Feature Interview with Joe Robinson
Joe Robinson, a native son of Ingonish, has been the head professional of Highlands Links for thirty- five years. Joe started as a caddy on the course at the age of twelve and his love of the game flourished. He especially enjoys teaching golf and established a “Future Links” style junior golf program at Highlands long before Future Links became a national program.
Today, Joe is entering his thirty-sixth season at Highlands Links. Although his major role is in managing the professional shop, he provides knowledge and experience to many areas of the course operation. Joe is also the chairman of the Ingonish Development Society and is actively involved in community fund raising pursuits.
1. What is your background and how did you become the golf professional at Highlands Links?
I was born in 1949, the youngest of 12 children, approximately 15 miles from Highlands Links.
My first exposure to golf was through my brothers who caddied at the course. Occasionally, golfers gave them an older club which they would bring home and I would get to beat balls around the field.
At the age of 12, I started caddying at Cape Breton Highlands Golf Links (shortened to Highlands Links in 1996). Caddies, in those days, were allowed to play golf, later in the day and they were permitted to use the course rental clubs. I became obsessed with the game and played as often as I could. I continued caddying and playing throughout high school.
After high school I spent a year in Ontario, working on a survey crew. I returned home during the summer of 1969 and entered St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, that fall. My surveying experience proved invaluable because I was able to get summer employment at Cape Breton Highlands National Park on their survey crew. After two summers I was asked in 1971 if I would be interested in working throughout the winter, with the park. It was a tough decision because I enjoyed my year in university. The prospect of a steady income versus a student debt was too attractive. It is funny how life unfolds because this decision eventually lead me to become the golf professional at Highlands Links.
When Highlands Links opened in 1941, Parks Canada paid the golf professional. This system continued for at least 30 years but, as time passed and the opportunity for selling products from the shop presented itself, Parks Canada decided to tender the golf course concession. They hoped to attract golf professionals to the bidding process but that was not a prerequisite.
There were minimal opportunities for a golf professional at Highlands Links in the years from 1941 to 1971. Although the course received international recognition in 1964 when George Knudson and Al Balding were featured in Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, there was little attempt to market the course to the public. The few players, and the lack of a practice facility, made it impossible for a golf professional to make a living.
The resulting concessionaires achieved little success, from a business perspective and, one by one, they walked away from the operation. This situation reached a crisis in 1971. After two consecutive seasons (1969 and 1970) in which the operators lost money and withdrew from their contracts, Parks Canada put the operation out for tender and nobody made a bid.
This was a problem for the park superintendent since he did not have funds appropriated to staff the operation.
Since the winter of 1970 â€œ1971 was the first time that I worked full time in the park office, I was aware of the circumstances and I listened as the superintendent sought a solution. During a coffee break in March 1971 (two months before the course opened), he said that another tender was going out but he was afraid that nobody would make a bid. I said, off-handedly: “I could do that, if you let me keep my job.” He said: “Go ahead, make a bid.” I did and, sure enough, I was the only bidder.
Parks Canada had little choice but to offer me the contract. There were no other bidders.
My girlfriend, who worked in her father’s store, agreed to work with me and she took care of the business, for the most part.
I kept my job for one year and then I decided to begin the process for entry into the Canadian PGA and to attempt to make the Highlands Links business profitable. With lots of twists and turns, here I am, thirty five years later.
2. You caddied for the Vice President of Shell Oil when he played with Gene Sarazan the day before the 1964 Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match. Describe how Sarazan played the course.
I saw Mr. Sarazen play for two days prior to the Knudson and Balding match. He was in his sixties at the time, playing with persimmon and steel golf clubs, so he did not overpower the course. He rarely missed a fairway, however, and he handled all the difficult lies with ease. Sarazen was a wizard around the greens. He chipped in three or four times in two days to shoot 72 and 73. His wedge shots were amazing. He could hit low wedge shots with incredible spin.
