Highlands Links - Nova Scotia - Canada

Highlands Links,
Ingonish Beach,
Nova Scotia,
B0C 1L0,
Canada


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  • Graham Hudson

  • Stanley Thompson

  • TBC

Highlands Links is sometimes called the Cypress Point of Canada and it’s located on the very tip of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia. The course was laid out in 1939 under the watchful guard of Mount Franey. Stanley Thompson designed it and is lovingly known as his “mountains and ocean course.”

The rugged Highlands Links is set in one of Canada’s most gorgeous spots and this is where golf and Mother Nature join together in sweet harmony and the club is quite rightly proud of its Audubon certification.

The Highlands Links layout pitches and rolls across wonderful terrain and the out-and-back routing is very traditional and a perfect accompaniment for a classical course. Thompson named each hole in true Scottish tradition and we must smile at his sense of humour. He gave immortality to Mucklemouth Meg by naming the par five 6th after the lass who could allegedly swallow a whole turkey egg in one uncomfortable gulp.

If you are looking for a thrilling and traditional course, which fits the land like a silk glove, look no further and there’s no doubt in our mind that Mr S. Thompson practiced what he preached here at Highlands Links.

“Nature must always be the architect’s model.”

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Reviews for Highlands Links

Av. Reviewers Score:
Description: Highlands Links golf course is set in one of Canada’s most gorgeous spots and this is where golf and Mother Nature join together in sweet harmony... Rating: 5.0909090909091 out of 6

I returned to Cape Breton 4 years after my last visit. I was delighted to see an improvement in playing conditions and the state of the greens at Highlands Links.

Highlands Links Golf Course - Photo by reviewer

Putting this course in the hands of professional golf course architects and maintenance crew over the past 2 years was the best thing that has happened to this epic Stanley Thompson course.

The efforts of Ian Andrews on the greens were truly evident, and just added to the charm of undulation that greets you on every fairway. Highlands Links is great value for money in a truly stunning location.

September 12, 2017


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Stanley Thompson is rightly revered for the outstanding golf designs he spearheaded throughout much of Canada during his lifetime. The designs are often rich in detail and show an advanced sense in creating superior hole diversity with routings that took clear advantage of every aspect of a given property.

One of his most celebrated efforts is Highlands Links -- located in the far northeastern area of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. I have made two (2) different visits to the location -- the first in October '12 and the second in July of '15. In my first visit I was really excited to see the course given the universal praise mentioned.

In my first visit I was duly impressed with the design elements. On the flip side I was taken aback by the lack of anything remotely close to sound conditioning. The course featured clumpy fairways -- grass overly soft so therefore no bounce possible with a number of tees not level. The greens were blessed with an array of internal contours and thankfully the handiwork of Thompson was left as is.

The main issue was the speed -- or I should say -- the lack thereof. Ten-foot putts required a shoulder turn to get the ball to the hole. Sand, if you can call it that, was nearly non-existent in the bunkers and was more akin to packed dirt. The biggest concern was the major flooding of the par-5 6th -- water caused by spillage from nearby Clyburn Brook. The panoramas of the course was also obscured by the proliferation of too many trees. The beauty of the property was cluttered -- playing angles encroached.

Even with all these anchors hanging around the course's neck -- the genius of the layout was there to see. Given the short season and the general lack of detailing from a maintenance perspective it dawned on me that many people had simply looked the other way regarding the conditioning side and were simply giving high grades on what they saw was present simply from a design perspective. How one does that is beyond me.

Golf design is not played as an exercise divorced from what the players actually encounter. In many ways what I saw from my time in October '12 was similar to what I had experienced prior the renaissance of Bethpage's Black Course a number of years ago.

I returned to the area in July '15 -- the primary purpose was playing the just open Cabot Cliffs course in Inverness. I had been told that Highlands Links was a good bit better than what I had experienced from my first visit so I figured a second look was worth the time.

The overall improvement from my first visit was present -- but to be fair -- the bar was that low to start with. One of the more important elements that happened in the time frame since my first visit was that a decision had been made to provide a long term management contract with GolfNorth -- an Ottawa-based company with clear expertise in running golf facilities. Highlands Links would be the first facility outside of Ontario for the company. The arrangement also included Keltic Lodge -- immediately near to the course -- and was also in need of long overdue renovation.

The layout was somewhat improved -- greens still too slow and the overall turf conditions remaining a clear concern. The difference I could see was the admission that things were in need of getting better so that this gem of a layout could be fully appreciated. The acknowledgement that major work was needed was the clear first step in getting things going. GolfNow would have the time to do so given the 42-year-lease.

