Review: Cape Breton Highland Links

Information:

  • Ingonish, Nova Scotia
  • Public — Daily Fee
  • Stanley Thompson (1946)
  • 6th in Canada (Beyond The Contour)

At this point on my travels, Cape Breton Highland Links was likely the most anticipated round in a while. Sure, a return trip to Merion was very exciting, and other courses, like Somerset Hills and San Francisco Golf Club had me hyped up, but Highland Links, and the mystique surrounding the golf course, plus COVID-19’s “Atlantic Bubble” had Highlands Links at the top of my mind.

Highland Links was a product of post-Great Depression and World War Two, with much of the golf course being built by hand. As a result, the golf course features some of the most unusual, yet fruitful contours for golf to be found. In recent years, the golf course has struggled with conditioning, and this once top 10 layout in Canada began to wavier even with those I trust. Spoiler warning: the conditioning was more than passable, and based on the horror stories passed around, it has made a comeback. In fact, the greens rolled as well as Cabot (though clearly different), and the fairways were what you would expect from a $130 public golf course.

The golf course opens with a fairly straightforward uphill par 4, measuring 405 yards from the back teeing ground. The tee shot is wide, but the massive hillocks introduce the golfer to some of the topography around.

For most, a semi-blind or fully blind shot awaits. The photo below shows what golfers will see cresting the hill.

The green complexes are quite unique at Highland Links, and that is a testament that Thompson’s greens remain largely unedited. In fact, I would venture Highland Links has the best set of greens of any Thompson course, and it is not really close.

After a relatively straightforward first hole, the second is the start of perhaps the best stretch of golf in Canada. 447 yards, this downhill, doglegging right hole bends its way down the hillside. The line is much more right than one thinks for the big hitter, but for the average golfer, it is an expansive, wide tee shot.

As one walks over the top of the hillside, the golf hole reveals itself. Bunker-less, tumbling down the hillside to a green set on the other side of a small gully, this is an epic hole.

If there was any doubt this is a special golf course, this green is WILD. The second green is where things really kicked in: we are in for a day.

The third is a relatively simple par 3, but pleasant nonetheless, playing over an inlet from the ocean. At only 160 yards to a big green, most golfers will assume an easy shot, although a ridge in the middle makes putting east-west difficult.

The fourth is perhaps the most wild hole in Thompson’s catalogue, and honestly, he had some doozy’s. The hole has been extended from the original (white) tee at 275 yards, to 324 yards. I think the original tee is better, but alas. On our first loop, we played the new tee. On the second spin, we played the original tee. With water left and bush right, there is trouble off the tee, although it is plenty wide enough to feel comfortable on the tee.

The new tee box makes a straight hole a slight dogleg right

This approach shot is truly insane. Playing from a wild, rowdy fairway up to a volcano green with contours like La Jolla’s famous surfing beaches, this will test the best wedge players around.

As mentioned, the green complex is wavy, featuring a cameo from actual waves on the Atlantic Ocean.

I love the 5th hole. 164 yards, slightly downhill, to perhaps the most severe green I have ever seen with my own eyes. Plus, a dragon bunker short right! What is not to love? Put it on the short list for the best mid-length 4 in Canada, and what a pin we got to fully experience it!

The 6th is the first of two back-to-back par 5’s, and also the start of the first of two sets of back-to-back 5’s. At 537 yards, longer hitters will be able to get home in two if they challenge the Atlantic Inlet right.

After cutting the corner, a fairly open layup and second shot await, but a fairly elegant bunker complex left is certainly in play.

Some inspiring terrain hides the bunkers
The aforementioned bunkers, no longer hiding

It is worth noting that this is the lowest point on property, and as a result, any ice damage, floods, or tropical storms affect the par 5, 6th the most. If any concerns about conditioning arise, the 6th would be a good indicator, but it was good enough to play, although certainly the more weathered part of the property.

I liked the low profile nature of this green site, especially considering the hillside/volcano nature of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th. A nice breath of fresh air.