3. What advice did Sarazan give you about playing the course?
I believe Mr. Sarazan was more interested in giving me advice about being a good caddy and finding my golfer’s ball. The gentleman I was caddying for, the vice president of Shell repeatedly hit his ball in the woods. When we finally reached the seventh hole, Mr. Sarazan started to nudge me and pointed to where his ball was going to go, just before he took the club back. It was incredible since he was correct, every time.
When we got to the twelfth hole, Mr. Sarazan said to me “You’re not going to find this one.” He said “the tee on this hole points you at the trees on the right, not at the green. You had better remember that, son.” It is true and from that day on, I always take an extra look from behind the ball when teeing up on number 12. That being said, I always feel I’m aiming left of the green. Thompson originally planned the tee on the 12th hole to be across the Clyburn River, to the left of the present-day tee. He doubtless changed his mind due to the cost of having to build a second bridge across the river.
4. How and why did Cape Breton Highlands Golf Links come to be created?
Ingonish, like the rest of the Western World, was in the mist of the Great Depression during the 1930’s. In order to provide work during the Depression, the Federal Government decided to establish Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The Highlands Links Golf Course was intended as a make-work project.
The Parks Canada people believed they had a marvelous site for a golf course in Ingonish. It was an incredible piece of real estate, one of the most beautiful areas in the world. Following in the footsteps of his successes in designing the golf courses in Jasper (1924-26) and Banff (1927-29), Stanley Thompson was commissioned to design and construct a golf course in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
The Clyburn Valley was critical in order to develop Highlands Links. Indeed, Mr. Thompson initially planned the golf course to go out along the beach to the right of the sixth hole. Even though the Clyburn Valley had not been expropriated and it had approximately 30 homesteads, Thompson insisted that the routing go up the valley in order to have a “mountain’s and ocean course.”
The price was paid by the residents who had their lands expropriated by the federal government. The residents had to use the little money they received to re-establish their homes in other areas of Ingonish.
5. What restrictions were placed on the construction process?
Since it was considered a “make work” project, Thompson was limited to two pieces of excavation equipment – a power shovel and a bulldozer. As if this wasn’t enough restriction, he was only allowed to use them for one day per week. As a result, approximately 300 to 400 men were hired throughout 1938 and 1939. The most men hired at any one time were 180 individuals. The men, paid 30 cents an hour, worked a 10-hour day. They were provided with a few horses, as well as picks, shovels and wheelbarrows to hand – shape most of the course.
6. Where did the soil come from?
Some holes along the routing were cultivated by the residents and thus they needed little transported soil. According to distinguished golf course architect Geoffrey S. Cornish, most of the soil to build the greens, tees and some fairways was taken from the fertile area where the sixth hole was located. Cornish came to Ingonish in 1938 as part of Thompson’s management team to construct the course. By 1939 Thompson had appointed Cornish, only 25 years old, as head of construction at Highlands Links. Cornish, a 1935 graduate of University of British Columbia with a degree in agronomy, was appointed in 1938 as the soil specialist responsible for providing topsoil for the greens, tees and fairways. He noted that twelve thousand cubic yards of alluvial soil was taken from what became the sixth hole. He also noted that some soil was brought down from further up the Clyburn Valley.
7. Some golf course architectural critics consider the routing at Highlands Links as among the two or three best routings in golf. What is your understanding as to how long it took Thompson to devise it?
According to an acquaintance of Stanley Thompson, Parks Canada gave him the architect’s ultimate dream. He was to design a golf course on beautiful Cape Breton Island and his only guidance was to take full advantage of the scenery.
Thompson said that “nature is my guide” and apparently he saw his routings in the natural landscape of his sites, rather quickly. He first arrived in Ingonish in 1937. He planned the routing for the course by walking the land, much of it open farmland. Using 1936 aerial photographs, Stan, according to Cornish, “superimposed the hole on the photograph. He would put in the tee and the center line on the photograph. He put in the green with its bunkers. He was like a carpenter, very deliberate. He did that and he didn’t do many changes after that. We Ëœd try to change it but to no avail. (Golf architect) Donald Ross was also that way.”
Thompson submitted his plan for an 18 hole course in 1938.
8. What was Thompson’s initial charge?
He was commissioned to design and construct a nine hole golf course.
