Ian Andrew

Cape Breton Highlands – 1937 to 1941

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The Holes

Hole 1 – Ben Franey

Hole plays toward Ben Franey in the distance. The natural plateau where the green resides was out in a clearing and made a suitable conclusion to the hole. Some of the undulations in the middle of the landing are actually rocks collected during construction covered with topsoil. The back ridge of the green mimics the horizon line of Ben Franey in the background. The most unusual feature found on the hole is a wooden structure built over the large Karst Cavern under the front left bunker.

The 1st hole was originally much wider than today

Hole 2 – Tam O’Shanter

The hole cants around a small hidden valley on the right and then drops dramatically down to a green set on top of ridgeline. This creates a panoramic view of Ingonish Bay, which is one of the most memorable views on the course. The fairway features a series of deep pockets and rumpled undulations. Most of the pockets were deeper and were raised with stumps, rocks and logs. The undulations are largely natural but a few were accentuated by adding extra rocks and covering them with soil. The hole gets its name from the unusual green top hat contours.

Ingonish Bay in the distance is a large part of the hole (1950)

Hole 3 – Lochan

The hole plays from the top of the ridgeline, over the saltwater pond, to a green set hard up against a backdrop of dark Spruce. The fairway is just over a foot above sea level and floods regularly. The front of the green will only flood with storms and heavy rains.

The hole during grow in

Hole 4 – Heich O’ Fash

The hole plays out to a green set on a knoll with Ben Franey looming beyond. The green is reachable, particularly from the left tee, but the closer you get the more dangerous the hole becomes. The combination of deep fronting bunkers, the two ponds on the left and the precipitous drop of the right means you can’t miss the shot played to the green. The mounds at the back of the green were finished to emulate the profile of Ben Franey in the distance. The tee shot used to play over small dunes covered with marram grass, but they were unfortunately used as a source of sand. The large knoll on the right features Karst Formations and an old Portuguese Cemetery on top. They were fishing the area in the late 1800’s and using the mouth of the Clyburn as place of refuge. The ponds left of the green are also Karst Formations and are shockingly deep.

The area was wide open with long views in all directions

Hole 5 – Canny Slap

The hole was as natural as they come. The green site sits in a bowl just beyond the enormous hollow with only the barn in the way. The early plan shows an alternate tee playing from the right of 4th to the green at 245 yards. The most amusing part of Stanley’s work was the creation of a whimsical bunker formation known as the Dragon and Fireball.

Stanley’s Dragon and Fireball bunkers at the 5th

Hole 6 – Muckle Mouth Meg

The elevated tee provides a wonderful panorama of the Clyburn Estuary and mountains beyond. The hole plays down into the flats and begins to slowly curving around the Clyburn Brook finishing hard up against a stand of Spruce on Brook’s edge. There are multiple low points in this fairway that are at one foot sea level. The large mounds behind the green have been essential to avoiding flood damage.

The 6th at high tide

Stanley was very well read enjoying the classics. Only he would be clever/crazy enough take a Robert Browning poem about an unusual and unsightly woman and turn it into the features for a green site. The original score card described his version of the woman including her ability to stick and entire turkey egg in her unusually wide mouth. So with that in mind, using the illustration of what he built, do you see “Muckle Mouth Meg’s face? And the egg?

The 6th green and Muckle Mouth Meg

Hole 7 – Killiecrankie

Stanley found the hole when he crossed the Brook and set foot up the old logging road. The road crossed briefly through open farmland and then ran through the middle of a well-treed the valley. The journey out from the elevated tee, up the broad valley right to the termination at the end was such a natural hole. It was destined to be a great hole from the outset. But his decision to narrowing the landing, add bunkering as you got closer to the green and then build the wildest green on the golf course made this a diabolical hole golfers will never forget.

