Aristocrat: a member of an aristocracy
Aristocracy: government by the best individuals or by a small privileged class
By the above definitions, private golf would be regarded as the aristocrats in this country, regardless of the status or stature of the club. Naturally, there is a whiff of excellency to joining such a place: you are, quite literally, paying for the right to golf away from the public. This is obviously the privileged class of the golf world; the aristocracy, some may say.
Like so many of my trips, it ends with a flip through The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses by Tom Doak. I’ve read Volumes 1-3, but I rarely consult it prior to trips anymore. Instead, I enjoy grading a course myself, and coming back to see where Doak puts it on his 0-10 numerical scale. Sometimes I am way off, other times I am on the button. One such example of the latter is Seminole, which I had the distinct pleasure of visiting on my most recent trip to Florida at the beginning of 2023.
In the guide, TD opens his write-up for Seminole in the Gourmet’s Choice as “one of the true aristocrats of golf.” As soon as I read it, I knew exactly what it meant: the air is heavier, a sense of place is instantly injected into the visitor’s veins, and the weight of Seminole’s name and legacy is suddenly surrounding you like audio at a concert. Where that feeling comes from… who knows. Social anxiety, perhaps? Money, maybe; that waft of generational East Coast wealth that lines the halls of the Ivy League and drips off Taylor Swift or Lana Del Rey lyrics is ever-present here. Perhaps it is the salty ocean air splashing over the beach on the other side of the Juno Beach dune.
There is no denying the exclusivity of Donald Ross’ ocean-side Floridian playground. A quick Google search puts it among the rarefied air of America’s most elite, and for good reason. Any of the reasons provided are valid reasons for being a part of the aristocracy, but I interpreted it differently. Rather than just being a place where wealth is the main contributor to the success of the club, there is a sense of importance to Seminole not associated with the thousands of dollars put down to join.
Seminole is a golf club, in the same way that a place like San Francisco Golf Club is (another course I would label as an aristocrat of golf). The pool is gone—nobody used it, anyway. They traded it in for a range full of alignment rods that virtually every member uses when they warm up for their game, as a proper golf club should. Caddies roam the property, with résumé’s like Pine Valley, Merion, National Golf Links, Shinnecock, Brookline, and more. Subsequently, the places Seminole’s members hangout in the summer. It’s a congregation of greatness in all aspects.
The money that flows through the walls of the flamingo pink clubhouse or wooded locker room doors helps, of course. But truthfully, it feels like a club that cares about their product above anything else. The golf course is a golf club’s biggest asset. Not only is it a massive parcel of land, but it is the main reason for the club existing in the first place. At the aristocrats of America, at least in my experience, that comes first. The preservation of Donald Ross seeps into the sand below the shallow 7 iron divots that bounce off the firm turf; Seminole is a true stewart of the game.
After that, traditions and experience round out the experience. Every guest signs in at the front desk where everyone has to pass through for your tee time. The club motto, “Play Well, Play Fast; Play Poorly, Play Faster!!!” rings true; if you turn in a minute over two hours, no halfway house for you, you’re behind and that’s for fast players! There is no messing around here. It is a club that appreciates the expectation and standard set, and everyone plays by those rules. And phones? Don’t even try to pull it out. Matter of fact, leave it in the car and enjoy the day. You’re in Juno Beach, Florida… it doesn’t get much better.
As one would expect, I left in awe of not only the golf course, which is correctly ranked among America’s very best, but the club itself. A true aristocrat in every sense of the word. Proper, some might say.
Naturally, I began to ponder about the best clubs in Canada. Seminole is in a class of its own, but it’s a lone wolf in its category. It has the benefit of being in Juno Beach with its beautiful, consistent winter days. When New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and more get cold, the best golfers in each city, likewise for the richest, all flock to the same place. It is hard to beat a place that provides golf at such a high level next to the ocean in a perfect climate, but Seminole does just that. It is an impossible standard for clubs in Canada to live up to.