9. Then how did it evolve into an 18 hole course?
I believe Thompson would have been disappointed if he had to construct a nine hole layout on what might have been the best piece of land he had ever seen. The original nine hole layout were the present holes one through four and fourteen through eighteen. Although a great nine hole test, Thompson saw the wonderful possibilities that the adjacent Clyburn River Valley presented.
He managed to bring the initial nine holes in under budget at a cost of $57,500 and pushed hard to extend the project to an 18-hole layout. The proposed budget for the second nine was $70,000. The federal government assessed the project and agreed to fund an additional nine holes. With cost overruns, the course cost under $200,000 to build. That was a remarkable feat considering that Banff, completed in 1929, had the dubious distinction of being the first golf course ever constructed to cost a million dollars.
Parks Canada wanted Thompson to avoid the Clyburn Valley to the west and have the course continue along the coastline. Thompson, however, was set on the possible routing in the valley, with a natural connection to his existing 9 holes. He was able to convince the powers to be of the merits of his routing and holes number 5 through number 13 were created.
10. Was Parks Canada pleased with his expanded routing?
Parks Canada preferred to avoid the Clyburn Valley. There were many unexpropriated properties up there. Thompson was told the golf course had to be in the park but that made no difference to him. The fifth, sixth and seventh holes, for instance, as well as number one and eighteen, and part of the fourth hole were not part of the park land in 1938. Thompson went ahead any way and the land was eventually expropriated. Thompson was a determined, stubborn man. He had an iron will in terms of seeking the best possible design for his golf courses. I believe Parks Canada had little choice but to allow Thompson access to the valley, once the decision to create an 18- hole course was made.
11. The diagonal tee ball off the sixth championship tee is wonderful, full of strategic merit and terror. When was it added and why didn’t Thompson himself place it there?
The new tee was added during the renovations of 1996. The sixth hole has morphed over the past 65 years. Most of the soil to construct the original nine tees and greens was taken from the fertile area where the sixth hole is now located. Unfortunately, too much material was taken, resulting in a fairway whose elevations hovered at sea level and below when I did a topographic survey of the area in 1970. At this time the sixth fairway was at least 100 yards wide in the landing area and there was no pond on the right side. As well, it was so wet that golfers could not navigate the hole without getting wet and the fairway could not be maintained properly.
After the topographic survey was done, it was concluded that the landing area for the tee balls, from all tees, had to be built up approximately two and a half feet. Considering the expansive area that had to be built up and costs associated, Parks Canada was not interested in pursuing this route. Reluctantly, I made an alternative proposal that would see a pond excavated along the right hand side of hole and the excavated material would be used to build up the low area to the left. I say reluctantly because I, as well as many others, considered the golf course to be “sacred ground,” not to be tampered with. The drainage issue had to be addressed, however, and this was the most economical way to take care of the problem. The cost of this proposal was less than half of what it would cost to build up the whole area and Parks Canada eventually agreed in 1982 to take on this project.
Twenty four years later, the pond appears to have been there forever. It has added strategic merit to the hole and provides a habitat for various species of plants and wildfowl. Parks Canada has since designated the pond and perimeter an environmentally sensitive area and George Pepper in his book, published by Golf Magazine, ranked number 6 in his top five hundred holes of the millennium.
I believe Thompson, at number six, tried to create a hole from his “quarry” of the best soil on the property. Along with number five, a natural par 3, which was laid at his feet, he needed a link from his original nine holes to the prize holes in the Clyburn River Valley. The result was a par 5, with an elevated tee ball, to an overly excavated, flat fairway, that measured 100 yards in width.
If Thompson’s initial charge had been to build an 18- hole course, I’m sure he would not have excavated so much material from this area and we would have seen a more traditional sixth hole than we have today.
Getting back to your question, concerning the new tee at number six; the strategic value of a tee for the sixth hole, directly behind number five green, was not the same in 1939 as today. Without the pond, this tee was insignificant, since it made the hole play shorter. Once the pond was created, the option for an alternative tee, behind number 5 green was a natural, with its risk and reward potential.
