Golf/Golf Architecture

“THE SEA IS IN US”: Geoffrey Cornish on the Making of Highlands Links

Geoffrey Cornish, now ninety-six years of age, is the dean of American golf architects. While researching this week’s Golf World feature on Highlands Links, the recently-damaged 1939 Stanley Thompson gem on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, it occurred to me that few could put the place in perspective better than the man in charge of building it.

And that would be none other than Geoffrey Cornish. I emailed a few questions to his partner, Mark Mungeam, who printed them and delivered them to Mr. Cornish’s assistant, Lori, who then typed up this handwritten reply:

TD: What was the construction process like at Highlands Links? What was your role in it?

GC: I was construction superintendent under Hennie Henderson in 1938 but in charge in 1939.

What kind of personality did Mr. Thompson exude as an architect? Any memories or anecdotes of him would be so very valuable.

Known as the TORONTO TERROR there has never been as creative a course architect as Stan.

The development of Highlands Links has been described as a Depression-era make-work project. What was that corner of Cape Breton Island like in the 1930s? How did the local people take to the course?

They were all fishermen. They adopted the course and were proud of it.

How did working on Highlands Links influence your own career as an architect?

Stan was a tough guy to work for but he tried to educate us in a rough way.  I am forever grateful.

The golf course was badly damaged by storms last December. Can you give us a sense of what Highlands Links means to golf in Canada? How much would it mean to you for the course to receive the repairs and restoration it needs?

Cape Breton in my opinion ranks among the world’s greatest.  It is of paramount importance that it receives the repairs needed.

The construction crew of Highlands Links. Geoffrey Cornish is pictured far right, in white shirt and tie.

Before answering the questions above, Mr. Cornish also sent me some general recollections of those early days on Cape Breton, as well as a toast to the Toronto Terror himself. I’ll reproduce the following verbatim, with my sincerest thanks to Mr. Cornish for reaching back into the memory banks for this:

“In the first years of construction 1938, Henny Henderson, Stan’s Engineer was in charge of construction over me.  In the second year I was in charge at Cape Breton with ROBBIE ROBINSON over me and also GREEN GABLES on P.E.I.

In the years of THE GREAT DEPRESSION the fishermen of Cape Breton and P.E.I. had food aplenty from fishing and their small but productive farms.  Yet there was no cash.  This created problems galore.  Stan Thompson sold Ottawa on the concept of building two great courses one on Cape Breton and one on P.E.I. with the use of bulldozers and steam shovels limited to a few hours a day.  The system worked with the Highlands built by men moving most of the earth by shovel and wheelbarrow.  The fishermen were dedicated, to say the least.  Asked why they always added an extra touch the answer was:


Stan was something of an eccentric and an immensely patriotic CANADIAN.  He made and spent fortunes.  On his death the OTTAWA CITIZEN eulogized “no one has created a finer set of memorials from coast to coast than Stan Thompson”.


“Here’s to you STAN THOMPSON person of Canadian significance.  You may have been a tyrant; yet you never spared yourself.  You served with distinction in the trenches in THE GREAT WAR one of the most diabolic experiences our species has dreamed up.  Returning to Canada you created several of world’s greatest golf courses and added magic to even the most modest.  You were pure genius Stan; yet as the Roman emperor said pure genius is always accompanied by a touch of madness.”

The third hole at Highlands Links. Photo: Ian Andrew


4 comments for ““THE SEA IS IN US”: Geoffrey Cornish on the Making of Highlands Links”

  1. If you love golf you’ll love Highlands Links!

    Posted by Greg McMullin | February 26, 2011, 9:38 pm
  2. I had the pleasure of playing Highland Links a few years ago. It showed signs of wear but the routing and layout are tremendous. I played as a single paired with two men from Halifax that makes two trips a year to the Links. They could not have been better playing companions. I can’t wait to play it again.

    Posted by Eric Braitmayer | February 27, 2011, 4:37 am
  3. I played the links a long time ago with my father and a good friend of ours befre they installed carts. Before we came over from Prince Edward Island, we were told that the course had caddies and looked forward to some help carrying our sticks. For thos who have played, you know how long the links is, especially from hole to hole. While on the 1st tee the starter said to us “here come your caddies for the day…” we turned around and saw two very young boys who must have been around 9 or 10! We had a great time with them and the course! Definately on your “must play” list of top 100 courses. I also had the pleasure of taking an architecture course with Mr. Cornish several years ago at Harvard and can only say his knowledge and love of golf exudes throughout.

    Posted by grant silver | February 27, 2011, 8:39 pm
  4. No doubt one of the top 3 courses in Canada, if not #1, and well deserved to be in the world top 100. But its remote location has caused it to be ignored and misunderstood. Architect Ian Andrews of Hamilton, ON is presently engaged in restoring it due to the damage that it sustained during awful winter of 2010-11. Perhaps with Mike Kaiser’s new course coming on stream in July, 2012, not far from the Highland Links, this gem’s brilliance will finally shine and get the attention that it so rightly deserves.

    Posted by Stan Bush | September 4, 2011, 3:45 pm

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