Review: Highlands Links

Course Name: Highlands Links

Designer: Stanley Thompson (1941), Cecil MacNeil (1960s-1970s, Lengthening, Bunker Removal), Graham Cooke (1996, Restoration), Ian Andrew (2008, Restoration)

Location: Ingonish Beach, Nova Scotia, Canada

History: After successful layouts of Banff and Jasper in Western Canada on very mountainous terrain, the Canadian government decided that another course could be built in another isolated location on the northeastern tip of Cape Breton Island to accompany the newly created Cabot Trail and Keltic Lodge. The architect (of course) was none other than Stanley Thompson, the most prolific Canadian architect ever. Thompson designed the course on a huge swath of difficult terrain and it opened for play in 1941. Known as the “Cypress Point of Canada”, Highlands Links occupied the top spot in Canadian golf for some time and was an annual member of the World’s Top 100 for decades. Poor management and conditioning, however, plagued Highlands Links and the course slowly fell from its stature. Recently, the course has undergone two restorations from Graham Cooke and Ian Andrews to try to turn things around. Currently, Highlands Links holds the following titles:

  • #171 Best Course in the World – Golf Digest (2018)
  • #54 Best Course in North America – Top100golfcourse.com (2018)
  • #13 Best Course in Canada – Golf Digest (2020)
  • #4 Best Course in Canada – Top100golfcourse.com (2019)
  • #3 Best Course in Nova Scotia – Top100golfcourse.com (2019)

Conditions: 7/10, Much is made of Highlands Links’ conditioning (or lack thereof), but I found it to be more than adequate when I played. It is certainly not conditioning befitting a top 100 course in the world, but it’s hard to expect that given the short season and very harsh winters in Nova Scotia. While on the soggier side, the teeboxes and fairways are in good shape and the greens roll true, even though they aren’t quite as fast as Augusta’s. For what it’s worth, the conditioning at Highlands is on par, if not better than Yale, another top course with historically weaker conditioning.

Value: 8/10, With the generous CAD to USD conversion rates, you’ll be expected to pay just over $100 to play this historic gem. This is excellent value.

Scorecard:    

Tee                           Par         Yardage         Rating          Slope

Blue                        72            6592               73.3               141

White                     71            6161               70.9               135

Yellow                    72            5243               72.6               126

Hole Descriptions: “If you build it, they will come,” is a baseball quote but applicable to Highlands Links. Potentially the most isolated and difficult to access of all the world’s great courses, Highlands Links is set in one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever been to. Many talk about a club’s entrance, but for Highlands Links, the entrance is the two hour Cabot Trail from Inverness and features an incredible shoreline drive on the cliffs of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s pretty unbelievable that a course like this was built in 1939, but golfers have been flocking here for almost a century for good reason. Known as both “an Ocean and Mountains course” and the “Cypress Point of Canada,” this giant property plays both at sea level on the Ocean and then up Mount Franey for a truly unique and glorious setting. For a group from the busy northeastern United States, being in this part of the world was the greatest escape imaginable.

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The trek to Highlands Links is otherworldly

This would be the first Stanley Thompson design I’ve played, and I couldn’t have been more excited given his sterling reputation north of the border. The first takeaway I had was how building this course in 1939 must’ve been extremely difficult and bold. In a time when golf carts weren’t available, Highlands Links is one of the toughest walks in golf with some extended distances between holes like 12 and 13. While such routing quirks would be considered awkward most places, the natural beauty and unity with nature makes even the walk enjoyable. It’s also abundantly clear that Thompson prioritized hole design over routing cohesion, and given such a property I find no fault with this.

Every golfer has their own preferences, but I’m aware I value land movement, natural beauty, and hole variety more than the average critic. In terms of the above categories, Highlands Links scores about as high as possible with an incredibly engaging terrain and some of the most unique and memorable holes I’ve seen. I love the courses at Cabot, but actually find the variety and setting at least equal if not superior at Highlands. If you skip Highlands on a trip to Cabot, you are making a grave mistake.

Because of its isolation and decline over the years, Highlands Links does not feel like a top course in terms of exclusivity or tourism. While Cabot is run like a well-oiled machine, the vibe at Highlands feels like a gritty municipal course with locals mainly playing. The employees were shocked to hear we had driven all the way from America to play and when asked why, my answer was very simple, “I like to play the most architecturally interesting courses in the world.”

With no range, the opening stretch at Highlands Links is quite intimidating beginning with the 405 yard par 4 1st. Playing straightaway and straight uphill, this difficult hole plays much longer than the scorecard with a tight, wildly undulating fairway lined by thick forest on either side. This shallow, undulating green is slightly elevated and guarded by bunkers short on either side.

