I've been working on a list of the Top 25 courses in Canada alongside my Golf Club Atlas compatriots, Ben Cowan-Dewar, Ian Andrew and Jeff Mingay. We'll eventually post a full-on piece on GCA, but in the meantime, I've spent some time working through my top 25 list. It is interesting -- there's very little that I consider strong that doesn't make the list. Some new stuff, like Tom McBroom's Wildfire, Doug Carrick's Angus Glen South and his wasteland course at Osprey Valley narrowly don't make the list. Ron Joyce's Fox Harb'r also misses.
Of course, the much-vaunted Magna Golf Club, which is a great place to have lunch and a fun place to play, also misses the list, even if David Kaufman, the club's executive director, thinks it is the best golf course in Canada.
There's a chance this list will change, but here it is, for the time being.
1. St. George's
Clearly Canada's best and most consistent course and one of only two in the 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 Robbie Robinson), but the greatness far outweighs any shortcomings.
Some, including Score Magazine, have offered this as the best course in Canada. It is pretty close. Built over a dramatic routing that runs through wooded valleys and featuring frequent shifts in elevation, Hamilton only misses on the details. Why not take the bunkers back to the Colt style?
3. Highlands Links
Though there are concerns about the conditioning of this gem, it is clearly one of the world's great routings. The opening hole is meek enough, but the beastly second hole gives golfers a pretty good taste of what's in store for them the rest of the way. Great rolling fairways, created by nature, mean level lies are few and far between. The isolation of this course, with its classic hotel, make Highlands Links one of the great golf experiences in the world. Let's hope it stays that way.
Some think Banff is Stanley Thompson's best mountain course -- but I disagree. Largely untouched since Thompson built it, Jasper offers the elevation shifts one expects from a course built four hours into the Rocky Mountains. While its fine finishing hole may not offer the punch it once did, Jasper has character and challenge in one of the most remarkable settings in Canada. It doesn't hurt that the restoration work that's been done at the course was done in house and with great respect to Thompson's work.
One of Tom Fazio's earliest works, built alongside his uncle, George, 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. The National has sort of fallen out of fashion, but it's strengths and design mean it will always reside among Canada's best courses.
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 (the first, third, ninth) are actually par fours these days. But the 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, make for one of the toughest closing stretches.
7. Devil's Paintbrush
Dana Fry's great faux links built on a rolling stretch of farmland. It offers the punch of a great golf course, despite being less than 6,800 yards long, with the quirk expected from some of the best in Scotland and Ireland. I don't care for the pond on 15, but there are few things to gripe with other than that issue. The wall that runs through the course suits it perfectly -- and the understated setting only adds to the fun.
8. Eagles Nest
Doug 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. While not quite Kingsbarns, it is a pretty remarkable accomplishment on a good, but not great, site. The bowl holes (#3 thru #7) are exceptional.
9. Bigwin Island
Featuring the best finishing hole in Canada, the strategy at Bigwin largely involves inner-angle bunkering. Wide fairways allow players to avoid these bunkers, but players are there forced with longer approach shots to greens that are fair, but tricky. Many will be awed by the drops in elevation on #6, #9 and #18, but the real teeth of the course is its rock-solid par fours.
Harry Colts' gem has rarely been touched since it was created at the turn of the last century. Despite an average start, the fifth and ninth, two terrific par fours, offer drama and force the player to hit long, straight tee shots in order to even attempt to make the greens. The greens are also a great part of Toronto -- sometimes subtle, like the opening hole, often wild, like the Redan on #4.
Its too bad the detail work at Banff -- mainly bunkers -- has been so botched over the past two decades. Banff has largely been considered Thompson's best mountain course, but there is an increasing number of people who think it has been eclipsed by Jasper, which has been altered far less.
Still, there is greatness here, including the tee shot on the old opening hole, and the bunker work on the old 18th. Don't let anyone convince you the course has been destroyed by the alterations -- it is still fun to play and the views, especially along the Spray River, are amazing.
