The Canadian Golf Courses That Could be #1

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One of the most engaging aspects about discussing and debating the best golf courses in Canada is that, depending on one’s taste and criteria, there are at least a handful of candidates that might be reasonably cited as the country’s best. 

The obvious eight choices are the “Thompson Five”, Toronto Golf Club, and the two Cabots. Yet there are others, too, which have been viewed or named as the country’s best, by some. 

In truth, it is quite hard, in fact nearly impossible, to argue against any of these specifically aforementioned eight being the single best. As when debating any grouping of elite elements, to determine the outstanding golf course in Canada is a real hair-splitting exercise. So let’s briefly fly over them, shall we, as well the others that could, or might, have been #1.  

Although, after a handful of plays, I am hard pressed to overlook some of the work that has taken St. George’s away from Thompson’s original vision for it (the mowing lines, the loss of bunkers, the overly green aesthetic, and the encroaching overgrowth), it is still, shot for shot, likely the most interesting and certainly engaging golf course in Canada. 

Cabot Cliffs, despite probably possessing the highest-highs of any course in Canada, features far too many flaws and holes that are either underwhelming (the 1st, 8th) or simply do not function as intended (the 5th, 12th, 16th, and 17th). To me, it is a bit of a dumb-blonde, tailored for resort-golfers and for taking pictures (and that’s fine).

St. George’s
Cabot Cliffs

Cabot Links, conversely, is the golfer’s club, the showstopper meant for refined pallets, acute eyes, and trained sensibilities. The fine detailing work in which the laborious work of machine blends seamlessly with the gentle craft of hand and randomness of nature, the multifarious routing offering a plethora of playing possibilities, the surprising elements such as the hundred-and-some-yard-wide double-green and the Pebble Beach-esque drop shot 14th, and the unrivaled green complexes all combine to make this Rod Whitman’s magnus opus, at least so far, and a coin-flip contender for top billing. 

Across Cape Breton Island, Stanley Thompson’s Highlands Links is a real hipster’s choice, if you will, as the country’s best. Granted, I do appreciate the wonderful journey that the routing takes the golfer on, which, as I wrote some years ago, is essentially a sampling of all that wider-Canadian golf has to offer in 18 holes, along with some of the stronger moments of which there are a number, I struggle to overlook the fact that about a 1/3rd of its full swings are nothing more than mindless hoofs down the fairway, without real rhyme nor reason. Perhaps with a ball that curves and with drivers that spin, these shots would be a tad more engaging; however, at the time of writing, we are playing Taylormade Stealth 2s and ProV1s and they simply are not. Moreover, I do believe that since rankings are dated, and thus do not take place in some alternative universe, conditioning does matter, and the manner in which Parks Canada has kept the golf course, although it is slowly getting better, still does not emphasize the architecture nearly as well as it should. 

Cape Breton Highlands Links
Cabot Links

For me, Harry Colt’s Toronto Golf Club is the country’s best, and the foremost example of how to care, maintain, and improve upon a historic product.

An hour westward of T.G.C. is Hamilton, another Harry Colt design, which topped SCOREGolf’s top 100 in 2004 and one which many will still cite as best, particularly among the elite players. In terms of how to route a golf course, there is perhaps not a better example to study in Canada. Visually and stylistically, Mackenzie and Ebert’s recent restoration definitely tied it all back together more cohesively from the hodge-podge face it previously bore after much surgery over the decades by various architects. In Mackenzie and Ebert’s defense, Covid restrictions did prove burdensome, meaning that they were unable to be on site as much as they would have liked, I am sure; however, and I am being polite here, to rip up the remaining Harry Colt greens is not how I wish that they would have gone about it. Once those are gone, they are gone. Moreover, as one of the best architects currently practicing told me, it appears as if they went around all of the green complexes digging with an ice cream scoop and then added drains to the bottoms. Simply put, as opposed to T.G.C. after its own restorative work, it doesn’t really feel as if you’re on a Colt anymore—rather a simulacrum of it. Had Tom Doak, let’s just say, been selected instead, then Hamilton could easily have been #1 again, and solidly so. It’s still great, but far closer to 10th than to #1 for me.

Battle of the Colt’s in Canada: Hamilton (left) vs Toronto (right)

Due to its men’s only membership policy, The National Golf Club of Canada, the longtime number one, was excluded from consideration by SCOREGolf on their latest list. Frankly, I believe that to omit a golf course from consideration for its membership policy is as ridiculous as, say, ranking one highly because it has a nice entrance gate and an opulent clubhouse or because it serves the best margaritas—it’s a ranking of golf courses, at the end of the day, not clubs. But that’s just me. To the crux of the matter, however, the golf course, for most, excludes itself from consideration for top billing due to being far too one dimensional and outrightly penal. Simply put, as Ran Morrissett wrote, the best golf courses make you want to tee it up again immediately upon completion of the final stroke, and Fazio’s here does not. Although it has more than few backers, unlike most selections, I believe that there is an objective case to make against it. 

Americans, in particular, seem liable to cite Banff as their favorite. Personally, I have never played it but I can certainly see its appeal from afar, especially for those unaccustomed to mountainous settings, such as myself. In addition to Thompson’s striking architecture and novelistic routing, there is perhaps not a more inherently “Canadian golf course” than Banff Springs. 

