Before & After Review: Hamilton Golf & Country Club (West/South)

Information:

  • Ancaster, Ontario
  • Private
  • H.S. Colt (1915), renovation from Martin Ebert & Tom Mackenzie (2021)
  • 10th in Canada (Beyond The Contour)

Like St. George’s, Hamilton’s reputation internationally has increased thanks to the recent RBC Canadian Opens and Rory McIlroy’s wins at each facility, but to Canadians, ‘Ancaster,’ as it is locally known, has always been worthy of praise. In particular, Hamilton’s one of two H.S. Colt golf courses remaining (Toronto Golf Club is the other one).

However, as most old clubs do, Hamilton fell to the hand of Father Time, and as a result, the golf course began to show signs of aging. Following the 2019 RBC Canadian Open, Hamilton began work under the hands of Martin Ebert & Tom Mackenzie (via Zoom as the COVID-19 Pandemic happened right as they began) to completely renovate the property.

Below is a review of the “after,” as well as some before/after looks to help illustrate the work done. There will be the ability to swipe between photos from August, 2019 (pre-work) and May 2022 (post-work).


West Nine

Hamilton is home to 27 holes (with a 9 hole short course as well), of which the West and South nines comprise the championship routing. Starting off, the 1st on the West is one of the great scenes in Canadian golf. From what feels like the steps of the majestic clubhouse, the tee shot on this 404 yard par 4 turns hard left around a swath of bunkers. In my view, this is one of the harder first fairways to hit as well. Turning hard left, the fairway cants to the right, meaning a draw is suitable (and really the only viable shot).

After turning the corner, a new pushed up green complex awaits. For me personally, the old green sat seamlessly into the landscape (although the old short left almost greenside bunker did not), while the new one has a distinctively modern feel to it.

The second is a longer par 4 for members at just over 450 yards from the tee. In the hillside short of the fairway, you can see some of Harry Colt’s original bunkers that did not make the cut. Opposite of the 1st tee shot, the second favours a fade to squeak between the bunkers, although a much easier tee shot than the opener. An added bunker on the straight line through the fairway is a new addition, and one I think which gives the tee shot a bit more definition (if that is your preference).

This is a sneaky cool approach shot, playing slightly downhill even if it looks flat. I always felt that the complex runs away from you slightly, or at the very least, balls bounce a bit more. Out of the gate, this is a tougher approach to get close.

After a relatively tame first two holes drama-wise, the par 4, 3rd welcomes the golfer to Ancaster Creek. Harry Colt’s routing is nothing short of brilliant, with the golfer traversing up and down the hillside in triangles to not only maximize how the holes interact with the slope and Ancaster Creek, but give the player as many different wind directions as possible. That all begins with the 408 yard par 4, 3rd diving into the valley.

Long hitters will have to lay up short, so the 230 or so club is ideal. From the landing pad, the hole goes back into the hillside to a very attractive green site.

The third is just a quick taste of the dramatic landscapes at Hamilton. At the 535 yard par 5, 4th, the golfer is back on the high-side, although on my return trip in 2022, this is a much more interesting piece of ground than I remember. The left side falls off hard on the tee shot, meaning the golfer must challenge the right side bunkers to have an ideal second shot.

On the second shot, long hitters will be able to get home in two, but for those who cannot, this is a very demanding layup that requires the golfer to play out left more than they think.

This is a much improved green site in my view, with the bunker on the right now being properly situated to catch balls and the run-up zone smaller (on a short par 5, I do not mind the idea of a more difficult running shot).

Pre- or post-renovation, the 315 yard drivable par 4, 5th has always been one of Canada’s best short par 4’s. With a tee shot severely uphill, it becomes difficult to get the ball actually on the surface. The best play is to hit driver left of the green, leaving a relatively straightforward pitch shot in. I am not sure why, but post-renovation highlights Harry Colt’s top shot bunker short-left of the fairway. Certainly an interesting move to highlight the work you did not do, but alas. A great hole is a great hole, and there is a justified discussion about the merits of such a bunker in 2022.

From the left side, a pitch onto the green is much easier than laying up or hitting it down right. I am personally not a fan of drivable par 4’s if they feel like long par 3’s (must make three), and one of the continued interest of the 5th is the green, which now runs off hard to the right with a nasty fall off. This is a great drive and pitch (or drivable, depending on how long you are), and a favourite of mine in that genre.

After climbing the hill, you are met with one of the best views on the property after recent tree removal. In general, the tree efforts around this property are tenfold better than 2019.

The par 3, 6th went through bulking season, because it is now 250+ yards (from 224). I actually like the additional yardage, I felt like Hamilton’s par 3’s played relatively similar lengths in 2019, and now, I feel that slightly less. They are all still long and difficult, but enough variety in the length is an added benefit.

In my mind, the 450 yard par 4, 7th is the best hole at Hamilton. The land it occupies is so strong: from an elevated tee shot, the golfer hits down into a fairway that slopes hard left to right before turning back uphill to the left around a set of bunkers. Superb.

From the fairway, a difficult uphill approach shot awaits. One of the major changes in the renovation was wrapping all the greens in short grass and pushing them up, so if you miss the green, you have short grass pitch shots to negotiate with.