7th just after opening day

Hole 8 – Caber’s Toss

The hole harkens back to the courses he visited in Scotland where the tee shot is played blindly over a hill and when the player crests the hill they are rewarded with a beautiful view down to the green. The pitch can be a challenge since the majority of the green falls away from play, but Stanley flipped up the back of the green to make this play like a punchbowl. The problem comes when trying to read your putts.

Hole 9 – Corbie’s Nest

The view from the elevated tee was a wide-open valley. The next shot was between two gills to a green you couldn’t see with Ben Franey directly above. Stanley had to submit a letter to Jim Smart to explain the merits of the 9th hole and why it should stay. He explained that while the green was blind from the landing, all the contours around would feed the ball back towards the putting surface, making it easy to play.

The trees barely come into play

Hole 10 – Cuddy’s Lugg’s

The earliest plan suggested an epic par three to play from an elevated tee, over the river, to a green on the other side. Stanley then changed this to a green on the near side of the river, set on the valley floor, with the Clyburn and mountain as a backdrop. Robbie suggested moving that green to the opposite side of the river hard up against the mountainside. Stanley maintained he wanted the location he selected. The most entertaining aspect of what Stanley built was the two bunkers that were made to look like Donkey’s ears framing the green.

That would be from the current left tee to the current 11th tee

The 10th from the left tee in 1950

Hole 11 – Bonnie Burn

This was originally a par four played from the existing tees on the other side of the brook. The tee shot was wide open with nothing to fear. Originally, the green was planned to be set hard up against a secondary channel of the brook. But when the green was being built, Stanley shifted the location forward to accommodate a new back tee for the 12th hole. There is a beautiful waterfall back right of the green worth going to see after a rain.

Hole 12 – Cleaugh

The hole was designed to play from the island, back over the brook and up to the base of the rocky cliff. Thompson designed it as a shorter hole but added a much longer tee to ensure he would end up with at least one very long par three on his course.

The 12th hole followed by “the greatest walk in golf” to the 13th tee

Hole 13 – Laird

The hole was a short par five. The valley, as Thompson saw it, had only a single ancient apple tree. It would have been easy to envision this hole, but not the location of the green. This is one of Stanley’s greatest golf holes because he made the unusual choice of placing the green directly behind a very prominent knoll. The second shot is all about how you are going to deal with this landform. Since there were no trees on the left hillside by the green, the player had the option of playing well left for a better view into the green. This is the only green that has been rebuilt. The original green was 18” lower and featured an upside down “Y” shaped valley through the middle of the green where the water exited out the back.

13th in 1941. The hole, especially the left side, was very open compared to today.

 

The Laird’s (landowner’s) face, created with bunkers. Mr. Brewer was missing a tooth (1965)

The original green contours

Hole 14 – Haugh

The right half of the hole was wide open and he would have been able to follow the hole up to the green site at the end of the valley. The left side was lower and needed to be cleared over to the sharp ridge for additional room to play. The rocks from the cleared area were accumulated and dumped in fairway, covered with topsoil, to create additional ridges in the landing area. The view back from where you exited the green was one of the best on the property.

The ocean views were spectacular on the upper holes (1950)

Hole 15 – Tattie Bogle

While the wild rollercoaster of a fairway is as impressive as anything at Highlands, most people are even more enamoured with the long view out to Ingonish Island. It’s here where Thompson knew he was in competition with his surroundings. To deal with this he surrounded the green with elaborate bunkering and added back mounding to hide the road. He needed enough drama and character to take your eye off the view long and appreciate what he had built.

Unbelievable golfing ground with a panoramic view of the ocean

 

The bunkering and mounds of the 15th green

Hole 16 – Sair Fecht

Thompson was smart to envision this as a very short par five where the player’s ambitions would remove any thoughts about the grade they were now transitioning to. He accomplished this by having a wide landing, no bunkers, and the green clearly within reach of the long player. All you had to do was avoid the fairway moguls the size of cars and buses and you were all set. I had originally thought the entire contour was natural, but it turns out some of the undulations are more of the rocks collected, dumped in place and covered with topsoil.

