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Been Here? | Highland Links

At the northern tip of Cape Cod a 200-year-old lighthouse watches over America’s first true links

By: Thomas Dunne

Appeared in Summer 2012 LINKS

FOR MOST of its 60-plus miles from the Bourne Bridge to Provincetown, Route 6, the road that traverses Cape Cod, can’t be called one of America’s great drives—it’s a traffic-clogged two-laner framed by monotonous pitch pines. But north of Orleans it turns into something special. On the Outer Cape, the relationship between land and sea begins to blur as the explorer penetrates a world of vast beaches and towering dunescapes. 

If you’re a golfer, it’s almost impossible not to look at this environment and see natural holes—great ones, too, with colossal blowout bunkers—but it’s best that this magnificent stretch of coastline is federally protected land for all to enjoy. The lone exception, grandfathered in when the Cape Cod National Seashore was established in the 1960s, is Highland Links in North Truro.

Highland Links is a nine-hole track that dates to 1892. It has no architectural pedigree, having been originally designed by Willard Small, the son of the local hotelier, and then modified in the 1950s by a subsequent owner, but that’s hardly the point. It’s a simple, lay-of-the-land golf experience on an excellent natural site—a sandy bluff featuring some outrageous views of the Atlantic—and before the Bandon Dunes courses began to arrive at the turn of the new century, it was the only course in America that could properly be classified as a links.  

The course packs plenty of variety into its nine holes. There’s the drivable par-four opener and the par-five 2nd, which features a thrilling tee shot that drops 100 feet into a beach canyon (and is presided over by the Jenny Lind Tower, a mysterious medieval-style castle turret named for the 19th-century opera star). These holes are followed by a couple of tough uphill tests that climb back out of the canyon. The tiny, devilish finisher that demands a wedge to a severe two-tiered green gets a fair amount of attention, but the best hole is undoubtedly the 464-yard three-shot 6th, which begins on a clifftop tee—the mighty Atlantic to the player’s back—and then heads inland, tracing a gentle dogleg left across bumpy, linksy ground. And all the while, the famed Highland Light watches over the proceedings. 

Perhaps because of their symbolic value as guides to safe harbor, lighthouses can exert a powerful calming effect on golfers. At Highland Links, the beacon conspires with the course’s rugged terrain and no-frills conditioning to lend a timeless feeling. It may not be the most famous lighthouse in golf—those at Harbour Town and Turnberry vie for that distinction—but in terms of historic significance Highland Light is rivaled perhaps only by Nantucket’s Sankaty Head. During the colonial era, the coast near Truro was notorious for shipwrecks, and when the structure opened in 1797, it became the first lighthouse on Cape Cod. 

It was Henry Thoreau who made the Highland Light famous, though. The sage of Walden Pond overnighted here in the 1850s, tucked away within a previous iteration of the beacon. He was moved  by the edge-of-the-earthness of it all, writing in his travelogue Cape Cod: “I thought as I lay there, half awake and half asleep, looking upward through the window at the lights above my head, how many sleepless eyes from far out on the ocean stream. . . were directed toward my couch.”    

Thoreau also noted the effects of coastal erosion on the bluffs, a process that has continued unabated over the past 150 years. Eventually that wonderful 6th tee will likely be lost, but the beacon itself will remain safe for the foreseeable future—after a grassroots effort that raised $1.5 million, in 1996 the Highland Light was moved to a new site some 450 feet inland, pushed along steel beams greased up with Ivory soap. It remains functional to this day.   

After a round at Highland Links, visitors may become pleasantly aware of the taste of salt on their lips—a by-product of playing in the briny marine layer. Sea air is well known for its restorative properties, and coming off the course feeling relaxed rather than beaten up is the hallmark of holiday golf. Highland Links represents this type of golf at its finest, and it’s a perfect fit for what summertime on the Cape is all about.

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