Playing the Royal Ottawa had always been a slightly strange and befuddling experience for me. I had always loved the drive there, the clubhouse, the atmosphere, the conditioning, and yet, like many other golfers from Ottawa, the layout, itself, left me rather morose and cold. Although I recognized its strengths, of which there are a number, I nevertheless found it awkward, dated, and even unfair in certain places. Perhaps the unsavoury taste I held had primarily to do with having only ever played it in competition, either during the Alexander of Tunis or during Interclub matches. The Royal was, and still is, a challenging test that requires strong ball striking and good touch around its canted and ever slick surfaces, and I’d never dealt with them particularly well.
However, I hadn’t returned to the club since before the pandemic, so I jumped at the opportunity when my good buddy texted me to say that he had available a tee-time with another very good mid-amateur player and a newly turned professional from the East Coast Pro Tour on a Friday morning in early July. I was looking forward to seeing the fully renovated product and the club’s new track-man range, which I had heard was just incredible; I was also looking forward to confirming if my initial review of Neil Haworth’s renovative work was slightly harsh. On all fronts, I am thankful to relate that I left largely impressed and of a mostly changed view. In short, I now firmly have it in my top 100 in Canada—likely around 75th or so—, whereas I used to have it slightly outside the centennial cut. Is the renovation perfect? No. Are there still things that could have done to improve the course? Absolutely. But, overall, I think it’s a decent enough effort and an improvement upon what was there prior.
For those unfamiliar with the geography of the national capital region, its namesake club isn’t actually located in Ottawa, but across the river, in Aylmer, Quebec. I left at the crack of dawn, opting to take the more scenic route through downtown and then across Lebreton Flats, where the Ottawa Senators are hoping to soon break ground on a new rink. My visit also coincided with the beginning of the annual two-week long Ottawa Bluesfest, which, this year as always, featured merely a few, if any, acts from the genre promised in its title. I eyed the long chain link fences, the barricades, the turnstiles, the concession stands, and the main “RBC” stage set in the vacant field to the south of the War Museum, fantasizing of the procession of twelve dollar domestic beers I would house during the show I had tickets for the following night on those very grounds, a fantasy that, in fact, would end up becoming a reality, to the expense of both my body and wallet.
After crossing the Chaudiere Bridge, while taking a second to admire the gothic Parliament buildings looming toweringly above the Ottawa River to the morning sun drenched east, and then driving westward through Hull and into Aylmer, I, of course, proceeded to speed right by the tucked and rather stealthily advertised entrance drive to the club, as I have done pretty much every time I have been invited to enter it. From Aylmer road, however, I could see that the trees I wished eliminated, between the 1st and 18th, the 18th and 17th, and the 16th and 15th, either by Mr. Haworth’s firm or by the storm that had recently ravaged the region, were unfortunately still there. My mood was further soured by the revelation that the range wouldn’t be open until mid-morning; yet the cheerful greetings I received from old friends, followed by some friendly banter on the putting green, changed my spirit for the better.
Unfortunately, dear reader, I must confess to you now that the idea for this article didn’t come about until the 3rd or 4th tee, so I didn’t capture the opening few holes. The first, which was recently lengthened as the result of a new, aggrandized green built near where the tee box for the now-eliminated second hole formerly sat, is among my favourite openers in Canada. As challenging as it is unique as it is nerve-racking, it immediately sets the tone. The entire left side is closely bordered by Aylmer Road, the right side features a sharp fall off to the eighteen fairway (which is the better of the alternatives if one is to miss his first drive), and a two-hundred and sixty some yard drive is needed to climb the crest in the fairway in order to get a view of the landing area and green. I must confess that I am attracted to the first green complex, even though it is slightly out of character with most of the rest, with its squarish shape and almost vertical fall off to the left and back.
To reach what is the current 2nd, you must walk the length of the now extinct par 3 (the old 2nd) and I felt slightly sad remembering its similarly unique character. Once the best of the par 3s in the routing, its elimination, due to safety concerns, has undoubtedly weakened the course; however, I don’t think there was a much of a choice but to eliminate it, considering that the sidewalk for the ever-trafficked Aylmer Road formed almost literally the left fringe of the now extinct green. The new back tee for the current 2nd, which sits over the old green, transformed what was once a mid length par 4 into a real brute, primarily because of the pushed up and severely undulated green, which, in most cases, including mine that day, sits blind to the golfer whose tee-ball ends up at the bottom of the Biarritz shaped fairway.
