Canada’s Top Golf Courses
by: Ian Andrew, Ben Cowan-Dewar, Jeff Mingay and Robert Thompson

February, 2005

Canada was home to one of the world’s greatest golf architects between 1925 and 1958, defined how great mountain expanses could be adapted to the game in the creation of Banff and Jasper and has golf courses built on some of the most unique terrain found anywhere in the world.

But with the exception of two examples—Stanley Thompson’s fabled Highlands Links and the esteemed St. George’s—golf architecture in Canada often seems overshadowed by the legendary fairways of its neighbor to the south. This unfortunate circumstance isn’t helped by the haphazard rating system employed by Canada’s leading national golf publication, which seems to highlight geographic anomalies and recent designs, and fails to acknowledge some of the country’s classic architecture in the process.

With that in mind, our group, including established renovation expert and architect Ian Andrew, budding golf designer Jeff Mingay, architecture enthusiast Ben Cowan-Dewar and golf columnist Robert Thompson, ranked the best courses in our country featuring the most interesting, and exciting golf architecture. Our list is not meant to be a scientific list—there were no criteria set for the ranking. Each individual was left to determine what creates a great golf course.

Not surprisingly, the list is heavy with Thompson’s work. No less than eight courses by the “Toronto Terror” appear on the list and five of the Top-10 were originally designed by Thompson. However, numerous other designers created courses on our list—including A.V Macan (Shaughnessy), Donald Steel (Redtail), and Harry Colt (Toronto and Hamilton). The list also includes some courses with an interesting place in design history—Brantford, originally created by Stanley Thompson’s brother, Nicol; Glen Abbey, Jack Nicklaus’ first solo design; and The National, one of the first courses where Tom Fazio worked as lead designer alongside his legendary uncle, George.

In an effort for complete disclosure, courses created by the firm Ian Andrew works for, Carrick Design, and clubs designed by Rod Whitman, who Jeff Mingay works alongside, are included in the list. When one of the group abstained from placing a course on the list because he was involved with its development to some extent, the other three panelists contended the course should have a spot. This list includes Carrick Design’s Osprey Valley, Bigwin Island and Eagles Nest, as well as Whitman’s Wolf Creek and Blackhawk. Any list of Canadian architecture missing these five courses would contain a glaring hole.

In the end, the aim of this exercise is to demonstrate the wide realm of great golf Canada has to offer. It is a group of courses few outside of the country’s borders have fully explored, though more would be better for the experience of having tried.

Below is our list of Canada’s “best” golf courses, along with photos and commentary. Commentators are identified throughout by their initials.

1. Highlands Links
Ingonish, Nova Scotia
Stanley Thompson, 1940

JM: Set along the ultra remote northeast coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Highlands Links is the most exciting golf course in Canada. Traversing more than 10-kilometres of rugged terrain from the first tee to the home green, Highlands Links begins along the Atlantic coast, heads into the Clyburn River valley for five holes, and then returns to the seashore in dramatic fashion at the par 5 fifteenth. Stanley Thompson’s late 1930s design follows the lay of the land brilliantly, and originally featured less than a handful of fairway bunkers.

Amazing contour through the green and an ever-present seaside breeze present the challenge at Highlands Links. In fact, holes 1, 2, 4, 7, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 18 possess some of the boldest contour in golf. Moreover, the putting greens at Highlands Links are arguably the most interesting and diverse set in Thompson’s portfolio today—2, 7, 14, 17, and 18 are a few of the most interesting green surfaces in Canada. Unfortunately, Highlands Links will always receive negative marks from a certain type of golfer focused on conditioning. Frankly, it’s very difficult to keep a course on the Atlantic coast of Cape Breton Island in an agronomic condition comparable to courses in less hostile environments. Some “turf minded” golfers visit Highlands Links and leave unimpressed. Bah humbug!

BCD: Canada’s best course! The setting is superior to Banff or Jasper, due to greater diversity and a superior routing over markedly better land. The strength lies in the par fives, which are well balanced and unique. However, the par fours as a set are also very strong, with the second being the best in Canada and truly innovative, with great contour and no bunkering. The prevalence of wind is as great here as anywhere in Canada and the movement throughout the property leaves interesting lies and plenty of ground-game options. The greens are without a doubt the finest set in Thompson’s collection. Highlands Links also has the greatest collection of all-world holes anywhere in Canada. Given the course’s remote location, it boasts something of an emotional tie, which few courses in the world rival. Having travelled to reach the course, I am met with a feeling that no course in Canada leaves me with. The course suffers from a short season and is best enjoyed in the late summer or early fall, as winter can loom well into the spring.

2. St. George’s
Toronto, Ontario
Stanley Thompson, 1929

The fifth hole, indicative of the great land St. George’s occupies.

JM: The development of St. George’s (originally Royal York) began with the essentials: outstanding property, and a very wealthy client willing to give a talented golf architect freedom to do his work. In my view, Stanley Thompson’s original, late 1920s design at St. George’s was nearly flawless. Although Robbie Robinson’s late 1950s redo of holes 3, 4, 9, and 15 detract from the brilliance of Thompson’s original design these days, St. George’s continues to present a wonderful variety of holes—including 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, and 18, which compare to the world’s best. The original third and fifteenth had been highlighted in golf publications as two of the best holes in golf before they were altered in preparation for the 1960 Canadian Open. Nonetheless, St. George’s is the best course in Canada today, at least in part because many aspects of Thompson’s original design have been reclaimed in recent years. In other words, Highlands Links and Hamilton could challenge St. George’s current supremacy, but both courses have lost much of their original luster as a result of natural evolution and redesign.

