Generally speaking, three courses have a chance of being #1 in the United States: Cypress Point in the west, Pine Valley in the east, and Augusta National down south. In smaller circles, National Golf Links of America and Shinnecock Hills are also common name-drops, but after that, a general consensus those are the only five worthy of holding the crown.
In Canada, a different dilemma arises. Among the Thompson Five—Jasper Park, Banff, Highlands Links, Capilano, and St. George’s—the order is entirely subjective, with any way to rank the five acceptable. Likewise for Cabot’s two-step in Nova Scotia, and you can’t forget about the Harry Colt two in the Golden Horseshoe, which is far closer than any ranking can tell you.
By my count, that brings Canada’s total to nine: five Stanley Thompson’s, two Harry Colt’s, and two Cabot courses. By any account, each could be #1, although some are more out-of-the-box choices than others. Each course has their own merit for being Canada’s best golf course, and each course has their own identity. What is the argument for each of the top 9 to be crowned Canada’s best golf course? Sagebrush is also included in this exercise, as it rounds out Beyond The Contour’s Top 10 and ranked ahead of Hamilton (pre-renovation). Let’s count backwards, per Beyond The Contour‘s Top 100.
Hamilton Golf & Country Club (West/South)
- Harry Colt, with modifications from associate C.H. Alison, and subsequent renovations from Martin Ebert & Tom Mackenzie
- Opened in 1915
- Ancaster, Ontario
Hamilton is a clinic in routing, with the majority of holes being loosely based off triangles to tackle a hilly property. As a result, Ancaster Creek comes into play at various points in each hole, never feeling like a similar shot. Additionally, wind direction is particularly tricky as the routing, at times, is dizzying (4-7 in particular).
With unmatched variety in the par 4’s at Hamilton (at least against the championship size competitors), ‘Ancaster’ adds a much-needed notch on the belt. From the drivable par 4, 5th, to the aggressively long par 11th, the variance in par 4 length is the biggest of any course on this list (just shy of 200 yards between the 319 yard 5th and the 502 yard 11th). Perhaps the most impressive part? the par 4 cast represents every length imaginable: 319, 380, 386, 401, 411, 420, 424, 436, 457, 457, 474, 502. Splendid.
Finally, the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 10th, 12th, and 18th are best-in-class holes in this country.
To read more about Hamilton, click here.
Sagebrush Golf Club
- Rod Whitman & Richard Zokol, with Armen Suny
- Opened in 2007
- Quilchena, British Columbia
Why is Sagebrush Canada’s best golf course? If there is an argument for it, the crux would be how fun this golf course is, and the elasticity of it. Nowhere else in Canada can you play on the side of a mountain, trundling down to the most interesting set of greens most have ever seen. From the boomerang style 9th, to the subtle 13th, or the side-hill heavily-titled 3rd or 8th, Rod Whitman’s beauty in British Columbia has it all.
As already mentioned, Sagebrush’s elasticity bends conventional, twisting it on its head and providing a new description when you are on property. Wind is a main factor in the routing, to the point where the matching 650 par 5’s at the 7th and 16th playing downwind might take less shots than the short par 4’s at the 13th and 15th!
Just as Hamilton’s variety in par 4’s is an asset, the same rings true at Sagebrush, but across the board. Par 3’s between 126 and 258; par 4’s between 320 and 480; and par 5’s between 508 and 646. This is Canada’s ultimate match play golf course.
To read more about Sagebrush, click here.
The Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Club (Thompson)
- Stanley Thompson, from a previous golf course by Bill Thomson and Donald Ross
- Originally in 1919, Stanley Thompson’s course opened in 1927
- Banff, Alberta
When Banff Springs opened, it was Stanley Thompson’s championship venue. A big, bold, and beefy layout to match the scale of the Fairmont Banff Springs and the Rocky Mountains. If there is a golf course that compliments its setting as well as Banff, we have yet to see it.
