The Secret Sauce: Victoria Golf Club
I am born and raised in Western Canada. Originally, I called Lethbridge, Alberta home before moving to Kelowna, British Columbia to finish out high school. As such, Vancouver is the big city we all went to; tournaments often brought golfers to the Lower Mainland—although Golf British Columbia does a good job of moving it around the “zones”—and with the Pacific Northwest’s mild winters, shoulder season trips, including a golf tournament in March, were usually on tap every year.
As a broke high school student, the urge to go to Vancouver Island always lingered, but the added cost of the ferry and the additional time always made it a difficult sell. If I’m remembering correctly, it was around $50 one way, and Kelowna to Victoria or Nanaimo would generally be over 6+ hours of travel. I never made it happen when I lived in Kelowna.
Fast-forward six years, and I found myself in a position to hopefully finish Canada’s Top 100. After a few trips to the East Coast, I had six left: Laval’s Blue and Green, London Hunt, Royal Colwood, Victoria, and Bear Mountain (Valley). I never had real goals of finishing the list, although with COVID-19 stalling international travel, I managed to find myself on many of the Top 100 courses simply by living in Toronto and being engulfed by golf. With family Christmas back in Kelowna, it is far easier to get to Vancouver Island from there than Toronto, so I brought the sticks and watched the forecast, hoping for a good day to get in a car and drive. For those familiar, this is not an easy thing to judge, especially the weather in Vancouver and Victoria throughout the winter. A seemingly never ending stretch of SAD brought on by gloom and a lack of sunlight is in store from October 15 to April 1. You can get lucky and see sun, but it rarely happens. I rolled the dice on four days and we were off.
My maiden trip to Vancouver Island concluded at Victoria Golf Club, the highest ranked course on the trip at 24th on Beyond The Contour and 17th on SCOREGolf. Even so, mixed reviews have poured in for years among friends. This is not like Goodwood, for example, where everyone plays it and loves it, or Cabot Links, where it would be harder to find someone who thinks it is ‘ok’ than someone who doesn’t love it. A course ranked this highly, receiving mixed reviews? Consider me intrigued.
My day begins with how it has gone following my first drone purchase last year: I get up way too early for a midday tee time, hoping to capture first light for the #content. My tee time is at 11:00, but I am up at 6:45AM, with plans of stopping at Starbucks—a mandatory addition to my Pacific Northwest trips no matter how much my bank account wishes I would stop—and being at Victoria around 7:50, 10 minutes before sunrise. When I went to sleep the night before, the forecast was a mix of sun and cloud, and as per drone rules go, any bit of sun can woefully change the quality of the photo. Unfortunately, I woke up to projected 1.8 mm of rain at 7, 1.7 mm at 8, 0.9 mm at 9, and 0.5mm at 10. My DJI drone certainly is not waterproof, so not the news to wake up for. In short: it turned out fine.
In fact, there was no rain the entire day, and could not have been perfect. As agreed upon by my group, a bit of wind on the ocean is exactly what you want, and in my case, the ideal conditions to play a golf course for the first time. In my mind, playing by the ocean on a firm golf course like Victoria makes me feel like Tiger Woods at Holyoke in 2006; in reality, it is far from that, otherwise I would not be typing this up.
Golf has been played on this property to the east of downtown Victoria in Oak Bay since 1893, but the current golf course is the product of Arthur Vernon Macan in the mid 1920s. Macan, who famously laid out Royal Colwood, Columbia Edgewater, Shaughnessy, and California Golf Club of San Francisco, had a rather unusual problem to solve. Rather than his pick of the best land in a site, he had 75 acres to design his golf course. With the acquisition of the land where 6 green and 7 tee is now to push the total site to 82 acres, A.V. Macan found 6,100 yards and a par 70 on this little piece of property roughly half the size of what you would want today.
“The shitty routing doesn’t take much away from you?” My friend texts me after I tell him where I have it ranked in Canada. And truthfully, the routing is rather unusual, so it is a valid question: from the 2nd green, you walk past the 11th green/12th tee to get to the 3rd tee; after finishing the 10th, you walk through the landing area of the 6th to get to the 11th tee; after playing the 17th, you walk across the 1st fairway to get to the 18th. All that, plus two sets of back-to-back par 3’s at the 8th & 9th + the 13th & 14th. The answer is no, and personally, I would object to anyone who said otherwise. Finding eighteen holes on this property is an accomplishment itself, especially given the size of the property. Honestly, it flowed rather well considering; the walk from 2 to 3 is not so bad, and neither is 10 to 11.
Routing aside, which I would venture is Canada’s equivalent to Merion squeezing in that many holes into their property in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, the club has done a brilliant job of maintaining and presenting their architecture. So much so, in fact, that I would venture it is among the best presented courses in Canada, and if it is not #1, it is a very close 2nd or 3rd. The club deserves its credit, but so does Canadian architect Jeff Mingay, who meticulously restored the property over a number of years, and Paul Robertson, who alongside his turf department, continues to faithfully uphold what Macan & Mingay’s vision for the property is. Sure, Mr. Mingay could present and successfully restore a property, but continuing to uphold that standard is impressive in itself, and Robertson’s team does a superb job. The bunkering is rugged, varied in depths with various widths on the bunker edges as if the craving waves and trade winds shaped them themselves is a work of art; the green complexes, surprisingly big given British Columbia’s reputation and the scorecard yardage, allow for enough contour to be interesting, unique, and demanding; the textures—from the rock outcroppings, to the fescue which was obviously cut during my round in January, trees, greens, and more—add definition against the Olympia Mountains, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps more impressive than anything else, however, is the fairway moving lines, which often combine with other holes, weaving in and out of the trees, bunkers, and green surrounds.
I have generally reserved the “Secret Sauce” series to be about the courses I think most highly of, but might be a little underrated: Lookout Point (although it is 25th on this site’s Top 100, but overlooked in the Toronto area nonetheless), Tarandowah, and Grand-Mere. While I would not say Victoria is overlooked, nor a “hidden gem,” especially because it is such a notable club out west, and always finds its way onto Canada’s Top 30, I would say it might not get its due from architecture enthusiasts because of the routing, which is easy to pick on.
At the end of the day, Victoria has three holes deserving of being included in any Eclectic 18 discussion in Canada: the 3rd, although a tough category to battle it out in, the short par 4, 5th, doglegging away from the ocean into a green tucked into the hillside, falling off on the left and a knob kicking balls away short right, and the 7th, a stunning dogleg left par 4 around the coast. Furthermore, the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 14th, and 18th are well-thought of holes in my mind, and deserving of anyone calling them their favourites.
At some point, I will do a full hole-by-hole review of Victoria, but until then, count me in as a fan, or perhaps a superfan, of such a small, weird, and fun property to play golf. I always thought Jasper Park Lodge would reign supreme as the last place I would want to play golf in Canada, but if I never played again, I would feel incredibly fulfilled by Victoria; to me, that is the ethos of a spiritual place, and one I hope to return to someday soon.