RT: Clearly Canada’s best and most consistent course and one of only two in GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 in the world. The new bunkers, inserted in 2003, have added the detail that makes this course fabulous to look at and fun to play. Strategy also abounds and the course has kept up pretty well to the changes in length without forcing changes in tees. The best (the par four #2, #13, #14) offer rewards for the brave and outs for the safer player. The finishing stretch—17 and 18—are as good as anything in Canada. There are weak holes here (#3 needs its green to be blown up, while #15’s green is in a strange spot, having been moved by Robinson), but the greatness far outweighs any shortcomings.

3. Jasper Park Lodge
Jasper, Alberta
Stanley Thompson, 1925

The serene 14th at Jasper.

JM: Long considered one of the world’s very best golf courses, Jasper possesses that too rare, ideal combination of interesting topography, a stunningly beautiful setting (amid Alberta’s glorious Rocky Mountains), and some equally outstanding golf architecture by Stanley Thompson. A typically brilliant Thompson routing produced a collection of remarkably varied holes at Jasper, including such well-known par 3s as the ninth and fifteenth. Dubbed “Cleopatra” by its legendary designer, Jasper’s ninth is one of the quirkiest holes in Canadian golf: a 200-yard plus hole played down the side of a steep slope littered with mounds and bunkers, to a relatively small green featuring ultra-steep fall-offs on three sides. The fifteenth, “Bad Baby”, is Canada’s “2 or 20” hole. Hit its tiny, volcano-like green from the tee and you’ll have a short birdie putt. Miss the green, and there’s some work to do to avoid taking a high score. Jasper’s par 4 fourteenth, featuring a picturesque, Cape-like tee shot over a section of Lac Beauvert, and the par 4 eighteenth, which Dr. Alister MacKenzie declared to be one of golf’s best finishing holes shortly after Jasper opened for play in 1925, are also somewhat notorious. However, a few of my favourite holes at Jasper are less talked about. Holes like the uphill par 4 first; the short par 5 second; the long par 3 fourth; and the par 5 thirteenth, featuring a bunker-less green hidden behind a high ridge in Alps-like fashion. Moreover, course manager Perry Cooper and his staff have done a remarkable job over the last few years and more reclaiming many characteristics of Thompson’s original design. Jasper is arguably the best-preserved Thompson design these days as a result.

IA: Jasper Park is the world’s greatest mountain golf course, combining wonderful golf terrain with breathtaking scenery. Each hole is completely different from the last and all are framed by a different mountain peak.What is very special about Jasper is the near flawless collection of par threes, all in different directions. From the tiny short 15th to the awesome 4th and 9th; the mixture of uphill, downhill, long and short provide the variety we wish every course could deliver. Add to this some of Thompson’s very best bunkering, a mountain, a walkable course in a mountain setting, and you have my favorite course in Canada.

4. Hamilton
Ancaster, Ontario
Harry Colt, 1914

The 10th at Hamilton.

JM: Harry Colt made two trips to Canada between 1911 and 1913 and set a new standard for golf architecture in our country at Toronto GC and Hamilton G&CC, respectively. Both courses were originally modeled after Colt’s previous work at Sunningdale and Stoke Poges in the healthlands southwest of London, England—rugged, textured courses, featuring deep, grass- and heather-faced bunkers, and an airy, heath-like sensibility.Although Hamilton has effectively been “tidied up” over the years, Colt’s original routing—the backbone of Hamilton’s genius—basically remains intact. It’s a brilliant routing over a dramatic piece of ground featuring some significant elevation change. Holes 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13, 17, and 18 stand out in my mind as nine of the very best holes in Canada as they lay across the inherent terrain. If the original “Colt aesthetic” was ever restored, Hamilton would likely vault to the top of my personal list of Canada’s very best golf courses. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. The Royal Canadian Golf Association recently assured Hamilton G&CC that its course is “ok” by awarding the club its second Canadian Open in three years, in 2006. In truth, Hamilton could use some work architecturally (particularly on the bunker styling and placement), which in a very strange way is a compliment. I mean, the fact that Hamilton finished so high on our final list of Canada’s Top 25 courses, despite some comparative shortcomings is a clear testament to the remarkable character of the property and the genius of Colt’s original routing.

IA: H.S. Colt came up with a wonderful routing for Hamilton. He created a course with large elevation changes and wonderful rolling fairways, all framed by large oaks and pines. The golf course proved during the last Canadian Open which it still has the strength to test the pros, while it remains a perfect golf course for membership play. The strength of the golf course is the par fours that traverse the major valley, with holes 3, 7, 10, 11, 12 and 18 all being standouts. The later holes on the back nine are on less interesting land, but still provide some wonderful golf. Hamilton would be the best course in Canada if it still had its original bunkering by Colt.

5. Banff Springs
Banff, Alberta
Stanley Thompson, 1928

The famous ‘Devil’s Cauldron’.

BCD: I wonder if this was Thompson’s best the day it opened and believe it may have been. The scale of the property is matched by some of the tremendous bunkering and mix of dramatic holes. For the course acclaimed for its ‘mountain’ setting, the property is fairly gentle with the exception of the dramatic fourth—‘Devil’s Cauldron’—and 15th which both plummet from severe heights. Thompson did make good use of the subtle movement that the property provided and as a result few holes feel truly flat. The par threes are among the strongest set of par threes, with five different shots and various demands. While the course no longer uses the original routing, I do not feel this detracts from the course at all. However, seeing Thompson’s work restored here, both in the greens and some of the bunkering would certainly be a tribute befitting one of the world’s grandest courses…

IA: When golfers arrive at Banff Springs, they are initially stunned by the setting of the course. What becomes even more impressive is how dramatic the golf course architecture is on the course, it is simply a visual feast. The bunkering was the best ever done in Canada. The artistry, the drama, the flair, the variety in shapes and sizes set Banff’s bunkers apart from all other Canadian courses. Add to this a great routing out along the mountainside and in along the river’s edge and you have an experience second to none. The final touch is the famous Devil’s Cauldron that is the most famous and best hole in Canada. Set against the sheer mountainside with a beautiful glacial lake in front Thompson’s has created arguably the most beautiful heroic hole in golf.

