The Restoration of Highlands Links Con't

Hanging at Highlands: Robert Thompson (left, in pink, of course), Whitman Design Associate Keith Cutten, and caddies Taylor Hardy-Scott (left center) and Zach Hardy (right center)

Hanging at Highlands: Robert Thompson (left, in pink, of course), Whitman Design Associate Keith Cutten, and caddies Taylor Hardy-Scott (left center) and Zach Hardy (right center)

I arrived home on Friday night quite excited by the possibilities of what might happen at Highlands Links on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. No guarantees of course — money will still have to be found — but new general manager Graham Hudson and Parks historian Ken Donovan are really promoting the idea of doing an appropriate restoration of the club.

The cost? Hard to say for sure. Certainly many of the costs are maintenance-related — removing thousands of trees that have limited sun light and airflow, resulting in poor turf. Drainage has to be put in place on numerous holes, and tees need to be rebuilt. Thankfully, Donovan has done the specifications and can document with some accuracy what Highlands looked like in 1939, allowing designer Ian Andrew to put it back in place.

I should bring some readers up to speed on the history of Highlands. Opened in 1939, it was the masterwork of Stanley Thompson. Thompson, at the height of the depression, convinced then Prime Minister Mackenzie King to allow him to build courses in National Parks using little in the way of heavy machinery and lots of manual labour.

The courses – Green Gables and Highlands Links — were both succcesses, but it was Highlands that became regarded as Thompson’s masterpiece. It remained in Parks Canada control through the years, even as others — Banff, Jasper, etc. — were handed over to private enterprise through leases. By 1994 the course was struggling, lacking irrigation or carts, and Parks Canada decided to undertake a significant investment in Highlands. Montreal architect Graham Cooke was hired and did the work, including some of the worst cart paths in golf (he apparently never saw a fairway he couldn’t cross). Irrigation was added and for a short period of time the course rebounded, being named Best Course in Canada in 2000 and entering the world Top 100 in Golf Magazine.

Then it went through years of neglect. Parks Canada is really set up to run a golf course — and Highlands struggled with conditioning and became overwhelmed by birch trees that cut back on playing cooridors and hurt turf. No architect was kept on retainer and there was little direction. The course was still great, but it was struggling in spots and conditions — always a struggle in northern Cape Breton — could be more miss than hit.

Now, almost 15 years since Cooke’s renovation, Parks Canada has hired Andrew to prepare a plan for a restoration — including costs. Hard to say what the result will be — though many are hoping it points to a full restoration of the course and then designation as a historic site.

Truthfully, to my way of thinking, this makes good business sense. The course is the central economic driver for the town of Ingonish, as well as the hotels, restaurants and shops that dot Cape Breton Island. It also helps other courses on the island — like Bell Bay — by drawing people who might not otherwise come to the island to play golf. Its economic spin-off must be milliion of dollars each year. But if it continues to decline, people will stop coming and the flow of tourist cash — already hit by high gas prices — will dry up.

Like I said, there’s no guarantee that Highlands will be fully restored. But a start has been made — and let’s hope it is followed to completion.

NOTE: On Thursday, the day after giving my speech on the myths of Stanley Thompson, I played the course with Keith Cutten, a budding designer who is working with Rod Whitman on the Inverness/Cabot Links project. It was a ton of fun, with Keith eager to soak in all the details of the course. Walking along the Clyburn Brook between the 12th and 13th holes while chatting with Keith was one of the highlights of the trip, as was making three pars over four rounds on the 18th hole. There’s tons to love about Highlands Links — and hopefully there will be more to come.

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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.

46 CommentsLeave a comment

  • The most visualy stimulating golf course I have ever played ( 7 times).I will keep going back until I can’t anymore. My ashes are going to be let loose on # 15. It doesn’t get any better than that.

  • Rob, I wanted to thank you for walking this “budding designer” through the changes and original design elements of Highlands Links. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversations on the course as well!

  • Thanks for these articles on my favourite golf course. Keep em coming! Also looking forward to something on Cabot Links.

  • Highlands Links is crying out for some tender loving care.
    Redesigning aside, great strides can be made right away with tree removal and drainage. Parks Canada must have monies available for that.
    Over the long haul, a thoughtful and faithful redesign will be a boon to the region especially with Cabot Links about to open.
    This golf course deserves to be in the best condition possible.

