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From Highlands Links With Love

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Yes, the headline may be a bad Bond steal, and I’m sure as hell not Matt Munro, but I’ll tell you I was thrilled, dear readers, to have the chance to slip up to Highlands Links this morning.

Now Highlands is, without doubt, my favourite golfing spot in all of Canada. I love its remote nature, the crazy contours of the fairways, the devilish greens and the ruggedness and rustic nature of the site. It probably isn’t for everyone, but I do think this is the best public golf course in Canada. Hands down. No discussion.

I calculated that this was my tenth round at the course since first coming to the site in 2000. Any excuse I have to come — and it isn’t frequent that I find myself on Cape Breton Island — I’ll make the winding drive up the Cabot Trail, utilizing the insane Englishtown Ferry, to tour around the course.

Today’s round, with new GM Graham Hudson, was more moist than a duck in a downpour, as the course had been doust with rain on Friday. But what’s a few plugged drives between friends? Chatting the whole time, we bombed along (yes, in a cart, which I know is wrong, but walking in the mud wouldn’t have been fun) playing the round in 3.5 hours. The highlight — a birdie for me on Killiecrankie, the notorious par-5 7th hole that plays 570 yards. For the record I hit 3-wood, 3-wood, wedge and made a 20-foot putt.

I’ll be back in September to give a speech for an event recognizing designer Stanley Thompson as a person of historic significance. Hopefully the course will be dry by then.

Given what I’ve written in the past, and my general skepticism that the course would seem any improvement after a very marginal renovation more than a decade ago by Graham Cook, I was pleased to see trees coming down, and Hudson talking about the possibility of a proper and true restoration to Thompson’s original vision. It is a ways from happening — but it is exciting nonetheless.

My reason for being in Cape Breton? I’m here working on a magazine feature on Cabot Links,the course being developed on linksland in Inverness, NS, with partners Ben Cowan-Dewar and Bandon Dunescreator Mike Keiser. I walked the site with Ben, and there’s a real sense in the area that this project is going forward. Additionally there’s excitement about what the course could do for the area — which has been lacking an economic outlet since mining shuttered in the 1960s. Could a walking-only seaside course be the generator of economic growth? That’s the question.

At the very least, Cabot Links should create a second world-class course on Cape Breton Island. And if you add Highlands and Bell Bayto the equation, that’s a pretty formidable destination being created.

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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.

11 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I love Cape Breton and Highland Links but (although I have not been there) I think there is discussion for Canada’s best public course as Jasper would have to be given some consideration as well.

  • RT:

    It sounds as though construction has not begun on Cabot Links even though talk continues to be that the project is moving forward. Just looking at the photos from the website, the area seems primed for a terrific links layout.

    One article from their website references North Berwick from Scotland while another refers to Kingbarns as comparable sites…obviously quite different courses even though both are seaside. I hope it follows the North Berwick example as it was a treat to play on a recent trip (Kingsbarns was also fun but I would not go to Scotland to play Kingbarns. I would for North Berwick)…and the proximity of the course to the town and how strong they are interrelated is one of many defining characteristics of the area.

    Sure hope the Cabot Links project gets off the ground…lots of potential…

  • From the pics, the property looks amazing. From my sources, $$$ to develop the property is still the issue. It does remind me of Kingsbarns and a few other coastal properties such as Dornoch, Brora. Having not played North Berwick, I cannot chirp in with my comparison to Kingsbarns.

    In our trip to Scotland last year, I voted against going to Kingsbarns not thinking it was would be worth the big bucks charged. Having being outvoted and then playing it, I am sure glad we did! Fabulous course. I can’t remember the course I saw it compared to, but it went something alnong the lines of one of the much older courses looking like it was built yesterday, while Kingsbarns looks like it was built around the same time as the Old Course – I couldn’t agree more. Hard to believe this place is only a decade old. My contrast to this are the courses at St. Andrews Bay. I thought I was playing Glencairn in Milton as I strolled around. Decent enough courses, but I certainly didn’t have to fly across the ocean to play them.

    I drove by the new Castle course between Kingsbarns and St. Andrews and it looks like it will be something special as well. I think the architect is McKay Kidd who also worked on Bandon Dunes. I believe it opens this summer…

    Anyway, from my selfish golfer’s perspective, I hope this Cabot Links gets off the ground to give us another option on Cape Breton.

    BG

  • BG:

    Golf has been played on the Kingsbarns property for several hundred years (primarily holes on the front nine I believe) but not in the current configuration, obviously. It is a beautiful track but I did not enjoy it as much as the traditional links courses in the area. Perhaps it is hard to given the relative newness of the course and comparisons are difficult. For this golfer, if I am going across the pond, I want to play traditional historic links courses.

