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.