  • I’ve not played Highland Links but I have played several Stanley Thompson designed courses. For the life of me I just don’t understand the fascination. I’ll give you St. George’s but given that property I wonder if you and I couldn’t have come up with something decent. For every good Thompson design there are a dozen questionable efforts.

  • Jeez Raymond Cherry,

    I’d really like to know what Thompson courses you’ve played. I’d strenuously disagree with you that he has many questionable efforts. If there are any out there it is because they have suffered the ravages of time, poor renovations, and self-serving green committees.

    Often people speak of Thompson’s “big five”, but little is mentioned of the myriad of solid courses he’s designed and/or built in small towns and cities all across Canada. Countless golfers have learned the game on Thompson courses. It’s hard to argue with the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, who inferred upon Thompson the title of “person of national historic significance”.

  • Chris:

    I’m not questioning his “national historic significance” just that I believe his reputation is based largely on things like St. George’s but if you are looking for specific examples… how about Burlington, Thornhill, St. Catherines, Credit Valley and the always popular Dundas. I’m not saying these are complete dogs (although a couple might be categorized thusly) but they are hardly works of “national historic significance”. My point is this; it’s not reasonable to only consider the great courses when determining the quality of his work.

  • @Raymond:

    Given that Thompson designed, re-modeled or was significantly involved in 144 courses in Canada, you would say there are only 12 with good designs? (see your comment above that “…for every good Thompson design there are a dozen questionable efforts.”

    I think your logic or evaluation criteria needs re-examination. I believe Thompson’s body of work speaks for itself. While I have only played 14 of the 144, I respectfully disagree with your assessment.

  • Weekend Enthusiast:

    I respect your opinion, I just don’t feel the same way. I am fairly well travelled and have played several Thompson designs. And yes, although my comment regarding the proportion of his work that is questionable, was just a figure of speech, I stand by it. I listed 5 just off the cuff.


  • Raymond, I agree that some ‘Thompson’ courses are poor representations of his work and in some cases inaccurate representations (eg. Credit Valley is not a Thompson design and St. Catherines has only a few Thompson holes left).

    In fact, of the 144 courses he apparently designed far less than half would be considered decent representations of his work.

  • Raymond,
    St Georges, Jasper Park, Highland Links and Banff Springs alone would secure most designer’s reputations.
    But he has many other impressive works that are not great but very good. Oshawa, Kawartha, Islington, Oakdale among many others are solid if not perfect.
    Out of over 100, it’s tough to have even 20 masterpieces. Ross and Tilly left some lacklustre designs as well. Good but not great.
    Overall Thompson’s work is above average. Consider much of his original work has been severely altered and few play as he originally intended. What we do have left still looks very good.
    His use of the land and slopes is very good. Jasper Parks stands out as such a great course with several simple holes that play brilliantly. #2, #3 and #8 for example.
    If you take his top 25, that is still a very impressive body of work for any architect, anywhere.
    To expect every effort to be a masterpiece is perhaps unreasonable.

  • Raymond Cherry,

    Hopefully you get the chance to walk Highlands and I am sure you’ll change your mind. It is truly incredible, even in it’s current state. Also, I wonder if you played courses like St.thomas or Highland Country Club, Catarqui, and Kawartha and have any thoughts on those courses


  • Thompson’s best work demonstrates he was the best we’ve seen in Canada and among the best ever — anywhere.

    Sure St. George’s has been altered — but it is also damned brilliant. Others would surely include St. Thomas, Kawartha, Cataraqui, Highlands Links, Capilano, Jasper, Banff — these are world-class courses and cement his reputation.

    And I think Thornhill and Burlington are fine examples of Thompson’s early work. Subtle though. Not overwhelming. But rewarding of repeat play.

    But of the 144 or so Thompson designed, many have been altered beyond recognition and that’s a shame.

  • It may be a stretch, but is there any thought of turning the course into the Bethpage Black of Canada? Have the RCGA pay for an upgrade, host the open and turn it into a destination resort for golfers. You could have 2 tiers of pricing for locals and non-locals. Works for the Black, but they admittedly have a bigger area to draw (NY)

    Just a thought…

  • Seems to me as well that some of Thompson’s so called “average” works are actually re-workings of George Cummings original layouts.
    If I am not mistaken several of his Toronto area courses fit this mould. He could have had limitations with what George originally did.
    Just a thought.

