Since 1941, golfers from around the world have made the pilgrimmage to Highlands Links Golf Course, located within Canada’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This Stanley Thompson design was just recently rated by Golf Digest as the 5th finest golf course in Canada. The course is home to the Highlands Links Golf Club Society, whose President, Lloyd Donovan, chatted with me during my Cape Breton Golf Adventure last summer. If you love lots of birdies — including bald eagles and herons (and the occasional moose) — make sure Highlands Links GC is on your bucket list.
Golf Conversations: Is Highlands Links owned by the government?
Lloyd Donovan: It’s owned by the government. It’s federally owned. When you set rates, you’ve got to be careful because you can’t discriminate against the rest of Canada. You can’t say we’ll give you a Nova Scotia rate because we can’t.
GC: I know that in Florida, Nevada, and other places in the US, they have one rate for the tourists and another rate for state residents.
LD: We have to keep the same rates for all Canadians. That hurts a little bit; we can’t compete with Bell Bay or Le Portage that give discount rates.
GC: You should have a rate for non-Canadians and a lower rate for Canadians. Tourists are used to paying the higher rate.
LD: We’d like to do all kinds of good stuff like that. But you’re governed by all these rules and this is what we’re always working against.
GC: When you say, “we’re”?
LD: The Club, the community.
GC: Explain to me how the golf course is administered and managed.
LD: The government runs the golf course; it’s run from within the Parks system. They’re responsible for everything that happens here. But the Club has an agreement with them … we put money in the course to do different projects. We just put in money to re-do the sand traps.
GC: How many members are in your Club?
LD: We have 150 members, plus our juniors.
GC: And you’re the President.
GC: Good. Because I only deal with principals.
LD: We work with the Park employees here. We bring in tournaments and that helps the community. It fills hotels and motels, restaurants, etc. The Nova Scotia Junior Amateur was held here just last week. We hosted that. The Parks department can’t do those things so we do it for them. In return, we get special tee times: the first 2 hours in the morning belong to the Club. So we work together; but their hands are tied when it comes to changing rates, advertising… there’s a lot of things they can’t do because of the way the government is run.
GC: So if you wanted to run an ad, you’d have to get permission…
LD: Yes, you have to get approval. It takes time. By the time you get all this done, the season is over.
GC: Was the course always owned by the government?
LD: Always owned by the government. It was built in the ‘40s. There’ve been a lot of changes over the years but unfortunately, there’s never a person in charge who’s a golfer.
GC: That’s odd. Usually you have a PGA or CPGA pro who runs the course…
LD: We have … but he’s never in charge. He’s hired by the government. The food and beverage here is a concession; which works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. My thought is that they have to come up with a solution here to run it like a business. Everybody here who works here … they’re all dedicated people. But they can’t do what they want to do.
GC: Sounds like my golf swing.
LD: And we’re off the beaten path here; we’re a little isolated.
GC: Are you?
LD: A lot of people think so. Some people are scared to drive over mountains.
GC: Come on! It’s a couple of big hills. Rocky Mountains – those are mountains. These are nice rolling hills.
LD: But the weather plays a big part in the whole operation.
GC: How so?
LD: Like today, this place is basically empty because it’s chilly. On a hot, sunny day, you can’t get near here, it’s so full.
GC: Are most of the people who play here tourists or are they from the area?
LD: Mainly tourists. Before this course was reconstructed in 1992, we used to have around 13,000 rounds a year. Then we went up to 31,000; now, it’s around 19,000. We’d like to get it back up to around 30,000, which makes the course busy and the community hums. Everybody’s happy – money’s being made.
GC: A good golf course can attract a lot of tourists.
LD: A lot of people don’t realize how valuable this golf course is to this community. And within the park, there are other things to do: hiking trails, beaches, scenery.
GC: It’s a beautiful National Park.
LD: And everybody that comes, comes back.
GC: I was here 15 years ago and here I am today: I’ve come back, Lloyd.
LD: I own the hardware store and a construction company … I’m always asking people, “Where are you from? What brought you here?” Last summer I was talking to a gentleman and asked him where he was from. He said he was from Pittsburgh. I asked him what brought him all the way here. He said he was in Halifax and they told him he had to visit Cape Breton.
