It arguably may well have been his finest work. If not, it is certainly among his best. Stanley Thompson’s design of Highlands Links golf course, which consistently ranks among the top courses of the world, has become a magnet that draws golfers from far and wide to Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.
Park Superintendent Tim Reynolds may be a bit biased, but his words ring true.
“Whether they have had a good game of golf or not, I don’t think there are too many people who have left here without being inspired by the design and the way the course was carved out of the coast and the valley.”
As a golf destination, Nova Scotia has many special places to play. Like neighbouring New Brunswick, it boasts a variety of terrain and many distinct regions.
And when you allow some of the world’s best golf course architects – as well as a few that are lesser-known, but also enormously talented – to have their way with some of the most scenic and dramatic landscapes within these two provinces, the end result is breathtaking. The experience includes everything from a walk through a national park inhabited by native animals to a stroll adjacent to some of the best beaches and rugged coastlines in Atlantic Canada.
It was the genius of Thompson, who created Highlands Links, a golf course that for decades resisted adopting a more modern design, yet remains among the top-80 public golf courses in the world.
The course is a potpourri of nature’s treats, stretching over 12 kilometres. It is replete with views of the ocean, mountains, forests and river. Together, these elements make a walk on this course truly unique, rendering the scorecard irrelevant.
But Highlands Links is by no means the only place to play in Cape Breton. Golfers can also visit Bell Bay in Baddeck, nestled on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes; Dundee Resort and Golf Club, a mountainside tract that commands massive views of the lakes; Le Portage Golf Club, on the island’s west side in Cheticamp, gloriously sandwiched between the mountains and the ocean; and Seaview Golf and Country Club in North Sydney, with its pastoral flavour.
Canadian Tom McBroom, whose artistry also fashioned the seaside Algonquin course at St. Andrews by the Sea in New Brunswick, was given the opportunity to transform a sloping piece of property in the tourist hamlet of Baddeck into Bell Bay, voted by Golf Digest as the Best New Course in Canada in 1998.
Overlooking the pristine Bras d’Or Lakes, Bell Bay’s rolling fairways cut a wide, emerald swath through the wooded hillside. A true credit to the 7,037-yard course is the fact it has played host to a variety of high-profile events, the most recent being the Canadian Men’s Amateur in 2005.
The lure of Bell Bay also affords the possibility of side trips to local-tourist attractions. Time spent wandering through the quality craft shops and strolls along the waterfront are enjoyable additions to any visit to this quiet village.
A drive from Baddeck through the incomparable Margaree Valley will land you at Dundee Golf Club, an intricate part of the family resort of Dundee which offers both a hotel and cottages for rent on this sprawling hillside property.
The course at Dundee tracks uphill and down, over some side hill terrain, making this one of the most challenging courses in the province. But be sure to enjoy this walk through the mountain hardwoods and look beyond the greens to the dramatic views of the Bras d’Or Lakes, often heavily sprinkled with white, billowing sails on boats that skip across the blue expanse.
On the west side of Cape Breton, along the world-famous Cabot Trail often referred to as one of North America’smost scenic drives, the golf course at Le Portage is nicely tucked into the base of the highlands, in the Acadian community of Cheticamp.
Parked nicely between the mountains and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Le Portage, a community-spirited golf course, is a stroll along treed fairways and past ponds all encased in lush surroundings. Don’t forget to bring the camera to capture the beautiful scenery around the course.
The fifth stop on this golf tour is Seaview Golf and Country Club, a welcoming course that brings out the best in Cape Breton’s rolling lands and golfing challenges.
Among Atlantic Canada’s golf courses, water is often a common denominator. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have several layouts that hug the Atlantic shoreline or incorporate some of the many lakes that are found within their boundaries.
The Bill Robinson-designed Northumberland Links, along Nova Scotia’sNorth Shore, is home course to Canada’s songbird Anne Murray. The course embraces the Northumberland Strait on several of its front holes and is influenced by its breezes throughout the layout.
Several holes on the front side are routed along the ocean’s edge and mis-hit golf balls often drift out over steep, sandstone cliffs into the warm waters of the Strait. That is often the case on the par-3, 4th hole that measures 174 yards. It takes a heck of a shot to hold the large, slanted green. But even if your shot leaves something to be desired, the scene of an inverted dory behind the green will be a fond memory.
After the ocean holes, the course heads inland down tree-lined fairways to greens that are reputedly among the fastest in the Maritimes. Although not long at just over 6,160 yards, this course consistently wins high praise and national ratings.
Closer to Halifax, the Graham Cooke-designed Glen Arbour course in Hammonds Plains has gained national notoriety during its short history. Part of the first residential golf development in the province, the course opened in July 1999, and in 2005 hosted the Canadian Women’s Open. Cooke made use of the course’s natural features, including hilly terrain which produced several elevation changes, and the three lakes around which he routed his design, resulting in a spectacular layout. The 6,800-yard course, noted for its consistently immaculate condition, is one of the premier golf courses in the Atlantic region, rated highly for its challenge, condition, facilities and service.
McBroom’s design for Bell Bay made him a natural choice for the remake of Algonquin Golf Course in New Brunswick, which won himmany fans when the new 6,908-yard, par-72 course opened in 2000. Algonquin is one of several exceptional courses in New Brunswick, including Fox Creek, Royal Oaks, Kingswood and Mactaquac, to name a few.
One of the great features of Algonquin is its two distinct nines. The front side is routed through a treed landscape,while the back nine includes a string of seaside holes that are more open, subject to the constant breezes and sometimes heavier wind off Passamaquoddy Bay. Fescue grasses border the entire course and not only add an obvious hazard, but some aesthetically pleasant colour contrasts.
With the back nine shaped on land sloping down to the water, McBroom’s course, as challenging and enjoyable as it is, may sometimes have to take a backseat to the views.
Algonquin Golf Course is located in the town of St. Andrews, a National Historic District considered to be Canada’s first seaside resort town. It is only a stone’s throw (32 km) from the State of Maine, from where the region’s first settlers – Loyalists to the British Crown – came in 1783.
Golf didn’t arrive with the settlers but it did get to this small, quaint community with a New England feel in 1894 when the first golf holes were built and a clubhouse erected in 1896. That clubhouse, the oldest in the country still on its original site, is part of the course’s landscape. It seems fitting that this historic town, with a name like St. Andrews, should have this historic clubhouse link to the game.