Even if we do not like to admit it, most ‘classic’ courses possess very few classic golf course traits. In an era of Sub-Air, USGA Spec greens, bunkers built for Instagram or a drone shot (we are guilty of this, too), most classic courses have degraded themselves of the title, replaced by technology, Billie Better Bunkers, and a craving to appear in a selfie stick photo-op.
Granted, this not a solely bad thing. Rather, a product of evolution; human and our forever quest for greatness and perfection, just painted over a Stanley Thompson, Devereux Emmet, Dick Wilson, or whomever else you can think of that has had a “restoration” in recent years on either side of the 49th parallel. Golf is in a good place, with multiple golf courses returning to their former glory and moving beyond the decades of neglect sprung upon the industry following World War Two.
With all that said, there are occasions where a golf course has the ability to transport us back in time, restoring the feeling of what it truly means to experience an old-school golf course. Like a bar’s ability to provide a vibe unlike Moxies, or Lexington Candy Shop in New York City making Coca-Cola the old-fashioned way, there are experiences out there that are better the old-fashioned way; the original way, as designed or thought out.
It should come as no surprise that one of those experiences in the Canadian golf world happens to reside firmly on the L’Ile de Montreal, one of the countries more historic golf courses. This is not shocking, even in the slightest: the east is much older than the west, and even as a born-and-raised westerner, it can be difficult to quantify the feeling of the east and the old buildings and the architecture. Even more-so with Montreal, which is home to Royal Montreal Golf Club, established in 1873 and widely regarded as the oldest established golf club this side of the pond.
We are not here to talk about Royal Montreal, however, but Braeside, a golf course in Senneville, Quebec in the West Island.
Like most (if not all) golfers, Braeside was never on my radar for golf in Montreal. That is, until I learned about Braeside I did with Ian Andrew for Vancouver’s Par Six Golf (which is unfortunately not available to read anymore). I asked Ian where someone could find Victorian Era architecture in the country, and he answered with Braeside.
For those unfamiliar, there are four distinct eras of golf architecture: Victorian (pre-1910), the Golden Age (1910-1937, or so, but I would argue up to Cape Breton Highlands Links/Old Town Club around the end of WWII), The Dark Ages (1951-1993), and the currently unnamed era we live in, perhaps best titled as the Renaissance Era. A key feature of the Golden Age was the introduction of strategy: angles, width, interesting greens and a mix of the various schools of golf architecture (penal, heroic, strategic). Dr. Alister Mackenzie wrote that golf architecture should have penal elements, but the golfer should be able to play around it as far as he wanted, but it would just take him longer to get to the hole. Essentially, the trouble was on the most direct, quickest route, but the golfer could play around it if he liked. Case in point on Cypress Point’s par 3, 16th, where the golfer plays directly over a Pacific Ocean inlet, with a bail-out fairway to the left, should someone not be able to play the 235 yard par 3 on the direct route.
The Victorian Era was, well, different. Instead of the belief that golfers should be able to play around features, the Victorian Era, best identified by penal elements (contrasting the Golden Age as strategic), such as bunkers on either side of the fairway, or perpendicular hazards that every golfer had to cross, no matter which route they went. Even more interesting, the Victorian Era was very basic: squares, circles, straight edges, rock walls, but generally, rudimentary features compared to what we see now.
At a modest 2,800 yards, it can be difficult to imagine Braeside as this brawler. The only par 5 is 467 yards, or shorter than 5 of the par 4’s at the 2022 RBC Canadian Open at Toronto’s St. George’s. The par 4’s range between 255 yards and 418 yards, while the par 3’s split at 150 and 195. However, this is an article about time travel, right? Leave the Taylormade Stealth at home, and suddenly, the teeth come out. 418 yards from the back deck is a shorter par 4 for modern standards, but hickories reveal the original motivation of the hole. Playing between a long stretch of forest, the hole is genuinely terrifying, as if we were at St. George’s playing the RBC Canadian Open, or playing the monstrous Blue course at nearby Royal Montreal. The joys of technology ruining old layouts, but alas, we are not here to talk about how the golf ball goes too far.
Even with a Taylormade Stealth or a Titleist TSR, Braeside still finds a way to be an interesting, engaging layout. Those Victorian Era features really shine, and provide an captivating contrast to the golf courses we rave about on this site. Gone are the thoughts of playing to a certain portion of the fairway to gain an angle to a certain pin (a la Cabot Links). No longer does the golfer have to fear an extravagant, gnarly bunker eating up their ball in one of the varied shapes or fingers (hint, hint: St. George’s or Jasper). Rather, the thought process of navigating the rather simple bunker shapes, stone walls, and rudimentary, yet penal green surrounds fully immerses the golfer.
Take the par 4, 6th, for example, which has a tee shot over a massive bunker from the entire left and right border of the hole. Likewise for the approach, with a massive, almost blowout style bunker (although weathered) eating into the golf hole from the right side, protecting the green. Sure, in theory, playing to the left side of the fairway does open up the angle marginally, but the orientation of the bunker means everyone has to play over it: no matter where you go, you have to face the noise.
