Highlands Links getting a thorough makeover

The restored 15th hole at Highlands Links.

INGONISH BEACH, Nova Scotia -- Canadian golf architect Ian Andrew recently recalled playing golf here at Highlands Links as a child.

“It used to be in phenomenal shape – dry as a bone, it was dusty brown, but it had the full sun,” Andrew said. When he returned in 2003, he said, “I couldn’t even recognize the place.” Trees were wildly overgrown, creating major turf problems.

Since 2009, Andrew has been addressing those issues through a gradual, but extensive, restoration. That includes the planned removal of 10 acres of trees; seven acres already have been removed, allowing the turf to get more exposure to the sun while also opening up views to the Atlantic Ocean.

“You used to be able to see the ocean on 14 holes, and when I started, you couldn’t even see the ocean on the fifth hole, which is pretty remarkable when you consider how close that is,” said Andrew, who also is nearing completion of a thorough bunker restoration.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Highlands Links is regarded by Canadians as a national treasure. It was designed by Stanley Thompson, an iconic figure in Canadian golf, and consistently has ranked among the country’s best courses since its 1939 opening.

Highlands Links has received increased attention recently with the opening of Cabot Links, a project backed by Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser and located a two-hour drive from Ingonish Beach in Inverness, on Cape Breton’s west coast. The people promoting Cabot Links have touted the chance to play their course, arguably the best modern course in the country, and Highlands Links, which still ranks No. 3 on the list of Golfweek’s Best Canadian Classic Courses. (The Classic list includes courses built before 1960.)

Highlands Links is the 26th Thompson course that Andrew has restored. That list includes St. George’s G&CC in Ontario, ranked No. 1 on Golfweek’s Classic list. In his restorations, Andrew uses multiple historical photos of each hole to reclaim Thompson’s designs.

The Highlands Links restoration has progressed slowly because the course is located in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Andrew works on the project as funding is approved by the parks system.

Andrew said he wants to “go back as far as the park will let us” to recapture the original Thompson design. That will include another three acres of tree removal. The priority is removing a large, horseshoe-shaped swath of trees around the seventh green, which has suffered from a lack of sunshine. He also wants to widen corridors on a number of holes, including the first, fifth, seventh and ninth.

Parks officials initially were chilly to some of the renovation plans, but Andrew said they came around after he emphasized that the course is “a heritage site.”

“If you say to them that you want to remove trees, they’re not great on that idea,” Andrew said. “But because it is considered a place of historical importance, when we approached it from that angle . . . the park became a lot more receptive. They also understood that they had something that was in decline, and if they didn’t warm up to the idea of tree removal, we would have just lost more turf.”

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