Underrated Provinces for Golf in Canada

Underrated and underappreciated golf in Canada.

The simple fact is there is not a Cabot Cliffs or a Banff Springs in every province in Canada.  With respect to the quantity and quality of golf options, provinces across Canada are simply not the same.  The PGA of Canada and Golf Canada co-authored a report, Golf Facilities in Canada 2017, which provides data and information on golf facilities and development in Canada.  One thing that is interesting to this report is their provincial breakdown on the quantity and type of courses available – 6, 9, 12 and 18 hole courses, including resorts, public and private clubs.  http://golfcanada.ca/article/golf-canada-and-the-pga-of-canada-publish-golf-facilities-in-canada-2017-report

In late 2017 I had set up a Twitter poll asking followers to identify the province they feel is most underrated and underappreciated in terms of the quality of public golf available.  Results were modest and by no means provide any scientific data, but do provide insight to the hunch I had that a valid case can be made for all four of these provinces as being underrated and underappreciated.

 

Saskatchewan

With about 10% of Canada’s course offerings there is considerably more to choose here than one might think.  Saskatchewan is only second behind Ontario in 9-hole courses and the ratio is courses to the population base is quite high.  But add a qualitative component to it and only Dakota Dunes appears as a consensus top 100 course in the country.  Perhaps this just proves the point though, as courses like Waskesiu, Kenosee and Moon Lake (among others) are admired by those who play them.  I have a business trip this spring in Regina and will aim to get 2-3 rounds, so look for more insight.  I’ve played Waskesiu and as a Stanley Thompson design, it’s a sensational golfing experience.  Dakota Dunes is rightfully situated well within the country’s top 100 courses, it is fantastic.  It’s a region I would love to spend more time playing.

Lobstick Tree

Lobstick Tree at Waskesiu in the first fairway

Newfoundland and Labrador

Not exactly top of mind when one thinks golf in Canada and that alone can sway opinion.  But what they lack in terms of quantity they more than make up for in terms of quality.  With only 22 courses/facilities available in the province a focus on two will help make the case for those who voted NL.  Canadian Golf Magazine, in 2015, voted Humber Valley Resort as the 37th best course in the country.  Located on the western side of Newfoundland, south of Deer Lake and north of Corner Brook, this course is a must play for visitors to the Island. The course website has some of the most incredible visual images of the course which will make you want to book your travel for next year.  Within St. John’s, Graham Cooke designed Clovelly Golf Club has two courses but it is the Osprey Course which players will want to experience (likely more than once).  In a pinch for time in St. John’s?  Try Pippy Park which has 27 holes.  Admiral’s Green is their 18-hole course and the view from the par 3 7th is worth the green’s fees alone.  A long fall season will allow players chances to often play well into November.  But to me, Newfoundland will always be an underrated province for golf.  With a few strong, quality options it is certainly underappreciated.

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Minutes from the airport, Admiral’s Green at Pippy Park will give you some incredible views of St. John’s

 

New Brunswick

Here, the challenges seem to be the rather large shadow cast from the quality of golf in Nova Scotia (the Cabot courses alone are driving a boom) and the marketing machine and marriage of value and quality of golf in Prince Edward Island.  Yet that aside, New Brunswick with a population just over 750,000 has over 50 golf facilities available (54 to be exact).  The provinces geography is such that courses are likely no more than an hour away for anyone.  Algonquin holds the mantle of the best course in the province and rightfully so in my opinion.  Rated 77th in Canada in 2015 by CGM (and underrated at that), like Saskatchewan this is the only course cracking the top 100.  But other courses like Royal Oaks, Kingswood, Gowan Brae and unique Herring Cove all add merit to New Brunswick being high on this list.  Worthy of its own accolades, New Brunswick complements the quality of golf in the Maritimes and in so many ways merit its own unique praise.

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The signature hole at Algonquin is their par 3 12th.  Sensational and part of a fabulous stretch of golf holes.

Manitoba

I must confess, I have never golfed in Friendly Manitoba.  And while this is about to change this summer with a visit to Winnipeg.  No one better to connect with on this then Jeremy Kehler of Prairie Golf Magazine.  He was quick to point out that the omission of Granite Hills from top Canadian course rankings is confusing.  Just over an hour outside of Winnipeg it seems he is not underselling this based on my conversations and preliminary research on this course.  Other courses identified, like Minnewasta and Falcon Lake show a level of quality which should not be surprising given the province boasts 130 golf facilities.  Included in this is the country’s only 6-hole course!  After the summer is complete I will have an informed opinion to share but for now I will let Jeremy and others beat the drum for Manitoba.  Fact is it was tied for first with 30% of responses citing Manitoba most underrated and underappreciated.

