When it comes to golf, I don’t know a divot from a hole in the ground. I'm a writer — but my mother, while not a great golfer, works on her game like it’s a job. At 72, she plays all winter in Florida and all summer at home in Nova Scotia, where I grew up.
So when I was offered a chance to go on a four-course golfing press trip around Cape Breton Island (that included the much-touted new Cabot Links), I had no choice but to swallow my game-related anxieties, say yes, and invite my mother along. No way was I turning down a chance for her to golf Travel & Leisure magazine’s 2011 number-one island destination in Canada and the continental U.S. — number three in the world.
It was perfect. I could treat my mother to a dream golfing vacation while I enjoyed the green, rolling mountains, the inland sea called the Bras d’Or Lakes and some heart-in-throat, cliff-edge driving along on the sea-to-sky highway known as the Cabot Trail.
And she could serve as a buffer against everything that intimidated me about the game: its seriousness, its mysterious etiquette and others’ skillfulness. When I take to the course every few years — always with Mom — it’s with a set of old clubs she bought at a yard sale, and my wicked slice seems to defy physics and double back on itself.
I should also note that it’s been more than 30 years since Mom and I lived under the same roof. Back then, I was the rebellious son and she, the worried, doting parent. I didn’t know it yet, but squeezed into an RV for a week and playing on my mother’s turf would teach me surprising things about her — and our relationship.
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The Lakes Golf Course: Where the Games Begin
The plan is to travel in late July via a rental RV from the CanaDream outlet in Halifax. Our “Class C” is outfitted with mini-everything, except for the queen-size bed, which of course she gets. I’m convinced Mom and I will either re-bond by sheer force of confinement — like a diamond from coal under pressure — or scrap as in the old days like two cornered cats.
Day one, Mom is up before the alarm to prepare for the game. Behind the privacy curtain hiding her bed and a bathroom more suitable for a Hobbit, she goes through a series of rituals she refers to as her “boudoir.” When she emerges, she’s wearing a new shirt purchased just for this trip. “At least I look like a golfer,” she jokes, revealing insecurities about the game I didn’t know we shared.
But there’s more to my mother’s extensive preparations. As she studies herself in the mirror, she says with a laugh, “I really don’t look any better than when I started. I just know I tried.” I see now that her boudoir is also about shoring herself up against aging, and it has me melancholy about a future without her.
Several holes in at the Lakes Golf Club, a fellow golfer offers a few pointers to correct my stubborn slice: “Choke up on your club and stand closer to the ball,” he tells me. I focus really hard and attempt to do both, and the ball sails straight and, for me, long. I can’t help but smile. It feels good. I want to hit the ball this well every time.
My intense feelings of intimidation begin to dissipate. Excited for me, Mom proceeds to hit a good one of her own. We cheer her ball as it rolls up the dry fairway. “Get up there!” we encourage. I think, We are playing golf together — and having fun!
Afterward, we sip ice teas at the clubhouse and add up scores. She’s beaten me by a comfortable margin, though by less than in the past. We yarn with a tableful of men, our voices as excited as a tree house full of boys after a baseball game, with my mother — the only woman — in the thick of it.
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Highlands Links on the Cabot Trail
On the drive to our next course, the sun sparkles off the Atlantic Ocean. We stop at artist studios and craft shops to admire blown glass, leather goods and ceramics. The road switchbacks in and out of deep gorges and up and down mountainsides that thrust from the sea in the Highlands National Park.
Legendary course architect Stanley Thompson took full advantage of this landscape when he designed Highlands Links in 1941. A team of men with shovels and horses took two years to complete most of the work. If you’ve ever skied moguls, you’ll have a good idea of the how the fairways undulate.
Each hole at Highlands has a nickname, many in Gaelic, to honor the heritage of the island and to evoke the history of the game in Scotland, where it originated some 600 years ago. On “Canny Slap,” for example, one must be “canny” enough to hit, or “slap,” the ball onto a steep slope to the left of the green so it rolls down to the flag. Of course my shot doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t matter. My game is improving, though Mom’s is still better than mine (even if our scores are in the 115-125 range).
After 18 holes, many as quirky and challenging as Canny Slap, we’re back in the RV and Mom is preparing behind her curtain for an evening at Keltic Lodge, the resort at Highlands Links, for appetizers and drinks. I hear her fussing with clothing. “I don’t know what’s wrong with this bra,” she says, then follows it with a huge laugh as she realizes what she’s just said — to her son.
The Tide Begins to Turn
On the drive from Highlands Links to La Portage Golf Club, in the Acadian community of Cheticamp, rain threatens. As it snakes along the rocky coast, some of the road is carved into cliff faces. The RV is wide and high-sided, with mirrors that stick out to let the driver see past its bulk, so it's cumbersome on the tricky roads.
The sheer drops and sharp bends make Mom nervous, so I pull a parenting trick and distract her. I hand her my camera and tell her to shoot as many photos as possible — through the windshield if she has to. She concentrates on the shots and forgets her fear.
On the course, the wind whips down from the slopes into our faces. The weather seems to be in my favor, however. On the first seven holes, Mom smacks balls into water and high rough. With tips from fellow golfers and 36 holes of practice, I’ve straightened that slice. With better club selection, I’m hitting more greens and my putting is more accurate.
Suddenly I find myself up on my mother. For the first time ever, I could actually beat her. Always the good parent, she cheers me on. I tease her, but I don’t really want to beat her. I suspect the feeling is mutual.
The skies open on the eighth, and it’s all we can do to squeeze in the ninth, which I bogey in four on a par three. She does the same. Ahead after nine, I can’t technically claim victory because we’ve only completed half a game. I feign outrage at the injustice of having to stop now, but inwardly I’m relieved.
Cabot Links, Golf’s Newest Masterpiece
In the morning, we pull into the parking lot of Cabot Links, our final course and Cape Breton’s new masterpiece. We inhale the scent of fresh cedar from the wooden shingle siding of the simple accommodations, whose beiges and grays blend in with the grasses and sand dunes.
The course, built to recall golf’s roots on the Scottish coast, runs adjacent to the beach and not one hole leaves a view of the sea wanting. “This is what golfing is meant to be,” says my mother. “It’s just like those courses you see the pros playing on TV.” Mist blows off the choppy Northumberland Strait, and black-bottomed clouds jam against the mountain slopes. As a sharp wind spits, my mother announces, “I’m playing this course.”
But as she steps onto it, she complains of cold. After nine holes, she’s soaked and frozen. I had brought a sweater, but her motherly instinct won’t allow her to accept it as long as I might be in need. “You must be cold in just that T-shirt,” she says. I am, but I won’t let on, and insist she take my sweater.
Despite the conditions, she does well — but my newfound skills vanish. My hands slip on the wet clubs. In the cold and blowing wet, I’m anything but loose. I hurry my shots — and frankly, I’m thankful. Here, on one of the world’s great courses, is not the place to finally beat my mother at her own game. This is her moment.
Later I chase the cold at the restaurant overlooking the 18th green with buttery lobster ravioli. We tally our scores, and Mom has walloped me. She comments on how much I’ve improved, in spite of today’s result, and makes excuses for me: the rain, the cold, the longer putting greens.
As the sun sets, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that our future golf outings together are numbered. I wish I could bring up our shifting roles — and ask to be her confidante instead of the son in need of guidance and support. “Let me do the nurturing for a change,” I want to say. “Let me put your needs ahead of mine from now on.” But a mother never stops parenting, and I know it’s futile to even try.
Darcy Rhyno is a travel writer and the author of two collections of short fiction, the latest entitled Holidays.