He said, “I’ll be back next year. I can’t believe this place exists.”
GC: It’s a beautiful place and surprisingly close to the US. It’s only a 2-hour flight from New York to Halifax.
LD: It’s safe, there’s no crime here. You can basically walk around here and never have to worry.
GC: Are you a native?
LD: I am. I lived in Ontario for 16 years, but I’m originally from here. I love it. In the winter, I move around a lot but in the summer I like being right here.
GC: When you say you “move around a lot”…?
LD: I work in Montreal or down in the States. I move around to break the winter up; the winters are long here. If you’re a skier or an outdoors person you’ll like the winters.
GC: Were you always a golfer?
LD: Yeah, I used to caddie here in the summer. I was 8 or 9 years old. We’d carry two bags. For 18 holes, we’d get 2 bucks a bag.
GC: Was 2 bucks a bag a lot of money back then?
LD: Yeah, it wasn’t bad. That was the rate but we used to get tips so we did alright. You got to know a lot of people. And some people would stay for 2 or 3 weeks and they’d take care of you.
GC: They would specifically ask for Lloyd Donovan?
LD: Oh, yes.
GC: Lloyd, you must have been a good caddie. A nice way for a kid to expand his horizons.
LD: Oh, for sure. You learn a lot. You got a different outlook on life and some of the things you’d hear you would apply to your own life.
GC: That’s what’s great about golf.
LD: Oh, yeah. Golf is a game where you should walk, and you should talk to the person next to you. It’s just fun. There was a time when I used to throw clubs. Now? No. I got over that years ago. Now it doesn’t matter if I’m playing bad or not; I enjoy whomever I’m with. You just have a good time.
GC: That’s right. Just look where you are. Look at this amazing scenery.
LD: On No. 6, there are two huge eagles sitting on a stump there.
GC: I saw my first red fox at Dundee Golf Course a few days ago.
GC: The only red fox I had seen before that was Redd Foxx.
And yesterday at Bell Bay, a bald eagle was flying overhead carrying some twigs for his nest. I was thrilled!
LD: The two eagles I’m talking about at No. 6 … one day I was standing on the tee and there was a blue heron fishing on the little pond near the tee. He came up with a fish in his beak. And that eagle swooped down and grabbed that fish from his beak. That was something. You never cease to be amazed out there.
GC: I’m amazed when I don’t three-putt.
LD: Sometimes you see moose out there. You don’t know if they’re going to charge you or run away from you. But you have to pay attention to them. One day, I was standing on No. 2 tee and I saw two young moose coming right at us. And suddenly, the mother came out of the woods and cut them off before they got to us. But we had to get behind some trees because the mother is only protecting her young.
GC: Don’t the moose know it’s cart path only?
LD: They walk over the greens; they don’t take their shoes off!
GC: Oh, my goodness! Don’t tell me they don’t fix their hoof marks?
LD: We’ve talked to them for years – they don’t listen.
GC: I guess they don’t rake the traps, either?
LD: No, they don’t even do that.
GC: With those antlers, they could just bend over and rake the sand.
So getting away from moose for a moment … you were caddying here as a young boy. Would you find time to play, as well?
LD: Yes, late in the afternoon, they would let us play. I did that for years.
GC: Did you have a natural swing? Did you take lessons?
LD: Never did take lessons. Just picked the clubs up and played. You watched other people and learned that way.
GC: Hold on, Lloyd. Are you saying you had no sports psychologist when you were young?
LD: No, no. One year, I came back here on vacation; George Knudson and Al Balding played here. The former pro that used to be here, Joe Robinson, caddied for one of them, I think.
In ’65, ’66, or ’67, there was a tournament here where I caddied. Moe Norman was playing in it. I think he won by one stroke. Norman was an interesting guy to be around. He was always talking to people: “Get your shadow out of my line.”
GC: He was a bit of a savant.
LD: Yeah. I can remember he was in the old clubhouse. When he came through the door, he didn’t say “excuse me.” He’d just push you out of the way. I can remember one incident where Norman shoved the parish priest who was in his way. “Out of the way, Father; I’ve got things to do.”
