Tee Off With Knudson at Highlands Links

At Highlands Links in Cape Breton, Brian Kendall relives the classic Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf showdown between Canadian legends George Knudson and Al Balding.

Knudson at Highlands Links (Nova Scotia Information Service)

George Knudson hits his second shot on the par-five 15th hole. (Image: Nova Scotia Information Service)


(Last updated October 2021.)

Sometimes all it takes is a little imagination to build a golf memory that will last a lifetime.

Though Canadian golf legend George Knudson had died almost two decades before, I nonetheless managed to tee it up posthumously with my boyhood idol at Cape Breton’s Highlands Links, a Stanley Thompson-designed jewel Knudson himself called “the Cypress Point of Canada for sheer beauty.”

Next to my favourite movie actor, Steve McQueen, Knudson seemed to me the coolest man alive during his heyday in the 1960s. The eight-time PGA Tour winner wore tinted glasses over light-sensitive eyes and was rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth or cupped in his right hand against the fairway breezes. Most intriguing of all, Knudson, like McQueen, perpetually wore a thin enigmatic smile, as if he were in on a joke or a secret the rest of us could never begin to understand.

George Knudson (Image: Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and Museum)

Knudson at the peak of his fame in the 1960s. (Image: Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and Museum)

Thanks to a well-worn videotape of the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf television exhibition between Knudson and fellow Canadian Al Balding at Highlands in 1965, I was able to literally golf in Knudson’s spike prints during a visit several summers ago, imagining myself in my idol’s company throughout a complete round of play.

Knudson and Balding stood in front of the rickety old clubhouse talking with the show’s co-hosts, golf immortal Gene Sarazen and announcer George Rogers, when I first joined them.

Warily surveying the sky after the gallery of about 200 had followed us to the first tee, Rogers whispered to Sarazen, “I think it’s going to be a little bit rugged out there, Gene. It’s really blowing.” The day had dawned blustery and overcast, following a night that had seen heavy rains soak the fairways and slow the greens.

Balding, it need hardly be said, was a more than worthy opponent. He won four times on the PGA Tour, including three events in 1957 when he placed sixth on the tour’s money list, the highest finish by a Canadian until Mike Weir equalled his mark in 2000.

After winning the toss, Balding, tall and lean and wearing a boldly striped cardigan against the chill off the Atlantic, stroked a strong drive hard into the gusting wind, his ball coming to rest about 230 yards down the fairway of the 405-yard straightaway par-four opening hole.

With rapt attention, I watched while George, nattily dressed in a black sweater and tan pants, set up. He sneaked a quick last look toward his target, then blasted a drive down the heart of the fairway with that impossibly fluid swing even Ben Hogan said was one of the finest he’d ever seen.

Knudson Putting on No. 5 (Image: Nova Scotia Information Service)

Knudson putting on the par-three fifth hole. (Image: Nova Scotia Information Service)

We then began a walk that would find us, like everyone who has played Highlands, awed by one of the most perfectly suited natural settings ever given to a Canadian golf course. Nova Scotia’s tallest mountains loom over rough-and-tumble terrain ranging from a pine-edged valley floor cut by the charging Clyburn River to rocky outcrops and seaside marshes.

Both of my partners chose 2-irons for their second shots, leaving their balls just short of the green before chipping on and sinking their putts for par.

Even before George retrieved his ball from the cup, I saw him reach for his smouldering cigarette, which he’d flung, almost disdainfully, to the grass just seconds before. Through the entire round he was never without a cigarette, lighting one on the butt of another.

George went on to par the second hole, a descending dogleg par four, grabbing a one-stroke lead when Balding missed a five-foot putt. He picked up another stroke when Al bogeyed the third hole, a par three over a pond to a heavily bunkered rolling green.

By the fifth hole, Knudson had already built up a three-stroke advantage and was playing almost flawless golf on wildly rolling fairways that have been likened to the humped backs of an army of rampaging elephants. During construction in the late 1930s, the shaping of each hole required the excavation of hundreds of sizeable granite boulders. But rather than hide them, Thompson ingeniously had his workers pile the boulders on the fairways and then cover them with just enough soil to grow grass.

On the sixth, a 565-yard par-five dogleg to the right, Knudson astonished even Sarazen by walloping his drive 300 yards. For his second shot, George chose a 3-wood and proceeded to play a lovely left-to-right cut shot from a tight lie that landed just feet from the front of the green.

