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Highlands Links

Far away but well worth the trip

By: James A. Frank

I’m on my way to Cabot Links, the much-talked-about new course along the sea on the western side of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. More about that from me another time, or if you can’t wait, LINKS Editor George Peper takes a “first look” at Cabot in the magazine’s next issue.

But I wasn’t going to come all the way out here without paying a return visit to one of the world’s great courses, Highlands Links. Located in Cape Breton Highlands National Park on the eastern side of the island, Highlands was designed by Stanley Thompson, Canada’s architect extraordinaire; it officially opened in 1941, but Thompson kept tinkering with it for years.

Thompson was a genius: Among his other courses were those in Banff and Jasper, two other Canadian parks, as well as St. George’s in Toronto and Capilano in Vancouver: right there are five of the top seven courses on the latest list of Canada’s top 100, as named by ScoreGolf, the country’s leading golf magazine. He also was the co-founder, along with Donald Ross, of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, and a pretty good player in his day. The man knew his golf.

Highlands is a terrific piece of work in a majestically beautiful setting. It’s a national park, after all, which should give you some idea: thick forests, rolling landscape, flowing rivers, views to the ocean, and very remote. The course winds through tall trees, rising in the air and returning to sea level. The fairways are incredibly flowing and undulating, and the greens are multi-tiered but never unfair. And you might even seen a moose on the course.

According to the course’s website, Thompson, who died in 1953, considered Highlands something of a tribute to the great courses of Scotland—blind shots, forced carries, pot bunkers, thick grasses—but it is not a links. Far from it. In fact, according to Graham Hudson, the affable operations manager (as well as head superintendent and just about everything else), the word “links” will be deleted from the official name over time, and it will be known as Cape Breton Highlands.

Hudson is also continuing a program of architectural restoration—overseen by Thompson expert Ian Andrew—to bring the course back to how it looked when Thompson designed it. That means clearing lots of thick spruce and other trees, enlarging greens, and opening up views, especially up to the mountains and out to the sea. The results so far are outstanding and there is more to do. It will be interesting to watch the original Highlands re-emerge.

But that’s no reason to wait to see this masterpiece. Yes, it’s far afield—200 miles from Halifax, Nova Scotia’s big city; about two hours’ drive  from Sydney, the closest airport—but the island is beautiful, the seafood couldn’t be fresher, and the golf is great. If you go, stay a night or two at the lovely, and rustic, Keltic Lodge next to the course; it's funky but fun.

If you’re not familiar with Thompson and Highlands, it’s high time to learn. Or, like me, always worthy of a return visit.

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