construction before the project collapsed during the 2008 recession. Coore’s routing identified 11 of the same approximate green locations. Many of them, like the par-3 seventh, set on a narrow isthmus above the crags, were too good to not use. As Crenshaw said at the ninth, another par 3 playing off a hill to a meadow set level against ocean bluffs, “If you can’t identify these green sites, you should consider another line of work.”

‘IT’S A VOLCANIC ISLAND. WE’RE TRYING TO BUILD A GOLF COURSE HERE ON SOLID ROCK.’

Coore knew building a course on Saint Lucia was going to be challenging. Constructing international courses in the best circumstances presents hurdles, including unique permitting and environmental regulations, navigating local political dynamics and supply-chain delays. Working in the tropics, with special climate, turf, foresting and topographical (or lack thereof ) considerations, intensifies the effort and explains why there are so few excellent courses in the Caribbean. The Saint Lucia property also possessed severe transitions between the lowland holes and higher inland sections. Bridging these would require a degree of grading and site manipulation beyond the comfort zone of Coore and Crenshaw, who typically work on milder gradients, usually in more malleable sand. At one point, Coore even encouraged Cabot co-founder and CEO Ben Cowan-Dewar to settle for a par-3 course, with all the holes by the water.

Coore enlisted ONCORE, run by Jim Barger, to handle the major earthworks and says they would not have accepted the job had Barger not signed on. Barger had worked in other Caribbean environments, and though Cabot Saint Lucia would be extreme, he believed the site could be tamed. Coore, however, still had doubts about the potential playability given the forbidding elevation changes. “The very things that make the golf course so visually spectacular are also what make it extremely difficult when working on playability,” he said.

He was particularly concerned with the aggressively uphill first hole and the par-4 fifth that ski jumps off the same ridge in the opposite direction: It was nothing but a jungle that plunged down a ravine (the fifth and sixth holes fall more than 200 feet from high point to the shoreline). “Everybody’s out here looking at the ocean, and we’re looking at what’s right in front of us,” Coore said. “Those valleys aren’t there for no reason. When it rains, it’s going to be a raging river.”

The par-5 14th is another adventure that plays blindly over a basin toward an earthen embankment requiring industrial-level cuts, the rest of the hole buried somewhere beyond it in forest. Around the corner, the sight of the 15th hole is one of the most sensational reveals imaginable. Drives at the short par 4 are hit over a bay of thundering surf toward a diagonal wall of rock and a hidden fairway that would have to be pounded into the mountainside: The more aggressive the line, the longer the carry. The hole is a unicorn, an angry one that bucks, and I could think of no analogue in terms of strategy or visceral awe, nor any obvious way it could be constructed. “That’s a Jim Barger hole,” Coore said, matter of factly.

We came to the 17th like rainforest archeologists stumbling upon a monolithic ruin. Crenshaw scrutinized the fortress-like facade. “I definitely want a straight-faced club for this shot,” he said finally. He whistled and made a ballooning gesture with his hand, the imaginary golf ball slicing in parabolic freefall toward the Atlantic. Cowan-Dewar had been there waiting with another Cabot official. “Isn’t this spectacular?”

FIVE DISTINCT PAR 3S ARE ARGUABLY THE MOST EXHILARATING COLLECTION ON THE PLANET.

“It is a truly spectacular piece of land,” Coore said, parsing in his tone.

“Come look at this tee up here,” Cowan-Dewar said. I followed him up a rise of maybe 20 feet through thorny bushes to a small promontory. From here the view of the prospective green was clearer, as was the panorama of the sea. To the right the land fell perhaps 80 feet straight down to the rocks.

“Can you imagine hitting this shot?” he said.

“Ben, I don’t think we can build a tee up there,” Coore said from below. “We can’t be sure that’s stable.”

“Bill, it would be one of the greatest tees in golf.”

“I know, but I’m not sending any of my guys up on that,” Coore said. “I’m not going to call the families of my guys to tell them they’re dead because that whole thing fell into the ocean. I’m not going to a funeral.” This drew a chuckle, even from Cowan-Dewar, despite the adamancy behind Coore’s words.

