Mike Johnston scores massive opportunity after success at Cabot Cape Breton

Mike Johnston scores massive opportunity after success at Cabot Cape Breton

By: Adam Stanley

Mike Johnston doesn’t get to visit with Cabot founder Ben Cowan-Dewar as much these days, but when Cowan-Dewar was spending plenty more time in Cape Breton, there was a prominent poster with his favourite business philosophy hanging in his office.

“Work hard and be nice to people.”

Johnston recalls now, with a smile, of a recent visit to Cabot’s Toronto headquarters where Cowan-Dewar has moved that big, framed picture. In a run of a week, Johnston probably trots that line out a half-dozen times himself, he says.

“Working hard and being nice to people probably will take you all these places you might never thought you could go,” Johnston says.

He should know. Johnston has just been appointed the new Director of Golf at Cabot’s first U.S.-based property, Cabot Citrus Farms, in Brooksville, Fla. This, after two years as the head pro at Cabot Links before moving to the same role at Cabot Cliffs.

For the 30-year-old native of Keswick, Ont., it’s a dream-like jump.

“It’s a big role and it’s an exciting property and there is a lot of hype. The biggest thing is that we need to execute,” Johnston says. “(The previous brand had) such an amazing property, the team was so amazing, they have a great, loyal guest-base and we’re already seeing a bunch of those guests come back.

“Us taking over the property and us using our Cabot magic… The next stage at Cabot Citrus Farms is incredibly exciting and, for me, the next stage of my career. I’m still pinching myself.”

Johnston began his golf career like many others – as a young teenager in a back shop. In his case, it was at Orchard Beach Golf and Country club near his hometown. He then went to Georgian College for the Bachelor of Business Golf Management program and spent one co-op segment at Toronto’s Angus Glen before spending two at the iconic Jasper Park Lodge in Alberta. He turned professional at 19 and graduated in 2015.

From there, Johnston spent seven years at Cedar Brae Golf and Country Club before applying for head golf professional positions. He didn’t land anything, but did join St. George’s Golf and Country Club as the lead associate. Just a few months later he was offered the head professional role at Cabot Links – a role he had to jump to.

“It continues to be a pleasure to watch Mike work his magic with both our golf operations team and guests,” says Ted Stonehouse, the Director of Golf at Cabot Cape Breton. “His ability to identify our teams’ areas for potential and help them grow has gained him immediate respect and appreciation by all at Cabot Cape Breton and Cabot Citrus Farms.”  

Johnston describes his current leadership style as a mix of all he’s worked under in his near dozen-year career including Stonehouse and other celebrated pros; Tahlon Sweenie at Jasper Park, Justin O’Leary at Cedar Brae (now at St. George’s), and Alan Palmer at St. George’s (now at Glenmoor Country Club in Colorado).  

They’re all, Johnston says, “terrific” leaders in different ways.

“It doesn’t matter, if there’s a piece of trash on the ground, we’re picking it up. If there’s work to be done, we’re all doing it. My style of leadership is very much team focused,” Johnston says. “I’m very focused on nurturing growth and connecting with the staff on a friendship level – but having the level of respect that’s required and working with the team towards a common goal.”

That energy is what Johnston is hoping he’ll bring to Cabot Citrus Farms. He’s keen to lean on the existing Citrus Farms leadership – managing director Daniel Knight and general manager David Bennett – while also taking advantage of the world-class amenities at his fingertips.

At Cabot Citrus Farms, which opened officially for play earlier in 2024, the après-golf offerings are “unlike anything” Johnston has ever seen. There’s a Trackman driving range and aquatics, a shooting range, and hiking trails are on the way. It all comes back to offerings that match the energy level of the guests.

Johnston is quick to explain that, of course, what brings guests to Cabot initially is the world-class golfing experience. There’s a sense of escape upon arrival. That’ll be the same in Florida as it is in Cape Breton.

“Whether you’re a celebrity or an NHL player or own a superyacht or if you’ve saved up years to have a bucket-list trip – those guests feel like they’re treated the same,” Johnston says. “The community is welcoming, the staff is welcoming, and the property has a sense of pilgrimage. It’s off the beaten path to get there but it’s a feeling, when you do get there, that’s almost indescribable.”

With Johnston flying to Florida, that means the head golf professional role at Cabot Cliffs is open for applicants. Stonehouse is thrilled for Johnston’s next step, but he’s just as excited to find a perfect candidate to fill Johnston’s shoes in Cape Breton.

“Mike is truly the ideal example of the best-in-class golf professional,” Stonehouse says. “He exudes professionalism, calmness, and is a pure joy to work with. We look forward to seeing his continued success at Citrus Farms, and we’re also keen to find our next head golf professional at Cabot Cliffs.”

A very likely way to describe that person?

They’ve got to work hard and be nice to people.

For those interested, the Head Professional opportunity at Cabot Cape Breton is posted here.