6. Capilano Golf and Country Club
, B.C.,
Thompson, 1937

RT: Arguably Canada’s most beautiful golf site, Capilano offers a mix of pretty holes with others that offer a lot of bite. The only issue with Capilano is its par fives (especially the first and third), which are actually par fours these days. It isn’t the architecture that lets Capilano down – it is still a fine example of Thompson’s work. However, some of the holes simply don’t offer the challenge they once did. Despite that, Thompson’s finishing stretch, the long par four 15th, the tough, long par three 16th (a necessity on a Thompson course), the grand 17th and the fascinating uphill finisher, are majestic, grand and difficult. Putting out on the 18th, under the club’s wonderful clubhouse, is one of the great experiences in Canadian golf.

BCD: The hardest property Thompson worked on, which is both a blessing and a curse. The drama of the course with its perch above Vancouver is striking and no hole could be described as severe, which is a testament to the routing. The course is unique among Thompson’s best, because there is not clear cut choice for the favourite hole, though stretches of the course make it wonderful. The closing stretch is super, with the 18th an ideal way to end a match. Bringing back the original 14th green could create one to the strongest closing stretches in Canada. One of Canada’s best city courses and it is difficult to imagine finding a better course on the property—clearly the best course in B.C.

7. Toronto Golf Club
, Ont.
Harry Colt, 1912

IA: Toronto Golf Club was the course that changed the face of Canadian golf. It was Canada’s first great championship golf course, and was the measuring stick of all future courses to follow. Colt created an outstanding heathland layout over a fine property featuring many natural valleys. Colt mixed his holes exceptionally well to create every possible type of approach. The layout’s strength is the middle fours, from the fifth to the fifteenth is one of the best collection of fours in Canada. As a tribute to Colt’s design, the course still remains as one of Canada’s best.

BCD: Like Cataraqui, Toronto Golf boasts a charm that lends favourably to golf in a pure sense. The low profile nature of the course befits its membership and Colt truly found the best course for the property. While seemingly a weaker sister to Toronto’s other ‘big’ courses, Toronto remains very strong and stands as a truer testament to Colt’s original work than does nearby Hamilton. Some exceptional choices in routing the golf course, left holes such as four and five to handily prop up the strength of the front nine across some tough terrain, while the ninth settles into the valley as if it was always there. The short four 12th hole is another beauty, which also displays Toronto’s perfect maintenance with the fringe mowed to the bunkers edge, affording even more protection from the short approaches.

8. National GC
, Ont.,
George and Tom Fazio
, 1976

RT: One of Tom Fazio’s earliest works, built alongside his uncle, George, The National still remains one of the best modern golf courses in Canada. It is also extremely tough and has held up nicely over the nearly three decades it has been in existence. The routing is terrific and several of the holes (#7, #9) are just great golf—interesting greens, tremendous tee shots. Despite the vibrancy of the course, The National has fallen out of fashion. Fazio and associate Andy Banfield have spent recent years tweaking several holes, moving bunkers and making the course even harder. It seems anachronistic in the era when most courses are developed to be fair and playable. But its strengths and design mean it will always reside among Canada’s best courses.

IA: This is by far the best of all the Fazio courses I have played or seen. The reason I think this course is great is mostly due to the clever routing on a very dramatic piece of land. The National remains the best and truest test of golf in Canada. While critics say is the architecture is too modern and the strategy requires mostly forced carries into greens. But you can not deny the excellent collection of individual holes. The fours and fives are very strong, particularly the awesome par fours at 7, 13 and 17.

9. Devil’s Paintbrush
, Ontario
Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, 1992

JM: The younger, sister course of Devil’s Pulpit, “The Paintbrush” is a rugged, imitation links in the hills of Caledon east of Toronto. There may not be two more contrasting courses belonging to the same club anywhere else in the world, in fact. The Pulpit and The Paintbrush are completely different golf experiences, which is wonderful for members of the Devil’s Pulpit Golf Association. Although I personally find the double-greens and sod wall bunkers a bit gimmicky at an inland site in Canada, I really enjoy golf at The Paintbrush (named after a wildflower that grows throughout the property). Quirks like the big hill guarding the entrance to the green at the par 5 second, the blind approach over a high ridge to the par 4 fifth, the dramatic two-tier green at the par 4 sixth, and the stone walls at the tenth and seventeenth holes add an authentic touch to this faux links. Moreover, the wild topography and fescue fairways present very interesting ground game options at many holes. And vistas across the property and toward downtown Toronto are stunning. My favourite holes at The Paintbrush include the uphill 290-yard third, with its wide fairway randomly peppered with pot bunkers; the long par 5 eighth, which features the stone ruins of an old farm building in the centre of the driving area and a 60-feet wide bunker just short of the green with a 15-feet high sod wall face; the long par 3 thirteenth, which is always voted one of the most difficult holes in Canada; and, the par 3 sixteenth hole, with its wild green. The two finishing holes are pretty sold par 4s as well.

IA: Devil’s Paintbrush is all about fun. The wildly contoured greens, the massive rolls in the fairways, blind shots, blind bunkers, sod walled bunkers stacked stone walls crossing fairways; it’s all here. The irrigation pond and the occasional over the top feature do little to blemish the effect. There are enough small details that make the course a joy to play. I can’t think of too many courses that allow you so many shot options throughout the day, it is simply a joy to play.

