The first time I visited Cape Breton Highlands Links almost 30 years ago, working on the first volume of The Great Golf Courses of Canada, it was pouring rain and the course was closed. But a few diehards hanging around the shack that masqueraded as the pro shop were determined to ensure I would get a tour.
Since the course did not even have carts — and thus no cart paths — in that era, I was chauffeured around in an aging Volvo by an elderly man. My driver, as a teenager, had worked on the crew of 200, along with a single steam shovel and some horse-drawn implements, to build the course that sits on a remote peninsula on the tip of Nova Scotia’s rugged Cape Breton Island.
Remote and rugged, yes. But just as mystical and magical.
The conditioning was rough, the amenities ranged from non-existent to rudimentary. But the course itself, the design, the routing … my God, it was unbelievable. Then there were the aesthetics.
The legendary Canadian ball-striker George Knudson once said, “This is the Cypress Point of Canada for sheer beauty. When you’re driving up the road to the course, it’s like driving up to heaven.”
Much has changed since my 1989 visit, the first of many over the years, but not the sentiment expressed by the late Knudson, which is echoed by general manager Graham Hudson.
Hudson has been at the facility for 10 years and now oversees not only the course but the adjacent Keltic Lodge, both under a long-term management contract since 2015 with Canadian multi-course owner-operator GolfNorth.
“When people come over Cape Smokey and see the lodge sitting way out there on the peninsula, they are absolutely astounded,” Hudson said. “Then they play the course and wonder, ‘How did they ever build this magnificent course way out here, way back then?’”
“Way back then” means the project was a Depression-era make-work initiative by the Canadian government in one of its national parks. The site might have been unfamiliar, but the architect was not. Stanley Thompson was, and remains, Canada’s most iconic course designer. A founding member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, his most famous protégé was Robert Trent Jones.
Until recently, Highlands Links was golf’s equivalent of Sasquatch — seldom, if ever, seen but much discussed. Come to think of it, the greens were about as hairy, too.
That has changed drastically in the past few years thanks to two factors: the management takeover by GolfNorth and the appearance of Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs a couple of hours’ drive down the coast along the world-famous Cabot Trail.
Both Cabot courses have made headlines worldwide not only because of their mind-blowing quality but because of the notoriety of Mike Keiser who supported the vision of Ben Cowan-Dewar, who founded the project. The resulting publicity helped make Cape Breton Island a hot tourist destination not only for golf but for the scenery, the Celtic culture and the incredible seafood. The rising tourist tide has raised all the figurative boats on the island, including Highlands Links and Keltic Lodge, which had reinvented themselves just in time.
Since 2008, Hudson had worked with Ian Andrew, a course architect based in Brantford, Ontario, who told him he would “follow to the letter what Mr. Thompson did and the spirit of what Mr. Thompson did.” Their efforts accelerated when GolfNorth came on board. They, and a turf consultant, addressed serious conditioning challenges and implemented an extensive tree-removal program to restore the original sight lines. A complete restoration of the bunkers and greens according to Thompson’s plans completed the upgrade.
There’s now a real pro shop with a cozy restaurant. The majestic lodge and its adjoining buildings itself underwent a Cdn $5-million renovation in 2015-2016, returning the resort to its original splendor.
The result is spectacular. Add it to your bucket list. You must see it for yourself.
John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario.