Canadian golf course architect Ian Andrew finished a four-year restoration of Stanley Thompson’s unique Highlands Links course, set out in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia. Here he recounts the enthralling history of this ‘Destination Golf’ venue.
In the 1930s, Stanley Thompson found himself running out of opportunities to build new courses. He saw the government as the last remaining source of money. He conceived the novel idea of getting the government to build new golf courses in the National Parks. He met with Prime Minister Mackenzie King and sold it to him as a way to put people back to work in the hardest-hit communities on the East Coast. He argued the golf courses would provide a new source of permanent employment for the communities. – Editor – Golf Architecture
The Canadian Government agreed and decided to build two courses within the boundaries of their National Parks. One was at Green Gables on Prince Edward Island. The other was at Ingonish Beach in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
While the course was supposed to be completely inside the park’s boundaries, that quickly changed. The area where the course currently finishes was an estate purchased for the golf course and a new lodge to be built. But even with this added land, Stanley quickly realised he could not build a course on the designated land because most of it was solid rock and there was no source or budget for importing topsoil. However, he knew that if he crossed the road and used the series of farms just outside the park boundary, he had the soil and land to build a fine golf course.
At the time, people in the community were desperate. The depression had set in and the fisheries had recently collapsed through overfishing. Thompson seized upon this opportunity and offered to have the government purchase the land and put each of the displaced people put on the construction payroll. While they faced the loss of their land, many felt not taking this offer would have led to losing their land anyway. They jumped at the idea of employment and the knowledge that the government would give them the money to relocate.
While the government supported the idea, there were no negotiations done prior to construction and much of the course was built on the land without a sale price being negotiated or the assurance of a payment date! Since many of these negotiations were drawn out and some felt the price did not reflect the true value, hard feelings about this process have lingered right through to the present day. Many feel their ancestral homes were taken for less than their worth.
Stanley Thompson hired anyone displaced and put them on the construction team. Whether for self-preservation or out of sympathy, everyone was given work. The construction was done mostly by hand. The arrangement with the government was to limit the use of the one steam shovel and truck to a single day each week to ensure they employed the maximum number of people. While it slowed progress, it did employ a community for two full years.
Cape Breton Highlands is Stanley Thompson’s Mountains and Ocean Course. It is Stanley Thompson’s greatest routing and one of the best in the game. He originally laid out a rough routing plan using aerials. When Thompson came to Cape Breton and surveyed the property on foot, he recognised that each section of the property was remarkably different from the last. Whether intentional, or intuitive, he made a most unusual and important choice: he separated each unique geographic setting with a very long walk. So once you completed that section of holes, you faced a long tree-lined trail to cleanse the palette. When you emerged into the next opening, you were met with something new. The physical environment had evolved. The golfing ground had changed character and even the species of trees were different. This happens five times in the course of a round!
Because of this the course unfolds like a series of chapters. Each chapter features an education on that particular topography. But when the chapters are combined they provide a wonderful walking education of this diverse geography found on Cape Breton Island. For generations people have come from great distances to see this unique landscape. Stanley Thompson found a way to share all of its unique regions in one four-hour round.
Chapter 1 – The Ocean
The golf course begins out on an open headland with a panoramic view of the ocean. Thompson directs the 1st hole between two Spruce groves and directly at the highest peak in the region called Ben Franey. You play uphill all the way to an elevated green where the rear mounds are a perfect reproduction of the mountain ridge off in the distance. This whimsical attention to detail is to become part of the shared journey.
The 2nd plays through another deep Spruce grove, but at the turn you are treated to another incredible panorama of Ingonish Bay and the mountains beyond. The 3rd plays over an inlet from the ocean. The 4th and 5th turn and follow the Clyburn estuary over some wildly undulating land. This all culminates with the 6th hole which begins on a high tee, plays over and then along the ocean to the green.
Thompson wanted to emphasise the association with the ocean by introducing Marram grass to the dunes found on the 4th and 6th holes, to give a links feel. He brought more of his humour by re-creating another mountain ridge at the back of the 4th green. He added a Dragon-and-Fireball-shaped bunker to the front right of the 5th. But his finest moment was his homage Robert Browning’s poem about Muckle-Mouth Meg, a woman who could “swallow a bubblyjock’s egg”! He created her face in relief and her hair with bunkering, which surrounds an egg-shaped green. As odd as this all sounds, it does play great and you can miss most of this if you’re not looking for the features.
Chapter 2 – The Mountain Pass
After the 6th green, Stanley takes you inland on a long walk where you can relax and enjoy the mouth of the Clyburn Brook. You emerge from the trees at an extremely long and difficult par-5 called Killiecrankie. The hole plays between a series of knolls and ridges on the left and a mountainside on the right. The tee shot on the 7th gives the impression of being unbelievably tight because of the contrast from openness of the Ocean holes. It’s easy to be intimidated by what you see. These holes are framed by Oaks, Maples and White Pine with some occasional Spruce.
