Cape Breton Highlands Links
Nova Scotia, Canada

Cape Breton Highlands, Golf on Cape Breton, Stanley Thompson

Cape Breton's incomparable setting coupled with Stanley Thompson's talents combine to make Highlands Links one of the most distinctive courses in world golf.

Thanks in part tothe success of the courses that opened in the late 1920s within the national parks of Jasper and Banff in Alberta, the National Park Services of Canada decided in 1938 to pursue a work program to create jobs and stimulate tourism interest by building a golf course in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Occupying the northern portion of the 4,000 square mile Cape Breton Island with the Atlantic on one side and the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the other, Cape Breton Highlands Park is blessed with every physical attribute imaginable, from beaches to river valleys to mountains. While there was already much to do including salmon fishing, hiking and whale watching, The Canadian Park Service wanted to give people an additional reason to venture to this beautiful part of the world. Thus, they hired Stanley Thompson to work his magic and build another world class golf course to act as a draw.

Work commenced in 1939 with Geoffrey Cornish as construction supervisor. Closely paralleling the construction of the golf course, The Keltic Lodge was built to provide adjacent first rate lodgings.

As many as 200 people were employed constructing Highlands Links at any given time and the course took two years to complete. Stanley Thompson‘s routing is a marvel as the variety of settings without loss of continuity or character is unique in all of golf. The first six holes play near but never touch the shoreline; the player then crosses the Cabot Trail and enters the deep woods and hills for the 7th – 9thwith the one shot 10thdropping him down into a river valley for the 11th and 12th holes.After a480 yard stroll from the 12th green along the river to the 13th tee, the Atlantic Ocean comes into view again. The 14th plays back inland with a mountain as a backdrop, the 15th straight back to the Atlantic Ocean with Whale Island in the distance. And finally, the last three holes, back near the shoreline, are a roller coaster ride across thrilling topography to the clubhouse.

Cape Breton Highlands, Golf on Cape Breton, Stanley Thompson

The walk from the 12th green to the 13th tee along the Clyburn Brook is so tranquil that it hardly matters that the green to tee distance is 480 yards.

The blend of holes is altogether unique. For those golfers who like the randomness of links golf and properly flighting the ball in the wind from an awkward stance, the early and late holes are as good as it gets. Conversely, the golfer who prefers mountain golf takes delight in the middle stretch of holes with their stunning backdrops. To the best of the author’s knowledge, no other course in the world so successfully combines these two generally disparate forms of golf into one harmonious course.

Cape Breton Highlands, Golf on Cape Breton, Stanley Thompson

A reminder that you are in the Canadian Maritimes.

Holes to Note

First hole, 405 yards, Ben Franey; If there is such a thing as a prevailing wind, it is into the golfer on the first six holes. Thus, with both the tee ball and approach shot uphill,the 1stgreenis often an elusive target. When asked which hole has given him the most fits in relation to par during his first (!)35 years as Head Professional, Joe Robinson suggested that it may well be the 1st. Highlighting that claim is George Knudson’s2 iron approach under the wind in the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match versus fellow Canadian touring professional Al Balding in 1964. Perfectly struck, Knudson’s approach came up 10 yards shy of the putting surface.

Cape Breton Highlands, Golf on Cape Breton, Stanley Thompson

The golfer is immediately introduced in the 1st fairway to one of Cape Breton's challenges: finding a level stance.

Second hole, 445 yards, Tam O’Shanter; As the 1st plays uphill, the 2nd tumbles downhill with 110 feet of elevation change from tee to green. Similar with the 1st fairway, the 2nd fairway is littered with humps and bumps normally associated with the links courses in the U.K. In this case, the humps and bumps were created by man. According to Geoffrey Cornish, as the construction crew was clearing the property, Stanley Thompson instructed them precisely were to place stone and rocks in small piles. Stanley Thompson covered these piles with soil from the river silt and these random piles became an integral part of how the1st, 2nd, 14th, and 16th holes play. Of those four holes,the 2nd, 14th and 16thare bunkerless,with theground contours providing ample challenge. Too few modern architects show restraint in bunkering with only a couple of examples readily coming to mind such as Coore& Crenshaw’s 13th hole at Cuscowilla and Gil Hanse’s 9th holeat Rustic Canyon.

Cape Breton Highlands, Golf on Cape Breton, Stanley Thompson

The ideal drive at the 2nd carries the crest and then tumbles downhill, leaving the golfer...

Cape Breton Highlands, Golf on Cape Breton, Stanley Thompson

...with a long downhill approach shot from a sloping stance. A supremely natural hole, man's hand is hardly evident in its creation.

Cape Breton Highlands, Golf on Cape Breton, Stanley Thompson

Look at the feet of the three golfers to understand the wild interior contours of the 2nd green. Thompson named the hole Tam O'Shanter as the green's shape reminded him of a Scot's hat.

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