12. The interior contours of the greens are certainly Thompson’s best preserved in Canada. Is any green not original?
Yes, the 13th was rebuilt in 1974.
13. Why was it changed?
The original green was approximately two to three feet lower than it is today. As well as punchbowl in nature, it had a swale that ran diagonally from front right to back left. It was a wonderful green with opportunities for double or even triple break putts. This is evident when viewing the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match of 1964. Although putting from different locations on the green, both George Knudson and Al Balding were faced with double breaking putts.
Unfortunately, the punchbowl collected and retained water, especially during the winter months. As a result, ice accumulated, consistently resulting in turf damage. In 1974 the green was built up approximately two and one half feet. Although the original contours were supposed to be duplicated, it never happened that way.
14. How did Highlands Links come to be termed “links?”
Stanley Thompson and Parks Canada wanted the “links” name because it was a “sea-side course.” I know the area Stanley Thompson considered the ocean part of his “mountains and ocean course,” looked different in 1939 than it does now. There were very few trees in this area, resulting in unobstructed views of the ocean from twelve of the eighteen holes. There was an opportunity to situate some holes close to the ocean and the topography was not unlike a links course. Although not true links land, I think it would be hard for Stanley Thompson or any other architect not to look at this property in 1939 and see the possibility of a links – style golf course.
Thompson’s routing at Highlands Links fit perfectly with his philosophy. He attempted to develop a links look on most of his courses. Many of Thompson’s major golf course designs from the 1920’s and 1930’s incorporated Scottish links features in their designs. At Jasper, Banff, Saint George’s, and Capilano, and especially at Highlands Links, the Scottish influence is clear. All five courses go out for nine holes and then make the turn for the clubhouse, replicating the routing of the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. The Scottish links influence is also seen in Thompson’s respect for the lay of the land in his designs. Exploiting the natural contours and valleys, Thompson was able to use the steep inclines and the rolling terrain to provide elevated tees and greens, and natural undulating fairways. Each hole, as was standard in Thompson layouts, also had three sets of tees to enable the degree of difficulty to be changed. In typical Thompson fashion, the fairways roll up and down towards the greens and also across the fairways so that there are numerous side hill and downhill lies.
15. Are any bunkers missing that you wish were brought back?
Unfortunately, there are few original design bunker configurations on the course. Original shapes, depths and even some bunker locations were changed during the renovations of 1996.
Stanley Thompson took the time to make his bunkers meaningful. It wasn’t enough for him to strategically locate his bunkers. He sculpted his bunkers in order to express his creativity and to put his hallmark signature on the course. Thompson’s bunkers had high-back mounds with flashers of sand in the face together with deep capes and fingers in front to divide the bunkers into different smaller sections. In the old days, the sand flashes were particularly visible on holes numbers four, five, six, seven and eight, to name only a few. Bunkers with deep capes and fingers were found on holes three, six, 10, 13 , 15, 17 and 18.
Thompson shaped his bunkers distinctively, as well â€œ sometimes to mimic a landscape feature, sometimes a caricature of a legendary person. For example, at the sixth hole (Muckle Mouth Meg), the greenside bunker configuration depicted Meg, a Scottish lass who allegedly could swallow a turkey’s egg, whole.
The front and rear bunkers formed her lower and upper lips while the green becomes Meg’s gaping mouth. Unfortunately Meg’s lips had some unsuccessful surgery in 1996.
Another example of Thompson’s caricature bunkering was on the 13th. According to Geoff Cornish, Thompson was well aware of the explosive potential of the expropriation issue and he made sure that families who gave up their land took priority when it came to hiring and job positions. My Uncle, Maurice Donovan, who owned a farm where the 10th tee is located today, became a favorite of Thompson’s and was given additional responsibilities during the project. Mr. Cornish recounted a story concerning the 17th green. He said “Stan could not get across to us just what he wanted that green to look like.” After building and rebuilding the green several times, the crew became very frustrated and Maurice, who had a knack for shaping, bluntly said to Thompson “tell me what you want.” He did and supposedly Maurice built the green we have today, by himself, in a couple of days.
