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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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.