10. Eagles Nest Golf Club
Vaughn, Ont.,
Doug Carrick, 2004

RT: Carrick’s latest creation could arguably be the best modern course in Canada. Its massive fake dunes make the course look imposing, but there’s lots of strategy to the cross bunkers on holes like 12, and the bunkering on 18 makes for a great finishing shot. The only real downside to the course is its mix of bunker styles, between sandy blowouts and Scottish style pots. It is a mix that doesn’t quite work and I wonder if Carrick would have been more successful with one style, like Devil’s Paintbrush. While not quite Kingsbarns, Eagles Nest is a pretty remarkable accomplishment on a good, but not great, site. The bowl holes (#3 thru #7) and the par threes are exceptional.

BCD: Eagle’s Nest was a dramatic debut in the Toronto (and Canadian golf circles). The course shed the look, which many of Carrick’s new courses bore for a look that can only be equated to Whistling Straits and Tobacco Road. The scale of the property, more specifically the back nine is unmatched in Canada. There are some great risk-reward holes, with an emphasis on driving placement. Unique to the Canadian golf market, Eagle’s Nest has already elevated itself to one of Canada’s best.

11. Blackhawk Golf Club
, Alberta,
Rod Whitman, 2004

The elevated tee shot on the 11th.

BCD: Rod Whitman’s second course in Alberta, opening almost twenty years after Wolf Creek, bears little resemblance to the original. Artistic in design, the course also affords every golfer plenty of options. The bunkering rivals Coore and Crenshaw’s for sheer beauty, but they prove to be raw hazards as well. The greens as a set are some of the most interesting in Canada and the setting along the North Saskatchewan could not be more perfect for a dramatic back nine. The closing nine is among the strongest in the country and no modern course in Canada has impressed me more.

RT: Rod Whitman, who has worked with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, created this course on the outskirts of Edmonton.Runner-up in the 2004 Golf Digest Best New Course awards (robbed by the mediocre Faldo-design, The Rock), Whitman’s attention to detail is impressive, but not surprising given the amount of time he spent on site. To me, Blackhawk is one of the rare courses in Canada that has actually been developed in a style that is reminiscent of Stanley Thompson. While Doug Carrick and Thomas McBroom are often held up as products of Thompson’s work, their courses rarely reflect that widely held sentiment. Blackhawk looks and feels, in many ways, like a Thompson course, from the rugged bunker work to the lumpy fairways with their undulating contours. There’s lots here to interest all level of players—and the back nine, with fairways that run alongside a nice river valley backdrop, are majestic and rock solid.

12. Westmount G&CC
, Ont.
Thompson, 1931

IA: Westmount was carved out of a mature maple forest, but it’s not the trees that make the course, but the wonderfully uneven fairways which roll and cant in all sorts of interesting directions throughout the round. Westmount sometimes is underestimated for not being as flashy or as intimidating as other courses, but it still remains one of the best tests of golf in the country. Westmount’s strength is the wonderful collection of par fours, some like the 15th are truly exceptional. The course would definitely be considered much higher if it had the detail work found on other Thompson courses, particularly the bunkers.

RT: Too bad this course, originally one of Stanley Thompson’s best tracks, has seen trees encroach in so many places. The land is great—especially after you get by the first three opening holes. The fourth hole, which forces players to try to work the ball right to left, is among the best on the course. In its best spots, Westmount is bold, long, tough and fair. It also sports several of the wild fairways, reminiscent of Highlands Links, but rarely seen on Thompson’s Ontario courses. Green sites are often lay of the land, making for some interesting putts. However, recent renovation work by Tom McBroom has created two greens out of step with Thompson’s work.

A weak finisher, where trees force players to consider hitting an iron, also hurts the course. In fact, overgrowth of trees is common through Westmount. The ninth would make a much better finishing hole and has the wild fairway contours one expects from Thompson.

13. Wolf Creek
, Alberta
Rod Whitman, 1983


BCD: Rod Whitman’s gem located just south of Edmonton, Alberta. The course is comprised of three nines, but the original 18 (East and West) are still the strongest. The actual property is good and the holes take advantage of good movement from the land. Whitman takes pride in the fact that despite the fact that the course was heavily manufactured, it generally draws comments or its natural appearance. The influence of Pete Dye’s late 70s and early 80s work is evident, which depending on how you view that period with bulkheads and railway ties can strongly influence personal preference. Yet, two of the more natural holes—six on the ‘West’ and the opener on the ‘East’ are among two of the stronger (and more minimalist par threes to be found.)

JM: Located in remote, central Alberta, along Highway 2 about halfway between Calgary and Edmonton, the original eighteen-holes (the East and West nines) at Wolf Creek Golf Resort comprise Canadian Rod Whitman’s first solo design following a stint working with legendary golf architect Pete Dye in Texas during the early 1980s. (Whitman added a third nine at Wolf Creek—the South course—during the early 1990s.) Set on a sandy, windswept site, with many holes playing between imitation dunes, Wolf Creek exudes a links-character. Curiously, Wolf Creek’s pseudo-links appearance was completed a decade before Toronto’s Devil’s Paintbrush and Osprey Valley, and other faux links in metropolitan areas throughout Canada gained popularity. Whitman humbly chuckles over the large number of compliments he’s received for his “sensitive approach” to an excellent, natural prairie site, when in fact the property at Wolf Creek did not inherently present excellent opportunities for golf. Such compliments are a testament to Whitman’s talents as a golf architect, because more dirt was moved at Wolf Creek than at any other Whitman-designed project since. Artificial features tie seamlessly into native surrounds, and simply appear natural. Today, with its faux dunes covered with a hodge-podge of textured grasses, and bunker edges having been permitted to erode in style, Wolf Creek is undoubtedly the most rugged course in Canada. Moreover, Wolf Creek presents an outstanding variety of holes replete with dramatic contour through the green. As a result, the course plays much more difficult than its scorecard yardage of some 6,600 yards might suggest. And, while the original eighteen-hole course at Wolf Creek has long ranked amongst the top-25 courses in Canada, personally, I think the South nine features the best holes.

