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.