It’s no surprise a golf visionary like Cowan-Dewar could find a way to make an already jaw-dropping hole even more extraordinary. Cowan-Dewar, who is 43, was just 25 in the mid-2000s when he approached Mike Keiser, the developer of Bandon Dunes, about creating a Canadian equivalent on the remote northern end of Cape Breton Island. That partnership led to the opening in 2011 of Cabot Links (designed by Rod Whitman, with a strong assist from Dave Axland) and then, four years later, Coore and Crenshaw’s Cabot Cliffs, currently ranked the No. 1 course in Canada by Golf Digest. Cabot Cape Breton became the cornerstone of a growing Cabot enterprise (Keiser is also a partner in Cabot Saint Lucia) that has new courses and residential developments under construction in British Columbia, Scotland and Florida. The Saint Lucia project also includes a real estate component of 300 custom built homes and villas surrounding the course. Eventually resident-member play will fill the course, but early on Point Hardy will be open to island visitors staying at nearby resorts.

The discussion of Cowan-Dewar’s auxiliary tee was put on hold, and we moved down the 18th, a short par 5 where the second or third shot is hit over Donkey Beach to another bluff-side green. On the left the foothills stood unbothered as they had for millennia, and on the right sunlight glimmered off the rippling ocean, the mutating blues mirroring a sky that held more warmth and clarity than can be described. All the colors of light and earth seemed to be refracting though some invisible prism. It felt so calm and optimal and full of promise. No one could predict how it was about to change.

THE DOGS OF SAINT LUCIA HAVE evolved a special trait that allows them to scramble away from the wheels of moving vehicles at just the last moment. Either that or the mortality rate is off the charts. I learned this on the drive to Cabot Saint Lucia when I returned to see the course in November 2021. Most people who go there—including future Point Hardy players—fly into Hewanorra International Airport near Vieux Fort Quarter in the extreme south, then take a car or shuttle toward the Cap Estate section in the north. Saint Lucia is only 27½ miles from tip to tail, but the twisting ride though the forests, banana plantations and mountain passes in the heart of the island, past village after small village of homes, bodegas and prancing canines tucked alongside the two-lane road takes about two hours. The rest take a helicopter from Hewanorra to a landing station in Castries. That takes 10 minutes.

Many things had happened in the intervening 19 months, not the least of which was a global pandemic that threw the construction schedule into chaos. Any time major development is proposed in a paradisal but economically modest location (the World Bank ranks Saint Lucia 189 out of 214 countries in GDP), tensions arise between the forces of capitalism and those of conservation and cultural preservation. Saint Lucia is no exception. Resistance in certain quarters arose early when word leaked that the country’s pension fund had loaned Cabot more than $10 million of the reported $13.8 million needed to buy the 375-acre property out of receivership, a price many believe was well below market value (Cabot has since repaid the loan, with interest). Disputes also arose over the potential disruption of ancient Amerindian burial sites, the protection of a grove of organ pipe cactus near the ninth and 18th greens where wild horses grazed, the dislocation of a famous local eatery on Cabot land and public access to the beaches below the golf holes.

When it came to building the course, these were minor, though not unimportant, impediments. The bigger challenges were logistical. Businesses and then borders began closing just days after I had departed in 2020, and Dave Axland and Jeff Bradley left Saint Lucia on some of the last flights out. Concerned about re-entry if he went home, Keith Rhebb, a Coore-Crenshaw associate since 2007, elected to stay behind to ensure the design team had someone on-site while the world shut down. Rhebb continued to work the land through the worst of the pandemic with a small crew grooming the most obstinate regions, including pulling soil into the basin of the fifth. Remarkably, they began to look like golf holes.

Canadian designer Trevor Dormer joined Rhebb in spring 2021. He was immediately taken by the setting. “This is going to be a very emotional golf course,” he told me. By November they had made significant progress, and several holes were sand-capped, the necessary process of covering them in four inches of local pumice sand before the grass seed could go down. Another critical issue, however, had come up: water. The original plan to tap into the local supply for irrigation fell apart, and now they were waiting for a reverse osmosis plant that would desalinate pumped-in ocean water. It, too, was delayed. Without water there could be no grass.

Optimistic projections initially had the course opening in 2021, but now it looked like late 2022 would be the best-case scenario. Coore took a sanguine view of setbacks. “I happen to really believe that the golf course at Cabot Saint Lucia has benefited from the fact—as horrible as that sounds because of the often-tragic circumstances—that the whole process slowed down and allowed the guys to work on the playability aspects of some of those more extreme holes that we worried about.”