14. Cataraqui Golf and Country Club
, Ontario
Thompson, 1930

The closing hole at Cataraqui.

JM: I dislike the “term” but, Cataraqui is an excellent “member’s course”. Featuring an interesting collection of holes of varying length and difficulty, Cataraqui is easily walk-able, too. It’s the type of golf course I’d enjoy as a 10-handicap member, anyway. Stanley Thompson laid a new design over the original Cataraqui course during the late 1920s. Although it’s one of Thompson’s lesser-known designs throughout the world, Catarqui possesses some outstanding holes. Typical of Thompson’s work, the par 3s are particularly good. The second and fifteenth are long, brutish one-shotters, played uphill to elusive putting greens surrounded by hazards; the eighth is shorter, and less difficult, but definitely an interesting hole, too; and, the twelfth a classic drop-shot par 3 featuring a pond guarding the left-front of the putting surface and bunkers built into Thompson-esque mounds at rear. Catarqui’s par 4 first and eighteenth holes, separated only by a major roadway from the shore of Lake Ontario, occupy some very interesting terrain as well. (The eighteenth might be my favourite hole on the course). And, other stand out holes include the difficult, par 4 third (featuring an attractive, natural rock outcropping behind the green), the par 5 fourth (which possesses the most interesting green surface at Cataraqui), and the par 4 tenth. Writing this brief review makes me anxious to return to Cataraqui, actually!

BCD: Arguably one of Canada’s most charming courses, which despite its relative lack of length, still provides challenge and remains a joy to play. The strongest set of par threes that Stanley built, which is high praise given some of his tremendous work. The 2nd and 15th are among the very best long par threes I have ever seen, both playing uphill to targets that demand a great shot. The other two par threes are more modest in length, but equal in their exacting nature. From the near-perfect opening hole to the tremendous closing hole, the course moves across some dynamic land and proves a wonderful walk. The courses key weakness are the upper holes (5-7) that occupy the flattest land on the course and are a slight letdown after the superb opening four holes. Thompson’s work here is easy to spot and shows his sheer mastery.

15. Bigwin Island
Muskoka, Ont.
Doug Carrick, 2002

The strong finishing hole at Bigwin Island.

RT: With the best finishing hole in Canada, the strategy at Bigwin largely involves inner-angle bunkering. Wide fairways allow players to avoid these bunkers, but golfers are then forced with longer approach shots to greens that are fair, but tricky. Bigwin Island was part of a trend that saw architect Doug Carrick utilize fairways that are simply too wide in spots. While many will be awed by the drops in elevation on #6, #9 and #18, some of Carrick’s best strategies are employed on the long par fours that make up the meat of this course. The only real drawback at Bigwin is the par threes—which are all essentially the same distance and not particularly remarkable.

BCD: The course boasts a beautiful setting and a couple of dramatic holes, but overall leaves me unimpressed. The par threes as a set are quite weak and these non-descript holes hurt the course overall. Although the width of the fairways does encourage various angles of attack, I feel it could be pinched in at times. The two most dramatic holes—6 and 18—both provide some of the most spectacular vistas in Canadian golf. In fairness to the architect, the site was fairly severe and to navigate the routing was surely a challenge. The aforementioned closing hole is among the strongest in Canada, a truly wonderful risk-reward par five that begs the longer player to go for the green and gives the shorter player an arguable advantage by laying up. The unique nature of the place, beginning with the boat ride out the island, means that almost everyone enjoys the experience, regardless of whether the course lives up to its billing.

16. St. Thomas G&CC
St. Thomas
, Ont.
Thompson, 1932

IA: Ontario’s best kept secret. While there are a couple of head scratcher’s that stop this from being one of the truly elite courses in Canada, the course still has so many standout holes that it is well worth going out of your way to play. While overshadowed by the famous neighbour at Red Tail, it still remains a much better course. What sets St. Thomas apart is the landscape, both Thompson and Robinson used the natural valleys to create a series of spectacular holes. Very few courses have this much variety of terrain. St Thomas has that very rare feature, a full set of great par fives, next to Highland Links, this is probably Canada’s best set. Great greens, great threes, great fours, just a great place to play!

RT: A Stanley Thompson course that has been significantly reworked by Robbie Robinson, St. Thomas is built on an interesting, hilly piece of land. Though there are some missteps here—like the questionable second green site—greatness also abounds, especially on the third hole, a tough two shot hole that ranks alongside Toronto’s ninth as one of the best par fours in Canada. The greens are a bit extreme in spots, but the best holes, like the 18th, are examples where the holes fit the land perfectly.

17. Redtail Golf Club
Port Stanley
, Ontario
Donald Steel and Tom MacKenzie, 1990

JM: Located just outside the town of St. Thomas, not far from London, Redtail is the private haven of Chris Goodwin and John Drake—two well traveled, and observant Canadian golfers. In fact, Goodwin and Drake’s attention to detail is unparalleled in modern golf development. Everything about Redtail – including its ultra cool, official name: Redtail Golf Course—is elegantly simple. Set in an open area adjacent to the home hole, Redtail’s modest, tutor-style clubhouse appears robbed from the English heathlands. Golfers play past it en route to the eighteenth green, much like at the National Golf Links of America. Then there’s the ivy covered entrance gates (which are nearly impossible to find without very specific directions to the course), the winding entrance road which meanders between holes 15 and 16, providing first-time visitors an exciting preview of what’s to come, and the path crossing the eighteenth fairway just short of the home green that takes golfers from the clubhouse to the first tee. These are but a few of the interesting quirks that make Redtail so special. Occupying a gently rolling, sparsely treed property, the Redtail course is also very simple. From tee-to-green, Steel and MacKenzie’s architecture is very much lay-of-the-land. Thinking back on my four rounds at Redtail, I don’t recall a single driving area bunker throughout the course. However, Goodwin likes to keep the fairways very narrow, placing very high demand on driving straight, because, Redtail’s greens are very difficult to hold from the rough. Artificially pushed up above the level of the fairway at most holes, they are relatively tiny surfaces replete with dramatic slope and bold contour. Redtail might not be the best course in Canada, but it’s arguably the most interesting, and unique place for golf in our country.