  • Andrew, great thought……but

    One of the big problems with the RCGA doing it is the backlash they would receive from NGCOA and member clubs. (perceived using their dues to compete against them (golfers and members))

    Then there is the problem of location, location, location.

    This has been said/asked many times but if you take the total # of supposed Thompson designs and divide it by the actual # of years he worked in the trade makes you question how much he actually did on the sites.
    Don’t take this wrong as I respect a lot of his work.
    Having said this, we could question a lot of 20’s, 30’s and even today architects. Those working on the site, especially the greenskeepers, shapers (modern day), probably influenced the designs more. Granted the routing was probably the architects but I wonder how much else was.

  • Andrew – I laughed when I read your post. Obviously you’ve never been to Ingonish.

    The taxpayers of Canada have been keeping this course going for 70 years. Parks Canada should relinquish control and lease out the course (maybe it’s $1 a year to somebody). If the course cannot be made profitable it should die. There are much more efficient ways to generate economic activity in the area than funding this course. The course should never have been built there in the first place – depression era nonsense to keep people busy with shovels for a couple of years.

    And if the Stanley Thompson cultists think this course should be preserved like a museum or shrine to Stanley Thompson, they should put their $$$ where their mouth is. Like raise money themselves or waive their consulting fees.

  • Craig, I was interested in your comment re “There are much more efficient ways to generate economic activity in the area than funding this course. ” Could you perhaps give us a couple of examples?

  • Sweet, Craig, I don’t know why we haven’t thought of this before … While we’re at it, maybe we could subdivide Kluane Park, lease out the Peace Tower for lofts and find someone who’ll do free touch-up work at the National Gallery. From here on in, no Canadian heritage unless it pays for itself.

  • … and Raymond, if Michaelangelo painted a billboard to put food on the table, it doesn’t detract from the Sistine Chapel.

  • Craig: I think the course would be profitable under normal circumstances, and has certainly been hugely beneficial to the Ingonish area — and all of Cape Breton. As pro Joe Robinson once told me, “There isn’t a great deal in Nova Scotia that is world class — Highlands is world class.”
    I suspect the economic impact of Highlands Links on the local community — hotels, shops, restaurants — as far away as Baddeck, is huge.
    That said, under typical private enterprise, wages would surely be lower and the course in better shape and likely making money. I would be surprised if privatization doesn’t happen, especially if there is a Conservative majority in place in a month’s time.

  • Parks Canada needs to grow a pair. Lease it to N.S. or the town of Igonish for $1 year. If the course brings such a benefit to Ingonish or Cape Breton, it should be footing the bill. 33 seasonal workers would end up taking a pay cut. So what. Wander around Windsor, Ont. or Oshawa and ask some of those folks if they are happy to be a subsidizing a golf course on Cape Breton Island for wealthy tourists. Parks Canada has better things to do with their money – how much additonal land could have been purchased with the millions they have sunk into Highland Links? Only the government of Canada would build a golf course on rocky land, in an unpopulated and inaccessible location, with a golf season 12 weeks long.

  • Craig, “who is subsidizing who?”

    “Ottawa will provide no new money in this deal with GM, but will relieve the company of an obligation to repay loans from a 2005 agreement that gave it $200-million in federal money for several projects.”

  • Raymond Cherry,

    I do think that Thompson’s entire body of work is part of the reason for his “national historic significance”. But you’re entitled to your opinion…

  • George, GM is General Motors and $200M refers to some of the peoples money that was “lent” to them for some “work” in Oshawa.

  • I’m suggesting Parks Canada lease the course for nothing. That’s not giving something away? GM commits to spending hundreds of millions of dollars of their money before they see anything in the way of loans/tax breaks etc. from government. And certainly no government is on the hook to pay any of GM’s losses.

  • Craig, I believe you are forgetting that Highlands Links is part of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park which is owned by you, I and every other Canadian. What do you think about leasing part of the parliament buildings for a shopping plaza? Maybe McDonalds, Swiss Chalet ……. that sort of thing.