Somebody confronted him right then and there because that was taboo – you didn’t push a priest. You never knew what he was going to say.
GC: He had that amazing ability to hit the golf ball. Everything else…
LD: Wasn’t there. He was a great golfer but he was not loved. Didn’t have too many friends. It’s a shame.
GC: If someone’s never been to Highlands Links, what would you like them to know?
LD: The golf course has such natural beauty. There’s not a tee where you don’t stand there and say, “Wow, I’ve never seen this before.” Everywhere you walk, there’s something to see … like the eagles on 6. There’s not a hole that’s the same. The views are just gorgeous; and if you’re not playing well, it doesn’t matter. Because the view takes your game and puts it into a different perspective.
GC: How many years have you been playing here?
LD: 38 maybe.
GC: So every time you play…
LD: I enjoy it. There’s not a day that I don’t think, “This is fantastic.”
GC: Good for the soul.
LD: There are no phones, no traffic. Just you and the guys you’re with having a good match. We’re watching eagles or moose; it doesn’t get old, it doesn’t get boring. ‘Cause it’s always different.
GC: This is what I’m enjoying about the courses here at Cape Breton: there are no houses or condos lining the fairways. You feel as if you’re part of nature, you’re away from the rest of the world.
LD: This course is not a manicured course, never will be.
GC: That’s not what golf is supposed to be.
LD: A lot of people feel that it should be.
GC: That’s Augusta National’s influence.
LD: Yeah. We get a lot of people who come here – they’re a 3-,4-, or 5-handicap. And they go out there and shoot a 95 or 101 and they come in and criticize the course. It’s not the course. They’re used to playing a nice, flat course. We have sidehill, downhill lies … pin placements can be on the side of hills. And there’s no place here where you can go off the fairway and say “it’s ok.” You go off the fairway here, you’re gone.
GC: Yes, I’ve noticed.
This course is often called Stanley Thompson’s masterpiece. Did he consider it to be his masterpiece?
LD: They say he did. And I think most people agree. It’s a National Park at its best with a golf course in the middle of it.
GC: Lloyd, you mentioned before something about a renovation.
LD: In the ‘90s, we brought the golf carts in. We never used to have carts here. So we had to build cart paths. A lot of people can’t walk this course; this is a tough course to walk. I think it’s 7 ¼ miles up and down.
GC: We have a whole generation of golfers who’ve never walked a golf course. If you get tourists here who’ve never walked, you might discourage some people.
LD: And you do.
GC: You’re still doing renovations here?
LD: Oh, yeah. We have more traps to do. The trees, of course, grew and everything closed in. There were no vistas. So two years ago, they started cutting down trees.
At first, I thought, “Why are they cutting down these trees?” But when I started seeing the vistas again … boy, was I ever wrong. Those things should have been cut a long time ago.
GC: Were they working with the original plans?
LD: Yes. Another reason for cutting the trees is that our greens were getting no air, the flowers were getting no air. Now you can see the difference.
GC: You brought in a golf course architect to look at the original design?
LD: Yes. Ian Andrews is the architect they’re using. He’s studied Stanley Thompson’s courses so he knows how to restore the course to its original design.
GC: I understand you had a little weather trouble here last year.
LD: Last year we had a major storm; they spent $1 million putting the course back together. The rivers overflowed. There’s still sodding going on. We even got the Club members on No. 6 to go out and rake some of the sediment to help get the course open.
GC: I would have helped you if I’d been here. This golf course is a national treasure; you have to pitch in and take care of it.
LD: That’s the key: you have to get people thinking that way. A lot of people don’t think of the golf course when they’re out there chasing that little white ball around. There’s more to it than that; they’ve got to realize that. And don’t forget: this golf course is part of a National Park.
GC: Well, Highlands Links is surely a gem that must be experienced when you visit Cape Breton. And Lloyd, just to be clear … when I said “I would have helped you if I’d been here,” please understand that I was referring to a supervisory position. Not actual manual labor.
Thanks for your time, Lloyd.
LD: You’re welcome.