BCD: The ambience of Redtail is among the best in the game of golf, bar none. The low-profile club boasts a fitting golf course to match, which traverses a tough piece of property that is bisected by ravines. The front nine is routed around the ravines and holes and yields some neat holes like the wild long par four, third hole. The back nine is much stronger, with the par fives at 12 and 18, as well as the formidable par three 14th. True to the mystic of the place, the closing hole plays past the clubhouse (similar to NGLA) and the play coming in can be observed from the veranda.

18. Rosedale GC
, Ont.
Tom Bendelow and Donald Ross
, 1922

IA: Rosedale is perhaps the best place to be a member in Toronto. The golf course is a wonderful Bendelow/Ross course set in the Don Valley. From the high tee shot down into the valley on the first through to the spectacular 17th green, the course is full of enjoyment and fun. The routing is excellent, and the mixture of holes makes for a very enjoyable round of golf. The weakness lies in the number of architects who have worked at Rosedale and how obvious much of that work has become. Where the course is original, it is exceptional, where it has been altered, it is too obvious to blend in. Regardless of the changes, Rosedale is simply a joy to play.

BCD: Rosedale is a very good golf course, which boasts one of the most idyllic settings of any city golf course I have seen. The course moves down into the Don Valley and actually traverses the eponymous river on the valley floor. The feeling of isolation in Canada’s biggest cities, has always been a wonderful drawing card of the place. The great holes through the valley are numerous—1, 3, 7, 14, 15 and 17. The uphill par three 13th is among the most difficult one shotters in the country and highlights a good set of par threes. The course benefits from its exclusive nature, though it certainly provides the most ideal setting and location for golf anywhere in Toronto.

19. Scarboro Golf and Country Club
, Ontario
A.W. Tillinghast, 1912

JM: Plain and simply, Scarboro is fun to play. For my taste, it might be the most under-rated golf course in Canada—at least in part because of its location, in Toronto’s poorest and most volatile neighbourhood these days. Nonetheless, Scarboro is an excellent course—legendary golf architect A.W. Tillinghast’s lone design in Canada in fact. At 6,500 yards long, Scarboro seems short on paper. However, the course possesses a tremendous variety of holes, including three long par 5s at the 576 yard first, 560 yard sixth, and 527 yard tenth, which bends hard right and thus plays much longer if you drive left. Mid-length par 4s at 3, 5, 8, 13, and 18 also play more difficult than the scorecard suggests, principally due to the nature of the terrain, which presents uneven lies and severely sloped greens. Scarboro’s greatest attribute though is its short holes. As a collection the par 3s are stellar. The 200-yard plus second is arguably one of the best one-shot holes in Canada. And, the 276-yard seventh and 320-yard fifteenth holes are two of neatest short par 4s I’ve encountered to-date. Scarboro finishes with an interesting short hole as well, a ‘bye hole’—the 100-yard or so nineteenth—a remnant of the club’s original course which Tillinghast designed over, that plays back toward Scarboro’s unique, and very impressive clubhouse. All things considered, if I were a Torontonian in search of a golf club, I’d join Scarboro.

RT: There’s a chance Scarboro is Canada’s most under-rated golf course. A Tillinghast design, the only one in Canada, Scaboro is a quirky, Old World gem hidden in suburbia. But what a course it is. It starts simply enough, with a straight-away par five, but once it hits the second hole, a 204-yard par three, Scarboro rarely lets up, demonstrating a creative, clever design, with severe greens and interesting land. The best holes are the short fours. It could be argued that Scarboro’s short fours measure up nicely aside from some of the great British links courses. Specifically, the seventh hole, a 284-yards, would appear to be a pushover. But with its diminutive green angled strongly from back to front, the hole is one of the greats. You could pound a drive to the bottom of the hole and still not make par—or you could lay back and hit an easy sand wedge to the middle of the green and make two putts.

20. Shaughnessy G&CC
Vancouver, B.C.
A.V. Macan, 1961

IA: It’s hard to believe a top 25 course in Canada will be gone in 28 years, but that is how long this one has left. The course set overlooking the mouth of the Fraser on land that is mostly flat, but the course is beautifully framed by a wonderful selection of mostly evergreens. AV Macan did a remarkable job of creating interest by mixing the slopes of the greens to vary the types of approaches. While subtle in appearance, it plays a huge part in how you manage your game at Shaughnessy; making it anything but a one trick pony. Holes like the 10th and 11th are well worth playing, the short 14th is also another of Macan’s clever decision holes where going for the short four comes with a massive risk. Macan did a wonderful job with the course, and can’t be blamed for things like the foolishness at the 4th tee. The course may be a little too flat, and the bunkering a little to modern, but it still remains a wonderful golf course all the same.

RT: A.V. Macan’s course is subtle and interesting, featuring smart greens and shot values. The architecture at Shaughnessy is strong on a piece of land that is not overly dramatic and often quite flat. Over time, some of the best views of the Vancouver bay have disappeared along the 10th hole, a stunning par five, but the hole and its ability to force golfers to carefully consider their options remains in tact. Even greens are subtle, but occasionally mystifying. Take the third hole, a mid-length par three with a fall-away green. The ninth hole, a long par four with interesting fairway contours and difficult bunkering, also features a green that is difficult, but ultimately fair. That’s perhaps Macan’s greatest success at Shaughnessy – he created holes that force players to consider the implications of every shot before they make it.