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The par 4 1st – “Ben Franey”

At 447 yards, the 2nd hole is the longest par 4 on the course and one of the standout holes at Highlands Links. This slick dogleg plays downhill and to the right with a generous and undulating fairway containing a speed slot. Although these moguls are artificial, this feels like one of the most natural holes on Earth. The approach plays straight downhill towards a circular, insanely difficult back-to-front sloped green with a prominent right plateau. There are no bunkers on this hole and it may be the best bunkerless hole I’ve played.

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The par 4 2nd – “Tam O’Shanter”
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The 2nd approach is when you realize you’re at a special place

The 3rd hole is somewhat of a signature hole at Highlands Links as an 160 yard par 3. With the Atlantic Ocean glistening just right of the teebox, this attractive one-shotter plays over a pond to a large green surrounded by five bunkers. A ridge in the middle of this green makes par a more elusive target than it should be.

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The par 3 3rd – “Lochan”

The 4th hole is one of three tremendous short par fours on the front side at just 324 yards. This hole has had multiple teeboxes throughout the years but played straightaway when I played. Although reachable in theory, this volcano green looms ominously on a pedestal surrounded by bunkers and steep drop-offs. The better play, in my opinion, is to lay back onto the flat part of the fairway, leaving a wedge into this difficult target.

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A look at the soggy conditions in front of the 4th teebox
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The epic approach at 4 – “Heich O’Fash”

At 164 yards, the 5th hole is another lovely par 3 playing downhill. The defining feature of this gorgeous hole is the fact that the green sits in a natural punchbowl and the ball will carom off the left rough onto the surface. A false front guards short while five bunkers guard long, left, and right of a green that features two tiers and a hard left-to-right slope.

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The par 3 5th is named “Canny Slap” due to the left bank
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It truly doesn’t get much better than this

Many holes at Highlands Links are special, but the collection of par fives stands out above the rest and is truthfully the best set I’ve played of any course in the world. The 537 yard 6th hole is the first of these great holes, and demonstrates another truth about Highlands Links – Thompson was an absolute poet when it came to naming holes. I laugh out loud every time I think of “Mucklemouth Meg”, a Scottish girl who could fit an entire turkey egg in her mouth. This hole features my absolute favorite teeshot on the course and one of the best anywhere with a prodigious 230 yard carry over wetlands to a tight fairway lined by a road to the left and water right. This drive is difficult enough, but when you’re in sensory overload from the insane views, it becomes that much more difficult. Once safely on the fairway, the hole plays level and darts right towards a skinny green defended my numerous bunkers.

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The drop-dead gorgeous par 5 6th
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Be sure to avoid one of the bunkers surrounding the 6th green

After a decent walk, you reach the famous 7th, a back-to-back par 5 and the first of the inland holes playing in the mountains. Many consider this the finest three-shotter in Canada, but for me it is the 3rd best on the course (still an achievement). At 570 yards, this number 1 handicap is an intimidating hole with a very narrow fairway lined by thick forest on both sides. The natural land movement here yields few level lies and makes for a very attractive hole.  After darting left on the lay-up, this back-to-front sloped punchbowl-style green snakes back to the right defended by bunkers short on either side. Do not be disappointed with a par here.

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The tight par 5 7th – “Killiecrankie”
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The approach at 7

Now legitimately deep in the woods, the 8th hole is the first of back-to-back short par fours at 319 yard. Featuring a blind teeshot over a giant plateau, this green is reachable thanks to a severe downhill gradient on the approach. Several bunkers dot the fairway on either side of the plateau while another lines just short left of this receptive green.

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The blind par 4 8th – “Caber’s Toss”
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Take one club less on the downhill approach at 8 and don’t be distracted by the scenery

The 336 yard 9th hole is a really interesting par 4 and one that reminds me of holes like the 2nd at Bethpage Black or 3rd at Yale. Although not long, this dogleg right requires good shotmaking and strategy to score well. This teeshot plays downhill to a generous fairway that narrows as it turns right. This approach then plays straight uphill to a small, blind green. Supposedly the flag should be visible from the left side of the fairway, but it was completely blind for us from the entire fairway. This is probably a hole I would enjoy playing more the second time around.

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The quirky par 4 9th – Corbie’s Nest”
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The blind uphill approach at 9

Many of the best courses don’t abide by the conventional out-and-back 9-hole configuration and Highlands Links certainly doesn’t, as the 10th hole is the furthest point from the clubhouse. At 145 yards, this is the shortest hole on the course as a downhill par 3 to a circular green surrounded by four bunkers. Although a simplistic hole, two teeboxes with drastically differing angles and a beautifully natural backdrop make it pretty unforgettable in my eyes.

