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Architecture | Restoration Hardcore

40 Hours with the Highlands Links Crew

By: Thomas Dunne

“The unfortunate thing about golf courses,”wrote Dr. Alister MacKenzie some 80 years ago, “is that every professional and almost every golfer thinks he can lay [one] out.”

Guilty as charged. I’ve always wanted to learn more about what really goes into making a golf course, so when architect Ian Andrew invited me to join a renovation crew for a week last July, I jumped at the chance. Andrew, a restoration specialist, works at several clubs, any of which I would've traveled to in order to get my hands dirty. But he chose a dandy: Nova Scotia’s famed Highlands Links.

Designed by Stanley Thompson and built largely by hand by a crew of local fishermen, Highlands Links (LINKS100 #66 World) has seen its share of misfortunes—both natural and manmade—since its 1939 debut. Over time, many of the “Toronto Terror’s” distinctive, flowing, amoeba-like bunkers had been replaced by dull, cookie-cutter shapes. After a winter storm surge in 2010 flooded the Clyburn River and badly damaged several holes, Parks Canada, which operates the course, redoubled its efforts to restore it to its former glory. Andrew was commissioned to lead the restoration. 

While restoring an existing layout presents different challenges than building a new one, I’d still be getting the basic course in bunker building. By the end of the week, my hands and forearms ached and rattled, barely able to perform fine motor skills. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat. 

DAY  1: Just after dawn, I stood outside Keltic Lodge, the old hotel a short walk from the first tee, watching the first rays turn the waters of Ingonish Harbor and the sea cliffs beyond a pale pink. It was going to be a hot day. At 6 a.m. sharp, Graham Hudson, the course’s general manager, pulled up in a white SUV emblazoned with the Parks Canada logo. Andrew was already on board, and the three of us drove down the wooded maintenance roads, emerging several minutes later on the 7th hole.

The crew was already hard at work. Andrew introduced me, and I leaned on my shovel for a couple of minutes, studying the work flow before jumping in to help. “Not much of a morning
person, are you?" joked Jeff MacLean, the excavator driver, getting in an early needle. Watching him work was fascinating: The machine's raw power to simply erase unwanted features was impressive, but MacLean could also be surprisingly precise. He brushed dirt with a gentle flick of the knuckle bucket, like a bored king dismissing his servants.

Our mission for the week was to rebuild all three of the hazards on the 7th hole—two fairway bunkers, one on each side, and an elaborate greenside affair. Nicknamed “Killiecrankie,” the 7th is a wicked par five that snakes through a narrow mountain pass, and while Highlands is full of quirky and whimsical features, Thompson intended the bunkering on this hole to be pure intimidation. According to Andrew, each of the three bunkers would present a different degree of difficulty in terms of restoration—from the relatively easy reshaping of an existing landform, to recreating a hazard based on clear archival imagery, to working with almost no historical evidence at all. 

Working in pairs, we used edging tools—small, flat-headed shovels with semi-circular blades—to establish the new shape of the bunker as delineated by the architect’s spray paint lines. Early on, Andrew was encouraged when he found a patch of old bunker sand—archaeological evidence of the hazard’s original shape. We raked the bottom of the bunker at great length, unearthing countless rocks to be shoveled up and carted away. Andrew came by with a plate compactor—a loud, heavy machine designed to pound the bottom of the bunker into a surface as smooth and firm as a bocce court. I gave it a try for a few minutes. Working on the side of a slope, the thing seemed to have a mind of its own—my feet went one way, the compactor the other. Somewhat less fearsome was the sod cutter, which worked its way around the perimeter of the bunker, allowing us to peel away old turf and create new grass faces with trucked-in sod.

DAY 2: Clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped. This was great news, because we were moving on to the bunker on the right side of the fairway, which sits in full sun for most of the day. Originally designed as a single sand pit, it had at some point been broken up into an insipid three-bunker complex. By the end of the day it would be transformed into the biggest hazard on the course. 

Around mid-day, Andrew handed me a black-and-white photo from the collection in his pack, a view of Killiecrankie from the early 1950s that offered a distant yet compelling glimpse of the fairway bunker in question. Squinting at the image, I at first thought the skinny patch of grass in the hazard was a cape of sorts. Andrew, however, had determined that a ridge was obscuring the view of the bunker’s front edge—it was an island. And I was assigned the task of rebuilding it.   

I teamed up with Taylor Hardy-Scott, a college student and former local high school basketball star, to recreate this feature. With Andrew, we studied the photo from various points in the fairway as well as from all the way back on the tee, trying to get a sense of scale. MacLean had left us a pile of material in roughly the right location, but we still had a couple of hours of shoveling ahead of us in order to build it up and tinker with the lines.

I decided we needed to make the point of the island skinnier and extend it further to the left, toward the edge of the fairway. Editing with a light hand, Andrew directed us to soften a couple of the high points on top of the feature, then jumped in to help roll out the sod. By the end of the day, it was afloat in fresh bunker sand. 

The final form, I realized, bore a strong resemblance to Ingonish Island, a volcanic plug one mile off shore that is to Highlands Links what Ailsa Craig is to Turnberry. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but I remembered that Thompson frequently mimicked natural backdrops in his work. Was it possible we’d uncovered a new reference? Either way, at the end of the day I knew I’d made my mark—albeit tiny—on one of the historic courses of the world. It felt great.

DAY 3: Rain transformed our work site into a quagmire. The crew came prepared in bright orange, lightweight rain gear, while I borrowed a pair of rubber boots and a Helly Hansen PVC suit—the type of thing you'd wear on a North Atlantic fishing trawler. I'd gratefully
accepted the loan, but the gear proved painfully inflexible. We had now moved to the greenside bunker. Everyone had slowed down, but I was struggling. Working in the top corner of the hazard, I shoveled topsoil up the slope to rebuild a collapsed edge. As the rain permeated the dirt, every spadeful became heavier than the last.

By 8 a.m. I was soaked with sweat and happily accepted Andrew’s request to make a coffee run. Not wanting to track mud into the clubhouse, I ordered our refreshments from the front vestibule. "You look like you just buried someone in the woods,” one passer-by
remarked, somewhat uncharitably, as I waited. 

The jokes and banter of the first two days had vanished on this dank morning of hard work, but when the rain dissipated and we broke for lunch, I stepped back and realized the bunker had been totally transformed. A generic-looking hourglass had been replaced by a wildly jutting form that resembled a stylized number seven. The effect was one of forelengthened perspective—now even a wedge third shot on this 570-yard hole would appear longer than it really was. Killiecrankie was complete.

“Building new golf holes, sometimes you’ll work for a long time and while you know you’re making progress, you can’t really see it,” Andrew told me on the ride back to the clubhouse. “Bunker work is really satisfying because you can sometimes see results by the end of the day.”

It’s impossible to overstate the bond between Highlands Links and Ingonish. Good jobs are hard to come by in this remote corner of Cape Breton, and nearly everyone on this crew was born and raised in the town. In late August, the Canadian government issued a call for private sector proposals to operate Highlands Links and Keltic Lodge. While the government announced at the end of the year that it had not accepted a bid for 2013, the long-term future of Highlands’ unionized crew remains in doubt. Whatever happens next, Andrew's restoration should be marked down as a success story in both spirit and execution. Stanley Thompson’s masterpiece, the pride of Ingonish, has been returned to its rightful place—among the classics of world golf.                             

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