Looking back at the church and mountains during grow-in

Hole 17 – Dowie Den

There valley was wide open and being farmed. He likely stood where the tees are now and saw the natural amphitheatre on the far side. The green was cut into the hill, the front raised and the hole was then well bunkered for dramatic effect.

The 17th hole and its fantastic bunkers

Hole 18 – Hame Noo

Stanley took the players to a small knoll, had them play down into a gentle valley and then back up to a second knoll. Beyond the green in the distance was the highest point on Middle Head to act as a backdrop. The sea was not in view from the tee, but was on your left at the landing and finally on your right at on 18th green. This was the very first view of Cape Smokey.

The 18th green during grow-in

Afterword

Stanley is on the left in the jacket and tie

When the course and park officially were opened on Canada Day (July 1, 1941) Canada was at war. Stanley Thompson attended the ceremony. 18 holes remained open for play for 1941, but beginning in 1942 the Long Loop and the two-year-old Keltic Lodge had to be closed due to shortages and a lack of visitors. Bert Donovan and a handful of employees did the best they could to keep the remaining nine in play, but the conditioning slowly deteriorated. The 18-hole course and Keltic Lodge were eventually re-opened in 1946 was the assistance of the federal government.

15th left greenside bunker

I was lucky to play the course in 1981 and it was an important childhood memory to me. When I finally returned in 2003, I was appalled at what the course had become. It was over-grown with trees, multiple greens had turf loss, and architect Graham Cooke had inexplicably changed the original bunkering and added the most intrusive cart path system I had ever seen during a renovation in the late 1990s. But I wasn’t the only one frustrated by what I saw. The golf media began to criticize Parks Canada pointing out their responsibility to preserve and protect all history including the golf course.

In 2006 the Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada recognized Stanley Thompson as a person of National Historical Significance. The combination of Mark Sajatovich, Ken Donovan, and Graham Hudson managed to make this designation come about. This in turn opened up a dialogue about whether Cape Breton Highlands was a place of historical importance.

The pressure caused Parks Canada to concede that the golf course deserved more attention. Hudson began a process to restore where I was eventually brought in. Our common goal was a restoration, no adaptions, no alterations, the quirky bits too. The only exception was that we were going remove a couple of backdrops for additional sunlight to save those greens. It took a while to get Parks Canada on board with tree removal, since the Regional Environmentalist had prohibited any significant removals for decades. But after reading an article on the preservation of cultural landscapes I took a stab and presented the idea of restoring this cultural landscape. I presented the entire history and Parks Canada were supportive a few (reasonable) environmental conditions attached. Now the problem was funding the restoration.

On September 3rd, 2010, Hurricane Earl made landfall bringing minor flooding to the Clyburn Valley. Then on September 21st, Hurricane Igor came through bringing close to seven inches of rain. The Clyburn Valley is defined as a flash valley, meaning everything rushes to the river which gets wildly overloaded producing a very high peak flow (flash flood). The river left its banks and took the most direct route down the valley, right across the 10th and through the middle of the 11th hole. This covered the 11th fairway a foot or more of gravel and sand from start of the hole to green. Graham Hudson being an enterprising thinker accessed an emergency fund to repair the damage. He combined all his existing resources and new capitol to clean up the fairways (6th being the other) and rebuild the flood damaged bunkers. The rebuild felt remarkably close to the build with almost everything done by hand. This included cutting and laying sod from on site. But it was the most enjoyable two years of my career.

George Knudson called Cape Breton Highlands the Cypress Point of Canada. Stanley Thompson called it his “mountains and ocean course.” No matter what expropriation and the recent privatisation say about land ownership, in my mind this course still belongs to the Ingonish Community and to the people of Canada. It is a place of National Historical Significance.

THE END

Ian would like to offer a special thanks to Joe Robinson, Ken Donovan and Geoff Cornish for sharing what they know about the course and its’ history.