21. Osprey Valley (Heathlands)
Orangeville, Ont.
Doug Carrick, 1994

An aerial shot of the Heathlands at Osprey Valley

IA: The setting does not inspire—a former flat site that was stripped for gravel and left abandoned. The property was small and the land is framed by a road and a railroad track. Where the course comes to life is the details. The mixture of bold green contours, chipping hollows, pot bunkers, knobs, rolls, walls and other features makes for a fun place to play. The golf course can be played anyway you like, even along the ground. What makes a round at Osprey memorable is not the look or the links style, but the type of game you are invited to play. You have optional routes, bunkers in the centre of play, feeder slopes, backstops and hollows that sling the ball away all to use ofr avoid in trying to make shots. Osprey may not be pretty, but it’s still one of the most fun golf courses there is.

RT: Built in a heathlands style, the rustic nature of Osprey Valley, including the lack of a clubhouse, is part of its charm. While not as openly quirky or exceptional as the nearby Devil’s Paintbrush (that would be against Doug Carrick’s nature—he likes things all out in front), Osprey Valley is a sum of its parts. Some of those parts are pretty amazing. Take, for example, the fourth hole, with its straight ahead tee shot and clever, pushed up green. There’s not a bunker in site, but the hole’s simplicity is indicative of the course’s strength. The following hole, another lengthy par four, features numerous bunkers and a difficult green. In both cases, and like all of his best holes, Carrick forces players to consider angles of approach and play to their strengths. A great example of a terrific golf course built on terrifically unexceptional land.

22. Essex Golf and Country Club
, Ontario
Donald Ross, 1929

BCD: The Donald Ross greens are a wonderful set, which do their best to dictate strategy throughout. The greens stand out both because of Ross’ influence, but also because they dominate a very mediocre property, which is the flattest on our list. The clubs recent commitment to restoring the course will prove beneficial in the long run and will arguably make it Canada’s Pine Tree.

JM: Located on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, in a suburb of Windsor, Ontario, Essex was the last of some sixteen Donald Ross-designed golf courses constructed in and around the Motor City; and only one of a handful of courses designed or remodeled by Ross throughout Canada. Today, Essex is undoubtedly the best example of Ross’ architecture in our country. Although fairway bunker schemes have been significantly altered over the years, Ross’ original routing is intact, and only one putting surface (at the par 4 sixth) has been modified since the course opened for play in 1929. Ross’ design is elegantly simple, featuring a smart routing over a flat, 126-acre tract and eighteen remarkably individual green complexes. In fact, the course’s most compelling attribute is variety. A series of drainage swales throughout the property offer some topographic relief, here and there, and Essex’ trees—some old oaks and a few remaining elms—add markedly to the beauty of the course as well. During the 2002 Canadian Senior Open, Ben Crenshaw described Essex as “an absolutely beautiful depiction of how to do an interesting golf course on flattish terrain.” I agree.

23. The Links at Crowbush Cove
, Prince Edward Island
Thomas McBroom, 1994

Looking back on the 16th hole at Crowbush.

JM: Crowbush Cove occupies one of the most romantic properties in Canada dedicated to golf, amid the sand dunes on the north shore of Prince Edward Island. The first hole is a mid-length par 4 that takes golfers away from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, into a pine forest for four holes, including a potentially drive-able par 4 at the second. The long par 5 fifth plays back toward the shore, followed by a three-hole loop that presents golfers with their first sense of the sea. It’s at the par 5 eleventh though, with its back tee set high atop a dune ridge adjacent to the Gulf, that golfers get a real sense of the spectacular nature of the setting at Crowbush Cove. A look down the shoreline, along the dunes and beach below is breathtaking. In my opinion, Crowbush Cove’s best holes are at the finish. The fifteenth is a mid-length par 4 that also heads toward the sea, and features a very attractive, low-profile green with a large sand dune as a backdrop; the short par 4 sixteenth plays along the shore, over a large tidal basin off the tee; the 115-yard seventeenth features an uphill tee shot to a blind, heavily contoured green surface surrounded by native vegetation and a few deep bunkers (absolutely my favourite hole at Crowbush); and, eighteen is a classic finisher, a big par 4 that plays downhill off the tee then uphill over a rolling fairway to the green. Although its eighth place standing on SCOREGolf magazine’s 2004 ranking of the top-100 courses in Canada is arguable, Crowbush Cove is special.

BCD: Heralded Canadian architect Tom McBroom’s best course, located in eastern Canada. The site of Crowbush is truly stunning, replete with sand dunes and an oceanside setting. However, one of Crowbush’s strengths are the routing of the earlier holes. Immediately the golfer turns inland and does not return to the water until the seventh hole, which means clever holes were needed. The short par four second is one of the best modern fours in Canada, whose devilish green and tight bunkering provide a great buffer against technology. The hole is following on the option riddled par five third hole, which is easily reachable, however tough to birdie. Where the course is by the sea, the golfer’s heart is clearly warmed and it does two loops to the water on either nine. Lambasted by many, the quirky 17th, which plays uphill and to a blind green provides many of the challenges that Sawgrass’ 17th does, however Crowbush fails to get its deserved respect.

24. Brantford G&CC
, Ont.
Nicol Thompson, 1906

IA: Brantford is a course that is admired, but never loved. Until recent tree removal finally opened up the course, many felt it was a tougher test than even The National. The strength is not from length, multiple deep bunkers or even crazy greens. Brantford remains just a solid unrelenting test of golf, the long par fours are very tough in particular. The routing takes the player in and out of the Grand valley with some great drops and large valleys, the fours and fives are really solid but the first four par threes are all exceptional! The more trees that come out the more playable the course gets, and the ongoing bunker renovation which should add more character to this solid but plain layout.