Thompson titled his 13th hole Laird, which is Gaelic for landowner. I believe this hole was Thompson’s tribute to the landowners who gave up their lands, making it possible for him to build the course. The bunker configuration on number13, perched on a high area to the left of the green, depicted the face of the landowner. Round pot bunkers formed the eyes and nose, while a banana shaped bunker depicted his smiling mouth. The added detail of a small cape in the banana bunker gives the smiling face, a missing front tooth. Maybe it’s a coincidence but a main feature of my Uncle Maurice’s face was his missing front tooth.
The landowner bunkers disappeared in 1996 and were replaced with a non-descript, single bunker.
To answer your question more directly, all of the original bunkers are missing and should be put back.
16. You have been the Head Professional for 35 years. What advice do you offer a first time visitor re: a few particular holes that they might otherwise not gather standing a tee for the first time?
From the tee, most holes at Highlands Links are clearly defined and the trouble is all there for you to see. Visual intimidation was big for Thompson in his designs and is no better represented than at the seventh hole.
Standing on the tee can be a terrifying experience for the average golfer. Far off in the distance is the flashing of the fairway bunkers. The full length of the hole (570 yards) carved between wooded hillsides, lies before you and appears to be no more than 30 yards wide. However, once you play this hole you realize that it plays a lot wider than you thought. Side slopes in the landing area bounce the ball toward the fairway and the left side of the fairway opens up for the second shot. However you do not see this from the tee.
The eighth and ninth holes could be confusing for first time players. From the tee, the eighth plays uphill for the first 150 yards, then severely downhill for the remaining 170 yards. From the tee you cannot see the landing area or the terrain which funnels a well struck ball, down the middle, into a gaping bunker on the left side â€œ not good.
For a strong player, a well struck drive, with some help from the wind, down the right side, could end up on the green. Otherwise, a 170 to 200 yard drive, down the middle, will roll out, short of the bunker and leave you with a wedge for your second shot.
The tee ball at number 9 gives you a couple of options. Since it is not a long hole, it does not require a driver nor would a driver be prudent, considering the landing area. As Thompson said, don’t stick your finger into the crow’s nest (he named the hole Corbie’s Nest, translated, means crow’s nest).
An accurate fairway wood or long iron should reach the fairway plateau, from where you will have a short iron to the green. However, you will not be able to see the green or flagstick from here.
An alternative approach from the tee could be a mid iron, short of the plateau and on the left side of the fairway. From here you are left with a mid iron to the green but you have the full length of the green to work with and you should be able to see the flagstick.
Depending on the caliber of player, the tee ball at number 15 requires some thought. Downwind, a strong player will carry through the fairway and into the trees, if he hits it a little right or straight. However, a driver over the huge mound on the left side will roll out and leave him with an opportunity to reach the green in two shots.
There are many more opportunities for strategic risk and reward plays at Highlands Links â€œ I could go on.
17. If you were Czar, what three things would you like to see accomplished in the next several years.
The maintenance team at Highlands Links work hard to produce the best possible playing conditions. Since the renovations of 1996, however, little time or money has been spent with ongoing maintenance in such specific areas as refurbishing bunkers, leveling tees and cleaning up tree- lined areas. The course cannot afford to keep its required maintenance staff employed for the months of September and October let alone have a crew doing fall projects. As a result, we are now slipping, in terms of maintenance standards and presentation. This cannot continue and a new structure for the operation of the golf course has to be devised, combined with an influx of capital, to address the noted deficiencies.
Parks Canada is presently undertaking a management options study which will hopefully identify the best process for moving forward. I hope that all parties involved in the process realize what an asset the golf course is to the community, the park and indeed, the country and that care will be taken to protect its future. Highlands Links will always be a gem of a golf course. It lies, for the most part, with the government of Canada to protect and enhance this incredible asset.
The renovation project of 1996 was touted to be a restoration of Stanley Thompson’s Highlands Links. No attempt, however, was made to restore the bunkers to their original design and liberty was taken to even remove or relocate bunkers.