The winner of this debate is the public player.  Shining a light on the provinces (and great courses within) that don’t get enough golf love provide us chances to get off the beaten path and identify our own golf destinations and courses which we want to play.

Let me know if there is a course you know in any of these four provinces which should be on players and visitors radar.

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My best 18 holes (so far)

Here’s an interesting reflection. Looking over all the courses in Canada that I have played, I’ve drawn up my favourite and some of the most memorable golf holes which correspond to where each hole can be found on its scorecard. From this I am pleased to share my best 18 – and as the title indicates – so far. Most courses have a photo gallery or video flyover and while I am lacking my own extensive photo library I invite you to check these courses and holes on my best 18. Better yet, create your own list. It’s an interesting exercise to consider the best 7th hole you’ve ever played.

1 – Waskesiu (Saskatchewan) – Par 4, The Lobstick Tree

Lobstick Tree at Waskesiu in the first fairway

You can sense the pride and the history when looking out and seeing the Lobstick tree set firmly in the first fairway. Ask the staff about it, it’s a great story.

2 – Grand Niagara (Ontario) – Par 4

The demanding second hole at Grand Niagara.

The demanding second hole at Grand Niagara. Photo Credit – Andrew Stoakley

If possible, the second hole is even tougher than the first. A demanding drive requires an equally precise long second shot. Par is a great score on this golf hole.

3 – Eagles Nest (Ontario) – Par 4
Set high on the Oak Ridges moraine, this elevated tee shot – if executed well – can lead to a short approach and a birdie opportunity. Make it count; there aren’t many birdie holes out there.

4 – Dakota Dunes (Saskatchewan)– Par 4
This is a very tough golf hole. A somewhat blind tee shot gives way to a generous landing area. The approach shot is the real test. Like Hole 2, above, par is a great score on this solid golf hole.

5 – Humber Valley (Newfoundland) – Par 3
Don’t get distracted by the riverside and mountain views, this is a demanding tee shot. If you miss the green you’re facing a tough up and down. Better get it too; the next few holes at Humber Valley are all uphill.  Humber Valley may have the best course photo gallery I’ve seen.  Here’s their fifth hole here.

6 – The Lakes (Nova Scotia) – Par 4
The signature hole on this course is not my favourite golf hole, but it’s high on the list. You’ll see this image as the header image of this golf blog. It really is a stunning golf hole. If you’re far from home, driver all day.

The view of the Bras D'Or Lakes from the sixth tee.  Photo Credit - Andrew Stoakley

The view of the Bras D’Or Lakes from the sixth tee. Photo Credit – Andrew Stoakley

 

7 – Highlands Links (Nova Scotia) – Par 5
From a beauty to a beast – this is the toughest par 5 I’ve ever played. The demanding par 5 has a double dog leg and from the tips is over 590 yards. Good luck.

8 – South Muskoka (Ontario) – Par 3
This downhill par 3 is not the most difficult hole but does require your attention off the tee. A pond short of the green will happily accept your ball if mishit or if you don’t judge the wind properly. Still, par can be expected here.

9 – Lowville (Ontario) – Par 4
I always try to play this local course for me in the fall season. Set along the Niagara Escarpment, this is one of my most beautiful tee shots in golf when set against the red, orange and yellow leaves of the fall season.

10 – Humber Valley (Newfoundland) – Par 4
An almost 200 foot drop? Wow, what an experience. Hit it straight and you’ll be rewarded. If not, as I found out, then you’ll be pleased with bogey (and I was). Have your camera ready, but really, the course photo album will be what you should show your friends, it’s spectacular.

11 – Cabot Links (Nova Scotia) – Par 5
This is an underrated golf hole. Set along MacIsaac’s pond, the design features of this golf hole make it a truly special par 5 to experience.

12 – South Muskoka (Ontario) – Par 5
Can’t make it to Waskesiu Lake? Get to Bracebridge where their 12th hole features a mature pine which is a great aiming point…unless you’re hitting it really straight that day. Clip the tree and getting home in two is out of the question.