RT: Brantford is a mix of the mundane and brilliant. The opening holes, strung together by Stanley Thompson’s lackluster pro, Robbie Robinson, give way to brilliance on the third when the course heads into the Grand River Valley. There are some exceptional holes here, including all the par threes—the third, with its difficult, hillside green; the 9th, with its perched green devilishly protected by a grassy chasm; and the 15th, with its quarry like setting. Probably not among Thompson’s best courses, it is on par with the second tier and the likes of Cataraqui and St. Thomas.

25. Glen Abbey
, Ont.,
Jack Nicklaus, 1976

BCD: I am seemingly the greatest defender of this course in our panel and it is not a personal favourite. The style of the course has certainly gone out of vogue, but it is also among the more natural early works of Nicklaus Design. While it is plagued by some weak holes on the front nine, which border a housing development and reside on the flat portion of the property there are a few holes worth mentioning, namely the second and the ninth, both good par fours, which typical of Nicklaus place strong emphasis on the approach. The back nine alone though makes this course on of Canada’s best, after the clunker 10th, the course plunges into the valley holes, which truly make the course. Bisected numerous times by 16 Mile Creek, the valley holes are all strong strategic holes and use the land well before going back uphill to the unique closing holes. Modern technology has taken some of the teeth out of this tournament layout, though it can clearly still hold its own.

RT: One of Jack Nicklaus’ earliest courses, the Abbey, just outside Toronto, was built on the site of an earlier Howard Watson design. The course offers two distinctive nines—the opening nine is set on a flat stretch of land around the clubhouse, while the final holes are more dramatic, with many running along a stunning river valley.

One has to keep in mind that the course was created to host the Canadian Open and was built in an theater style similar to that of Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village. Even though the opening holes are often criticized as being dull, there are standouts, like the fascinating second hole, with its strategic drive and small green which forces players try to place their tee shot on the right side of the fairway, or the ninth hole, a long par four with a putting service protected by a large pond. It is the holes 11 through 18 where the course really excels. It is hard to imagine Nicklaus going awry given such a great piece of property, and though the mounding, aimed at giving spectators a good view of the proceedings, is a bit intrusive in spots, the holes stand nicely on their own.

Only the 18th, once a great risk/reward par five, has fallen victim to technology, though it still provides a strong challenge for most amateurs.

Honorable mentions:

Lookout Point
Font Hill, Ont.

Walter Travis, 1922

IA:This is by far the best routing that I have seen by Walter Travis. There is a wonderful mix of downhill, uphill, and sidehill holes that all test your game. The topography is wonderful and Walter allowed the natural roll of the land to dictate play. The reason Lookout remains high on my personal list is that the course rewards a player willing to run a ball onto the greens. Many greens are pitched away from play, and most of the holes punish a long shot severely. Lookout rewards a gentle and subtle approach, and punishes an overly aggressive attempt, I have always been a great fan of this style of design.

, Ontario
Donald Ross, 1926

JM: Hmmm… it’s been too long since I’ve seen Vernon Macan’s Victoria Golf Club. Unfortunately, detailed memories of that intimate, seaside layout at Oak Bay, Victoria, British Columbia have faded. Otherwise, I suspect it would be my “honourable mention” choice. Instead, I’ve chosen Roseland: a 1926 Donald Ross-design in my hometown. Occupying a brutally flat piece of ground, Roseland’s definitely not one of Canada’s top-25 courses. But it’s noteworthy. Much like its younger sister course at nearby Essex G&CC, Roseland features an excellent variety of holes that result from a smart routing over tight 124-acre property, and some very interesting green surfaces. In fact, I think Roseland possesses a few more interesting greens than Essex. Roseland’s greens tend to feature more abrupt contour and slope, which I think results from the fact the course was constructed by a contractor that had never built a golf course before. Essex’ outstanding reputation was built on the architectural quality of its putting greens, which says something about Roseland: a muni (owned and operated by the city of Windsor since 1972) that simply doesn’t get the attention the much more opulent Essex attracts. Ross’ original routing and all eighteen green surfaces are still intact these days, but Roseland’s basically a mess. Typical of a municipal course, unfortunately, most original fairway bunkers are missing. Remaining sand hazards are in very bad shape. And the course is sadly over-cluttered with junk trees. Curiously though, these sad facts only magnify how an efficient routing, an excellent variety of holes, and an interesting set of greens can keep an aged, messed up course current. At under $40, a round at Roseland might be the best bargain in Canadian golf today.

Mount Bruno Golf & CC
St. Bruno
, Quebec,
Willie Park, 1919

RT: Willie Park’s most interesting Canadian creation is a true hidden gem. Tough to find, resting a half hour outside Montreal, the course, like Toronto Golf, appears to be a throwback to another era. But that doesn’t mean it lack bite. Interesting fairway contours, which can be witnessed throughout the course, but especially on the back nine, make Bruno akin to Stanley Thompson’s work. Not surprisingly, Thompson did some limited work at Bruno. More recently Thomas McBroom has redone the bunkers and removed hundreds of trees, opening Bruno up and making it play more like the inland links that Park intended. The best holes, like the stretch between 11 and 14, rival any course in Canada with their tremendous topography and minimalist flair. Worth playing, if you can find a way on to this exclusive club.

St. Charles C.C.

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Alister MacKenzie (1931) and Donald Ross (1919)

BCD: The main 18 holes are comprised of nine holes by Alister MacKenzie and nine holes by Donald Ross. With such pedigree, it is little surprise the course is widely considered the best in the province of Manitoba. However, through the years some of the greatness was lost and the club has rightfully retained Mike DeVries, whose work at the club has been well received by the membership. Among DeVries main objectives has been to restore green sizes and bunker shapes and while the progress continues, it is a positive sign for the clubs future. The property is indicative of the land that graces Winnipeg and as such is flat, so DeVries work on greens and bunkering mean even more to the future character of the course. Well worth a look should travels ever take you to Winnipeg, which also boasts another Ross course; called Pine Ridge, which I am told, is also worth a look.

The End