    Kingsbarns is pricey, both the daily fee and the cost and hassle to get there. IMHO first play the classics of the area…North Berwick, Gullane, Muirfield, or the various tracks around The Old Course (Lundin, Levin, Crail, New Course etc). Then play Kingsbarns and one would have a great base with which to compare.

  • Hi weekend,

    Yes, it is my understanding golf was played at KB for a long time and then the course was ploughed over during the war – I could be wrong and stand to be corrected. I think this happened at one of the courses at Dornoch as well during the war. Anyway, if someone had told me the course was built in 1856 or 1676, I never would have questioned it! I hope the Castle turns out this good.

    Like you, if I am going across the ocean, I will not be playing a Parkland course – I want links. I have managed to play a number Links courses across the pond; Old, New, Crail, Carnoustie, Cruden Bay, Dornoch, Brora, Prestwick, Western Gails.

    There is a chance I will be over again next year. I may add Berthwick etc. to the list to check out. More than likely, I will play the east coast and up north again. The west doesn’t do it as much for me. The Old course just because, Cruden Bay (personal fav) any day of the week, Dornoch and Brora (something about cattle and sheep on a course)again too. I would like to add a few more days up north and try Nairn and Tain as well. I would play Kingsbarns again – depends on how much time and room on the Visa however:) Crail was ok from a historical perspective, but once is enough. Doubling home 16, 17 and 18 on two separate occasions at Carnoustie is enough for me, thank you very much! Lundin and Leven are close by St. Andrews so who knows…

    Then again, I may just end up at Pipers Heath and get “links inspired golf” as they say:) I did play PH recently and it is actually ok, but necessarily inspiring. Luckily for me, the fescue hasn’t grown so no lost balls in the tall stuff.

    bg

  • BG:

    My list is comparable but a little different. On the east coast, Muirfield, North Berwick, Gullane, Crail, Levin, Lundin, KB, Devlin, Old, New, Jubilee, Carnoustie, and then going north Cruden Bay, Nairn, Dornoch, and back west Prestwick.

    Would not play Devlin again and Nairn is well worth the visit and while I have not played it, I am told that Aberdeen is also a worthwhile play. Lundin and Levin are both good although I enjoyed Lundin more as I thought it had more character. Surprised you did not enjoy Crail more…it was a treat for us. Apart from being visually stunning links golf, the challenge of the holes was varied and in many respects stimulating.

    North Berwick is a must…classic in and out links golf with character, challenge, and fun. Carnoustie is true to its nickname name (Carnasty) and Cruden Bay is also a terrific track.

    I am lacking of play on the west coast but did walk Troon which was special and I have heard similar comments about Turnberry. Prestwick was most enjoyable when I played it.

    Have not played PH but, like your comments, heard generally positive things. Still hard to play links golf without sideways rain, 40 mph winds, and the sea on your doorstep.

  • Having played Kingsbarns, North Berwick, and the like. The site actually reminds me (somewhat) or Crail. There is no dunesline, except at the far end of the property. But having walked the Cabot site twice now, I’ll say it has more interesting undulations than I expected. If it doesn’t get screwed up — and there are a number of individuals with big visions involved — it could be very good. How good does it need to be to draw people to Inverness, an admittedly ugly seaside town? Top 10 in Canada? Better than Crowbush Cove at the least, and I think that’s likely.

  • Crail may have suffered from 36 holes the day before…7 AM new and 12:30 Old….who knows, but it just didn’t generate the excitment that the others in this thread did.

    Issues with Cape Breton golf…short season, weather, distance to (from the centre of the universe:) ) and distance between courses. The current big four are already a fair distance apart relative to their neighbour’s courses on the small island. With all due repsect to PEI, the blank canvas of Cape Breton is much more exciting. I hope this or another great course does get built which will give golfers more of a reason to go and perhaps get a seasonal direct flight from TO to Sydney for those long weekends…

    I am off to NS in a couple days for some work/pleasure, almost equidistant between PEI and Cape Breton. Just down the road from Northumberland Links – great track and also near to the little course the double double built:) I will let the weather decide as to the confederation bridge or the Canso causeway.

    bg

  • Highlands Links is in a class all by itself.How do you spell:MASTERPIECE? Cabot Links,will be the only Links course in the world where you will see the ocean from every tee-box. Inverness—“ugly seaside town?” How about an apology to the salt of the earth people of that town? Try La Portage at Cheticamp—in the wind—which always blows. It’s far better than Bell Bay!!!!!!

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