I’ve been concerned about the lack of interest Parks Canada has had for Highlands Links for some time. In fact, I’ve been writing about it for almost a decade. Parks Canada only controls a couple of golf courses in Canada — Fundy and Highlands, choosing to lease out other facilities in national parks across Canada (Jasper, Banff).
When I first set eyes on Highlands a decade ago I was amazed. It was rugged, wild and wonderful. To this day there still isn’t another golf course in Canada that gets me quite as enthusiastic about the game. On the other hand, when I was in Ingonish, NS, a few years back for a symposium on Stanley Thompson, the golf course was in disarray. Greens — especially on the magnificent 7th hole and the terrific 9th — were more browns. Trees had overrun the place and awful cart paths could be seen everywhere. Worse, the federal government, which has operated the course since in opened in 1941, didn’t seem to care much about the situation. Lip service was paid to a “restoration” when I spoke with a bureaucrat the following year for a story about the restoration:
“This is completely recognized within Parks Canada as an incredible feature – it connects Canadians to the land,” says Chip Burd (the man ultimately responsible for the park.) “We need to be able to make the course sustainable on an ongoing basis. And that involves working with the community and bringing us together. It isn’t a question of whether we work with the community on this going forward – it is how we do it.”
For a couple of years, despite those words, nothing happened. Then last year a massive storm hit the course, burying the sixth and 11th holes. Parks Canada didn’t have much of a choice — either they stepped up to do repairs on the course or not open. They decided to make the repairs — pledging almost $1-million to the effort.
They should be applauded for what they’ve done. As hard as it was to imagine even a few years ago, Parks Canada has helped lead the resurrection of Canada’s greatest public golf course. While the sixth hole has struggled since the storm, everything else has vastly improved. Greens were in the best condition I’ve seen since the course opened. Under the direction of general manager Graham Hudson — the driving force behind the work at the course and a man with a incredible dogged determination to fix things at Highlands — the course has once again emerged as the crown jewel of Canada’s public parks system.
With the encouragement of Hudson, architect Ian Andrew has restored bunkers to their original shapes and look. It is an impressive job and the work, which has embraced the sense of whimsy apparent in Stanley Thompson’s original look, has been very well received.
That’s not to say everything is perfect. Highlands will never rival a Toronto private course in terms of conditioning, but in terms of design and the ability to offer a unique, thrilling experience, it can’t be beat in Canada.
While Parks Canada deserves some kudos for the work, they need to recognize they can’t stop now. With a little bit more money fueling more work drainage so important on holes like #2, #6, #7, #11, #18 could be completed to make the course play the way it is supposed to. More importantly from an operations standpoint it would keep the course open even on wet days when it now has to be closed. With some simple work on the tee boxes and relocating the cart paths, Highlands could be something Parks Canada holds up as an asset that is truly world class. Lastly, a real superintendent, relieving Hudson of some of the work that’s fallen on his shoulders, would benefit Highlands in the long run. Perhaps the government could use it as a training system — hiring a young, smart assistant and allowing him to build his resume on one of the best courses in the world. That way the government would be improving agronomy on golf courses in Canada and improving Highlands at the same time.
The final issue facing the course is its precarious spot on Golf Magazine’s world ranking, which to my way of thinking is akin to a restaurant’s Michelin star. Hurt by conditioning issues, the course has slipped. Now that many of the issues have been dealt with, Highlands needs government support to show off the changes. Highlands has been slipping for most of a decade, but is now ranked at #98, with a good shot at dropping off the magazine’s list if the story of the restoration isn’t told — and seen by that magazine’s raters. Getting a Michelin star is tough — getting one back after you’ve lost it is nearly impossible.
That said, the story at Highlands Links is finally a positive one. Parks Canada has stepped up in a way I didn’t ever expect. Let’s hope they continue to stand up for the course and help Canada’s golfing jewel regain its full lustre.