Even so, the very thought of perhaps the left opening up the angle is far more advanced than most of the Victorian Era golf theories, writings, and real-world examples that somehow still exist, and credit to Willie Dunn for blending those lines. Nevertheless, dealing with the bunker regardless of how you approach the hole is a callback to the Victorian Era; as a golf course built in 1895 should be. Perhaps Willie Park Jr., who built numerous golf courses in Montreal, contributed, given his record at nearby Beaconsfield, and the much-closer Senneville, which no longer exists at the hands of Highway 40.
This is just one of the handful of examples of an interesting approach to bunkering a golf course, further proved by the par 5, 7th. 8 of the 13 total bunkers can be found on the only three-shot hole on the golf course: one directly off the tee, bleeding over from the green the golfer just crossed over, waiting to catch a topped ball. From there, three up the left and two up the right pinch the fairway, with the sole intent of penalizing a slightly off-centre hit. No concept of strategy, no thought of “left of right” to gain an advantage, just a simple concept: straight down the middle, or pay the price.
If the bunkering scheme does not have one convinced of a Victorian Era influence, perhaps the green complexes can tell a different story. Green complexes of the Golden Age can generally be found tucked into hillsides for drainage, or blended seamlessly into the landscape as if nature constructed them herself. At Braeside, they are not that advanced, and rather impose on the landscape. they are not that advanced here. Rather than sitting into the landscape effortless, most of the time at Braeside, they sit atop the ground on a risen green pad. A sharp drop-off around the edges only further provides difficulty, and certainly a different aesthetic than usual. At the par 3, 4th, the green blends into the landscape more, with a large-scale knoll at the back right of the green repelling balls, and gently rising with the landscape. At the 2nd, 7th, 9th, and particularly the 8th, the construction is obvious and jarring with nature.
Mild complaints could be laid towards the bunkering and the greens, which like most Victorian Era golf courses, do feature minimal strategic and aesthetic merit. The same cannot be said about the rock walls, which are brilliant and utilized affectively. Found at the 2nd, 8th, and 9th, they are utilized in a way that provides a fresh perspective each time. Not unlike The Fugees “Ready or Not,” Mario Winans “I Don’t Wanna Know,” and Metro Boomin, The Weeknd, and 21 Savage’s “Creepin'”, they all utilize the same sample, but provide a difference in how they deliver the end product.
This point is perhaps best showcased by the contrasting use of the wall on the 2nd and 8th, even with their similarities. On both holes, the golfer does not attack the wall on the tee shot, and not really greenside, either. Rather, the rock wall sits comfortably in front of the green surface. On the 2nd, it sits about 40 yards back, and because of the downhill nature of the approach shot, hides much of the surface. Strategically, a break in the wall suggests a straight drive down the middle will allow the golfer to view the flag. That theory is proven correct with a drive left or right of centre, as the rock wall stands tall above the playing surface behind. Regardless, given the nature of the firm-and-fast conditions of the ever-so-slightly neglected layout, the rock wall could potentially sit exactly where the golfer wants to land the ball to end up pin high.
Similarly, on the 8th—Braeside’s greatest hole, and a true doozy alongside the north perimeter of the property—the same strategy as the 2nd is chosen, although different in how it actually plays. The rock wall sits short of the green, but closer and more in play for all shots, not just the ones that attempt to run the ball up. Even more than the 2nd, the stakes are higher, so the challenge is ramped up: the rock wall hides the fall off on the right side and long, further accentuated by the rolling land presented, with the right side sitting lower.
Rather than playing directly over the rock wall like the 2nd and 8th, the 9th provides a new twist on the rock wall feature. At 255 yards, the final hole of the day is a short, drivable par 4, but the rock wall sits behind the green, not in front of it. I imagine someone at some time has banked it off the wall and back into play. In essence, it reminded me of some of the famous UK courses that have the clubhouse loom over the final green, protecting the back pin in a way unlike anywhere else.
I fully understand that the golf course is shaggier than one would hope for in a private club, and the greens are not exactly teething full of interest. A bunker is a true hazard here, and the natural grasses and trees pose a real issue for everyone, but even more for those with a higher handicap. Even so, if we convert the ‘Doak Scale’ to Canadian to adjust for inflation and establish a ’10’ as contending for the best golf course in the country (thinking: St. George’s, Jasper, Cabot), then I might give Braeside a 6 or 7. The Doak Scale was never meant to be a top 100 identifier, merely how far you would travel for a golf course, and given how interesting, unique, and chock-full of character Braeside is, I lean towards a must-see for the education of diehard golf architecture fans, and a bonus 9 hole for those who have an extra evening to spare.
To me, this is a perfect summarization of Braeside. No one in their right mind would rank this over Beaconsfield, Royal Montreal, Bruno, or any of the notable Montreal clubs, but you might include this in a trip to further one’s education on golf architecture. Maybe you just enjoy the low-key, quiet golf club that offers minimal hassle and acts as a suitable entry-level golf club to learn on. Special places like Braeside often get drowned out by a major metropolitan area like Montreal, and having the ability to play here—to step back in time, really—is a gift upon their cities golf scene. Rather than having to get a DeLorean to travel back in time in a very obvious Back to the Future reference, one can play Braeside to experience golf of yesteryear and enjoy the simple pleasures of the Victorian Era. With very few examples in Canada left to illustrate that era, Braeside might be the best.