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Highlands Links: Seeing the Woods for the Trees

Trees Today, Gone Tomorrow: The seventh hole at Highlands Links taken from the side of the green in a promo photo.

Trees Today, Gone Tomorrow: The seventh hole at Highlands Links taken from the side of the green in a promo photo.

And After: A recent photo of the 7th. The are where the previous photo was taken would be the left of this shot.

And After: A recent photo of the 7th. The are where the previous photo was taken would be the left of this shot.

In September I had the opportunity to travel to Highlands Links in Cape Breton to give a speech as part of a symposium on Stanley Thompson. It was a great experience, as I had the opportunity to travel with some fine companions, including Globe columnist Lorne Rubenstein, golf designers Ian Andrew and Jeff Mingay, as well as spend time with Thompson aficionado Chris Parker.

But the real eye opener was the state of the course. Having played it in the spring, I knew it was struggling, but a wet summer ruined several greens, highlighting the fact the course had far too many trees chocking out the sunlight and leaving them with little grass. I am very fond of the course — it is my favourite place to play in all of Canada — and the state it was in saddened me.

I’ve defended the course for a long time — told people who thought its conditioning was sub-par that they had to understand Highlands’ issues, including geography, issues with Parks Canada, etc. But I must admit it is making excuses. None of that matters to the visitor who makes the lengthy trip to the north end of Cape Breton Island. They don’t care about whether the winter was hard. They are playing a TOP 100 course in the world and expect it to measure up.

Now what they think is a Top 100 course is another matter. But conditioning is a big factor to many, many golfers, and truthfully Highlands has fallen behind in this regard for a decade.

Perhaps that is finally set to change. The club has retained Andrew to plan a restoration and the first order of business was to commence taking down trees, especially around troublesome greens. The goal is to take trees down for 50 feet surrounding the holes, opening up vistas and brining important air and sunlight to damaged turf.

Yesterday Andrew posted some of the progress on Golfclubatlas.com, the American architecture site. He gives details of some of the tree removal. The post is here, while I’ve taken some of the photos and posted them below.

Trees are the most contentious issue facing most clubs. Many club members hang on to every last tree, despite the fact they are damaging their club’s turf and limiting playing options. What they fail to understand is that having a few great trees is more significant than having a lot of marginal ones. Several key Ontario clubs — Cutten Club, St. George’s, Brantford and Scarboro — have all taken out trees this year and improved their courses along the way.

Here’s hoping tree removal is the first step in restoring Highlands to its rightful place as the most remarkable of Canada’s courses.

Photos below are of the recent tree removal.

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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.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I think the Tree Massacre at Oakmont really opened peoples’ eyes to the fact that a course can be great, strategic and demanding without lots of wood.

    Look at the most significant new courses in the last 15 or so years – Sand Hills, Ballyneal, the three at Bandon. Brilliant tracks, tough and fun, and largely open.

    Does Royal Montreal still have giant fans behind one of the greens?

  • My understanding is that the restoration that Toronto Golf Club is undertaking next summer will involve, in part, the removal of many trees.

  • I think the tree removal at Highlands sounds like it’s a necessity to improve course conditions. Anyway, with Ian Andrew watching over it, the place is in good hands. The reno at Scarborough is fantastic.

    As for Toronto, I could see where some tree removal could help, but I have to confess I never really felt it was an issue. Interestingly, the only totally tree lined hole on the course (#9) is one of the best.

  • Robert, I like you get a sense that there is some momentum behind doing what is necessary to improve the golf course. It’s great to see that Ian Andrew is starting with the basics – light and air flow. As an acquaintance of mine said “let the tree cutting continue”.

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