Canada’s Culture Crisis
A typical evening for me involves some sort of Netflix show (or music), depending on my mood, as I wind down in front of my computer. These days, I always have it open looking to either write something passively, or lazily research something. As the sun sets, it is no longer the focus, but it remains open, staring at me as if it’s yelling at me to write something while I enjoy RV (classic), Your Place or Mine (awful), Bullet Train (excellent), La La Land (A1), or Begin Again (fantastic)—the last five movies I’ve watched as I sit there with a draft open (very scattered taste, if I do say so myself).
Part of the process generally involves some sort of discourse, whether that be in the Beyond The Contour Slack chat, or individual text conversations, often related to where I am or what I was thinking about that day. This one happens to involve someone who builds golf, but primarily spends time in the States as a Canadian.
The conversation revolves around Dismal River, a private club near Mullen, Nebraska with two courses (Doak, Nicklaus), exploring a third option. There are concerns over the future of the product given a Kemper Sports takeover, but also some interesting issues at play because the town of Mullen is 509 people. For the diehard golfers, Mullen is where Sand Hills, a perennial top 10 golf course in the States is, and a local nine hole golf course. If Dismal River expands their facility to 54 holes, that leaves Mullen with an impressive 80 holes for 509 residents. Of course, the business model relies more on out-of-town members escaping the city, but club employees do not fly in on their Cessna to double cut and roll the greens in the morning, or serve up South Dakota prime cut for dinner.
I am relatively well-travelled in the United States, but nowhere near what I have seen in Canada. Even in discussions about something completely unrelated, I somehow relay it back to my home country, and flippantly say, “I don’t get how Nebraska works, and how it couldn’t in Manitoba or Saskatchewan.” I knew the answer deep down, but I always want to hear others opinions on the matter. That sends my golf friend off the rails, who, like me, is from the prairies. He almost jumps through the phone screen in response:
“Canada has cheap people, that ride golf carts and don’t understand golf. America has capital and private golf, culture, and desire to be a part of historic clubs.”
Tough to argue with that for anyone who has been to public and private clubs on either side of the border.
The concept of destination golf has been explored in Canada. “Alberta Dunes” was the vision of Mike Keiser Sr. before the financial crash of 2008, located south of the Saskatchewan side of Lloydminister. Bill Coore & Rod Whitman both looked at it, with Coore rather impressed at the site.
Cabot Cape Breton is an example of the contrary, but as my friend pointed out, it is a one-off because it is links golf on the ocean and not realistically that far by plane from New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. To get to Winnipeg, Saskatoon, or even Edmonton is a hike from any major US centre, especially if your main competitor is The Prairie Club, Sand Valley, or the upcoming Rodeo Dunes near Denver, all of which are easier to get to than Ponoka, Alberta, Lloydminister, Saskatchewan, or Brandon, Manitoba.
In general, I do agree in principle with the general sentiments: it would struggle to work in Canada at this current moment. After all, the majority of golfers in Canada are not there because Stanley Thompson, Willie Park Jr., Walter Travis, or A.V. Macan built their golf course. There are exceptions to the rule: Mount Bruno, potentially, and for sure Toronto Golf Club. Memphrémagog is a very impressive modern club, and St. George’s does carry that cachet. I imagine Capilano is similar, but I haven’t spent enough time to get the vibe.
Outside of Cabot Cape Breton, which I might add has somewhat of a monopoly on the Dream Golf Playbook on the East Coast (if you’re in New York, are you going to go to Sand Valley, Wisconsin or Nova Scotia in July? I venture Nova Scotia), the public golf scene in Canada is a rather lost cause. Virtually every golf course post-Stanley Thompson’s death is somewhat undercooked for the property, except for all of Rod Whitman’s catalogue (+ Cabot Cliffs), and a few McBroom or Carrick designs. Even so, public golf is generally riddled with those with minimal appreciation for the fields they are playing on. Wolf Creek’s recent bankruptcy is an example of that, where rounds were down (??) during the Pandemic, even though they are #3 and #5 public golf courses in Alberta, according to our Beyond The Contour Top 100 panel. Jasper, Banff, and Highlands Links are excellent golf courses, but in my 45-ish rounds split between the three (mostly Banff and Jasper), rarely ever does any of my playing partners know the significance of either golf course. Shame.
Play Well, Play Fast. Play Poorly, Play Faster!!!
That’s the motto of Seminole Golf Club, one of the United States more famous golf courses. On any given day, the range will be littered with members and celebrities equally working on their game. A flip through the visitor book at the front of the clubhouse—which everyone is required to sign in to—will tell you all you need to know: this is the home of the 1%; the place where they go to escape the chilly New York winters.
Pace of play might as well be law at most major US clubs. 4 hours does not exist; either your time starts with a 3, or perhaps a 2 if you really move. At Cal Club, my host and I walked in 2:30. Merion and Pine Valley begin with warnings of “no mulligans” off the first tee; Seminole won’t let you grab a drink from the halfway hut if you’re behind. There is no such thing as slow play at these major clubs. In discussing our own travel stories, two friends and I pondered if we had ever played a private US Top 100 club in over 4 hours. The answer eluded us, but we sure did not think so.