The pandemic provided another paradoxical benefit: increased interest in golf and investment properties. “Probably at no time in history did the demand for Caribbean real estate skyrocket as much as it did than through the pandemic—it was just the right moment in time for this project,” Cowan-Dewar said, noting that the closing rate for prospective buyers who visited was “almost 100 percent.” Phase I sales generated more than $120 million, and Phase II lots are currently priced between $1.6 million and $9.75 million. A third phase will follow.

/content/dam/images/golfdigest/fullset/2023/1/GD0323_FEAT_STLUCIA_05.jpg

TRANQUIL WATERS Compared to the clashing drama surrounding it, the par-3 ninth appears deceptively sedate.

Brian Oar

Once Coore determines a course’s routing, he and Crenshaw design by walking. Trim and tireless at age 77, Coore has likely walked more miles through golf terrain than any designer in history. He will frequently spend days or even a week exploring a site for a job he and Crenshaw will ultimately decline to build. As they surveyed the Cabot holes, no detail was too small for dissection, and their directives to Rhebb and Dormer were invariably explained in the language of subtraction. “Let’s soften this,” Coore might say, or, motioning to a line of trees, “Let’s break that up a little.”

At the fourth hole, a Redan-inspired par 3, Crenshaw saw slopes and grades invisible to my eye. “Take this hump down a little,” he said to Rhebb with a smoothing hand motion. “Not much.” The 14th hole had been cleared and somehow transformed into a freeway par 5 that thunders downhill, then up to a green set atop a palisade. Crenshaw scrutinized an imperceptible mound at the green entrance and said to Dormer, “Just calm this area down. A player down there won’t be able to see the shoulder of these bunkers.”

Coore concurred. “Let’s just take the air out a bit.”

The architects treat their properties as curators, designing off the land and salvaging anything that can be incorporated into a hole, however modest: an existing drainage trench inspired a wraparound bunker in front of the 13th green; large, mysterious mounds of debris on the right side of the third fairway became an anomalous shaggy grass berm; a rock quarry at the second now encloses half the green. Rhebb and Dormer joked that they are careful not to leave any unintentional shapes in the ground because Bill and Ben might use them.

When alterations are made, they look natural. The peninsula 16th green—the first of the consecutive cross-cove par 3s that on any other property, in any other universe, would be considered the most transcendent on the course—appears to have been waiting eons for golf to arrive. “Most people look at number 16 and think, Oh, there’s a hole just sitting there,” Coore said. “Well, there wasn’t. Keith Rhebb worked tremendously hard to get that severe slope just right, so you might very well look at it and say that in fact it was just sitting there.”

“This is where I was most nervous to make a big move,” Rhebb said, gesturing to the pitched green. “It was the biggest opportunity to mess up. Me and Trevor are aware we might never get another chance to build a hole like this.”

That is, unless you count the 17th, one that remains outrageous in presentation and the degree of transformation. I went up to the promontory with Rhebb and Dormer but found there was still no tee box. “This is truly a fantasy-golf hole,” Coore announced, peering across the chasm as the wind quartered. “This is a hole Ben Cowan-Dewar wanted built. It’s fantasy golf,” he repeated.

“Bill wants that in print,” Rhebb quipped.

At the green, Crenshaw praised Rhebb and Dormer for the enormous technical accomplishment of getting the putting surface and surrounds playable and receptive to long shots, then gave them notes on how to modify it. More notes came for alterations of the 18th green complex, which Dormer later said has gone through three or four iterations. I commented that most architects would have worked out the contours and grades well ahead of time and translated them from software programs into executable blueprints.

“Do you hear that? Computers are replacing you, Trevor,” Coore said. “The 18th at Saint Lucia may be your last green.”

“Just a minute ago you were praising him.”

“I don’t respond well to compliments,” Dormer said.

“That’s good to know,” Coore said. “Now I know I can be honest.”

Late in the day I stood along with Coore beneath the 10th hole that ascends a slope, similar to the first. Terraces and landing pads had been platformed into the fairway to hold up balls, and in dirt form it looked like a Q*bert pyramid. Cactus patches dotted the hillside, and mottled-green scrub vegetation blanketed the background elevations. Other than more topsoil exposed and the distant rumbling of a truck or excavator, Cabot Saint Lucia didn’t feel different than the first time I’d seen the course. Even the horses were still around.