Like the 6th, the 210 yard par 3, 8th uses the gully to its full advantage, requiring a Hail Mary over the depths below. The updated green is quite severe, with some pretty interesting little places for pin locations.

Like the 7th, I am particularly fond of the 440-ish par 4, 9th coming back home. Interestingly, I like the odd numbers on the front much more than the even; on the South, the even holes.

I am not sure if this was part of the work or just a poor memory, but the approach feels much more into the hillside now, and with a difficult false front, the exacting nature further enunciates this feature. But, overall, a very nice way to close out a really good opening nine holes.

South Nine

The South nine starts off the championship back nine with a doozy: a 392 yard par 4 tumbling back down into the valley. Thankfully, mowing lines have restored the option to play up top left for a flat lie and a level approach. In 2019, that bunker was literally swimming in the rough. I like the current mowing lines, and gives it a bit of artistic liberty.

In Colt’s original sketches (at the bottom of the article), there were no fairway bunkers in play. At least the left bunker makes sense: in order to gain the angle, you have to play close to the bunker. Now, with a bunker on the low side, high handicap players are double penalized, both from the bunker, and the low side angle coming over a massive bunker near the green.

The 11th also got additional yardage added in the renovation, now topping out north of 500 yards. This beefy par 4 is a hard dogleg left, with the advantage given to those who play to the inside corner.

Like the 3rd, 7th, 9th, and 10th, the golfer tees off from up high, and the approach shot plays back uphill. With the short grass surrounds, there is not really a good place to miss this approach.

The 12th is the sister to the 3rd, although slightly different. As opposed to the 3rd which crosses the hazard, Ancaster Creek plays up the left hand side.

In my mind, this is the most attractive green location on property, set at the bottom of the hill, yet still sitting up slightly. There was some great movement in the original green, and while the new green attempts to re-create the undulations, it is just not the same. Nevertheless, my favourite approach on the golf course.

At 237 yards, the 13th is a monster. Interestingly, this is the only non-Colt routed par 3. The drawings down below will show the original hole, but this hole has been renovated by Colt’s partner Hugh Alison, and later by Bill Diddel, which is the version we play today.

Anything short left is no bueno. Missing anywhere else is manageable, but short left runs back down maybe 50 yards.

The 14th is another good long two-shot hole, and after a recent buff, now plays near 470 yards. In the 2019 photo, you can see how pinched the mowing lines got for the RBC Canadian Open. Now, the fairway is peaking around the corner, almost flirtatiously pulling your eyes and line right.

This is one of my favourite approach shots too, where the green is severely tilted to the front portion and features some really cool movement in the front right.

My vote for most improved single shot on the golf course is the tee shot on the par 4, 15th, which used to be woefully out of character and now fits in nicely. The essence is the same: a dogleg right around bunkers, but at least now there is uniformity. At 410 yards, it is a reasonable distance following long and difficult holes at the 11th, 13th, and 14th.

Apparently, I did not take a photo of the approach on the par 4, 15th, so the 2019 version is below. It plays very similar to a pitched green back-to-front.

The final par 3 at Hamilton comes on the 16th. At 185 yards playing very obviously uphill, I would venture and say the hole is actually around 200 yards. Do not miss it short left, or anywhere up the left really.

The 580 yard par 5, 17th is likely the best candidate for most improved overall hole, turning a relatively bland and mundane par 5 into an interesting three-shot hole. Three bunkers, strangely uniform and identical, await a tee ball in the fairway.

One of the major changes to get additional length was pushing this green back, which set itself into the hillside more. On the second shot, a slew of bunkers blend together for nice visual deception. This is a deceptively difficult layup.

The same rings true for the approach shot, which now plays to a green that runs to the back left corner of the hole.

Finishing off, Hamilton ends on a long par 4 with the theme of the day: downhill tee shot, uphill approach shot. North of 450 yards, the tee shot is better than when I played in 2019 because it gives you more room before the creek cuts you off. I remember hitting 4 iron-7 iron in 2019. Now, it’s hybrid or 3 wood-7 iron, which gives a bit more incentive to get it down the hill.

From the landing zone short of Ancaster Creek, the iron shot plays way uphill to a new green that feels might more narrow than the previous version. Sitting at the base of the clubhouse, this is an iconic closing hole.


Hamilton is one of the best routings in Canada, and with some added length, plays much closer to some of the shots Colt envisioned into greens. However, the work done does not necessarily improve the golf course dramatically. Mowing lines, tree clearing, and the fact that it looks like the same golf course from start to finish is a huge benefit, but the green surrounds, all short grass, leave little room for variety. In my experience, the best golf courses give a variety of chances to hit shots around the greens. At Hamilton, the surfaces are all pushed up and run off into collection areas. This is obviously a good thing at times, but over the course of eighteen holes, it begins to blend in and take any creativity away from the player (and also stops players from guessing what lie they might get, because it is always tight and perfect around Hamilton).

Regardless, Hamilton still remains Hamilton: this is Canadian golf at its absolute pinnacle, and a joy to play. The improvements have made for a much more enjoyable walk also, with increased views and scale has been restored in some areas. Put this on your bucket list: it is that good.

Harry Colt’s drawings of Hamilton

Author

  • Andrew Harvie

    Based in Toronto, but having lived in Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Arizona, and Texas, I have been lucky enough to see over 400 golf courses and counting!

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