National Golf Club of Canada
Banff Springs

Andrew claims, strongly, that Jasper is the best and his word carries more than enough weight for me to consider that this may in fact be the case. Alister Mackenzie also cited it as the best inland golf course in North America, and he also knew a thing or two, I’d say. Next year, I’ll try to venture westward. 

Same goes for Capilano, though it strikes me as being more of a back-end of the top 5 type of golf course. But again, I’ll have to see it for myself. 

Jasper Park Lodge

In the near future, Cabot Revelstoke, if we are to judge upon what we’ve seen so far, could certainly be of a quality that challenges for top spot. To be honest, my initial impression is that it will top out somewhere around 5th. I worry about the severity of the property being conducive to producing a couple awkward or poor holes among the 18, as is often the case with golf in such settings. Moreover, its climate is not one where it’s easy to grow great turf. But I am ready and willing – in fact hoping – to be proven wrong, of course.

This is the firm’s second crack at a golf course in the mountains of British Columbia, following Sagebrush, which opened in 2009, then closed, then opened, then closed, then opened again. Prior to its first opening, considering the parties involved in its construction and their vision for it, there was legitimate hype that it would be the country’s best. Although it has had some much publicized business failings, the merits of the golf course, itself, have never come under question, really. In fact, I know a very well-traveled golfer who once wondered why it’s not widely viewed among the very elite of the elite. Again from afar, I have a sneaky suspicion that I will like it more than most. 

What will be the par 3, 17th at Cabot Revelstoke
Sagebrush Golf Club

One wonders how good Ian Andrew’s and Mike Weir’s abandoned third course at Predator Ridge would have been, had the world not been torpedoed by the recession. The renderings are awe-striking. 

Another course which had legit #1 or at least top 5 hype prior to opening was Eagle’s Nest, especially since it bore a very Erin Hills/Chambers Bay aesthetic and ethos, a pair of golf courses that were at the forefront of the zeitgeist in the mid 2000s, after being selected to host a number of USGA events, including U.S. Opens. Carrick’s limitations as an architect, combined with the severe and segmented nature of the site, ultimately hindered it from being an elite golf course—albeit it is still quite good. For proof of how highly it was viewed at one point in time, refer to this ranking done by Ben Cowan-Dewar, Robert Thompson, Jeff Mingay, and Ian Andrew, where it ranked 10th and was cited as “perhaps the best modern golf course in Canada” by Robert.

A digital rendering of a hole at Ian Andrew’s and Mike Weir’s abandoned course at Predator Ridge

Architectural decisions and limitations also hindered the final product at Dakota Dunes amidst the grass-draped and chopping sandhills of Saskatchewan, which was, undoubtedly, among the best raw sites ever given for golf in Canada. Speaking of the sandhills of Saskatchewan, had Mike Keiser’s Alberta Dunes project gone ahead, it’s hard to imagine that Coore and Crenshaw, then operating at the peak of their powers, with their all-star crew of shapers in toe, would not have delivered Canada’s best course on such a site.

Speaking of hype, we’ve been accused of overhyping Grand-Mere perhaps, although speaking to many of those who recently attended our event more than solidified that we weren’t off track with our extremely high assessment of the golf course. I believe that the core elements—in terms of the land, the flow of the routing, and the architecture left by the trio of original architects—are good enough for Andy Staples to polish it into a golf course that might challenge for the very top of the list. 

Two vastly different styles of golf courses with Grand-Mere (left) and Eagles Nest (right). Eagles Nest photo courtesy of Doug Carrick Design

I haven’t yet played Mount Bruno, but if that plan does get approved, a similar kind of ceiling seems reasonable to place upon Andy’s work there, too. His upcoming work at Weston is also worth keeping an eye on.

In the same province, the much-used term “great bones” is nowhere more applicable than at Stanley Thompson’s Chateau Montebello, which in its halcyon days was cited as his 6th best golf course. It would need a lot of work, time, and money, of course, to restore it to such a lofty perch, but there is a glimmer of hope. More to come on this….

Then there is my pipe dream of Gil Hanse reworking the Royal Montreal, a club which shares a long-standing and incredibly close affiliation with Brookline, where he worked his magic in preparation for the 2022 U.S. Open. Perhaps the lack of natural interest might cap it from ever challenging for top spot, but, hey, Gil can weave magic with the best of them. And the club’s financials are more than healthy enough to provide him with the necessary backing to do so.


4 thoughts on “The Canadian Golf Courses That Could be #1

  1. Zachary, good afternoon. I enjoyed your most recent piece on courses that might be #1. I have some information about Hamilton Golf – related to your discussion of the recent work there. I was a Hamilton member from 1956 until 2010 and gained an intimate knowledge of the course and its history. In the renovation, Ebert & Co took out 7 original Colt greens on West/South (not 11). The Colt greens removed were #s 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 16 & 17. 

    1. Hi Bill,

      Nice to hear from you! That is my fault, I was told and under the impression 11 greens remained. I thought 3 and 12 were for sure part of the original Colt golf course, but I trust you on this.

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