Return From Highlands Links — Now with fewer trees!

I’ll do a longer, more thorough discussion of what is going on at Cape Breton’s Highlands Links, which I’m now convinced is the best course in Canada, at a later date. But the one thing I did want to show was the remarkable changes brought about by tree removal on holes 7, 9, 12, and 17.

The change on nine is probably the most transformational, taking a green surrounded by dense trees, which had struggled to grow grass on its green, and making it an open marvel, with long views and options. The change makes it look and feel like a different hole, though I think it is a hole more akin to what Stanley Thompson had in mind.

Here is the hole before the change:


Highlands Links' Ninth Hole before tree removal (from

Highlands Links' Ninth Hole before tree removal (from

And here is the hole after all of the surrounding trees were removed. The green had thick grass on it.


The Ninth at Highlands Links -- now with more grass

The Ninth at Highlands Links -- now with more grass

Here is hole 12 — I don’t have a “before” shot for this one, but I think you get the essence. The hillside will be seeded soon.

The 12th with the hillside cleared

The 12th with the hillside cleared

And here is 17 before the tree removal:


The 17th hole before tree removal (courtesy GCA)

The 17th hole before tree removal (courtesy GCA)

And here it is after tree removal:

The 17th with trees removed behind the green.

The 17th with trees removed behind the green.


What is the result? Impressive. Conditions that were so deplorable last year, have vastly improved. Sure there’s drainage and other issues, including a forest worth of trees that still need to be taken out, but there was thick poa grass on the greens that previously were almost bare. The course was fun to play and there were few spots I feel needed immediate attention.

I’ve been to Highlands Links six times in the past decade — and it was always a special place and a world-class course. The changes demonstrate that its conditioning doesn’t need to be a stumbling block. That’s a good thing — because with that issue out of the way, I think more people will recognize just how great the course actually is. And it is remarkable — and once again the best in the country.

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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.

13 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Highland Links may be a great course and fantastic to play but it has one great obstacle going against it…….LOCATION.

    I am curious about one thing, how many rounds a year does it see.

    Also I think both Cape Breton and Nova Scotia tourism should promote the daylights out of a package for all courses.

    I checked one package, play all four courses w/carts and three nights accomodations for $ 523.

    That’s a great deal based on double occupancy, figure it out that’s playing each course for about $ 90. w/cart.

    The big problem you have to get there from Ontario.

  • Netz, the point you raise is debatable ….. there are those that believe the location to be among the best in the world. For example some of the greatest architecture in the world is in Rome but IMO I don’t think you could say they have a location disadvantage.

  • Netz: It currently does around 20,000, but has been as high as 27,000 at one point.

    I actually think the trip is easy — there are now direct flights to Sydney on Westjet and Air Canada, or you can fly into Halifax, play Glen Arbor and then drive to Baddeck and play Bell Bay. It is about 75 minutes to Highlands from there.

    I’ve been six times in the last year — only this most recent trip proved difficult and only because I had some airline issues.

  • I agree that access to Cape Breton has improved with direct flights from Toronto to Sydney – let’s hope they are not a one year phenomenon. Once 2011 rolls around and there are three quality courses in the western half of Cape Breton it should improve the marketability of Cape Breton as a golf destination.

  • While you are up there don,t forget Le Portage. It is worth the drive and the drive is worth the drive.I can,t wait to see the changes in person at Highland’s.

  • There are a lot of older golf courses here in Canada that are over grown and need to be “prunned”

    It is very hard to tell in the pictures but it looks like complete eradication of all of the trees anywhere near the greens.

    Typically, air movement and increased photoperiod is what you are looking for. Most times thinning heads and selectively removing trees can achieve the same thing. Albeit, cost a lot more to do that, you have to go in with tree climbers and be very careful not to damage everything around the tree you are working on. I wonder why this was not put into practice.

  • George: The need for air and light around some of the greens would not have allowed for selective cutting. Shot options had disappeared and the goal was to restore them. To put the “links” back into Highlands, so to speak.

    Most of the trees were scubby and lousy as well — we’re not talking great pines here.

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