The 8th is a narrow par-4 playing between high ridges on either side. The approach is dramatically downhill to the green set high above the Clyburn valley below. Stanley does a wonderful job of delivering an exciting pair of holes that ramble over the terrain like an out of control rollercoaster.
Chapter 3 – The Clyburn Valley
Once again a change of scenery is begun with a long walk down into the forest. The players are introduced to Clyburn Valley from an elevated tee. The fairway below is wide open and flat, the backdrop is a narrow valley surrounded by mountains. The trees are now all hardwoods with some softwood species like birch mixed in for contrast. And this is where the next set of holes will be played.
The opener (9th) is an Alps-style hole, with the second shot directly at the base of Ben Franey to a blind punchbowl green site set in a hillside. You follow a short drop-shot par-3 set between donkey ear bunkers. You leave that green and cross the brook on a swinging bridge (unfortunately now gone) that Thompson built as part of the project. A wide open par-4 plays down the valley. And finally you play a long par-3 over a bend in the Clyburn with a cliff face as the backdrop to the green. This gentle stretch of holes was to act as a breather in the middle of the round where you were supposed to enjoy the setting through the wide clearings and long views
Chapter 4 – The Highlands
The walk from 12 green to the 13th tee is the prettiest walk in golf. You leave the 12th green and walk through the trees between the Clyburn Brook and a cliff face for 400 yards. This walk featured a spring-fed rock drinking bowl (recently lost) and gazebo (washed away) set on the river. This is once again another great transition to a completely cleanse the palette and start anew.
Stanley has taken the players up and out of the peaceful valley to the most rugged and rolling land on the property. The change is almost jarring, since the uplands section is hemmed by large Spruce and Pine. But it is the massive undulations in the landscape that make this the most memorable stretch. You must play over, around or through on your way to three of the best green sites on the course. The ocean frames the back of the 13th and 15th greens, but also is open to view from the entire 14th hole when a player looks back. It is this set that often ruins rounds, but also provides the true golfing heart of this marvelous layout.
Chapter 5 – Middle Head
The beautiful twin spires of the Catholic Church first appear on the approach to the 15th green, but you don’t truly feel its full presence till Thompson has you to walk by on your way to the 16th tee. This divine walk either inspires – or leaves you praying for a better game.
The final set of holes is set on the headland, but there’s no initial ocean view. You play straight up a to a highly elevated green in the distance. But no first-time golfer ever notices the green because they are left open-mouthed looking at the 100s of Volkswagen sized moguls spread across the entire fairway from tee to green. But the best moment on the 16th This section of the headland is mostlycomes when you look back after finishing the hole. On one end of the panorama is the entire 2nd hole with Ingonish Bay in the background, on the other end is Ben Franey with the Catholic Church spires sticking up out about the forest in the foreground.
This section of the headland is mostly Oaks and Maples. The 17th plays into a secluded valley, but that’s Stanley setting up the next great view. You walk out of the valley and up to the 18th tee where you for the first time since the opening tee shots see ocean on both sides. In the background is Middle Head peninsula; in front of that is the Keltic Lodge and at the end of the hole is Thompson’s best and wildest green.
The First 50
The golf course was well received from the outset. Despite its remote location, it drew a lot of tourist traffic from Ontario, New York and New England. The community was employed working at the Keltic Lodge, on the golf course or in various businesses that grew up in town to meet the tourist needs. Despite the challenges and controversies at the outset, Thompson and the Canadian government had accomplished their goal of creating an economic linchpin for the community.
One of the unforeseen problems with the golf course was Parks Canada. Initially this course was viewed as a key activity to draw people to come see Cape Breton Highlands National Park. It was well taken care of and through most of its life was a source of revenue for the Park. But that all changed with the internal changes in Parks Canada. In the 1980s a new breed of person was drawn to work in the National Park service. The ranger was replaced by the environmentalists. They looked at the increasing popularity of our National Parks and were not pleased by the popularity. Their view was on preservation of the natural environment.
While they were right in some locations like Banff, they treated all Parks the same way. As the environmentalists gained a stronger say in the future of the Parks system, they began to shun the recreational opportunities such as golf. Golf was in clear opposition to their mandate of preserve and enhance. The fact that this was an infinitesimal percentage of the managed land was of no interest. Golf was wrong in a National Park!
