Review for Highlands Links

Reviewer Score:


Cape Breton Highland Links was once listed by Golf Magazine and other publications as one of the top 100 golf courses in the world. Designed by Stanley Thompson, it is truly a marvel for its location, requiring the removal of thousands of trees and the heavy use of construction to build a course “flat” enough to be playable as it sits on the side of a substantial mountain heading down to the ocean just off of the Cabot Trail.

I wonder whether it was listed in the top 100 due to the difficulty of getting there as well as the beauty of the golf holes. The drive to get there is one of the most thrilling and beautiful in the world.

The course was built as a result of the Great Depression as a way to provide jobs in the area and promote tourism since fishing and hiking were already available. Successful courses had been built in the Canadian Rockies at Banff and Jasper so the government felt a course on the Cabot Trail could be equally successful. The Cape Breton Highlands National Park had recently been created. When Mr. Thompson arrived at Middle Head Peninsula and Ingonish Beach in 1939 he found a setting of a small peninsula located between the ocean and a mountain. On one side is Mount Franey and on the other side is the Atlantic Ocean against the northeastern shore of Cape Breton Island. Inland he utilized the Clyburn River. The course was built by 200 locals utilizing horse-powered machinery and hand tools. Geoffrey Cornish was the supervisor of construction. Mr. Cornish later went on to be a noted golf architect.

There is a very nice statue of Stanley Thompson just outside the clubhouse.

Keltic Lodge was built near the clubhouse out on a point. Beyond the lodge there is only hiking. I walked around the lodge for 45 minutes looking at the dining rooms, outdoor swimming pool, cabins, and game rooms. It looks lovely. However, we stayed at a nearby inn that was recommended to us that overlooked the bay fronting the Keltic Lodge. It was there I had the best dinner in my life followed by drinks out on the terrace with an amazing view.

Knowing that most golfers who travel to play in Nova Scotia are prioritizing going to play the two courses at Cabot Links, I would tell them they should definitely make a stop to play Cape Breton Highland Links. It is a masterpiece to how courses were once built. The course one will see and play is almost exactly how it was built when it opened in 1941 unlike so many other courses that have had other architects “mess” with them. Although the course deteriorated over the years as all courses due, Ian Andrew was given the task of restoring the course, including the bunkers to their original size and shape, which has been completed including the installation of a 1500 feet long berm about seven feet high to prevent flooding from the river on the twelfth hole.

We did not have great weather the day we played. It rained hard the first three holes so much that one player turned and went back in. But by the sixth hole, it alternated between sun and clouds with the rain returning only as we finished the eighteenth. Based on the weather radar, we could see our second round would be unlikely. Good thing we skipped it as the rain was very heavy the rest of the day as we made our way on the Cabot Trail to Cabot Links.

The conditioning is not fabulous, but I did not expect it to be pristine. I expected it to be a bit rugged.

I only have a few critiques of the golf course. The first is that I wish the trees would have been cut back even further. While the driving corridors were certainly wide enough for someone who hits it average length and usually straight, the holes would have been more enjoyable had there been another 10-20 yards on either side of the fairway where the tree line would be replaced by rough. One would not even have to take out all of the trees but certainly only have a few. This might also help with the conditioning of the course along the edges. It also would add to the variety of the visual as the back nine starts to feel a bit similar to the hole before it. Secondly, the routing results in a seven and a quarter mile walk which is not a problem if one is in shape, but the long walk between a few of the holes on the back nine is noticeable, particularly from twelve to thirteen, and sometimes steep. However, the long walks are through stunning, quiet trails that one finds themselves appreciating the beauty of the area and a chance to collect one’s thoughts and appreciate one’s good fortune. Finally, I wish somehow the course would have been laid out in a way that could have left the water holes near the end of the round. Anticipation is always a good thing.