The 7th is the second par 5 on the front, and a truly dizzying 570 yards.

This “S” shaped hole has become overgrown in spots, and likely is the hardest hole for most golfers. The fairway is truly intense, and as a result, results in many blind shots even from ideal spots to play from. The variety in sight lines, stances, and difficulty make this hole have the A+ replay value great golf courses rely on.

The first hole suggests a draw, whilst the second supports a fade. On the third, a straight shot, or whatever the golfer wants to hit back into the hillside.

At only 319 yards, the par 4, 8th is the shortest two-shot hole on the golf course, but playing over a topographic ridge, the tee shot is entirely blind. Thompson, being the golfer he is and a smart man, cut bunkers into that ridge to showcase the goal posts on where to aim. Truthfully, a fully blind shot is good in small doses, but blind shots where you have some idea on where to go is the best type of blind shot. In this instance, between the bunker left, and the pot bunker right is ideal.

This green site is the anti-4th, tucked way below the fairway and almost funnelling to the middle. For those who can get it home in one, a great opportunity to make eagle if you have confidence with the driver. For others (like myself), a fun layup-wedge.

I like to think this hole was the inspiration behind some great golf holes in Canada. Of note, the 15th at Cabot Cliffs and the 11th at Algonquin feature similar elements to the last 100 yards here. With tighter turf conditions, putter could honestly be suitable, although in its current state, a wedge is still ideal.

Following a truly out-of-this-world first eight holes, the 9th cools down slightly. Honestly, there is little wrong with the architecture at this 336 yard dogleg right par 4 up the hill, but Graham Cooke’s cart paths are as good as treason as far as I am concerned. On the tee shot, the work is less visable.

On the approach shot, it is essentially all you see. A blind, dell style hole is funky and unique (at least on this side of the pond), but I cannot imagine Thompson would have wanted a cart path to be the deciding line to play over. Graham Cooke had other ideas I guess, and honestly, this is worth jail time.

Cresting the hill reveals a pretty cool greensite, but the hole has been bastardized by the path.

The 145 yard short par 3 to start the back nine is an enjoyable par 3, although nothing Thompson has not built beforehand. It is slightly peculiar that on a relatively straightforward short par 3 on tame land, Thompson built a flatter green. As a result, the hole is good, but not a standout here by any means.

As mentioned, the middle stretch is certainly more tame than the opening eight (or even the closing few, forthcoming). The 512 yard par 5, 11th falls into that group, playing over the Clyburn Brook off the tee.

A fairly straightforward tee shot, followed up by a fairly straightforward second shot. This has birdie time written all over it.

I do like the idea of this green-site. An underrated characteristic in golf is on-grade green complexes, but there is just not enough to really get me on board here.

Granted, the 9th-11th, although weaker, are not neccesarily bad golf holes. Now, the 12th on the other hand, has been ruined by a tree planted short left of the green. Contrast this 240 yard par 3 with the long one-shot holes at Jasper (4th, 9th), the long at St. George’s (8th), Capilano (16th), or Banff (13th) and this is the weakest long par 3 in the Thompson Five.

Thankfully, the 13th (435 yards, par 4) picks up steam following the lacklustre middle. The tee shot is divided into the upper-right and lower-left, although the golfer likely would prefer to play from the lower left (where most balls will end anyway). From the top right, a semi-blind shot awaits, even if the golfer can use the slope obstructing the view to funnel the ball in.

As mentioned, the ridge in the middle is aggressive and obstructs the view of the green.

Of note, especially on Thompson’s “Mountains and Oceans” course, this is the first time we see the ocean since the 6th green. Looking back, you get a sense of the wildness. In an ideal world, with just a tad more width, length, and firmness, this hill would act as a kicker slope or defence, depending on where the ball landed. Could you imagine playing this hole with a spoon in your hand, having to run it up to this green, and having to negotiate with the little knoll in the front?