13 – Dakota Dunes – Par 4
This is a risk/reward dream. Only 270 yards, but a massive putting green you will be thinking birdie all the way but don’t be surprised if you walk off that hole with a bogey. A fun golf hole.

14 – Bear Mountain (British Columbia) – Par 3
Course designers moved this ‘19th hole’ into the course rotation. On a clear day you can see the city of Victoria, it’s simply a gorgeous golf hole. Demanding tee shot, but very pretty.

15 – Highlands Links (Nova Scotia) – Par 5
This is the signature hole at Highlands Links and when facing your approach shot you can see the ocean and Ingonish Island. I can’t imagine how many pictures have been taken on this golf hole but make sure you’re one of many who capture one, especially when the sun is out.

16 – Cabot Links (Nova Scotia) – Par 4

This is simply my all-time favourite golf hole. I’ve written about my near birdie here but as the last oceanfront hole before turning inland, you feel like you’re on a private course. To me, it’s a perfect golf hole.

This is my favourite golf hole I've ever played, the 16th at Cabot Links.

This is my favourite golf hole I’ve ever played, the 16th at Cabot Links. Photo Credit – Cabot Links

 

17 – Black Bear Ridge (Ontario) – Par 4
Slightly elevated, the demanding tee shot can set up a good approach opportunity. But trees left and right require precision and confidence. It’s a well-designed golf hole and to me looks great from the tee box. Playing there, I always look forward to the 17th tee shot.

18 – Timber Ridge (Ontario) – Par 4
The greatest aspect of this shot is the uphill approach shot. Up high, you may see fellow golfers staring down at you ready to make their own assessment of your game and chances to convert for birdie on a very challenging green to putt on. Still, it’s a great way to end a round on an course which is underrated for its conditioning and layout.

All together, my best 18 plays as a Par 73 with 11 par 4’s, 4 par 5’s, and 3 par 3’s.  I look forward to the debates with friends, chances to edit and amend and learn from others about how to complement this great collection of golf holes.

My Top 5 Golfing Moments of 2014

My Top 5 Golfing Moments of 2014

5 – Waskesiu Golf Course, Prince Albert National Park, Waskesiu Lake, SK

A prized possession from the great staff at Waskesiu.

A prized possession from the great staff at Waskesiu.

I’ve grown savvy over time to straddle business travel with an extra day or two to play golf at some of Canada’s best courses and to cross courses off my Bucket List. Business in Saskatoon in June allowed me a chance to travel north of Prince Albert to the resort community of Waskesiu Lake to play their Stanley Thompson designed course. I loved it! The layout was fantastic and the people were even better. My game was horrid but the experience, including the chance to meet staff and learn about some of the rich history of this course and the infamous Lobstick tree were memories I’ll treasure (along with the keepsake historical book of the course I was offered as a gift). Read my course review here. I’d happily go back and hope I’ll have the chance to do so one day…even if it’s only 6c in mid-June!

4. Starting a New Golf Blog

A chance to play 18 with Pat Tabler and Buck Martinez at Grand Niagara

A chance to play 18 with Pat Tabler and Buck Martinez at Grand Niagara

The motivating factor for this is not as clear now as it was almost 9 months ago. But I do know my passion for the game of golf is only increasing over time. I love the diversity of great golf which exists in Canada and am very privileged to have chances to play some of the best public golf courses across the country. This blog is a chance for me to share my experiences and perspectives but it has also been a chance to meet and engage other passionate golfers around the world. The blog has allowed me to reach out and communicate with some of Canada’s leading golf writers and journalists, and that has been very exciting and informative. I am looking forward to the future of this blog and sharing more about public golf, golf travel and other issues for the game here in Canada.

3. Shooting my personal best – 74 (+2)

Dragons Fire Golf Club, Hamilton, ON

Dragons Fire Golf Club, Hamilton, ON

I’ll come clean, the tees were moved well up and the course was likely about 5700 yards but I still had to keep it in play, hit greens and roll in putts. And on a cool, damp and increasingly blustery Sunday afternoon in Hamilton, Ontario I was on my game. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt in control of my emotions and my shot making. I’m proud of how I shot but more proud of my mental approach to the round. I was able to slow things down, focus on each shot and not get caught up in the score but focus on the process. It was awesome. I’ve played my best golf this fall and a 36-38 is a great way to culminate a successful season. The +2 also included a penalty stroke on a par 3…I know, I know. The 2015 season can’t get here quick enough.

