I will admit: being from Alberta, the concept of a swampy, rock-infested region where golf courses navigate the horse fly dominated watery hazards and the Canadian shield poking out like legos on the floor of a kid’s basement is not something I expected when I moved to Toronto. I had done shockingly little research on the Greater Toronto Area and the surrounding golf scene prior to arriving in the latter half of 2019. In fact, I likely would not be able to tell you what St. George’s or Toronto Golf Club looked like, let alone Öviinbyrd, Muksoka Bay, Bigwin Island or any of the other Muskoka gems. Granted, I did know the basics: Thompson, Colt, McBroom, Carrick, all that good stuff, but the only course I would actually be able to identify if someone pulled up photos is Hamilton because I watched the 2019 RBC Canadian Open on TV.
My first round in Muskoka was a 36 hole day at Öviinbyrd and Port Carling, two very different Thomas McBroom designs on very different properties, and that aesthetic, that aura and those defining characteristics will stick with me for my entire golfing life. So dramatic, and yet so unique to my own experiences growing up. Gone were the days of the 100+ foot drop shot par 3’s with the mountain backdrop, or gently rolling prairie landscape exposed to 85KM/H winds. No longer am I playing through tall evergreen and Douglas Fir trees of Alberta and British Columbia. No longer am I playing faux-links golf in the prairies of Alberta or Saskatchewan.
Call me crazy, but I have taken two separate trips to Manitoba to play golf. It was never a bucket-list trip for me, nor was it ever on the radar, but COVID-19 closed the border and moved school online for both the fall semesters in 2020 and 2021, so I used the opportunity to stop at golf courses on my drive back home from Toronto. For a secondary reason, I always witnessed outrage during every SCOREGolf Top 100 list from Manitobians, crying how they could not possibly have a top 100. I had to go see for myself… were the criticisms of the list valid, or perhaps a local bias? I like questions like this. For me, it feels like I am settling the score among my friend group or following or whatever. I also like the hot take and will vividly search for it, which brought me to Manitoba. I wouldn’t say I am contrarian, even if I have been called it before, but a hot take does get me excited.
The synopsis of my two trips: Winnipeg should be a better-known golf city in this country, and truthfully, when comparing it against other cities in this country, I would probably take Winnipeg over a handful of other cities in Canada. Depth is an issue, but the top 4 are rock-solid, and compete against similar sized cities.
- St. Charles (Ross/Mackenzie)
- Pine Ridge
- Royal Ottawa
- Chateau Montebello
- Ottawa Hunt
- Royal Quebec (Royal)
- Manoir Richelieu
- La Tempete
- Royal Quebec (Quebec)
- Talking Rock
- Dunes at Kamloops
I am taking Winnipeg all day, and would even consider Victoria in this discussion, although the top 2 (Victoria & Colwood) blow out everything in Winnipeg by a comfortable margin.
My first trip was all about the big city: Falcon Lake on the way in, then St. Charles, and the Ross double dip with Pine Ridge and Elmhurst. Stanley Thompson’s Niakwa on the way out, and I had officially checked Winnipeg off the list. My second visit, however, reminded me a lot like the first time I went to Muskoka. I was certainly not expecting what I found, and I am glad I did. I did not play any golf in Winnipeg on the second trip, instead, I focussed on the surrounding areas: Brandon, mostly, and a trip to Lac du Bonnet for Granite Hills, a Les Furber design northeast of the city.
In my view, Les Furber’s architecture can mostly be thrown into the trash of contrived nothingness, where he has contributed more to the negative than the good. Most of the work he has contributed either has been or needs to be ripped up. Perhaps the best summarization of his career is Shaughnessy’s 17th, a brilliant A.V. Macan par 3 that was bunker-less. Macan specifically wrote about how he enjoyed the subtle nature of how the hole looked, yet how deceptively difficult it played because the bailout is left away from the gully, right. He specifically mentioned that it would be a mistake to bunker this hole, especially on the left where people bail out, because it would make the hole too hard and take away the charm. Thankfully, Furber, in all his wisdom, bunkered the hole with a handful of bunkers on the left. Jeff Mingay, a much, much better architect, has since removed the bunkers, but the point stands: he seldom adds anything positive to the Canadian golf scene.
Every rule is not without its exceptions, however, and every-so-often, he finds himself with a decent golf course on his hands. The obvious choice is Predator Ridge’s Predator course, and with Doug Carrick’s recent tweaks, it is better than it once was. Fairview Mountain is a welcomed surprise in Oliver, British Columbia, and a golf course I found myself advocating for the Top 100 in Canada when Beyond The Contour was putting the list together late 2021/early 2022. Storey Creek’s reputation precedes itself, although I have not been myself. I went to Campbell River in January 2023, but they still had snow under the thick trees, whereas nearby Campbell River Golf & Country Club did not, so I only played the latter.