Yet it is a very well routed golf course, one that I thought exceeded the two courses at Cabot in terms of the tee shot on nearly every hole. One has to think a bit more on the tee throughout the round than one does on most courses. The approach shots are usually from uneven lies which is great fun. There is good variety in the length and shape of the holes, unlike Cabot Cliffs which I think is very poor in that regard. The routing takes one from the clubhouse to the coastline back along a river valley then along the side of a mountain before returning to the clubhouse. The first six holes work you towards the ocean but you do not get close yet there are some tremendous views while the inland holes have outstanding views of the mountains. The terrain goes just about everyway possible; up, down, with a fair amount of sidehills, valleys, and large rolling/heaving fairways.

The internal shaping and contours of the greens are excellent and a lot of fun. While this type of shaping is once again in vogue from the “minimalist” designers, back in the time this course was built it would have been somewhat unusual, particularly for a “resort” course. Mr. Thompson used his full imagination to create the green surrounds and green surfaces, expertly placing most of the holes in interesting terrain.

What I really like about the course is the undulating terrain that can resemble moguls or hummocks. One finds themselves asking “what is buried under this ground?” You rarely get a completely level lie here, which is a contrast to the two courses at Cabot. In the clubhouse prior to teeing off, an assistant pro told me that the undulations in the fairway on several holes are not natural, but Mr. Thompson created them by telling the workers where to place larger rocks or create a mound through piles of smaller stones and then covering them with silt from the river. Simply put, you have to be a shot-maker at Cape Breton Highland Links. There are ocean views from eleven of the holes, possibly twelve. There is a sense of solitude here as well since there is no nearby housing and only briefly does a road come into view.

The course is 6592 from the Blue tees rated 73.3/141 par 72. From the White tees it is 6161 yards rated 70.9/135 par 71 although if you play eleven from the Blue tee it converts to par 72. We opted for the Blue tees and found that the downhill nature of several of the beginning holes and the par 3’s offset the uphill holes nearer the end. I shot 79 so it seemed to have been the right choice.

1 – par 4 405/397. Teeing off in front the clubhouse this hole has a wide, rolling fairway. The fairway narrows and felt fairly level although it is a gradual climb as you arrive at the green which is large and very undulating. The rain was heavy and the wind fierce against our faces which I understand is common to the hole. There are bunkers fronting each corner of the green. I felt good about my bogey.

2 – par 4 447/439. The rain was still heavy and the wind was going left to right as we teed off on the elevated tee to a hole that drops substantially to the right over 100 feet. We could see the pond on the right of the green and could barely make out the Atlantic Ocean in the background. I went too far left off the tee and did not get the benefit of a roll that one gets on the right side. The fairway is about 80 yards wide and with the trees lining the fairway, the “miss” is down the left but one does not want to go too far left. Although the pond near the green should be out of play, I hit a poor second shot from an uneven lie off to the right and the wind also pushed it into the trees on the right leading to a double bogey. There is a series of swales running horizontally across the fairway as it spills downhill. The green has no bunkers which is good given the difficulty of the hole when the weather is bad as well as the likely uneven lie. At the green there is a nice view of the ocean. The green has a steep depression on the front right and is uneven throughout. There is also really good mounding and swales fronting the green making it more difficult to run a ball onto the surface.

3 – par 3 160 /154. This is a beautiful hole playing over a pond to a green surrounded by five bunkers on all sides. The pond is not really in play but it gives the sense that the par 3 is a dogleg right. It is a large green with a swale on the front left and a spine running almost vertically through it. Due to slower green speeds one is pretty confident about hitting a putt with some pace. After this hole, one of our group walked in. This hole began a string of seven pars for me. Interestingly, due to trees there is no view of the ocean once you cross over the pond. This is a very nice hole.

4 – par 4 324/275. This downward hole is a lot of fun playing through hummocks, ultimately to a valley fronting a green. I flared my drive to the right and actually found a level lie that provided a nice view of the green. This is a good risk-reward par 4 but if you do not make the green on the fly, then you are going to have a blind pitch onto the green which could be 15 feet above you. There are two bunkers also fronting the green on the right (one large and one small) and a single one on the left. These bunkers are deep and difficult to execute a good recovery shot. The green sits on a knob with fall-offs to all sides. The green has dramatic swales and mounds in it, sloped back to front with two bunkers at the rear that are equally difficult. It is really fun to play. There are lovely views of the bay and Ingonish Island from this hole.

