Course Review: Highlands Links (Ingonish, NS)
Architect: Stanley Thompson (1941
The Scorecard: I’ve been coming to Highlands Links for more than a decade, making six or seven pilgrimages to what I consider the most intriguing golf course in Canada. Like going to Scotland to play the great links, Highlands gets the blood pumping for me – its mix of great long and short fours, two of the great three-shot holes in golf and its seaside location never fails to excite me.
Despite that I understand the issues surrounding the course. It has rarely been in the condition people would expect from a course that is among the Top 100 in the world according to Golf Magazine. That started to change three years ago under the guidance of designer Ian Andrew and indomitable general manager Graham Hudson. Trees came down by the thousands, and grass became re-established on greens that had previously been under a lot of duress.
I can safely say that on one trip the 9th green had no grass on it – one of several putting surfaces that had struggled that year.
Now, the course is on its way back.
“The greens haven’t putted this well in 20 years,” said one member I encountered in the parking lot.
He might be right. Andrew was in the midst of reworking the bunkers to reflect Stanley Thompson’s vision for the property when I visited this week, and the work is bold and does significantly more than just freshen the course – it revitalizes it in a way that brings the holes alive.
All of this is surprising considering a massive storm hit Highlands last year, putting numerous holes under water. The worst hit were the par 5 sixth and the 11th; the 11th has largely recovered, but the 6th is still a work in progress. It could take another few months for it to be fully returned to the state one would expect.
I have great hope again for Highlands again after several years of scepticism. There are lots of elements that need to be completed – drainage, and more tree removal – among other issues, but it is finally heading in the right direction.
• The fairways. Starting from the opening tee shot, the fairways at Highlands often resemble the surface of the moon, with rumples and rolls rarely yielding a flat lie. It is wonderfully natural golf.
• Several of the greatest holes in Canadian golf – hell, anywhere in the world – can be found at Highlands, starting with the second hole, a monster par 4 without any bunkers that doglegs to the right and down a hill, ending at a green that seems like it was simply placed on the land. Other standouts include the back-to-back par 5s, six and seven, as well as 15 and 16, which make the best set of three-shot holes anywhere in the country. Certainly the seventh, which has been written about extensively, is one of the best long par 5s in the world. While always fair, it does seem quite unrelenting. I prefer the 15th, with its incredible view of the ocean from the tee, and a large shift in the fairway at the landing area. Manage to get over the hillock at the landing area and you’ll have a shot at the green in two.
• My favourite hole on the course is 13, the par 4 that comes after a relatively long walk that follows the par 3 12th. With its fairway that tumbles to the left at the landing area, this is a hole that really reminds me of a links. Your position after your drive will determine how much of the green you can actually see, and though I wouldn’t say the hole is blind in a traditional sense, it does its best to obscure your approach leaving some mystery in the shot to the green. The tumbling fairway that approaches the putting surface can be used to propel the ball forward, though it is my understanding this was once more pronounced.
• While it is tough to find anything one might find off-putting at Highlands, from an architectural perspective I’ve long thought the stretch at the turn – 10 through 12 – is just, well, okay. The 10th is certainly not a bad par 3, playing off a ridgeline down towards a green that is set near the river, but it doesn’t wow you either. The 11th, formerly a par 4 that has been lengthened with a tee across the river, is flat and relatively plain, while the 12th, the second of three one-shot holes on the back is saved strictly by its length (230 yards) and surely could have benefited from a more ambitious green site closer to the river. And yes, this is nitpicking, but it is worth noting on a course that is considered among the best in the world.
• Conditions are much improving – Highlands is finally using a agronomy pro to advise its staff on some of its challenges – but many wouldn’t find them up to conditions in urban centers. That said, I’d equate them more to what one would find at a Scottish or Irish courses – a little rough around the edges, but I found a vast majority of the holes were without issue, and the greens are vastly improved over previous years.
The scorecard: I’ve long thought Highlands only has one rival in Canada, and that’s St. George’s in Toronto. But given its more naturally beautiful location, Highlands edges out its rival in my mind, if ever so slightly. The knock against the course has always been conditioning, a factor that is significantly influenced by its difficult geography – the course is a fair bit north and on an isthmus in the ocean! However, after a massive storm ravaged Highlands last year, a program to fix the damage and restore many of the key features was undertaken this year by general manager Graham Hudson and architect Ian Andrew.