Thompson’s original bunkers should be put back in place and original drawings, detailed 1939 historic photographs by Thompson, 1940’s historic pictures, 1950’s aerial photography and the footage of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf are all available to aid in the restoration process. Ian Andrew, a lover of Thompson architecture, recently and successfully reconstructed Thompson’s bunkers at St. George’s Golf Club in Toronto and, at some point; in the near future I hope he will be here to put things back together for us.
Sixty five years of uncontrolled tree growth has changed the setting and playability of the golf course. It has also created turf issues, related to lack of sunlight and air circulation. Beautiful original growth hardwoods are being overtaken by suck lings and spruce. Fallen trees are left to provide habitat for birds and rodents. Finding a golf ball inside the tree lines is an adventure and virtually impossible.
One can say that the setting of the course today is special (your fall foliage pictures on the web site are a testimonial) but can you imagine what it was like in 1939? Unobstructed views of the ocean from twelve of 18 holes, little protection from the wind. It must have been incredible. Considering our location, within a National Park, the only way one could ever experience this time travel would be for a hurricane to blow in from the Atlantic and level all the trees in the area. Since this is possible but not likely, I believe a sensible compromise between the interests of the golf course and Parks Canada’s mandate, should be formalized. Strategic view planes should be reestablished and maintained. Removal of trees, related to maintenance standards, should not be questioned and an ongoing project should be established to underbrush the perimeter of the course and its access and exit roads.
18. When was irrigation added and how has that affected the way the course plays?
Automated irrigation was added in 1996. My remembrance of the original irrigation system, as a caddy, was that greens and tees were watered, at night, by manual sprinklers that had to be moved regularly. The rest of the course was left to Mother Nature to provide moisture. There was no problem maintaining lush greens and fairways in May, June, September and October but July and August would see the fairways brown out and harden.
This was my favorite time of year as a young golfer because the ball would hit and roll and roll. All of a sudden, hitting holes number1 and number 2 in regulation was a possibility. The par fives were now birdie possibilities.
I believe Thompson was aware of the seasonality of golf in Northern Cape Breton and realized that most of the golf would be played in July and August. To accommodate the hard and fast conditions of the fairways and greens at this time of year Thompson gave players, particularly on the longer holes, an opportunity to bump and run the ball onto the greens â€œ no forced carries over hazards. He saved the forced carries for elevated, shorter holes, defended by the wind.
The new irrigation system has softened the course considerably but the biggest change in playability came with the introduction of a cut of rough. For fifty years, all areas of the course, with the exception of greens, fringes and tees were maintained at fairway length. Irrigation now made it possible to maintain a 2 to 3 inch cut of rough along the sides of fairways and around the greens. The new look may be more eye appealing to some but it has changed the way the course plays, in a number of areas. For example, at the fifth hole named by Thompson as “Canny Slap,” he gave the player the option to bounce the ball onto the green from the side slopes, which were cut at fairway length. With the irrigation and subsequent rough, this “canny” option is no longer available and penal if you try.
This alone, greatly supports a case for turning off the fairway irrigation in the summer and eliminating the rough cut. I would like to see the course play, today, the way Stanley Thompson originally designed it to be played.
In closing, I would like to thank my life-long friend and historian, Ken Donovan. His guidance and historic knowledge has greatly contributed to the contents of this interview.
For those interested in the history of Highlands Links, I want to recommend two publications by Ken.
Kenneth Donovan, “Thinking Down the Road’: Stanley Thompson, Canada’s Golf Architect, Artist and Visionary, 1893-1953,” The Nashwaak Review, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, vol. 14/15 (Fall, 2004 â€œWinter, 2005), pp. 252-302.
Kenneth Donovan, “An Interview with Geoffrey S. Cornish: Stanley Thompson and the Construction of Cape Breton Highland’s Links, Ingonish, Cape Breton, 1938-1939,” The Nashwaak Review, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick (Fall, 2004 â€œWinter, 2005), pp. 322-87.
The Nashwaak Review, a non profit journal, can be ordered on line at: www.stthomasu.ca/publications/nashwaak/