5 – par 3 164/158. Playing downhill and with an opening to the green in front of the hole with four bunkers surrounding it. It is difficult to land a ball short of the green and make it on due to the valley before the green with about a 4 feet deep slope at the edge of the green. I liked the hole.

6 – par 5 537/477. This “cape” hole requiring a 230 yard tee shot to carry the estuary once had the tee to the left making the shot less intimidating. Graham Cooke and Steve Miller moved the tee to the right creating a more dramatic tee shot. One is at the lowest level of the course here and wind can be a factor. Near the green on the left are some expertly shaped bunkers and clever little mounds. There is a large bunker left of the green as well as a small one with a bunker tight against the right side and back of the green. I recall this green as being slightly flatter than the ones before it, but there are plenty of borrows to it. While this hole was not my favorite par 5 on the golf course, it is very good. There are three excellent par 5’s on the course and this is one of them.

7 – par 5 570/554. This is likely the hole that people remember the most. Playing from an elevated tee through a chute of trees, the fairway is about 45 yards wide and the trees are thick on both sides. Fortunately, the fairway is a bit of a bowl with hills on the right and left for average length players that will bring a ball back into play. The longer hitters will have to decide if they want to take on the dense trees on the left and right. The second shot can play off a hill on the left back into the fairway. There are two bunkers on the fairway right. The green sits on a shelf off to the right and is fronted by bunkers on even higher ground on the right. It is a daunting approach shot onto the green that is sloped back to front with a bowl in the middle. It is a very good golf hole.

8 – par 4 319/309. After playing two challenging back-to-back par 5’s, a short par 4 is next. This is a good risk-reward hole with the drive needing to crest the rise in the fairway and then it is downhill from there to a green that seems to run away from you but is actually level. There are three bunkers on the right side and two on the left but the fairway is sufficiently wide to avoid them. One can land their ball 30 yards short of the green and make it on, much like the second at Swinley Forest, although the ball is at the mercy of the contours of the land as it slopes right to left towards a fronting bunker on the left. I liked the hole because it is the opposite of the fourth. You are playing towards the mountains and it is a stunning sight while hearing nothing but birds and playing companions.

9 – par 4 336/323. Another risk-reward hole and a version of the Alps where this dogleg right offers the chance to get a ball very close and have a peak at the green from the right side of the fairway while the left side will leave a blind shot to the green. For me this is the least interesting hole on the front nine, but it does have challenge as you cannot see the green until you get to the top of a rise in the fairway. Even then, the green is further uphill.

10 – par 3 145/141. I found the tenth to be the weakest hole on the golf course despite my bogey caused by two husband-wife couples yelling in my backswing for their orders for the halfway house where the husbands were too lazy to get out of their carts. This plays downhill to a very large green surrounded by bunkers. The green has various shelves in it. Compared to the rest of the holes, I found this one to be bland.

11 – par 5/4 512/403. From the back tee you play over the Clyburn River (brook). This hole plays to a wide fairway that gets very narrow at the green which has bunkers on either side. The fairway has good undulations to it, but it is by far the least interesting hole on the back nine.

12 – par 3 240/205. With the river off to the left, a long par 3 is next. There is a pond just off the tee that is not in play. For me, this hole did not do much either visually or in playing it. I felt the stretch of 10-12 to be the least interesting holes on the course.

13 – par 4 435/412. It is a long walk, more than a quarter mile to the next tee and it begins uphill. Yet it is one of the most beautiful walks in golf I have ever taken starting out next to the river before going uphill and dropping down next to the river. Our tee shots were interrupted by the two noisy couples who came screeching up behind us in their carts. It nearly resulted in an altercation with a playing companion. I really like the thirteenth which is a dogleg left where there is a hill on the right side nearly the entire length of the hole kicking balls to the left. The green is on a smaller plateau and is flatter with a collection of bunkers on the left side. Anything hit short will be propelled backwards away from the green.

