Can you call it a comeback?
Four years ago when I arrived at Highlands Links in Ingonish, NS, I was staggered. Sure it still had the key elements that have made it Stanley Thompson’s masterpiece. But the course was in desperate shape. The 9th green was more dirt than grass. That was the case with several other holes. Trees sprawled over greens, cut back shot options and hurt conditioning. Highlands Links was – and probably still is – my favorite course in the world. I love its mix of topography, the quirky nature of some of the holes, the devilish tendencies of the greens. But I was pretty convinced that I’d never again play it in good shape, as it was when I first visited in 2000.
When I came back in 2011 things were improved, but the course was still recovering from the horrible remnants of a hurricane that deluged its fairways in late 2010. That destroyed the sixth hole, and significantly damaged the 10th and 11th holes. Still, under architect Ian Andrew and general manager Graham Hudson, the course was starting to make its way back. Tree removal improved turf, ocean views were once again opened up, and greens rebounded.
I’d heard reports that Highlands was in its best condition in years, so I was anxious to see what had been accomplished since last year. Andrew was nearing completion of his work – the sixth hole was the final bunker restoration he needed to finish – and more trees had been felled, opening up more vistas. (Andrew has detailed his experience working at Highlands on his blog – well worth checking out.)
In the midst of this came the news Parks Canada would seek an operator for the course, packaging it with the hotel that rests a few hundred yards up the hill.
What I found impressed and disappointed me at the same time. The good news is the greens at the course are in impressive shape. All look well, and all putt even better. The thin turf has improved dramatically. They ran fast enough and putts would roll out, allowing for some fascinating pin positions on holes like 7 (which may be the hardest par five in the world). Views have once again revealed themselves, not nearly as reluctantly as they once did. The sea is present in all its glory at the back of two through to the sixth hole and is glorious.
What are the issues? The sixth hole is still a mess. Though one local I spoke with said I was being harsh, the pond of the right still overflows its bank and the fairway has low lying areas that are mud. Andrew was finishing the bunker work on the hole, which contributed to its disheveled appearance, but the real issue is the fairway is too low-lying and needs to be raised. On a golf course that is in otherwise solid shape, the sixth is a real setback, especially since it is one of the great holes in the world. It can be fixed – but it sounds unlikely to happen until a private operator is found.
The other issue was the inconsistency of the bunkers. Some – like those on 15 – simply have too much sand, though others, like 17, were perfectly fine.
Is this nitpicking? In the case of the sixth hole, the situation is unfortunate. But overall, the course is so vastly improved over the last couple of years that Andrew and Hudson should be recognized for what they’ve accomplished.
I used to say the bones at Highlands were still great, they were just obscured. Those bones are now more than visible – and for the most part the course was in solid condition. But to get the course conditions to world-class, matching the design, the powers-that-be, whether it is the government or another operator, will need to take it to the next stage.