Fortunately, back in 2008 -- a decision was made to bring in a qualified architect -- Ian Andrew -- to assist in resurrecting the course. The process was a slow one but a much needed one.

Even if turf quality improves I am still not a fan of the massive walk -- about 400-500 yards -- from the 12th green to the 13th tee -- it seemed like an extended intermission break when at the theater.

Highlands Links excels at the different looks you get when playing the course. Such standout holes include the downhill dog-leg right 2nd with is challenging green. The short devilish par-4's -- at the 4th, 8th and 9th are first rate. The long par-5 7th is especially well done. On the inward half the trio of par-4's in succession from holes 13-15 are a good mixture.

The competition on Cape Breton Island has clearly turned a corner -- Cabot is clearly the main draw now. Highlands Links will need to demonstrate the wherewithal to be competitive with its new neighbor. I am hesitant to return to Highlands Links for a 3rd time until I hear back from those who have played it that clear past deficiencies are now being fixed.

It's hard to fathom what Thompson had to overcome when starting construction in such a remote area in 1939. Two years later in 1941 the course opened.

Thompson created a range of different putting surfaces -- along with contours in a number of the fairways. Should the course ever get to anything remotely close to firm and fast conditions the overall design elements will shine in a big time manner.

The Highlands Links I saw and played was still a work in progress. It's up to GolfNow to show what they can do to get this fascinating course where it needs to be. The one I visited on two different occasions was just not ready. Living off the headlines and the name of Thompson is no longer sufficient.

by M. James Ward

March 04, 2017


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Playing the first hole at Highlands gives you an immediate sense that the course is not going to be "typical." Its sense of uniqueness asserts itself right out of the gate. The 405-yard hole plays uphill, and both edges of the fairway taper off into the deep woods that line it. Thompson liked to use moguls as a design feature, and this hole smacks you in the face with them. It's a great way to start a round of golf! Thompson didn't use a lot of bunkering at Highlands, and the first hole is a good example of why he didn't need to. Between the moguls, the uphill terrain and the trees, no more hazards are needed.

The second hole is one of the best I've played in my travels. A 447-yard dogleg right, the hole plays sharply down a big hill. You hopefully won't see your tee shot land, since if you hit it well, it will carry the crest and your ball will bound down the hill. The second hole features NO bunkers at all. The par five seventh hole is also one of the best I have ever played. It is 570 yards and is the #1 handicap hole on the course. Thompson used the rolling hills in this part of the park to great effect when designing this hole. You hit your tee shot into a chute of trees and watch it run up and down the hills like a ball bouncing in a pinball machine. The hole is narrow, lined with birch trees and with a lot of interesting land forms. The approach to the green is a challenging shot and could be blind depending upon where you leave your approach shot.

The seventh hole embodies Thompson's design philosophy perfectly. He wrote in 1923, "In clearing fairways, it is good to have an eye to the beautiful. Often it is possible, by clearing away undesirable and unnecessary trees on the margin of fairways, to open up a view of some attractive picture and frame it with foliage."

Like at Cypress Point, the routing at Highlands is unconventional by today's standards. There are two sets of back-to-back par fives (holes 6 and 7 and holes 15 and 16). The front also has in a three-hole sequence a par three, followed by a sub-300 par four, followed by another par three. The course measures 6,592 yards from the tips, but I found it plays longer due to the use of uphill shots. Part of the genius of the course design is how Thompson juxtaposes different hole types and mixes uphill shots with downhill shots.

John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs

November 20, 2016


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I played this course twice in early September during and after heavy rain. The bad weather of course took away some of the enjoyment but it was still a great experience. I don't know how often it happens but when this course is dried up and fires on all cylinders it must be something else. And the management (of the course) and the hotel are great too.

October 26, 2016


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Did you ever finish reading a book or listening to a piece of music that everyone else loved and wonder why? That’s how I felt after playing Highlands Links. Yes, the scenery was lovely and yes, the green complexes were top notch. (Who knew Stanley Thompson was building pot bunkers 30 years before Pete Dye?) Thompson apparently was a stickler for what he wanted for his greens and local lore has it that the construction crew had to tear up the first 2 versions of the 17th green before Thompson signed off. But from tee to green, Thompson’s work is indifferent. There’s just not much exciting happening there. There are few fairway bunkers and most are not in play, so little thought is required on the tee…..and the same can be said for the second shot on the par 5s.Thompson’s original contract with the National Parks called for only nine holes, but using the “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” theory, he went ahead and laid out 9 more. This allowed him to build 2 of my favorites: #s 9 and 13. But it also made for a torturous routing and the 11 kilometer walk the course is famous for. Conditions were decent when I played in August 2015. Two green nhad suffered from the tough winter but the others were true, running 9.5 on my stimpmeter. The fairways were not in great shape, but I attribute that to the 3 days of rain that preceded me.Having traveled 800 miles, I wanted to like the course more, but, alas it was not to be.
August 13, 2015


