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Highlands Links

It’s a rousing journey just to arrive at the place. What follows is a soul-stirring tour of Stanley Thompson’s vivid golf imagination

By: Hal Phillips

Appeared in November/December 2003 LINKS

So my pal Larry’s got this plane, a twin-engine Beech Baron. Flies it all over the country, including an excursion to Maine each summer. For years, Larry and I had been plotting an international side trip to Nova Scotia, home to the Stanley Thompson-designed Highlands Links in remote Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Word was, this course was well worth the effort to get there—which for us would mean flying 386 nautical miles, then driving 100 more.

Just reaching any Thompson course can be a challenge, since the “Toronto Terror” did most of his work in his native Canada. Banff and Jasper Park, for example, are both nestled deep in Alberta’s mountainous interior. But Highlands Links—arguably the architect’s most feted design—gives new meaning to the notion of isolation. Just how “out there” is it? Well, just up the road from Cape Breton’s Ingonish Beach is a ferry landing—next stop, Newfoundland.

To make a long story short, this year Larry and I finally made the trip.

In one day.

A whole lotta day—an 18-hour marathon of golf-crazy indulgence that both exhausted and exhilarated us.

So now I come before you, not to crow, but to warn: Don’t make the mistake we made. One day in Cape Breton is not nearly enough. For the love of Mucklemouth Meg (more on her later), set aside a week to do this place properly. What we netted in frenetic golfing pleasure was overshadowed by regrets over what might have been.

As it happened, we departed Bar Harbor, Maine on a beautiful, clear July morning, bound for Maritime Canada. After crossing the Bay of Fundy and passing over Nova Scotia proper at 10,000 feet, we picked up Cape Breton in the distance, rising like the secret island lair of some twisted, cat-stroking Bond villain. Soon we were over Bras d’Or, Cape Breton’s spectacular inland sea.

“Golf course at 10 o’clock,” I announced excitedly.

“I see it,” Larry confirmed from the pilot’s seat.

“That’s Bell Bay, a Tom McBroom design in Baddeck. Really good.”

“You’ve played it?”

“Oh yeah. Excellent track. If only we had another day …”

Soon we touched down in Sydney, Cape Breton’s biggest town and site of the closest airport to Ingonish Beach—still a two-hour drive away. But what a drive it is, winding around glacier-cut fjords (or across them, in quaint six-car, flatbed ferries) and up Cape Breton’s magnificent northeastern coastline, where ribbons of blacktop hug the mountainside above crashing surf, a la Big Sur, Calif. With each passing kilometer, we put civilization further behind us.

As we pulled into the golf course, we caught a passing glimpse of the Keltic Lodge, a grand Tudor-style hotel where patrons (those who plan better than we did) can spend a glorious weekend of golf, whale-watching and north-country trekking.

“Wow,” Larry remarked, slack-jawed. “Would you look at that place.”

“Yeah. Great dining room, I hear—if we had time to eat.”

Which, of course, we did not. What we did have was an 11:30 a.m. tee time (Atlantic Standard, one hour ahead of EST). Before we could fully process our new and inviting surroundings, we were already standing over our approach shots to the first hole.

The Highlands Links was recently rated the top course in all of Canada, public or private, and you’ll get no argument from this quarter. Thompson brought all his renowned imagination and skill to bear here, the result being an astonishingly diverse collection of golf holes. It’s surely the best example of the architect’s uncanny ability to combine thrilling, natural terrain with flamboyant man-made features (bold bunkering, impossibly curvaceous putting surfaces), yet never produce something that seems contrived or gaudy.

Indeed, Thompson knew when to get out of the way: If the terrain dictated back-to-back par-5s, he did so, convention be damned. And he could be subtle. The short, two-shot fourth at the Highlands (nicknamed “Heich O’ Fash”) finishes atop a stunning volcano-green setting. Look closely from the fairway and you’ll see how Thompson shaped the greenside mounding here to mirror the uneven mountain range in the distance. It’s this sort of inspired attention to detail that made Stan the Man.

Thompson routed Cape Breton’s first few holes in view of the Atlantic Ocean before venturing into the eponymous highlands, then back down to the sea again for a rousing finish. The highlights are many: the par-3 third, which plays across a briny inlet; the back-to-back par-5s at six (“Mucklemouth Meg”) and seven (“Killiecrankie,” which corkscrews uphill, over impossibly crumpled ground, to a hellaciously severe green); the no-less-exquisite, back-to-back par-5s at 15 and 16; the amphitheater putting environs at the par-3 fifth (“Canny Slap”) and 17th (“Dowie Den”).

Yes, the Highlands Links has it all, a rare combination of eye candy, thought-provoking strategic elements and Gaelic immersion (they don’t call it “New Scotland” for nothing). For walkers, it’s an exhilarating physical test as well—a 7.5-mile trek that includes an impractical, but nevertheless magnificent, 480-yard riverside stroll between 12 green and 13 tee. The course was expertly refurbished a few years back by another Canadian, Graham Cooke, although even he would acknowledge this particular canvas is without peer.

If ever a golf round ended too soon, it was that mid-summer tour around Highlands Links. Before we knew it, Larry and I were racing back to Sydney, musing about what we had just seen  (“That Meg must have been some lass!”). Once again aloft, we raced west with the sunset, spotting Prince Edward Island astern and bemoaning our inability to play another fine McBroom course, the Links at Crowbush Cove.

Hugging the west coast of Nova Scotia, we passed over the town of Digby, home to another delightful Thompson design, the Pines Golf Club. Here, savvy golf travelers can ferry (in leisurely fashion) back across the Bay of Fundy to St. John, New Brunswick.

“This is killing me,” Larry muttered glumly. “Next time,” I assured him, “we’ll make better plans.”

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