Travelin’ Joe’s Guide to Canada Golf Courses

July 12, 2012

Canada is no longer the slam-dunk bang-for-the-buck destination that it was a few years back, but for pure quality, value and scenery in a golf vacation, it's still hard to beat. Whether your tastes run to the pine forests and craggy undulations of Eastern Canada or the aspens and Rocky Mountain grandeur of Western Canada, rest assured that memorability is guaranteed.

What's New in Town
Canada, as with most of North America, has been pretty quiet on the new course front. Nevertheless, a handful of terrific tests have emerged in the past year, mostly out west. Most acclaimed of all is British Columbia's Sagebrush, a private layout from Rod Whitman and former tour player Richard Zokol that somehow combines prairie, links and mountain golf in one firm, fast, breeze-fueled package.

On the public side, the most impressive newcomer is the Valley course at the Westin Bear Mountain Resort in Victoria, British Columbia. While nowhere near as rugged tee-to-green as its older sister, the Mountain, this 2009 creation from Nicklaus Design instead extracts its toll on the greens, which undulate like a dinghy caught in a squall. Rock walls and boulder piles, steep climbs and drops and a smattering of tattered edge, fescue-fringed bunkers add to up to good fun, providing you can cope with an agonizing number of three-putts. The giant rock abutting the 13th green, the giant sand sprawl at the par-4 14th and the cart-path switchbacks by themselves will linger long in memory. Local knowledge rules: Mike Weir captured the Canadian Skins Game here in late June, thrashing Retief Goosen, Ian Poulter, Camilo Villegas and Fred Couples in the process.

Brand new in 2010 is another Victoria, B.C. entry, Highland Pacific, a 6,603-yard scenic feast that peers out at the Olympic Mountains, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Thetis Lake Park. The more compact Pacific nine opened in 2008, while the roomier Highland nine debuted in early June of 2010. Situated 15 minutes north of Victoria, Highland Pacific sports an outstanding practice facility, with 44 stalls, ten of which are heated and lit. Practice your straight ball, because hooks and slices will disappear faster than you can say "Grow teeth!"

Yet another exciting 2010 addition in British Columbia is a fourth nine at Predator Ridge Golf Resort in the Okanagan Valley. Designed by Doug Carrick, one of Canada's top architects, the new nine joins with the old Peregrine nine to form the resort's new Ridge course. Like its sibling the Predator course, the Ridge rolls through wheatgrass meadows and along pine-dotted ridges with holes that culminate in some of the fastest, firmest, most topsy-turvy greens this side of Oakland Hills.

The Trophy Collection
For more than 80 years, the most dazzling collection of public-access tracks in the Great Green North has been found in Alberta. Birdies and eagles are only part of the story. Frequently, they're joined by moose, bears, elk and wolves. Not every round involves a trip to the zoo, but what a traveling golfer will encounter every time he tees it up in the Canadian Rockies is spectacular scenery.

One of Canada's oldest and best resort courses is the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, a 1925 Stanley Thompson design that was much-admired by fellow architect Alister MacKenzie. Not long by modern standards at 6,663 yards, especially given the 3,300-foot elevation, Jasper challenges and delights all classes of players with an imaginative routing, wonderful variety and waves of serpentine bunkers etched into slopes and mounds. A front-nine highlight is the downhill, 230-yard, par-3 9th. Distant peaks pierce the blue sky backdrop, while the green is surrounded by heaving swells of sand. In its original design, Thompson placed the mounds, bunkers and fairway in such a way as to resemble an amply endowed woman, hence the hole's name, "Cleopatra," until one day, a horrified executive from the Canadian National Railway, for whom the course was built, called for a redesign. A trio of holes, 14, 15 and 16 that skirt the clear green waters of Lac Beauvert and the sturdy par-4 18th, which races downhill through bunkers and pines, are among Canada's finest.

Another Stanley Thompson Alberta masterpiece is the original 18 at the Fairmont Banff Springs, a 1928 stunner that plays in the shadows of the towering Banff Springs Hotel, a stately, castle-like edifice reminiscent of Europe's grandest chateaus.

Mountain scenery simply overpowers the golfer traversing Banff's 7,083 yards, creating optical illusions throughout the round. Gene Sarazen once quarreled with a caddie over club selection at this mile-high course; his well-struck approach to the green made it exactly halfway there. The culprit was the 199-yard, par-3 4th, aptly called "Devil's Cauldron." Your tee shot must carry a glacial lake to a plateau green banked on all sides with jagged mountains slashing the horizon. Mounds and bunkers that mimic the mountain shapes and several compelling holes that border the Bow and Spray Rivers are further highlights.

Great public-access golf isn't limited to the west. Perhaps the most famous Canadian course you can play is Glen Abbey Golf Club in Toronto. This 1976 Jack Nicklaus design has played host to 25 Canadian Opens, among them some of the most memorable in PGA Tour history. Winners at Glen Abbey include Lee Trevino, Greg Norman and Vijay Singh, but perhaps the most unforgettable champ was Tiger Woods, who in 2000 slugged a 6-iron from the sand on the final hole, over a lake to a pin placed at water's edge. His ball finished 12 feet from the cup on the 524-yard par-5 and he two-putted for birdie to win by one, further cementing the Tiger legend.

