Nova Scotia

Highlands Links golf course hits a rough patch

Golfers are not happy with the conditions at the Cape Breton Highlands Links Golf Course this year. Management says a hard winter and cold spring didn't help.

Golfers complain to management and leave online reviews slamming course conditions

Golfers have been complaining to management and leaving negative online reviews about the Cape Breton Highlands Links Golf Course this year. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

One of Canada's top golf courses has hit a rough patch this year.

Marcel McKeough, president of the Cape Breton Highlands Golf Club Society, said he and many of the group's members are worried about the potential impact of negative reviews on the Cape Breton Highlands Links and the community.

Several bad Google reviews are posted online, with golfers complaining about the condition of the course and service from staff at the clubhouse.

The reviews are even worse on Trip Advisor: "Awful," "Pretty awful," "Very very disappointed" and "Manage your expectations. It's not what you've been led to expect."

Marcel McKeough, president of the Cape Breton Highlands Golf Club Society, says the course is not in the best shape, but it's still the venerable Highlands Links. (CBC)

"One of my members sent me a note saying, 'You should look at these,'" McKeough said. "They're pretty stern, there's no question."

The climate is different around Cape Breton Island, he said, and the weather in Ingonish can be radically different than Sydney's on any given day.

That may play a part in the condition of the course.

But society members have also commented on what seems to be a lack of maintenance equipment and lack of staff compared to previous years, McKeough said.

Winter weather affects the operation of Ski Cape Smokey and its effects can linger, damaging fairways and greens at the Cape Breton Highlands Links Golf Course. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The greens seem dried out, the irrigation equipment doesn't seem to be working properly, the fairways aren't mowed often enough and staff are not looking after the sand traps, he said.

"The greens are in bad shape and they're slow to rebound, which I don't know if that's a maintenance issue or if that's an issue that's the cause of Mother Nature," McKeough said.

"I know Mother Nature caused it, but the repair of it, I'm just not sure what can be done to make it come back more quickly."

The venerable course, built in 1941, was designed by Canadian architect Stanley Thompson.

Until recently, it was managed by Parks Canada. But three years ago, Ontario-based GolfNorth won the right to operate the course and nearby Keltic Lodge.

At the local golf society's annual meeting in January, GolfNorth indicated it had no plans to change the price structure for season passes, McKeough said, but by March, the company announced it was boosting the price by 82 per cent.

That upset members.

"If you went to a Sobeys and everything in the store was 82 per cent [more], how would you feel?" McKeough said. "The thing is it's hard for people to feel sorry about golfers and their fees."

The Highlands Links clubhouse seemed busy this week, although local golfers say the number of players on the course appears to be down this year. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Some view golf as an elite sport, but people who live around Ingonish are often not wealthy, he said. Many are worried the price hike will make golf less accessible to local people, who still feel ownership of the course after the federal government expropriated the land it was built upon.

Under Parks Canada, Highlands Links had relatively low fees, McKeough said.

Green fees are typically around $100. Until this year, a season pass for someone who golfed 20 times a year meant paying about $35 a round, he said. This year's rate nearly doubles that cost.

"So they went from one of the best bargains for a seasonal golfer in Nova Scotia to one of the most expensive courses, except for one or two here in Halifax," McKeough said.

Regulars at Highlands Links say there seem to be fewer golfers on the course this year, but the manager says traffic is steady. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

He and others said there have been noticeably fewer golfers on the course this year.

Joe MacNeil, an executive member of the society, said there's still lots of traffic in Ingonish, but it seems like people are travelling through to go hiking.

"It's kind of a sin, because it is Stanley Thompson's masterpiece," MacNeil said. "When it's not in pristine shape, it hurts everybody."

McKeough said members of the society want GolfNorth to succeed, they just wish the company had a stronger relationship with local golfers and the community.

That starts with a quality course that has been named one of Canada's top courses and among the best in the world.

The greens are in bad shape and some of the traps are a little funky, but overall the course is still the Cape Breton Highlands Golf Course. It's still a great course.- Marcel McKeough, president, Cape Breton Highlands Golf Club Society

"I played it last weekend," McKeough said. "Honestly, it played well. The greens are in bad shape and some of the traps are a little funky, but overall the course is still the Cape Breton Highlands Golf Course. It's still a great course.

"The challenge is if you're charging these kinds of fees, and the customer has an expectation that the course will be mowed properly on a daily basis or bi-daily basis. You know, that the cart path and bridges will be safe, and things like that, I think that's where they're falling down."

Graham Hudson, general manager of the Highlands Links and the Keltic Lodge, said there was snow in Ingonish just three weeks ago and that has slowed the grass from greening up.

"Mother Nature beat the living daylights out of it and it hasn't bounced back," he said. "You can see it's just isolated things. Yes, it makes the ball bounce when you putt and stuff like that, yeah. But as a long-term effect. No."

Golfers say the fairways don't seem to be cut regularly this year, but the manager says there's been no change to the staffing level, equipment or maintenance plans. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Other factors made the course seem worse.

"The condition of the course is far from perfect, but it's not disastrous, either," Hudson said. "It's been in worse shape in years past and it's been certainly in a lot better shape in other years.

"To me it's basically the perfect storm. We had crazy weather, we had a terrible winter, and we put the rates up and annoyed an awful lot of people. And we've changed a number of things here at the clubhouse. It couldn't all come at once like that if I'd planned it worse. It really couldn't."

Hudson said staffing levels haven't changed and equipment has needed minor repairs, but the operation is basically the same this year as it has been since he started working at Highlands Links 11 years ago.

He admitted the Ontario-based GolfNorth could have eased up the cost of season passes over time.

Graham Hudson, general manager of the Highlands Links and Keltic Lodge, says snow in Ingonish just three weeks ago affected the fairways and greens. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

But Hudson said staff are doing their best and the course is improving daily, with time and better weather.

Part of the problem, he said, is the course has a lengthy history and a worldwide reputation.

Still, it's a links-style course in a rough environment.

"I'm not making light of it, but some people have such expectations," Hudson said. "I think we're rated No. 7 in the top golf courses in Canada, so people have an expectation that we're going to be like their country club in downtown Toronto.

"We'll never be. It's not designed to be like that."

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Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 37 years. He has spent the last 19 covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at