Nevertheless, walking into the beautiful old school locker room, with wood doors and walls and plaid carpeting is neither stuffy nor snarky, and in fact, the club is extremely welcoming once you are inside. Similarly, the long, snaking driveway through a third of the golf course to the original clubhouse overlooking the 10th-12th at Toronto Golf Club provides a sense of importance and place. Likewise, the scale of the place is shocking and much bigger than you expect. Like Seminole, though, outside expectations are quickly kicked to the curb. At a place roamed by R&A members and similarly important East Coast clubs, it was neither unaccommodating nor pretentious. Rather, it is a club full of members who deeply care about their club, the history, and the current product that continues to get better. In fact, more trees have come out this winter to expose the dramatic hillside on 10, once again proving that Toronto Golf Club is the natural bearer of the aristocrat title.
My GPS to take my next left at Boul Du Millénaire before another left opens up Rang Des Vingt. You’d think I was going to Hotel Le Mirage, but the subtle, no frill’s entryway of Mount Bruno would be missed if you didn’t know what you were looking for. The parking lot is confusing for a first timer, but one you’d expect to immediately become easy to navigate upon a return trip. A perfect place for a member to set up shop, realistically.
The red roof clubhouse and pro shop are separated by a putting green, further accentuated by vast views across the Québécois mountainside. It is a quiet club, without many members or other people on the property at the same time as your group, but perhaps it is a better way to fully grasp exactly what you’re looking at when you get to the Willie Park Jr. surfaces. They feel part Somerset Hills, part individualistic in their own right. Mind-bendingly difficult to read, yet full of massive slopes and movement. A juxtaposition of sorts, but one that makes sense if you have ever seen a putt breaking up the mountain only to have it slam the other way, seemingly up the actual putting surface’s tilt.
The club itself is quite opposite of the rest of Canada. You won’t find many people carting here, and if you ever played music out loud, you would maybe be asked to gracefully leave the property. No phones or cameras. Jackets are required in the clubhouse walls for dinner, and for golf, the choice is yours: pants, or long socks with shorts. These rules may seem archaic to some, but Mount Bruno is a place that deeply cares about their history and traditions. They are willing to preserve them, whether it goes with or against the trends is none of their concern. No different than writing your name in the guest book at the front of Seminole’s pink lemonade clubhouse, no leg is shown at Mount Bruno for tradition’s sake (as a pro-tip, you can tell who’s a member and guest by who wears pants and who wears long socks, but I won’t give up which is which).
In 1913 on his second visit to North America, H.S. Colt travelled around Québec for various jobs, including consulting at Royal Ottawa, and Royal Montreal. For Royal Montreal, he visited various properties around town that would eventually go on to be a handful of other golf courses, including Mount Bruno’s current site, where Colt advised the club to not move in favour of the current 36 hole facility near today’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport. Royal Montreal still moved, but had it moved to Mount Bruno’s current location, we’d only have one Québec aristocrat.
Royal Montreal is not like the other two selections, however. Both Mount Bruno and Toronto Golf Club are from two of the most influential architects of all time, whereas Royal Montreal’s current location—the club’s third—is the handiwork of Dick Wilson, a William Flynn associate. Nonetheless, the club is still the birthplace of club life in North America. This is not a one-way ticket to, in my view, the highest amount of praise for a club you can give. There are clubs around the same age that have left their history in the past, but not Royal Montreal. Even if it is on its third location, one can sit in the dining room and look at a massive drawing of the Lachine location, where thirty-six holes of Willie Dunn, H.S. Colt, Willie Park Jr., and Charles Murray were found back in the day (highly celebrated, too). Take a walk upstairs and spend hours in the library, or perhaps roam the pro shop, which is regularly referred to as Canada’s best private golf shop. Seminole and San Francisco Golf Club both have industry-leading golf shop’s… shouldn’t that be celebrated? The professional staff and their accompanying merchandising team understand the ethos of the club; to me, that is a key part of a world-class club.
There is a sense of gravitas here, but nothing unwelcoming or pompous. You can see R&A members around Toronto Golf Club, or a big US club like Pine Valley. Like Seminole, Toronto Golf Club is a golfers club. Recent tree clearing efforts continue to break away from the norm in Canadian golf, and all for the better: Toronto Golf Club is Canada’s Custodian.