The best set of par 3’s in Canada are found at either of Thompson’s mountain golf courses, but particularly at Banff, the drama is heightened. The par 3, 2nd, set against the mountain backdrop with a false front, is a prelude for “Devil’s Cauldron” at the 4th. Next, two par 3’s, perfectly balanced out at 150 and 218 yards, play next to and over small inlets of the Bow River at the 8th and 10th. Closing out, the 225 yard par 3, 13th is on the least interesting land, but a green complex narrowing between Thompson’s most artistic bunkering puts the exclamation mark on Banff’s excellent grouping of one-shot holes.
Why is it Canada’s best? No golf course in Canada balances the act between difficult and dramatic as well as Banff, and as a result, emotions run high the entire round—something most golf courses wish were true.
To read more about Banff Springs, click here.
Toronto Golf Club (Colt)
- Harry Colt, with modifications from associate C.H. Alison, and subsequent renovation from Martin Hawtree
- Opened in 1912
- Mississauga, Ontario
A sophisticated club deserves a classy golf course, and luckily, Harry Colt’s first North American golf course delivers on just that. No where inland do centreline bunkers come into play as much as here (although entirely the work of Martin Hawtree rather than Harry Colt, and continuously a debate among their merits to this day), and the old-style greens, heavily tilting and occasionally rolling, continue to wreak havoc on some of the best putters.
Fancy a club that is put together? Toronto’s Colt course is the best presented private club in Canada, allowing free-flowing fescue, proper tree clearing efforts, and ragged bunkers naturally sitting into the landscape. As a result, the golf course balances beautifully between get-able, risk-reward holes, and teeth-clenching, hold-on-for-dear-life demanding holes. Nobody walks that line more than Toronto Golf Club.
To read more about Toronto Golf Club, click here.
Cape Breton Highlands Links
- Stanley Thompson, with revisions from Graham Cooke and restored by Ian Andrew
- Opened in 1941
- Ingonish, Nova Scotia
Manual labour provides fruitful topography for golf, and truthfully, the single best undulations for interesting golf, coast-to-coast. Highlands Links is a journey between the ocean (holes 1-6, 18), the mountains (7-9, 13-17), and the river (10-12), an oddly perfect synopsis of the majority of golf in Canada. All this while providing some of the most interesting individual holes in the country, such as the volcano drive-and-pitch 4th, the out-of-this-world set of par 5’s highlighted by the short 16th (pictured), the sidewinding 7th, and the topsy-turvy 15th.
Thompson was at his most creative when designing Highlands Links with hole names like “Mucklemouth Meg” and “Killiecrankie,” or perhaps the fire-breathing dragon bunker complex, the use of knolls, ridges, and slopes, and the green complexes, virtually untouched since Thompson, and thus, his most authentic (and best).
To read more about Highlands Links, click here.
Capilano Golf & Country Club
- Stanley Thompson, with modifications from Les Furber and Doug Carrick
- Opened in 1937
- West Vancouver, British Columbia
Forget the best routing in Canada, is this the world’s best routing? Frankly, I cannot think of a single other golf course that achieves as much with as little at Stanley Thompson had. After all, Capilano drops over 300 feet in the first six holes, somehow finding a way to work the golfer back up the mountain without directly playing uphill two shots in a row until the par 5, 18th finishes heroically at the base of an iconic clubhouse. On paper, it does not make sense, but alas, Capilano remains entirely walkable and playable despite the obvious difficulties with 300+ feet of elevation change.
Aside from the obvious achievements of the routing, Capilano is peak Stanley Thompson finding his way in the mountains. The bunkering is as artistic as anything else in the country, while the green sites vary. From the deceptively difficult greens at the 7th and 13th, to the seamless ones at the 5th and 10th. Capilano’s beauty does not hurt it, either: you get downtown Vancouver, ocean views, and the mountains all in one location. Not bad.
To read more about Capilano, click here.