The same cannot be said about Top 100 courses in Canada. At St. George’s, Toronto, Capilano, or similar status clubs, you do not mess around with pace of play just like a US club, but far too many times, I can remember standing on the tee with my driver putting at the tee markers, spitting nonsensical rubbish to playing partners about how the weather has been or if the Flames will be good this year. Too many times I wait behind a foursome in carts around a golf course built in 1922 that they clearly walked for decades until we decided golf was more enjoyable sitting down in a mini car.
There are valid reasons for carts, and US clubs and resorts like Bandon Dunes do and should grant exemptions. Golf absolutely needs to be sensitive on physical and mental limitations, and knock down barriers for golf. For example, my host at Seminole carted due to his age, and that’s ok! Even so, everyone else that day walked with caddies. Golf is, after all, a sport, and as a sport, it should provide some sort of physical challenge or exercise. Further, carts are a massive driver of compaction and wear, and complicate conditioning. In a location like Jasper, Alberta, Shawinigan, Quebec, or Waskesiu, Saskatchewan, would you not want to remove issues that affect conditioning in a harsh environment? Not only do caddies provide jobs, but they help improve conditioning. Win, win; especially when you factor in physical activity.
By no means am I advocating every golf course remove carts and input cart paths. Not only does that increase the cost to play golf, but it removes a major revenue stream for clubs. For most courses in Canada, they need that revenue. My point is twofold: one, courses like Jasper Park Lodge and Banff Springs, Toronto Golf Club and Capilano: the best of the best in Canada, would further improve their experiences with caddies and fewer carts. But the actual point at hand here are the hurdles involved in bringing a Sand Valley-type resort to western Manitoba or the sand hills of Saskatchewan/Alberta. None of those facilities will implement caddies just because some random guy writes it on his website, but because those courses do not have caddies and will not put them in is the reason why a Dream Golf resort will not exist in the prairies or elsewhere.
Travel Across Canada, or South?
There is good golf in Canada, and numerous locations worth travelling across the country for. Private clubs aside, golf courses like Wolf Creek, Jasper Park, Grand-Mére, Cabot Cape Breton, and Sagebrush are worth travelling across the country for. However, do Canadians actually travel domestically for golf?
Canada benefitted from the proximity to the United States during the Golden Age of golf course design post-World War One, but at the same time, the ease and accessibility of the United States provides a strong competitor to Canada’s destinations. In an Economic Impact Study for golf in Canada dated 2014, Canadians spend $1.5 billion on domestic travel to $4.6 billion internationally. Additionally, foreign tourists spend $1.2 billion on travel in Canada. At Cabot Cape Breton, roughly 50% of visitors are from the United States, while a majority of Canadians come from Ontario.
Considering travel, getting to Pinehurst, North Carolina or Roscommon, Michigan from Toronto or Montreal is much easier than Jasper, Alberta or even Inverness, Nova Scotia. In a random hypothetical world, architect Riley Johns proposed in issue one of Catalogue 18 western Manitoba and the west coast of Newfoundland as potential venues for destination golf, but those could pose long, difficult travel days from Toronto or Vancouver, let alone Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. And further, Manitoba now has to compete with the aforementioned destinations in America’s heartland, while Newfoundland has to compete with Cabot Cape Breton.
What’s the point of rambling on? Even for me, this feels like a lot of complaining. I always mull over articles of such contrarian takes or stances, but this feels like a lot. Truthfully, I sat on this article for a fair bit of time, contemplating whether to post it.
I guess if there’s any takeaway, it’s that golf in Canada is a very popular activity, having one of the highest per-capita participation rates in the world, and the fourth most golf courses on earth. Yet, if we hope to support a Dream Golf-esque location in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Newfoundland, or anywhere else, we must rally the troops and continue to evolve as a golfing country. If we hope to see our classic golf courses take on what they used to be and better themselves, we must realize where we are now, and where we must get to. We are not some nation steeped in a greater purpose to uphold tradition and the original values of the game. If we did, we might value walking, caddies, remote golf destinations, or anything else related.
In some respects, our core values as a golf nation are okay. I enjoy riding in a cart and listening to music and drinking as much as the next guy, but there are places for that. Golf needs both to exist: it needs the low-key, easily digestible places to enjoy the game (public or private), but it also should have places where the ethos of the game of golf exists, no different from the Aristocrats of golf. If Canada wants to exist among the USA’s and England’s of the world, where they are not only a massive tourist destination, but have a very strong, passionate golf community, we must build up locations like the Jasper’s, Royal Ottawa’s, and Capilano’s of our country to lead the charge in building a nation proud of its history, and built off the back’s of tradition. If we can do that, perhaps we can start to explore a golf destination in Brandon, Manitoba, the west coast of Newfoundland, or Lloydminster, Alberta.