14 – par 4 398/373. Perhaps my favorite hole on the course, the fairway goes back in the opposite direction of thirteen and is rumpled throughout. There are no bunkers on this hole which is a gentle dogleg left. The visuals from the fairway are simply amazing.

15 – par 5 540/530. Playing again the opposite way and heading for the clubhouse, this hole plays downhill but everything is a mystery on the tee shot as to what happens on the other side of the hills. There is a large rise on the left that if the longer hitters clear it, they will likely pick up an extra 30-40 yards and be within 210 yards of the green while also finding even ground. The fairway has some nice undulations particularly on the left side but the real beauty of the hole is the green complex which is ringed by seven bunkers, the most on the course. There is a view of Ingonish Island in the ocean and a lovely small, white church on the right as you approach the green. Although our weather was not great, we still found the view to be distracting. The green is perhaps the smallest on the course sloped front to back with a tier near the middle. It also features mounding behind the green and a false front on the front right. This is a very good golf hole and my favorite par 5 on the course.

16 – par 5 460/453. The shortest par 5 on the course playing steeply uphill after the elevated tee. This is another hole without bunkers. The ground tilts to the left with the left side offering a level lie but the right side having a shorter line to the green. Yet the right side is filled with humps and ripples meaning there is not likely going to be a level lie for a lengthy approach shot. There is a deep valley fronting the green that if not carried (I did not), you are left with a blind shot to try to make birdie. Thankfully, it is one of the easier greens on the course, but if one is an average length hitter, then it is best to try to reach the green in three shots. The view from the green is absolutely stunning and one should take a moment to do a 360 degree look as you see mountains, the church steeple, the bay and ocean.

17 – par 3 190/173. Another downhill par 3 with a bank on the right that will bring a ball back onto the green. The green has a vertical spine in it. There is a bunker front and back and two on the left. The green sits in an amphitheater and is another pretty hole. However, the rain was starting to come back so we started to hurry. I liked the hole a lot, but not as much as the third.

18 – par 4 410/387. Playing out again from a narrow chute of trees, one wonders if the fairway will be wide enough particularly since the left side has two bunkers perfectly placed for average length hitters. The tee is elevated and you play downhill with the tee shot but then back up to a green sitting above you about the same as the drop from the tee. There are two large bunkers on the left short of the green which is fronted by a bunker on the right and a long bunker left of the green. The entrance road to the course and Keltic Lodge is only about 25 feet off the right of the green behind a low rock wall. It is a very good finishing hole and one I wished I could have enjoyed more with the rain beginning to get heavier.

I loved Cape Breton Highland Links. I have only played one other course designed by Mr. Thompson (Chagrin Valley in Ohio), so I am far behind. Despite the weather and the “touristy” two couples that followed us, the experience is amazing. The course is beautiful and offers every type of shot. There is an excellent variety of long and short holes that offer birdie or bogey opportunities. There are few complaints about the course as I noted in my opening comments. Holes 10-12 for me are the least interesting and the par 3’s all seem to play downhill but I like that given the views they provide. There are several outstanding holes such as two, three, four, six, seven, eight, fourteen, fifteen, seventeen and eighteen.

As I said, if one is going to play the two courses at Cabot Links, they should definitely stop here. Yet I worry about Cape Breton Highland Links. It takes an effort to get there and with all of the accolades surrounding Cabot Links, plus Cabot being far easier to get to, I hope Highland Links will survive. The resort hotel and views are excellent. I wish there was another course equal to it that would be built here, but that is unlikely since it is in a national park with one of the most beautiful and famous car drives in the world. My advice is: stay an extra day to do some hiking or fishing, enjoy the lodge and the Cabot Trail and make that become the “second course.”

Date: May 21, 2020

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