They found they could not eliminate golf. The combination of long-term lease arrangements in places like Banff and community pressure in Cape Breton meant they were stuck with golf. So in their mind, they did the next best thing. The stopped all tree removal, mandated naturalization programs and dealt with the golf courses as if they were pariahs
At Cape Breton Highlands, there are two periods of close to 19 years each, where not a single tree was removed! Even the renovation program done in the late 1990s, spurred by the Provincial government, did not remove trees (just underbrush). When I began in 2008, the golf course was so grown in that there was only turf on 20% of the 9th green and not one green was 100% healthy. (397-2144)
Saving Highlands Links
I had played the golf course in 1981 with my father. I still had the photos of the entire course. It was wide open and healthy. When I returned in 2003, it was dying through neglect. I was so upset by the experience that I wrote about what Parks Canada was doing in an attempt to save one of the country’s most important golf courses.
I wasn’t trying to find work, but I was eventually hired in 2008 by Graham Hudson, who had been brought in by Parks Canada to fix the mess. They had come under intense public pressure from the Canadian golf community and local associations for neglecting the course. The local community was very concerned that the golfers had stopped coming from all over the world. The common refrain from visiting players was while the golf course and setting were amazing, the conditions were unacceptable. This golf course that had come out of nowhere to make the World Top 100, had a new generation of raters and players saying that the course was in such poor condition that it was no longer worth the trip.
Change the Dialogue
Graham Hudson and I needed to get the conversation to change internally at Parks Canada. Graham Hudson and a few others Parks Canada staff managed to get Stanley Thompson named as “A Person of National Historical Significance”. This was a key first step because from a Parks Canada and government perspective this makes his work historically important. So my thoughts were, let’s approach Parks Canada under the premise that Cape Breton Highlands is a historical landscape. They agreed. I then came back to them with other examples in parks where homesteads had their original landscapes re-established. So why couldn’t were-establish the original corridors? They shocked us by agreeing, pending an environmental review. We walked together and I explained the agronomic problems, I shared hundreds of historical photos of the golf course that I had found to show the original views and clearing lines. He agreed to almost everything – and Parks Canada gave us the go-ahead to remove trees. Twelve acres of trees! The tree work began in 2008 and continues; there are 10 acres of trees down to this date and more planned this northern hemisphere winter.
Flooding in 2011
Sometimes a disaster is a blessing. In the winter of 2010 Hurricane Igor made landfall on Cape Breton Island and produced massive flooding. Clyburn is flash valley, where the steep mountainsides shed the water straight into the Brook in a very short timeline. The course floods after a 2” rain and Igor brought around 8” of rain. Boulders up to 12 inches in diameter were left in deposits up to three feet deep, down the middle of the 11th fairway where the Clyburn had decided upon a short cut through the course. The clean-up was going to be long and challenging.
Graham and I asked Parks Canada if there was an emergency fund. Yes, there was. Can we access it to fund the repair of the lower holes… and Graham quickly threw in “and repair the bunker damage done at the same time”. Yes… how much? We put together a clean-up budget (done by staff) and then put a price to rebuilding bunkers in-house. We presented it and to our surprise they accepted the budget total. That how we got the bunkers restored through a storm.
I remember in 2011 presenting the entire project to the community. I explained the long history of the course in a town hall meeting. The original intention of creating a tourist destination to save the community, I talked about the pain of expropriation. That was important to healing old wounds and getting people to buy in. I talked about how the community came together to create something world class to bring people to Ingonish.
We did the work in-house, almost all by hand. I worked side by side with four guys building bunkers every second week till it was done.
By the end of 2012 we had restored the bunkers, recaptured greens and returned the original playing corridors and views. The conditioning had come around and the course was improving every year. The union staff was fully engaged in the restoration and the conditioning. I was really excited about the prospect of getting the course back onto people’s must-play lists. Since I now knew so many people in Ingonish, this mattered a great deal to me…
Then Parks Canada management did the unthinkable and decided to privatize the course. Many in the golf world jumped for joy, but I watched the staff get let go. I was devastated. The privatisation plan failed and they took back a very disgruntled staff. I went out in 2013 to drain the 6th hole – and they no longer cared. Who could blame them? They were hurt and in the case of people with family connections to the expropriation, old wounds were re-opened.
It took an extra year to get sorted out and a golf operator out of Ontario, Golf North, took over the lease. The good news is they hired Graham Hudson to manage the golf and Keltic Lodge. There is a moment in time when you have to return to the original intent and remove yourself from the history.
The golf course was built to put people in this community back to work. The golf course and Keltic Lodge were built to provide a new source of permanent employment. Golf North has invested a staggering amount in refurbishing the lodge and surrounding resort buildings. They have stuck to using only local people. The resort is booked solid this year because of how much better things are.
The golf course will benefit from better facilities and the spillover form Cabot Links. Cape Breton Highlands is here to stay. While I wish we could finish improving the golf course, what matters most is the entire facility is thriving and the community is strong. Stanley may have sold the government a vision to build another golf course, but indirectly he solidified a community, one that I love.