  • Craig — what bill? My understanding is the course has been a net gain for the park, not a loss. Figure it this way — 17,000 rounds at $85 (which is likely low, but that’s the figure I’ll use), would still result in $1.4 million in revenue, without merchandising, food, cart rentals, club rentals, etc. With a budge of $1 million (even with the inflated union fees), the course should still see a profit. I doubt that profit is reinvested in the club though.
    Still, I think the course has floundered under government control — and I agree with you that the course should not be run by the government.
    However, I’d like to see an appropriate restoration and then have the club leased to a secondary party.

  • RT:
    This has been said/asked many times but if you take the total # of supposed Thompson designs and divide it by the actual # of years he worked in the trade makes you question how much he actually did on the sites.
    Don’t take this wrong as I respect a lot of his work.
    Having said this, we could question a lot of 20’s, 30’s and even today architects. Those working on the site, especially the greenskeepers, shapers (modern day), probably influenced the designs more. Granted the routing was probably the architects but I wonder how much else was.

    RT Responds: I actually don’t think this is the case with Thompson. Typically what you find is he worked like a modern design firm, with associate designers. Robbie Robinson, John Watson, Geoff Cornish and Bob Moote all worked for him at varying points and acted as site supervisors. In other instances, like Cleveland, you see Thompson coming to the area and building three or four courses over a period of a year or two — same with Winnipeg.

    That said, we know little about some of the early courses, but most of those were in Ontario, not scattered around the country.

    So what did he do? I suspect a fair bit, with some assistance from his lead associates.

  • I agree with you, the problem I have is how much of Thompson’s designs or routing are left.

    Just a clarification, John Watson did not work for Thompson, Howard (his father) did. Howard died several years ago.

    There were many fellows who worked for Howard during his lifetime that have never been recognized in the Thompson Tree. Some we like to forget!! 🙂

  • George — right on the Watson deal. My bad — nursing a head cold. That’s my only excuse. Is John still in the business?

    As per routings and designs — there are several nearly intact. Jasper, Highlands, Kawartha, Sunningdale in London, Montebello, etc. But generally you are right — plenty have been messed with.

    But those “we like to forget,” I assume you mean Ted Baker, etc?

  • I have not been to Ingonish, but if the course is anything like people say it can/has been, then they will come. I played Royal Dornoch earlier this year, and it was in a town with only 1 pub! (which should tell you how small it is). Most of the yanks who come up to Dornoch stay an in Inverness in a hotel, I am not saying HL is as good as Dornoch (never played it) but just that if the course is that good, people will come, but then again the ones who go now are probably the die hards who will make the effort to get up there. Maybe we can get Herb Kohler to buy it!

  • There is a Pub in ingonish-called the Thirsty Hiker. About 2 miles from the course. Also the nearby resort Keltic Lodge has a great variety of single malts and brews (a five iron away). Hope, for your sake, this changes your mind about playing Highlands Links. If not, you’ll miss an experience, not just another golf course.

  • Highlands Links is so good that I’m getting married at Keltic Lodge in less than 2 weeks, just so I can play the course again (Keltic Lodge is no slouch either). Anybody that has not made the trek, you’re missing out. It’s the best course I’ve played in North America.

  • @Andrew – I’ve played both Royal Dornoch and Highlands Links, and love the little town of Dornoch. They are obviously very different courses, but in my estimation Highlands Links is a more exhilirating experience. Who can say which is “better”.

    Regarding ST’s reputation, I’ve played a couple of his courses in my area (Westmount and Galt), along with Banff Springs. All three are held in high regard, especially Westmount and Banff Springs, but they are nothing like Highlands Links. Compared to Highlands Links, almost everything else I’ve played is relatively boring.

  • George,

    He was on site – there is excellent documentation in most cases. He was not on site daily, but often made a weekly or in Highlands case monthly visit due to distance and travel limits of the day. He had experienced foreman on site on his behalf and instructed them on each visit. What people forget is he ran a huge construction company that built all the work. The other thing to remeber is the golf courses took a lot longer to build so more spread out visits worked just fine in that day and age.

    Half his work was done in the first 10 years – after that supervision was much easier because he had much less work to do. For example there were many years in the 1930’s where he had only one or two projects. Only post WWII did he begin to get very busy again.

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