Generally speaking, golf clubs that are aristocrats of the game are steeped in history, built off a nearly one-hundred year lifecycle to establish who their membership is, and what their values are. Given such stipulations, the East Coast heavily benefits from the Golden Age of golf architecture, with many architects from the British Isles coming by boat to either Montreal or New York City, and easy access to Toronto and Montreal via train from the northeast allowed architects to easily travel (at least for that time). This is not just a Canadian thing, though. The United States also deals with a similar issue, although there are fewer claims of an “Eastern Bias” south of the 49th parallel. Nevertheless, the Golden Age greats would occasionally find themselves out west, and namely, San Francisco. I would easily consider A.W. Tillinghast’s San Francisco Golf Club among America’s aristocrats, a club that treasures its history (the last legal duel in the United States was just right of the 7th tee and those same pistols hang in the old-school locker room) and its privacy equally. In the modern era, privacy seems overrated. One could find photos of SFGC if they really looked, even if the “no electronics” rule is strictly enforced by members, staff, and caddies.
An aristocrat may find himself out west, and when he does, it becomes clear it is not like the others. Seminole has the star power: on any given day, you might see Tom Brady or Rory McIlroy, Michael Bloomberg or an ex-Walker Cup captain. Depending on your interests, Jim Pattison might be a celebrity, and in his heyday, Sean Connery certainly was. A drive across the Lion’s Gate Bridge and up Southborough Drive has us arrive at the yellow French tutor style clubhouse, seemingly at the edge of the clouds casting a shadow over the Lower Mainland.
By 1937, Stanley Thompson had established himself among the best to ever do it. Banff Springs, Jasper Park Lodge, St. George’s and Chateau Montebello were among the best golf courses on the continent, and so many others lurked not-so-far behind. Yet, Capilano seems like a stamp of approval on his own career, utilizing numerous elements that made him a well-respected architect. The golf course plunges up and down the British Columbian mountainside at an unfathomable rate, quickly dropping 300+ feet and gently climbing back up in a way that it rarely seems directly uphill. Among the four courses mentioned, Capilano is the most welcoming and by far the most friendly, but that is the difference between Toronto and Montreal to Vancouver, where the Pacific Ocean and the mountains drizzle special happy juice into the water (something like that, I’m told).
Like the other examples, this is a post about more than the golf course. Yes, it is the main factor—just like Seminole—and the largest asset. But to be an aristocrat, one must possess a multi-faceted appeal to be among the highest class. Even new money offends the Vineyard Vines of Long Island’s Gold Coast; you need more than just one impressive asset. At Capilano, it might be the acceptance of old-school architecture features that might not fly at other, less attentive clubs, such as the fall off on the 7th or the dramatic carry on the 7th. Perhaps it’s the Men’s Locker Room, which is first-rate, or the patio overlooking 16, 17 tee, and 18 green that is second to none during a beautiful British Columbian summer night with the breeze off the Pacific coming in. At Capilano, their aristocrat status comes from its ability to camouflage into the surroundings, either with the golf course, the maintenance practices that accept that brown, dry conditions are beautiful at times, or the beauty it beholds. Simiarily, the clubhouse is neither gaudy nor flamboyant. It sits into (or above) its surroundings, peacefully fitting into the surroundings.
To me, these are the stewards of the game in Canada. The upper echelon of clubs, and those who uphold the history to the highest standard. Like a Seminole or San Francisco, a sense of legacy leaves a beautiful taste in your mouth after completion at any of these facilities. There are other facilities possible for this title, and even some modern clubs that could make it, but in my eye, Toronto, Mount Bruno, Capilano, and Royal Montreal carry the torch at the Olympics opening ceremony for Canada next to those representing other countries. We could all learn a thing or two from each, and perhaps that is part of the appeal in playing them. Like a good piece of literature, they continue to unravel upon further inspection and, for those keen enough to look, continue to reveal elements to success often forgotten.