Highlands Links and GolfNorth: Arising from the ashes?

Signature par-3 3rd hole at Highlands Links

Signature par-3 3rd hole at Highlands Links

I spent the day playing one of the best golf courses in the world, Highlands Links in Ingonish, NS, alongside its intrepid GM Graham Hudson. Hudson is a survivor who helped keep the course afloat while the government fiddled with it. Now the course is controlled by Ontario’s GolfNorth– the most notable course in its group–and Hudson is leading the charge at revitalizing it, along with the Keltic Lodge, the hotel that is now directly linked to the course.

I’ve seen Highlands, which once had a spot in the Top 100 in the world, struggle over the past decade. Sometimes it didn’t have grass on its greens. Sometimes the government wouldn’t let it stock shirts in the pro shop. Sometimes it didn’t have the manpower or equipment to bring the course to the standard it should be. Often it didn’t have a superintendent (and still doesn’t–at least for now).

Hudson says GolfNorth, which runs mid-priced daily fee courses in Ontario, is treating the course like the flagship it should be.

That means he’s getting money to invest in equipment and the turnover from government control, which quietly happened about a month ago, went smoothly. Some old employees were retained, and new ones are being hired.

What’s terrific is the golf course–the greens were solid, problem areas like the fairway on No. 6 were exceptional, and it is clear the property is finally moving forward under Hudson’s guidance.

Yes, there’s a long way to go. Detail work around the course is spotty, but the greens (with one exception) and bunkers (restored by Ian Andrew in recent years) were excellent. There is lots of turf on holes like No. 9, where once it was covered with bare patches. Tree removal has opened up vistas, like the one on 18, that were long lost. Progress is being made–and I feel relatively confident the right steps are being taken.

GolfNorth still has a lot to do. Highlands and the lodge need rebranding and a new story to be told. Remarketing the course and the lodge are paramount; the facility has long had the reputation as being potentially great, but struggling. Now the course is improving, and GolfNorth has to convince people–like those coming to see Cabot Cliffs–that they should make the 2.5 hour drive to Highlands. It’ll take a lot of work from a company that really hasn’t marketed itself–$35 daily green fee courses need little marketing support beyond some ads and an average website. The proof, it seems, will come with what GolfNorth manages to do with Highlands.

In the meantime, the course was, for the first time in recent memory, a real delight to play. The fairways were firm despite a lot of rain, the greens were good at a time when many courses in Eastern Canada are struggling, and the holes still remain vibrant, smart and entertaining. It was a great walk.

Now I wait to see what comes next for Highlands Links.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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