Cabot Cape Breton (Links)
- Rod Whitman
- Opened in 2012
- Inverness, Nova Scotia
For years, Rod Whitman has quietly built the best portfolio since Stanley Thompson, and between Sagebrush, Wolf Creek’s two, and Blackhawk, those who played one of his original creations in Canada knew how good he was. Yet it was not until Cabot Cape Breton that Rod Whitman began to see international acclaim. A single spin reveals why. The green details in and around the surfaces are so good you could play 50 yards and in and never get bored, whether that be on the 5th and 11th tucked into their respective hillsides, the slippery 1st and 16th deceptively sitting behind depression areas, or those that sit on-grade.
Perhaps something that flies under the radar, yet shouldn’t is Whitman’s ability to get the golfer to and from points of interest. On the front nine, we visit Inverness Harbour, the ocean, and the central hillside in the middle of the property. On the back, we head back to the ocean, dance around the hillside, down to the beach and back into the town where we started. The change between environments is one of the best-kept secrets of Links, and why some prefer it to Cliffs.
The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course
- Stanley Thompson, with slight modifications from Bill Robinson
- Opened in 1927
- Jasper, Alberta
Is there a golf course in Canada that is so playful? Jasper’s balance between happy-go-lucky and brutally difficult feels like a comedy show balancing the script with punchlines, in the best way possible (Airplane or Superbad, anyone?). Such is the case in the first 10 holes, featuring two 230+ par 3’s, two long, blind par 4’s, and three sub-500 yard par 5’s.
Like Cabot Links and Cape Breton Highlands Links, Jasper’s best strength is the journey among the multiple environments. At JPL, we visit the meadow, the mountain, and the lake, all while playing over what Alister Mackenzie called “the best inland course in the world.” Could we go against The Good Doctor?
To read more about Jasper Park Lodge, click here.
St. George’s Golf & Country Club
- Stanley Thompson, with modifications from Robbie Robinson, Doug Carrick, and restored by Ian Andrew & Tom Doak
- Opened in 1929
- Etobicoke, Ontario
While Highlands Links has the best terrain for golf in Canada, St. George’s, once called the Royal York Golf Club, features the easiest terrain to find good golf in, a great first step to what makes Thompson’s best effort in his hometown province of Ontario so good. The use of the depression areas to create a dune-effect in Canada led to early comparisons to Scotland, with journalists quoting “a wee bit ‘O Scotland in Canada.” To some, Robbie’s work did not harm his mentors work like so many other examples, but improved holes like the 9th and 15th.
Perhaps St. George’s biggest strength is not Thompson’s reliance on a great one-shot set like he did at other properties—although the front nine par 3’s are truly best-in-class at the 3rd, 6th, 8th—but the strong set of four-shot holes. The 2nd is the single best long par 4 in Canada, while the 5th, 12th, 14th, and 17th are all noteworthy. The par 5’s effortlessly slot into the dramatic, rolling land to provide an all-encompassing architecture experience.
To read more about St. George’s, click here.
Cabot Cape Breton (Cliffs)
- Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw
- Opened in 2016
- Inverness, Nova Scotia
Move over Banff Springs, starting in 2016, there is a new most dramatic golf course in the country. Credit to the par 3, 16th and drivable par 4, 17th, which rightfully get a ton of press and media attention (such as the photo above), but there is a dramatic and beautiful hole around every corner here. Take the par 4, 2nd, for example. It comes early in the round, yet the drama is ever present as you drop down to a Y shaped fairway and subsequently play over a principal nose bunker to a cloverleaf green shape. The same can be said about the dual green par 3, 4th, the Cape 5th, punchbowl 6th, dramatic 7th, short par 3, 9th, inland 14th, and so forth. You get the point.
Aside from the obvious eye candy to be found, Coore & Crenshaw’s very classy and laid-back architecture style is a beautiful compliment to a fairly severe site. The green complexes roll like the Atlantic Ocean waves nearby, the fairways ripple like the Cape Breton mountains to the east, and the strategies presented make sense and tempt the best to make a mistake.
To read more about Cabot Cliffs, click here.