The Restoration of a Canadian Masterpiece 
by Graham Cooke


Highlands Links Golf Course

Stanley Thompson's Highlands Links Golf Course
Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada

The Restoration of the Highlands Links

By Graham Cooke - Golf Course Architect

In the late 1930s, Stanley Thompson was commissioned by the Federal Government to design a golf course in the spectacular, scenic Clyburn River Valley of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Stanley Thompson was enthralled with the beauty of the land and set to work walking the property. This was not an easy task as rock outcrops, ocean marshes and the ever rushing Clyburn filled the site. To create a great golf course, you first need the site - and this diverse, powerful property was one of the most natural terrains ever dedicated to the game of golf. Based on the original "links" style design, with nine holes out and nine holes in, the Highlands (the selected name) slowly started to take shape under the careful eye of Canada's most celebrated golf architect. He and his team stayed on site until the job was completed. 

They directed, carved and stylized the course as they went one tee, one green complex at a time. The days were long and tiring and each new fairway supplied a new crop of dark granite boulders. This did not deter Thompson, and instead of burying the boulders, he ingeniously piled them in the fairways, put just enough soil covering to grow a green carpet of grass and thus created a moorscape look that compliments this fine golf course. 

While Thompson was laying out this pastoral beauty before the eyes of the golfer, he was also laying a true test of the game at the golfer's feet. The hummock-filled fairways, arduous greens and strategic bunkers, require the serious golfer to be a master of all shots with a premium on accuracy. 

For many years, the Highlands and Ingonish in Cape Breton provided the travelling golfer with one of the most breathtaking courses in North America. However, over time, the sculptured bunkers and vibrance of the course was lost. The bush and trees grew and encroached on the course and the panoramic views of the Ocean and Headlands soon started to disappear. Slowly, one of Canada's finest golfing destination faded. 

This changed in 1994 when the Government became focused on recapturing this wonderful resource. As a traditional and great admirer of renowned, older courses, I was commissioned to provide the care in restoring the Highlands Links of Cape Breton. 

The restoration process has been a detailed job where I first reviewed old films and dusty archive plans to gain insight into the course as it looked in the 40s and 50s. Fortunately, a video existed of Shell's Wonderful World of Golf. Here, George Knudson bettered Al Balding in a hard fought match. 

George carried fine memories of this magnificent course and always referred to it as one of his favourites. George Knudson's fine ball striking ability was a great match for the Highlands' narrow fairways and expressive bunkering. 

The restoration of the Highlands has been highlighted by: 

Restoring the views (especially to the ocean). Many of the golf holes at Highlands Links are blessed with magnificent views of the ocean. These wonderful views not only add to the beauty of the course but, when mixed with the spectacular terrain of the region, produce a golf course with a truly unique character. 

Constructing a scenic clubhouse A new, more elaborate clubhouse with landscaped grounds has been built to compliment the start of the golf course. It will act as the focal point for golfing activities and services as well as a place where players can meet both before and after their round. 

Capturing the old bunker forms lost over time, especially the capes and grass islands. Stanley Thompson had named each of the bunker complexes at the Highlands. It was from rummaging through the archives of plans that I was able to determine the original shapes and forms that Thompson had envisioned for the bunkers at the Highlands. I then used these to restore the imaginative and unique bunkers to their original forms. 

Adding tees and restoring old tees to accommodate players of all skill levels In today's world, the smaller tees commonly found on older golf courses are not sufficiently large in size or number to support the higher levels of play common on most golf courses. Increased play levels have necessitated the addition of larger tees to more evenly distribute the wear of increased traffic at the Highlands. The tee program has also helped in making this fine course more playable and enjoyable for guests, no matter what skill level they have attained. 

Installation of a complete cart path system to allow all players an opportunity to enjoy the course. During the restoration process, it became clear that the issue of paths needed to be addressed. The Highlands, in simple terms, is not an easy walk. Playing the course is an accomplishment in itself. Even the young and fit find the tour from One to Eighteen to be a challenge. My concern was that this magnificent course and exceptional golfing experience should be made available to all. With great care and patience, I routed a path through the Highlands, keeping to the wood- line and using the tall earth mounds and rocks to limit the impact of the path on the course itself. The results were great. The serpentine paths complimented and contrasted the course in a natural, attractive way. Now the course could be played and enjoyed by all visitors, regardless of their abilities or stamina. Installation of a sophisticated, automated irrigation system to allow the course to produce a quality turf year after year. The addition of a modern, sophisticated, automatic irrigation system to the Highlands will produce ideal growing conditions and will allow a superior level of turf to be maintained throughout the golf course all season long. 

Drainage and brush work to make the course more accessible and playable for spring, summer and fall The removal of excess brush bordering the golf holes will allow for a greater penetration of sunlight to, and air circulation around, the greens and tees. The more favourable growing conditions thus produced will help the course to remain healthy well into the future. By making the wood lots more friendly, we have allowed the golfer to execute exciting recovery shots instead of looking for lost golf balls. 

A general "spruce-up" to capture the beauty originally envisioned by Stanley Thompson The final polish to a pristine beauty. 

This great golf course is once again ready to step forward and take its proper place among North America's best. The process though long, has been an exciting, rewarding experience. 

If you have the chance to visit Cape Breton, take the time to visit the Highlands. It will, as George Knudson found, offer fond and lasting memories.

"Best Golf Course in Canada" - Score Golf Magazine - August 2000
"57th Best Golf Course in the World" -
GOLF Magazine - September 1999

2006 Copyright - Graham Cooke & Assoc. Inc. - All rights reserved