Glen Abbey's closing hole isn't the only one laced with drama. Among the more striking stretches anywhere are holes 11-15, known as the Valley Holes, which are criss-crossed by 16-Mile Creek. The 457-yard, par-4 14th, which calls for a risk/reward tee shot that flirts with the creek, is the toughest on the course, but many events have been won or lost at the 436-yard, par-4 17th, which features a horseshoe-shaped green. Unlucky is the player who lands on the incorrect side.

A bit further to the East — well, about as far to the east as you can go before you hit Europe — is the Highland Links in Nova Scotia, ranked No. 86 in the World in the 2009 GOLF Magazine Top 100 rankings. Incredibly remote even by today's standards, it's worth the journey to Cape Breton Highlands National Park to sample its charms. "This is the Cypress Point of Canada for sheer beauty," said the late George Knudson, a Canadian who won nine times on the PGA Tour. "When you're driving up the road to the course, it's like driving up to heaven."

Designer Stanley Thompson carved this one out of wilderness in 1939. Known as the "Toronto Terror," mostly due to his prodigious thirst, impish humor and out-of-control spending habits, Thompson managed to get it all right at this rolling, forested layout near the Atlantic Ocean. Each hole bears a Gaelic name; unforgettable is the par-5 6th, called "Mucklemouth Meg," supposedly named for a young Scotswoman who could swallow an entire "Bubbly Jock's (turkey) egg." Sometimes, it's best not to ask.

Also out east is the Atlantic Province of Prince Edward Island, a locale small in size and not easy to get to, yet which somehow boasts 10 percent of Canada's Top 100 courses. PEI is loaded with great, affordable golf, all pretty much within an hour's drive from each other. Situated a half-hour from the airport in Charlottetown, the island's ultimate trophy course is the Links at Crowbush Cove, a brutal but beautiful 1994 Thomas McBroom design that sports frightfully quick greens, water hazards galore, an array of strategic bunkering and glimpses of coastal dunes along the island's north shore. The accompanying Rodd Crowbush Resort is the region's finest.

Best of the Rest
Bone up on your French phrases, because there's plenty of good golf to be enjoyed in bi-lingual Montreal, Canada's second largest city. Quality golf is scattered throughout, but your best bet is a half-hour or so north of downtown, where the top public golf facility, Montreal Island Golf Club is situated. Irishman Pat Ruddy crafted two 18s, the Island, a 6,600-yard parklander and the Ireland, a 7,180-yard, links-like spread. Both are compelling, but the Ireland is the brawnier affair.

Back on Prince Edward Island, don't miss the 45-hole Rodd Brudenell Resort. Two of the 18s are stellar: the rugged Dundarave layout is a 1999 Hurdzan-Fry design that stretches nearly 7,300 yards as it winds through pine forests and along the Brudenell River. The original Brudenell River course is more family friendly, though scenic and testing in its own right.

Ontario is home to Muskoka Bay, in Gravenhurst, a Doug Carrick/Ian Andrew creation that opened to rave reviews in the summer of 2006. Four years later, this 7,367-yard head-banger rocks you with pine-studded ridges and granite outcroppings. Heaving terrain challenges with lies and stances, even on the greens, which ripple with hollows and ledges.

We return to the Alberta Rockies for Kananaskis Country Golf Courses, 51 miles southeast of Banff. Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed both courses at Kananaskis, the Mt. Kidd and the Mt. Lorette. Each is outrageously gorgeous, with rivers, pine forests, mountains and huge white-sand bunkers spicing the play. Mount Lorette, at par 72 and 7,102 yards, is tighter and has more water hazards, while the par-72, 7,072-yard Mt. Kidd course offers more dramatic bunkering and more striking mountain views. Both are superb, scenic and quiet. Trent Jones called Kananaskis "the finest location I have ever seen for a golf course." He did well with the site, which no doubt would have pleased his mentor, Stanley Thompson, immensely.

We close our Canadian trek on the west coast, with the Mountain course at Westin Bear Mountain Resort in Victoria, B.C. Supporters cite the Mountain as Western Canada's greatest course — at the very least, it's the region's most brutal. The vision of former NHL great Len Barrie, with hockey All-Star investors such as Mike Vernon, Joe Nieuwendyk and Rob Niedermayer, the narrow, Jack Nicklaus-designed Mountain feels like a hard cross-check into the boards from start to finish.

Soaring elevations, dense forests, rock outcroppings and water hazards slashed throughout lead to Canada's highest Slope, 152, and to lots of lost balls.

Nevertheless, vividly memorable holes predominate. The par-3 11th drops to an island green backed by a waterfall and rock ledge tee boxes, while the par-3 16th plunges even further. The wacky uphill par-5 14th mercifully concludes with views of Mount Baker and downtown Victoria, followed by a 19th hole — play is optional on this 165-yard par-3, but take the time to do it — it's unforgettable in its isolated beauty. Check your ego at the first tee, play the right set of blocks and you'll relish the climb on this Mountain.