Al Balding (Image: Canada's Sports Hall of Fame)

Al Balding was a four-time winner on the PGA Tour. (Image: Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame)

“I want to tell you those are two of the longest shots under the conditions I’ve ever seen,” Sarazen told George admiringly, pulling him aside after he’d putted out for a birdie to open up a four-stroke lead over the struggling Balding.

“How could you get 565 yards with a drive and a 3-wood?”

“I don’t know,” answered a bemused Knudson, a golfer of usually only average length off the tee. “I think the wind helped me quite a bit.”

In keeping with Cape Breton’s Scottish heritage, each hole at Highlands has a Gaelic name reflecting its character. The second hole, for instance, is called Tam O’Shanter, since the shape of the green recalls that of a traditional Scottish bonnet. The fourth hole, an uphill par four booby-trapped with two water hazards and greenside bunkers that feast on wayward approach shots, is aptly titled Heich O’Fash, which means “heap of trouble.”

Then there’s George’s favourite hole at Highlands, the par-five seventh, known locally as Killer, although its given name is Killiecrankie, meaning “a long and narrow pass,” notorious in reputation. Unquestionably the most difficult hole on the course, the double-dogleg to the right stretches 570-yards through a tight valley bounded by towering maples. Knudson managed par here, and walked away calling the seventh one of the most magnificent par fives he’d ever seen.

While I watched in open admiration, George made the turn with a score of 34, two-under par and still four strokes better than his opponent.

With the exception of the transparently unhappy Balding, we were enjoying a magnificent nature walk that had so far taken us from the coastal plane deep into the backwoods. Highlands’ seven-mile routing is nine holes out from the clubhouse and nine back, making this an inconvenient course for anyone contemplating just playing nine.

Our long trek between the 12th green and the 13th tee, nearly a third of a mile in length, led us down a sylvan path beside the wide and crystal clear Clyburn River. Moose, accustomed to human contact, are often seen here munching on sweet roots. Also making frequent appearances on the course are red foxes, who brazenly position themselves alongside fairways to better steal golf balls.

Knudson's tee shot on No. 6 (Image: Nova Scotia Information Service)

Knudson’s tee shot on the par-five sixth hole. (Image: Nova Scotia Information Service)

Though putting was easily the weakest part of his game, Knudson had been dropping them like Billy Casper all day — eight-footers, 10-footers, even a 12-footer on greens large and rolling and made treacherous by Thompson’s distinctive hollows and bumps.

Not until the par-five 13th (today a par four) did George misjudge a putt, just missing a five-footer for a birdie. This provided the opening Balding had been impatiently awaiting. He holed a twisting 20-foot putt for an eagle to slash Knudson’s advantage to just two strokes.

Both men bogeyed the par-four 14th. But George padded his lead on the next hole when his par trumped Balding’s bogey.

Balding then blew his last best chance against my unflappable idol. En route to the 16th tee, Al unwittingly marched right past St. Peter’s Church, where locals seeking divine assistance down the stretch have been known to dip their golf balls in holy water for luck.

George and Al matched pars on the 16th and 17th, bringing us to the par-four, 410-yard final hole, or Hame Noo, Gaelic for “home now,” with Knudson still enjoying a commanding three-stroke lead.

The roiling, gun-metal grey ocean beyond the distant green provided a dramatic backdrop for Knudson’s final tee shot of the day — another distinguished blast, this one 275 yards. Three more shots, including a superb 20-foot downhill putt that left him with a tap-in for par, saw George home with a score of 70, two-under par and three strokes better than Balding.

Moments later he was standing in front of the old clubhouse, wearing his familiar little grin and accepting the winner’s cheque for $3,000 from Sarazen and Rogers.

My fantasy video still unreeling, I imagined that Knudson and I sat in the lounge at nearby Keltic Lodge after our round together, laughing, talking golf and celebrating his victory. Before long I felt familiar enough to start calling him Georgie and Knudie, just like all his closest friends.

Thanks to the miracle of videotape and a vivid imagination, that’s how I’ll always remember my visit to Highlands Links. George Knudson and I, golf buddies forever.

Northern Links by Brian Kendall


Adapted from Northern Links: Canada From Tee to Tee (Penguin Random House Canada) by Brian Kendall.