The 14th is a fairly straightforward 398 yard par 4 doglegging left, yet pleasant nonetheless.

A low-profile, spacious green complex awaits. In contrast to the more severe greens, there is a good amount of slope here, but it feels as if it continues to trick the golfer into making the wrong read. Some subtle tricks in this ‘ol complex.

In some respects, the back nine feels like it is building. Towards what? You do not know the first rip around until you arrive at the tee of the 540 yard par 5, 15th. This is, in short, world-class in every respect. A ridge running at an angle beautifully divides this tee shot into an upper and lower section.

From the upper section, the green is clear and easy to see. Those who get it up the left side have a classic green light special. From the right, the hole becomes more difficult, and for the long hitter, the prospect of getting home in two becomes a distant memory. For the average golfer, hitting the ball right means they have to get the ball high over the slope, and as a result, might make the third shot longer. A better look at the movement below.

From atop the hill, the best view on the golf course awaits.

After a relatively demanding first two shots, the third is straightforward to a classic Stanley Thompson bunkered green. Very attractive and beautiful with some good movement in it.

Some argue the 460 yard par 5, 16th is better than the 15th. While I disagree, the discussion is worth having, and that in itself is high praise. I have yet to see a bunker-less par 5 as exciting as this hole, with the most interesting fairway one can find in North America.

As opposed to other strategic holes, which have a defined concept that presents itself, the 16th is golf’s version of a minefield: avoid the hilly areas. After doing so, a crazy, almost Herculean iron shot or wood up top (for those who can get home in two) awaits.

Distaster can strike fairly quickly around this green, so best to be extremely precise. For those who layup, a much easier wedge shot up, although the prospect of a blowup looms large no matter when you attack the hole. I venture this is the secret sauce to a short 5 like the 16th. An easy birdie with a good shot up, but a single poorly struck shot coming up and double all of a sudden seems in play.

After the quality that occurs at the 15th and 16th, the 190 yard par 3, 17th almost gets lost in the shuffle. A shame: this is a great one-shot hole with one of the more severe greens on the golf course.

The website credits the par 3, 5th as the “Eden” inspired one-shot hole, but my vote would go to the 17th. No pot bunker dividing the green, but the bunker on the right plays a similar role. The left side, not the right over the bunker, is the more sloped side, but nonetheless, heavily tilted to the front.

Of the criticisms of Highland Links, one that continued to come up was a weaker finish. While I would agree that the 410 yard par 4, 18th is not a highlight, per se, it does not finish weak. In fact, this green complex is a worthy exclamation mark on an epic round of golf. Atop the hillside, the golfer tumbles back down to the flats and next to the ocean.

From the fairway, a middle to short iron awaits those who hit a proper drive. On paper, the strategies asked would be to keep it left to open up the angle (and as a result, directly into the slopes of the green). With the modern ball and clubs, this strategy is essentially without merit. Nevertheless, a good last approach shot, slightly uphill.

As mentioned, this is a standout green complex. To me, that is a strong enough finish to a truly wicked golf course.

Is this Canada’s best golf course? I could certainly conjure up a great argument, although in my experience, I would put this near the top (in fact, top 5), but not #1. The middle stretch is a little too mundane for me to say this is Canada’s best golf course, especially considering some of its competition.

This is one of Canada’s truly elite golf courses, and much better than most give it credit for these days. The collection of the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 13th, 15th, 16th, and 17th make it among the single most interesting golf courses one can see, and at nearly a third of the price of Cabot, for the same quality of golf architecture, one of Canada’s best budgets.

Any hesitations about Highlands Links ought to be dismissed. Any golf trip to Cape Breton without this golf course is a miss. Of any golf course in Canada, this is the most perplexing, thought-provoking, and emotional, and for that, a truly beautiful experience on Canada’s east coast.

Author

  • Andrew Harvie

    Based in Toronto, but having lived in Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Arizona, and Texas, I have been lucky enough to see over 400 golf courses and counting!

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