Highlands Links to stay in government's hands

The 15th hole at Highlands Links gets a face lift.

Highlands Links, the terrific Cape Breton course designed by Stanley Thompson, will continue to be operated by the government. Chip Bird (and yes, a great golf name indeed), field unit superintendent for the federal government who oversees Highlands, released this note this morning:

Over the past few months I have been sharing with you details on the decision to secure a third party operator for the management of Highlands Links Golf Course and Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa.

Parks Canada recently completed evaluating proposals submitted in response to the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the Keltic Lodge and Highland Links. After careful consideration, it was determined that these proposals did not meet the requirements set out in the RFP.

Parks Canada will continue to operate Highlands Links for the 2013 season, and the Province of Nova Scotia will operate the Keltic Lodge for the 2013 season.

We remain focused on securing a third party operator for Highlands Links and will continue to work cooperatively with the Province as the combined operation of the hotel and golf course is in the best interest of both facilities.

I will continue to share updates with you in the coming months.

The initial decision to privatize the course led to protests from the union that represents workers at the course. The union also laughably said if its federal workers disappeared from Highlands, the course could slip out of the Top 100 in the world. Truthfully I think conditioning problems that will likely lead to Highlands dropping out of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 in the world are largely to be blamed on the same government workforce.

GM Graham Hudson has done a good job with limited resources. The government still doesn’t understand how to run a golf course and shouldn’t be in the business. And the unionized staff still doesn’t have a superintendent (can you imagine any other Top 100 course in the world without a trained superintendent?).

It isn’t surprising there were no takers for Highlands. The course still needs hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional drainage work. The bunker restoration, led by Ian Andrew, should be just the start of a renaissance for Highlands. However, Bird and the feds are not golf savvy and have never really recognized what needs to be done — or can’t free up the funds to make it happen.

What’s the fallout from the attempt to offload Highlands? Well Bird says the government will try again. What will be different the second time? Hard to fathom that much will change unless the government is prepared to make really impactful changes on Highlands that address its many needs and make it a viable business. In the meantime the workers there — fearful their jobs could disappear at the end of every season — aren’t likely to put more effort into the course.

Interestingly, Bird’s play to privatize the course — and the government’s inability to find anyone willing to run it — suggests that his move may have already made a bad situation worse.

In the meantime it is time Highlands’ management addresses some of its issues. The club, for example, doesn’t run its own pro shop and therefore doesn’t look after its merchandising, which should be a windfall for a course of its type. Instead, when I showed up there last September the pro shop was almost bare — with a handful of shirts hanging like leftover fall leaves on a tree. Is that what we can expect every year now? What about the fall when the staff worry they may not be asked back and stop working? Is that an every year occurrence?

I hope I’m wrong — but I think the failure to privatize Highlands may have resulted in more issues. On the other hand the government could finally admit it can’t go halfway on this and address the remaining issues at the course. If that were to happen — if Highlands were given a fresh coat of paint so to speak — maybe then they could find their buyer.

UPDATE: MP Mark Eyking, who made some nutty comments during the RFP process, actually sounds like the voice of reason now. He’s right — there needs to be a strategy for Highlands Links that goes beyond a year-to-year process that they seem to be locked into now. While I’m not sure the outsourcing of Highlands is about “abandon[ing] the people of northern Cape Breton,” as his release says, he’s right about the need for a plan:


(Sydney, NS) Member of Parliament for Sydney-Victoria, Mark Eyking, is concerned about the failed attempt by the Conservatives to privatize the Highland Links Golf Course and the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish.

This comes after news today that Parks Canada was unable to find a third party operator through the RFP’s, which was issued this past fall. Eyking says instead of privatizing they should be sitting down with the employees, the members and the community to develop a long term plan for sustainability and viability for both facilities.

“This whole process was another failed attempt by the Harper Conservatives to abandon the people of northern Cape Breton.” Eyking said




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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.

9 CommentsLeave a comment

  • None of that takes away the joy of being in Cape Breton and playing Highlands Links.Besides the cost would probably just go up.

  • John: Cost probably should go up, especially if it helped improve conditions. I think many would pay $140 to play a well-conditioned Highlands Links. The greens were great when I was last there — but the remainder was not as it should have been.

  • Robert when I go, I will play 4 or 5 rounds in 3 or 4 days at Highlands plus accomadations and food plus golf at Le Portage and Cabots.I would play the course if it was covered in Astro Turf. You just don’t drop into Cape Breton,so when you are there you want to take advantage.Cost could be a factor.

  • How’s this for out of the box thinking.

    Park turns the entire operation (course, pro shop F&B) to Graham Hudson and says “break even” or we lease the course out. But if you can break even, we will extend another year. Here’s your budget and leave Graham to do what he’s great at doing. Really, what has the Park got to loose trying this?

    Graham can then turn to the staff and say, “if you want these jobs for the long term all you need to do is also play your part in making this profitable.” The staff will need to buy in to changing the working patterns to suit the operation including not abusing the provisions for paid time off.

    If the Park did this, the staff came on board, the Park made a long term commitment if it is profitable, they will make money.

    Just sayin’

  • Peter: we care about this great “Atlantic ” course

    Ian: great idea, but too many butts involved in the trough. The gov’t could make it work, with good management, improved guest service and services (“here’s your key, cart is outside to the left” doesn’t work over $50.) and we loved the hotel for the week we stayed there.

  • Peter
    I played it 6 days in a row one September, loved the course, the hotel and the chowder! All the service was in the hotel, golf was self serve (and we PAID for the golf package). I appreciate this Atlantic gem, and I got just as annoyed when they changed Banff Springs, and really pissed when I went back to play Huntsville Downs and it was completely different. How can people change Stanley Thompson works of art? Merry Christmas Peter!

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