2. Dakota Dunes Golf Course, Whitecap, SK

This is one of the most unique, enjoyable and challenging golf courses I’ve ever played. Set in the dunes, just south of Saskatoon, this Graham Cooke design uses a rugged dune landscape to shape and define itself. Located on Whitecap Dakota First Nation, this is a championship course which plays host to an annual PGA Tour Canada, Dakota Dunes Open event. My round had me playing with the Course Superintendent who was working just as hard on assessing the courses’ readiness for the tour players as he was his own game. Our bright and early 6am tee time provided for a tranquil and relaxed morning. And yes, it was another frosty June round in Saskatchewan with a tee time temperature of 4c. I atoned for my poor play at Waskesiu with a solid round and had another memorable and enjoyable golf experience in a beautiful part of the country. Golf in Saskatchewan, be sure to check it out.

1. Breaking the Single Digit Handicap Barrier

Chipped in for first birdie of the season - Opening Day 2014.

Chipped in for first birdie of the season – Opening Day 2014.

One of the amazing things about golf that draws me back so regularly is the challenge to improve. Within the past 5 years I have begun taking the game, and my commitment to improve, more seriously. Lessons, club fittings, practice, (somewhat) regular play and now my interests in reading and writing about golf are all part of my plans to improve and play my best. Since 2008 my handicap was mired around 11 and I was unable to break the elusive single-digit barrier. Extensive and very strong play before the end of the official season in Ontario allowed my handicap to drop to its current 8.8 I am very proud of my hard work but now it’s time to recalibrate and set new goals to take this even lower. I’m more driven than ever to get better. I’m working out regularly and continue to practice over the winter months. I planned to play on December 6 on a local course which remains open but was unable to make it happen.  Still, some courses in the area remain open until snowfall dictates they can’t.  I’m pleased and proud. It’s been a long journey.

Course Reviews – Dakota Dunes – One of Canada’s Best Courses in an Ideal Setting

Course Reviews – Dakota Dunes – One of Canada’s Best Courses in an Ideal Setting

http://www.dakotadunes.ca/

It has been a couple weeks now since I had the pleasure of teeing it up at Dakota Dunes, just south of Saskatoon in Whitecap, SK. Having played a park style course north of Prince Albert the day before the drive along the gentle dunes gave me a flavour for the diverse topography of Saskatchewan and a sense of the golf experience I was about the have.  My sense is that designers Wayne Carleton and Graham Cooke likely had to move very little earth to set up a design which was recognized in 2005 as Golf Digest’s Best New Course in Canada.

For a course which also hosts a PGA Tour Canada stop my anticipation and expectations were high. My 6:00 am tee time provided me an unexpected treat, to be paired with the Head Superintendent, Tyler McComas.  It is Tyler’s first year in this role and he used the morning round to get a firsthand sense of the course conditions.  The course suffered some winterkill from little snow and relentless cold wind, fairways had some patches which Tyler was surveying between shots.  My general reflections are of a superior course set in a unique natural landscape.  There was nothing unfair about the course, the tee boxes were level and in many places slightly elevated to provide a clear sense of safe landing space.  Fairways were generous but bunkering, waste areas and native grasses proved penal for wayward shots.  The greens were impeccable, rolling true and fast for the early season (and did not suffer winter damage).  I found some but very few ball marks which is consistent with my other golf experience in Saskatchewan; clearly golfers here take pride in their courses.  With five sets of tees the course provides a fair challenge for players of all levels.

I will admit I liked the back nine considerably more than the front. Perhaps it is because it has warmed up much more than our tee time temperature of 4c.  Simply put, the layout and the golf holes themselves were more enjoyable for me.  I was a fan of the drivable par 4 13th and enjoyed the scoring opportunity of a closing stretch of pars 3 – 5 – 3 – 5.  The 10th hole is very stout and I wonder why they’d place a pot bunker near a landing area on such a long hole?  The bunkers and native grass areas are very playable which is nice if you’re struggling to get to a single digit handicap index like me.  The areas around the greens require imagination and touch.

Tyler and I walked the course in 3h 15m without feeling we were rushing. We celebrated our round and efficient efforts with a nice breakfast (their coffee is superb)!  Looking back, it was days like that at Dakota Dunes which make me appreciate the quality and diversity of golf in Canada.  It is an excellent course. It will hold up well for its annual PGA Tour Canada stop, the SIGA Dakota Dunes Open sponsored by SaskTel.  Add this to your bucket list, playing a course the pros play is always a treat and this is no exception.  It was a golf experience I won’t soon forget.