It wasn’t going to stay that way. The tractors would be up in those foothills soon, clearing roads and building homes and carports and plunge pools. Though the houses were to be tastefully, even beautifully designed using indigenous stone, wood and brass, golfers were going to look around them and see not the natural visages of a section of Caribbean island that had managed to escape man-made artifice through centuries of settlement and occupation but patios and glinting glass. I was as excited as anyone for the otherworldly potential of the golf and would happily line up to play it, as will so many others, but looking at this scenery it was impossible to not also understand that something significant was being sacrificed. Then again, without ocean-view homes to finance the project, there would be no golf, and no pulse-pounding coastline holes that faraway people will dream of playing. Was that preferable?

In so many inarticulate words I shared this thought with Coore, but it wasn’t a question either one of us could answer.

/content/dam/images/golfdigest/fullset/2023/1/GD0323_FEAT_STLUCIA_06.jpg

TRANSPORTED The portal to the “secret” promontory tee overlooking the par-3 17th hole.

Brian Oar

LACK OF WATER HAD PREVENTED Cabot Saint Lucia from growing grass, and now water was what prevented the grass from growing. The reverse-osmosis plant—which looks like a shipping container attached to three squat circulation cylinders—arrived and was operational by spring 2022, and the first parts of the course had taken seed. Dormer, after going back to Canada for the summer, returned in September to see the course to completion as delays pushed grassing of the remainder of the course into the fall. Then came the rain.

Hurricane season on a tropical island is volatile, and storms deluged the course with three to four inches of hard tropical rain at a time. The paspalum grass washed out along with some of the ground features, especially on the steeper inclines. Crews would repair the damage, and more seed would go down only to be erased by another storm. The cycle continued into January, and Dormer began to feel the task was Sisyphean. “We’ve literally built this course three times,” he said. “If we see clouds out there, everybody just gets nervous.”

Dormer devised a stop-gap measure of covering the fairways with netting and building V-shape fords out of plywood that funneled sheeting water into diversion pipes. This invention saved the project from more washouts, and by the time I visited again this February, the grass on the troubled holes was beginning to take root. Jim Barger, however, who was back on site, cautioned another rainy season was coming in May.

Nevertheless, optimism was running high again with hopes of a December 2023 opening. On another walk-through I ran into Rory Hutchison, who had been on the project continually since inception. “In a way the site’s been very good to us,” he said. “It rains, and we think we’re not going to be able to work, but it dries out quickly because of the ocean breeze.” Final construction and design decisions remained only on 11, 12 and 13 that come as aperitifs before the final five-some of Michelin-starred seaside holes. Crenshaw and Dormer discussed a feature that looked like a scaled-down pitcher’s mound in the dirt of the 12th green. “This is really good,” Crenshaw said. “Don’t let anybody touch that.” After looking at the 11th for some time, he said, “I see a bowl green here in the front left.” The two analyzed its merits, then flagged out the dimensions.

This surface crafting and consideration of how balls move over the ground runs silently in the background of every Coore-Crenshaw course. Equally thoughtful, and more obvious, is their treatment of the course’s five distinct par 3s, arguably the most exhilarating collection on the planet, playing to different lengths, orientations and operatic exposures. There are no weaknesses. Seeing them grassed made their detailing come alive, and when I went again to the 17th hole, none of the bewilderment had subsided. I hiked up a dirt trail leading to the promontory, bending through a small passage in the bush and emerging on a tiny bright spit of level grass with a bird’s-eye view of the cliffside green and just enough room to swing a club. Coore insists none of his men built it, but one way or another Ben Cowan-Dewar got his tee.

The full story has yet to play out, but it seems inevitable that the game will soon be fixated on Cabot Saint Lucia. Point Hardy will not be one of Coore and Crenshaw’s most architecturally profound designs because no architecture can compete with the pyrotechnics exploding along the shoreline. The most rewarding and complex holes may be those farthest from the water, like two, 11, 12 or 13. Coore, predictably, remained tempered. “Anybody can build one of the most visually dramatic courses in the world on this site, but is anyone going to want to play it? Or is it going to be a course where people go and play it one time, and that’s it? That was our biggest concern from the beginning.” Tending to the script, he added, “But you know, I’m slowly beginning to think this could have a chance to work.”