Review for Highlands Links

Reviewer Score:


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

Date: March 04, 2017

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