Then there is Granite Hills, a golf course that if someone blindfolded you and asked where you were, you might say Gravenhurst, Ontario in the heart of the Muskokas. Rock outcroppings and long, picturesque views over Lac du Bonnet await. Granite Hills is even home to the highest point in Eastern Manitoba, located on the rock outcropping near the 14th tee.
Manitoba’s golf is not exactly the most picturesque, nor breathtaking. Even St. Charles or Elmhurst are relatively mundane to look at, until you play it and peel the layers back. The golf here is almost a secret, hidden by stereotypes of Manitoba and poor media coverage. For locals, they obviously know; for everyone else, the “flyover province” nickname plagues the reputation of an otherwise solid golf province.
Granite Hills is nothing if not picturesque, though, and while my experience in Manitoba is limited to ten courses, that includes most of the ones you want to see. Whether or not its true or not is to be seen, and I think Lakeview Hecla and Pinawa look interesting, Granite Hills is the most beautiful golf course in the province I have seen to this point, and it would not surprise me if it was the most beautiful in Manitoba.
Take the par 5, 3rd, for example. A massive dogleg left par 5 around Lac du Bonnet that reminds me of Bay Hill’s 6th (think Bryson DeChambeau raising his arms in celebration). It is flat, but the nature of the hole provides strategic interest: keep it closer to the lake and reap the benefits of being able to carry the water inlet in the layup zone. Bail out right, and it becomes a more daunting task.
This is the golfers first interaction with the lake, and one I think Furber was wise to spread out over the entire round of golf. After all, Furber did route Talking Rock, the celebrated Graham Cooke & Wayne Carleton design which has a fairly tidy routing through the hills of Chase, British Columbia. At Granite Hills, the routing brings us to the lake on the 3rd, and then finishes on the shores for the 15th through 18th. For my tastes, I love a little early taste of what is to come. It feels like a director leaving clues for those who try to figure out what’s happening in the movie, but won’t reveal it alongside the way. I’m thinking of the upside down painting in Glass Onion, or the numerous clues in Interstellar. Perhaps ambitious to compare Furber to Rian Johnson or Christopher Nolan, but you get the point: it sets the table for us to come back to.
What about the golf in between the 3rd and the 15th? The lake is gone and we disappear back into the thick forest scattered with rock outcroppings and swampy hazards. The 9th, another par 5 with its attractive bunkering scheme in the layup zone bleeding into the green side is rather engaging, especially if you lay up. The tee shot is difficult, with water left, and the uphill nature makes the 549 yard nature feel longer.
In my nerdy nature, I quickly enjoyed the 1st and 11th, both doglegs—the 1st moving left and the 11th right—with fairways sloping to the outside corners. In the deep depths of golf architecture enthusiasts, it is called “reverse camber.” Olympic in San Francisco, host of the 2012 US Open, is celebrated for this and a large reason why the golf course is so difficult and worthy of hosting the national open. Good enough for me, and certainly utilized well here.
Even though the lakeside holes will be the clear standout from an aerial perspective, the 13th and 14th are both excellent also. The holes centre on the massive rock outcropping to the right of the 13th fairway which the 14th tees off. As mentioned, it is the highest point in Manitoba, tumbling down towards the lake. Simple pleasures in the world make things fun, and none more invigorating than a crazy downhill tee shot. Following the 13th’s tee shot would be difficult, but they did a great job here.
I’m not here to say this is the best golf course in Manitoba, or perhaps even the best public golf course in the province (that goes to Clear Lake for me). However, in my travels across the provinces, places like Granite Hills prove Manitoba is a bit overlooked in the grand scheme of things. There are the classic Furber issues, like less-than-ideal green complexes. The routing, while exciting because of the way it teases the golfer and ends on a bang, is a bit confusing with so many crossovers to make it work. It is hard, brawny, and lost ball if you miss the tree line. Nevertheless, a day at Granite Hills is not one wasted, and provides a cool contrast to the prairie layouts in Winnipeg and to the west.
For the locals who get to enjoy the hidden, finer things in life like golf in Manitoba, I’m sure they know they have a hidden gem from the rest of the world. For those who think Manitoba is a flyover province void of anything quality, think again.
1 thought on “Manitoba’s Muskoka”
Do like playing Alberta/Radium/Kelowna. Go back to Ontario[GTA] suppose to see Family& Friends but really it is to spend time playing Whirlpool on the Niagara Parkway& ,of course, Buffalo Bars!!