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Opened in 1941, Highlands Links definitely stands up to the test of time. Designed by the legendary Canadian Architect Stanley Thompson, this course stretches about two and a half miles through hilly, forested land and is consistently ranked among the top 100 Courses in the world by several leading golf publications. It is a true honor and privilege to play such an historic gem but don’t expect any level lies here. There are a few flat spots on the fairway but I swear by the swells on the second green that there’s two humpback whales buried there. I also discovered what may be the softest and deepest sand bunkers I’ve ever played so I’ll be sure to practice up before my return.
May 01, 2014


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Designated a national park in 1936, Cape Breton Highlands covers 950 square kilometers and is one of the largest protected wilderness areas in Nova Scotia. Cape Breton Highlands National Park is part of a system of national parks protecting significant landscapes throughout Canada. The park is known for its spectacular highlands and ocean scenery. Steep cliffs and deep river canyons carve into a forested plateau bordering the Atlantic Ocean. One third of the Cabot Trail, a world-famous scenic highway, runs through the national park along the coasts and over the highlands. Inside the park is Highlands Links Golf Course routed along Ingonish Beach and is the creation of Stanley Thompson. Having being the mastermind behind splendid golf courses in other Canadian national parks, namely Banff and Jasper, Stanley Thompson was engaged to build 18 holes throughout the densely forested and rugged terrain of Cape Breton. Click the link to read Fergal’s full report on Highlands Links.
July 17, 2013


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Update: Feb.2012 -- there has been much improvement and restorative work done and being done to the course over the past 24 months plus. Playing corridors have been opened up, green conditions are the best they have been in many many years and the ocean and mountain views have been restored throughout the course. Anyone interested in seeing some pictures of the course improvements should visit the courses website at highlandslinksgolf.com
February 07, 2012


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I played Highland Links in mid September 2010 and the course was in wonderful shape. The course was not manicured like the high end courses around Toronto but it is much better than what is indicated in other reviews. I have read in other reviews that the some greens were brown but we found all the greens to be very green, but the greens were somewhat slow due to recent rain. I think that some of the work cutting back the trees around the greens has helped the conditions. The layout of the course and the greens is good and is as nice as I have ever played. The scenery is also first rate. It is not easy to get to Ingonish but I think it was worth the drive especially if you can get in two rounds.
September 20, 2010


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I played Highlands Links again last summer after a gap of 12 years and I have to say that this iconic course was is a mere shadow of its former self. The 9th green was reminiscent of a desert brown and the overall condition was truly poor. It’s a shame that so many US golf course rankings, and this website hold Highlands so high in the rankings. I can only assume that this course has not been visited recently. Probably the most accurate publication for Canadian golf course rankings is ScoreGolf and even they had placed Highlands at No.4 in 2008. I can only presume they hadn’t made the long pilgrimage either. When I first played this course it immediately went to the top of my personal list. After the second playing last year it unfortunately plummeted to mid table mediocrity. Some serious money and a lot of love are required to turn this course back into the shining treasure that it once was.
November 04, 2009


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Response
Jim McCann
November 06, 2009
A Canadian friend showed me some photos of the course that he had taken in August 2009 and I have to admit that I was quite shocked at some of the holes he ran past me. There was no way that this place looked anywhere near the number one course in all of Canada!!! From what I gather, it is looked after by forestry commission-type people with no real understanding of how to look after a golf course. Maybe that's too stark an opinion but it definitely looks in dire need of some knowledgeable TLC!
Johnson
November 06, 2009
Jim, my dad had a great point about this course. He is a big fan of links golf and loves this course but did say that it's location allows it get hammered by the weather conditions so it is difficult to keep it in great shape. He echoes your frineds comment of the caretakers. He still loves the layout, Stanley Thompson is one of the best.
Steven MacDonald
May 12, 2012
Highlands Links was never and may never be rated so high for course conditions. You have to be able to appreciate the layout, scenery and tradition to understand the rankings. The only reason the course suffers is the climate. There are pictures in the clubhouse from May where there is two feet of snow on the greens. Having said that, with the tree removal they have done which gives the greens more exposure the course is as good as it has ever been.
gerard
August 24, 2012
I have played the Highlands yearly for the past 20 years. This year its the best I have seen. The bunkers are back to Stanley Thompson's original design and the removal of trees have open up the orginal views (breathtaking!)and allowed some greens (8,9) to prosper. You must return.