I had written Cabot Links was my favourite course in the country, but if there was only one course I could play for the rest of my life it would be Highlands Links. This is a majestic beauty of a course, set in the scenic highlands of Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Ingonish, Nova Scotia. The history of the course is as interesting to me as it was to play. From the subtle variation of rolling terrain (one playing partner identified on #15 he did not feel he’d had a level lie yet) to the mix of holes set near the ocean, river, hillside and within the forest, every round would be a unique experience. And while there is much conversation about the reclamation and return to glory of this famed course, I will focus now on the golfing experience.
The clubhouse is very quaint and understated (and for some possibly understocked) and the staff are professional and courteous. Adjacent to the clubhouse is the first tee, and a short game practice area with bunker and chipping green and a separate putting green. No range, but enough space to get loose after a long car ride (for us, it was Guysborough, almost 3 hours away). If you’re fortunate to catch nice weather on your drive there along the Cabot Trail, you’ll be relaxed and ready to play! The first tee will do nothing to calm traditional first tee jitters as it seems cut from the forest with little room for error. Hole 4 is aptly named, Heich O’ Fash (meaning Heap of Trouble, from its Gaelic name). All holes are named in honour of the Gaelic culture which is influenced throughout Nova Scotia.
Highlands Links is an unusual layout but one which can make you feel you’re the only people playing the course. Course conditions did tend to vary, representative of the restorative work which is being undertaken. Overall, they we’re consistently good, greens were well maintained, not excellent, but very good. It is not a lush private country club, yet it is not a neglected municipal track. The natural terrain dictates much for the condition. Elevation change is used well to create vistas for driving, subtle yet appreciated.
Wind can make this a challenging course in some places; nasty in others, but the greatest requirement is an exceptional short game. The greens, while not small, are well protected with bunkers, elevation change or proximity to other defenses. Hole 7, Killiecrankie is the most challenging par 5 I’ve played, a double dog leg behemoth playing 570 with a challenging green area. Your approach shot on Hole 8, Caber’s Toss, is breathtaking. Bring your camera, and if you choose to walk be ready as the course traverses out and back. The walk alone between holes 12 and 13 is almost 500 meters. You’ll walk a good 10 km and will earn the post round beer available in the bar on the upper floor of the pro shop.
Playing this course made me feel like I was at church; there was a reverence and solemnity to the experience. Maybe it was the scenery, possibly the wildlife (can’t believe a crow or raven stole half my sandwich…which was terrific). Hole 15, Tattie Bogle offers the most majestic views of the course overlooking the ocean and Ingonish Island. This will be a perennial top 3 course in Canada for me.
Aura – 9 out of 10 – I felt like Stanley Thompson may come out of the woods to accompany me, the history here is impressive
Value (cost / experience) – 8 out of 10. The round is reasonable; it is the travel to get there. If part of a Cape Breton golf loop, this is a must play providing excellent value. Do check their specials page, the 5 round pass was a winner for our foresome.
Course Condition (fairways/greens, layout) – I acknowledge the inconsistencies, but prefer this style of golf. Fairways are seldom flat, greens are challenging and a commitment to restoring bunkers make it challenging – 8 out of 10
Overall Experience (how did the round make me feel; would I return) – Breathtaking and inspiring – 9 out of 10
Highlight (what is great about the course) – Holes 3, 6, 7 and 15 are stunning golf holes. (* extensive work was taking place on 6 to reduce annual flooding cycles). The Gaelic names are a treat. Check out the live webcams of the course, sometimes you may see moose!
Recommendation (magic wand…what would I change) – Private ownership with a commitment to continued historical restoration. The government has (recently) played a strong custodial role. Getting Hole 6, Mucklemouth Meg back to aesthetic shape, it is clear that flood damage has been extreme. More swag in the pro shop please!
Just So You Know – You can get an annual membership with unlimited play for $1043.48 + taxes. And yes, you read that correct.
My Best Shot – Hole 5, Canny Slap, a par 3, 158 yards from white tees. A superb six iron pin high, fed over the ridge and around to about 4 foot. Drained the birdie! Playing partners averaged bogey on a hole that needs the ball placed below the hole.