The next two holes, however, is where Haworth’s work is a bit of a let-down, more so on the altered 4th than on the new par 3, 3rd, which is fine, if rather pedestrian. The 4th hole, which has been significantly altered a few times throughout the history of the club, occupies the far western edge of the property, running over pancake flat land and through almost swampy, dense trees. The previous iteration of the hole saw it as a double dog leg par 5, with an out of play bunker to the left of the landing area and a tricky, L-shaped green complex set somewhat blandly amidst a flat expanse without definition. The hole, which now plays as a long par 4, is similarly characterless and feels rather barren and unfinished even, a sentiment shared by our host. The fairway is dead flat and bunker-less; if ever there was a blatant connector hole, this is it. Luckily, the green complex is still pretty good, though the bunkers around it look, for lack of a better term, municipal. If I had one over ridding complaint about the work done, apart from there still being too many trees, it is that the bunkers, which are mostly round and sharply-cut, lack flair. I’m not saying that they need to be extravagantly flashed, but a little elegance and panache would elevate the presentation of the course, especially when one studies Colt’s original vision.
For the next while, until the sporty 10th, the course remained about as I recalled it, for better or worse. I do think that Haworth’s choice to transform the 5th from a long uphill par 4 into a short par 5 is wise, though I still don’t get the point of keeping the tree in the middle of the driving corridor (a driving chute to be more precise). I also think that the new back tee on 9 is a great improvement, as it now allows for longer hitters to use a wood or driving iron, rather than a mid-iron, from the tee to get nearly to the edge of the landing area, which is bisected by a deep ravine through which a creek runs. It’s not perfect, but it’s better. In this case, it’s not hard to sense that the hole functioned better prior to the introduction of titanium drivers and Prov1s, when it played as a three shot hole.
Generally speaking, I am all for quirky architectural elements, such as back to back par 3s. However, the set here doesn’t work especially well since the golfer is required to hit nearly the same club on both holes: for example, that day I hit a knock down 6iron to a back-left hole location on 11, and then a stock 7 iron to a middle hole location on 12. In all fairness, though, there isn’t much room to push back any of the tees or greens. So this seems a perfect place to test out my super radical theory that, occasionally, the “tips”, or back tees, can be set up in front of the blue or white tees, that they don’t necessarily have to be the back tees on every single hole, in order to mix up the yardages on certain days, a very simple notion that I’ve yet to see in practice at any course.
From here on it, the course is rock solid, as it plunges into a low plain in the middle of the property that is overlooked by the wide Victorian clubhouse. The almost cape-like par 4, 15th, remains a personal favourite; I particularly enjoy the on-grade green complex, which is severely canted from back left to front right and entices the golfer to hit a low running long iron into it, an option that the firm fairways made possible that morning. The 16th and 17th are fine holes, though the latter, which features a fairway that steps over a sharply vertical ridge, is in especial need of tree removal.
Walking towards the ultimate tee, my partner, Nick, a former University teammate of mine and first-class player in his rookie year of professional golf, recited the seven or eight presses that were still in play. Under normal conditions, he outdrives me by about thirty yards, or so, but the downhill step that bisects this last fairway (which you climb on the opposite running 17th) propelled my ball right beside his, about two hundred and fifty five yards from the green. There are very few better scenes for a final hole than this, as the golfer eyes the minuscule green set halfway up a steep slope atop which looms the green and white awning covered patio at the south end of the clubhouse. Since it was still mid-morning, as I contemplated whether to try to smash a three wood or lay back with a short iron to a comfortable wedge, the patio was deserved. Of course, I decided to lay back, and then proceeded to chunk a wedge, which cost my partner (who also butchered the hole after a great drive) and I a good amount of cash.
I carried my new found admiration for the club to the patio for breakfast, and then proceeded to wash down the rest of the unsavory taste I held for the course with the Stella our meagre winnings paid for. Sitting back, admiring the scene, thinking that there are few sweeter things in life than lifting a cold pint safely in the refuge of one of the country’s most historic and fine private clubs, I relayed to my wonderful host my still-lingering hope to one day arrive on property and be able to see, above textured grasses of different shades of brown and green, right across the property.