Too bad this course, another Thompson work, has seen its trees encroach on its fairways so much. The land is great -- especially after you get by the first three opening holes. A weak finisher, where trees force players to consider hitting an iron, hurts the course -- but the ninth, a much better finishing hole, has the wild fairway contours one expects from Thompson.
A.V. Macan's course is subtle and interesting, featuring interesting greens and shot values, even if the land is not overly dramatic.
14. Osprey Valley Heathlands
A great example of a golf course built on unexceptional land. 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 as the nearby Devil's Paintbrush (that would be against Doug Carrick's nature -- he likes things all out in front), Osprey Valley has some great green sites.
Canada's best example of minimalist golf is probably more fun than it is great. The experience is amazing, but it is the holes like #3 and #13 that make Redtail exceptional. The third is my favourite, with its right to left green and interesting green site -- located just over a small chasm. Some of it doesn't work (the 9th and the 18th are a bit of a letdown), but by and large Redtail is fun and charming.
One of the most overlooked golf courses in Canada, this is Tillinghast's only creation in Canada. While some of the bunkering has been grassed over, there are great examples of strong architecture throughout. Take the par three fourth, with its green site perched next to a small creek, or the series of fascinating short fours. The best of the bunch, like the 7th, offer a risk/reward rarely seen in modern golf. Its elevated green makes an iron your best bet off the tee -- but its short length (270 yards) means more people will go for the green and make bogey on its difficult green. The following hole is reminiscent of the great links of Scotland, with a fairway that falls 40 feet and a blind tee shot. Playing at Scarboro feels like the real thing.
Rod Whitman, who has worked with Coore and Crenshaw, created this course outside of Edmonton. It looks akin to Thompson's work -- from the rugged bunker work to the lumpy fairways with their interesting 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 terrific.
18. Mount Bruno
Subtle is the word at Bruno. Like Scarboro, it feels like old world golf. Time made alterations at Bruno -- trees grew wildly at one point -- but Tom McBroom's restoration was nicely done with a strong understanding of what the course represents. The best holes -- the uphill par four ninth and the par five 12th -- offer interesting bunkers and great green sites. Bruno could be the most underappreciated course in Canada, largely because so few ever see it.
In the triumvirate of Thompson courses, including Brantford and St. Thomas, Cataraqui stands out, largely do to the strengths of its par threes. The best are long and tough (#2, #15). The finishing hole, with its green set in a stadium type setting with interesting surrounds, is fun and worth another look.
20. Crowbush Cove
Some think this is Canada's best modern course. They are wrong -- but there is lots to like at Crowbush. The best holes are in the dunes, at the end of the opening nine and in the middle of the back nine. However, there's lots of ordinary, McBroom style holes here, which are underwhelming for a course some hold in such esteem.
21. St. Thomas
A Thompson course that has been significantly reworked by Robbie Robinson, St. Thomas is built on great land. The greens are a bit extreme in spots, but the best holes, like the 14th and 18th, are examples where little land was moved in creating great golf holes.
While its opening holes are dull, there are some exceptional holes here, including the par three third, the 9th, with its perched green, and the 15th, with its quarry like setting. Probably over-rated by many, Brantford is a great members course with a few interest
23. Lookout Point
Walter Travis created this quirky course, full of small greens and strange, but often wonderful, golf holes. The first and the 9th rival the fabled 11th at Glen Abbey and the 18th, with its green set beneath the clubhouse, is terrific. In between there's some interesting stuff going on, including extreme greens, like the second hole, a tough par three.
Another Hurdzan/Fry course -- this one situated on a picturesque river valley in Prince Edward Island. Massive bunkers and wide fairways are the rule of the day here. The finishing hole, with its 20-foot deep bunker, presents a great risk/reward scenario for the big hitter.
25. London Highlands
With a bunker restoration finished, Highlands may be one of Thompson's most overlooked and underappreciated courses. There is a lot of great holes here -- the short, par four ninth with its severe green is clearly among them. The finishing stretch -- the 230-yard par three 15th, the 16th with its strange fairway and the final holes, both strong fours -- ranks among the best in Canada.