Welcome to the Cape Breton Highlands Links
Memorable Nova Scotia Golf at Fabled Stanley Thompson course on the Cabot Trail
By Bob Weeks
When Canadian architect Stanley Thompson arrived in Ingonish Beach, N.S., back in the late 1930s, he likely thought he’d instead stumbled into paradise. A gorgeous setting bordered by water and mountains tucked against the northeastern shores of Cape Breton Island, in his mind, it resembled Scotland.
Cape Breton Highlands Links, originally scheduled to be just nine holes, was a project of the Canadian government, in large measure to provide jobs for the region. It’s unlikely the folks in Ottawa ever dreamed they would end up with a layout that has been revered by golfers around the world.
“I think it’s different from the sheer majority of courses because of the design, the layout,” says Graham Hudson, the longtime general manager of Highlands. “Every hole is 100 per cent different; there are no similar holes.” That’s apparent from the moment you step on to the first tee to hit a drive to the 405-yard uphill par 4 that begins the journey. It doesn’t take long to realize that a level lie is something rare at Highlands. The fairways are filled with bumps and humps as well as elevation changes throughout.
The first sighting of the ocean comes right at the first tee, with North Bay providing a cutting wind and stunning view. Those views – whether they be of water or mountains or both – never stop. The holes ramble on demanding different challenges and teasing with seemingly simple shots that can be anything but. Killiecrankie, the longest hole on the course at 550 yards, is a straightaway par 5 known locally as “Killer”, which some say takes three good shots to get there in two ( try deciphering that after a few post-round whiskeys).
“The layout is taken from the land”, Hudson says,” He didn’t move it around. I think the way he designed the greens and the bunkers around the greens ... I think it’s quite unique in the world to find a golf course like this any more.”
It’s only been in recent times that Highlands Links regained its Stanley Thompson imprint. Years of small change after small change coupled with growth of the surrounding vegetation took much of the course’s original look away. But using the designer’s plans and borrowing from historic photos, architect Ian Andrew restored much of the bunkering and Hudson’s crew thinned out trees and bushes to bring back the charm and character.” All bunkering is back to the original size and shape on all holes,” states Hudson. “We’ve had a lot of work done on tree clearing which really opens up the vistas. Three or four years ago you could see the water on four holes, now you can it on 11 holes.”
A round at Highlands can be a magical experience, re-invigorating for a golfer’s soul. Last year, I teed it up with the effervescent Hudson just after sunrise. We were the first two off and although our journey didn’t scare any course records, we took in the ocean air, saw a moose and her calf quietly chewing their morning feast, looked at several course projects underway, imagined what Thompson would think of today’s game, laughed a lot and discussed the future plans for the course. Oh and we made it around in two hours and forty-five minutes and I birdied Killiecrankie. That’s pretty close to perfection for me.
Bob Weeks is Editorial Director of SCOREGolf, and one of the most recognized golf personalities in Canada