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The par 3 10th – “Cuddy’s Lugs” from the right teebox

When I said above that Highlands Links features one of the strongest sets of par fives in the world, I was not including the 11th hole, naturally a par 4 that plays as a 512 par 5 from the Tips. This is by far the weakest hole on the course, playing straightaway and dead flat with an increasingly narrowing fairway. Although the initial drive over a river is pretty, this hole does little else for me and features a severely back-to-front sloped green guarded by a bunker left.

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The par 5* 11th – “Bonnie Burn”
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The approach at 11

At 240 yards, the 12th hole is a seriously long par 3 playing on level terrain. This is another supremely natural hole with multiple ponds to traverse and a river running parallel down the entire lefthand side. A small tree overhangs the left side of this narrow, undulating green and short is the best miss.

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The tough par 3 12th – “Cleugh”
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Nature and tranquility dominate Highlands Links

After a lengthy walk along the river, you reach the 435 yard 13th, one of the stronger par fours on the course. Playing as a downhill dogleg left lined by forest, this hole features dramatic land movement with a fairway that kicks balls hard right-to-left. This slope continues near the green but also kicks balls forward so local players know to land it short here. This is the only non-original Thompson green, as his punchbowl had to be raised in 1974 due to constant flooding.

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The par 4 13th – “Laird”
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The lovely approach at 13

The 14th hole runs parallel to the preceding hole as an uphill dogleg left par 4. At 398 yards, this is another excellent hole with dramatic land movement and dense woods lining both sides of the fairway. Playing much longer than the yardage on the scorecard, the golfer most likely has mid- to long iron into this bunkerless, heavily undulating, circular green.

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The par 4 14th – “Haugh”

My favorite par 5 at Highlands Links is the epic 540 yard 15th which brings the golfer back to the Ocean for a fleeting moment. It became readily apparent on this blind teeshot that I was going to love this hole when I saw the insane land movement present on just the first 150 yards. This fairway snakes through thick forest and plays generally downhill as a slight dogleg left with numerous swales and very few even lies. The view present on the approach is one of my favorites anywhere with Whale Island in the distance behind an elevated, two-tiered, back-to-front sloped green guarded by no fewer than six deep bunkers.

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The blind teeshot at the par 5 15th – “Tattie Bogie”
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The reveal on the 15th approach is one of my favorites in the world

The last of the wonderful par fives and another back-to-back set, the 16th hole is also the shortest at just 460 yards. What this great hole lacks in length, it makes up for in a severe uphill gradient the entire way to an elevated green. This fairway is extremely generous, but the right side is much hillier than the left so there is some strategy to ponder on the teeshot. Although the green is in range for many players, hitting a long iron or wood high enough to cross the rough-filled false front is a tall task.

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The uphill par 5 16th – “Sair Fecht”
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The golfer is faced a very intimidating second shot from 200+ yards out

The 17th hole is the final par 3 at Highlands Links and another great one at 190 yards. Playing slightly downhill to a shallow green, this hole features bunkers short, long, and left. The interior contouring of this green is extremely strong, with a notable backstop on the back right that kicks balls right-to-left as well. I came within inches of an ace here as my ball rolled past this hole twice using this backstop.

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The par 3 17th with the sun closing quickly

The closing hole returns you to the clubhouse and Ocean as a 410 downhill par 4. Truthfully, I don’t think this is one of the better holes on the property, playing straightaway with a fairly level fairway lined by bunkers down the left around 190 yards. The best aspect of this hole is the elevated green, which is guarded by bunkers short and left and features some wild undulations including a giant left swale.

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The par 4 18th – “Hame Noo”
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The picturesque setting at the 18th green

General Comments: Despite the giant property, there’s no range at Highlands Links but there is a small practice green near the 1st teebox. The clubhouse is a bit small and rudimentary, but the priority is golf at Highlands Links and I can never argue with that. We took a cart due to the brutal walk, and pace of play was less than ideal.

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Highlands’ practice green
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Plaques and a statue commemorating Stanley Thompson

Verdict: Perhaps the most isolated of the world’s great courses, Highlands Links doesn’t get the recognition it deserves but left me awestruck. With one of the most memorable and naturally beautiful settings in golf, Stanley Thompson created a spellbinding masterpiece here that all who value golf architecture should visit. A trip to Cabot without including Highlands is truly unforgivable.


2 thoughts on “Review: Highlands Links

  1. Excellent review and spot on. I just played the course for the first time in over two decades and fell in love again. A gem that is often forgotten.

    Like

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