Aura – 8.5 out of 10 – Playing a course where professionals play is always a special experience. Add the fact that this is the highest ranked course in the province and that the dunes-style layout is unique for me and this gets a very high rating.

Value (cost / experience) – 9 out of 10. Paying $65 to play here (which is a peak fee) is phenomenal value.  Add to this the chance to have what amounted to a guided tour of the course and a tutorial on Superintendent responsibilities and I can’t believe my good fortune.

Course Condition (fairways/greens, layout) – 8.5 out of 10. The winter kill issues on the tee boxes and on some fairways did not detract from my experience at all and to me was irrelevant to the playable condition of the course.  Greens were the nicest I had experienced all year.  Given that this is a public course, it is very playable and fair.  Slope ratings represent how approachable the course is.  That is not to say it is easy, more fair.  Wind (which we did not experience much of) is the natural defense along with natural areas and bunkering.

Overall Experience (how did the round make me feel; would I return) – This is an excellent golf course and worthy of its high rankings for public play in Canada. The staff are passionate and committed to providing a quality golf experience.  Similar to my experience the day before at Waskesiu, it was a comfortable, relaxed and respectful golf experience – 8.5 out of 10

Highlight (what is great about the course) – The layout of the back nine has an openness and expansiveness which I did not sense on the front. I don’t feel I’ve played better greens all season and the course maintains a truly natural feel which I love.  Conditions are superb, consistent with what I’d expect for a top public course in Canada but it is the people that made the experience so great.  Everyone I interacted with was polite and passionate about Dakota Dunes.

Recommendation (magic wand…what would I change) – I am not a course designer so I cannot get into specifics but the layout of the front nine is something I would consider changing. That said there are some stout holes which challenge a player and provide sufficient reward for good play.  Don’t get me wrong, I really like this course!

Just So You Know – The course is located on Whitecap First Nation territory and also hosts a casino. The success of this course is an excellent example of Aboriginal economic development and self-determination.  Plans are set to develop a new, permanent clubhouse.  Only 20 minutes south of Saskatoon, the convenience is a bonus for a golf experience of this quality.  Oh yes, and grab yourself an arrowhead-shaped ball marker.

My Best Shot – Following a wayward tee shot on 10 (amazing how one small pot bunker can be so menacing) and a solid hybrid I had a short iron approach and hit the 8 iron stiff to 12 feet. It was my best iron strike in some time…let’s just end the story there (OK, I missed the birdie putt).

24 Hours of Memorable Golf in Saskatchewan

I will admit that Saskatchewan was not at the top of my list for golf destinations in Canada. But a business trip with a chance to carve out 24 hours for golf is an opportunity I will take any chance I can get.  This was a truly unique and quality golf experience.   The itinerary was flawless, the weather not so much.  But the golf and the people more than made up for the weather challenges.

Waskesiu Golf Course

I have developed a bucket list of public play golf courses in Canada and two courses on this list from Saskatchewan are almost 3 hours apart. Arriving mid-morning at Saskatoon, the airport is very convenient and easy to navigate.  From touching down, I had my baggage and rental car sorted out within 30 minutes.  Just like that I was on the road to the Stanley Thompson design in Prince Albert National Park, Waskesiu Golf Course.  A more detailed review of both Saskatchewan golf courses played on this junket will be featured soon.  The drive from the airport was a relaxing 2.5 hours before entering the National Park, complete with a brown bear sighting on the side of the road north of Prince Albert.  After checking in and getting my clubs unpacked, I was able to tee off as a single just before 2:00 pm.  This is a venerable old course, an iconic Thompson design.  The staff all had a deep sense of pride for this course and the marshals stopped regularly to check in on me and ask about my experience.  My constant raving about the course – I loved the layout – must have struck a chord, after the round the pro shop attendant offered me a complimentary copy of a book of the history of the course.  As a growing fan of Stanley Thompson’s course designs (I had written I could play his jewel, Highlands Links every day) this will be a cherished possession for years to come.  My drive back allowed me to warm up from a chilly but enjoyable day on the course (teeing off in June in 5c is something I am not used to).  I felt privileged to play this majestic old course, even with a new Lobstick tree!

The next morning was a quick turnaround, with an alarm going off at 4:45 am, just as the sun was rising. My drive south to Dakota Dunes was peaceful and serene and provided a completely different topography from the drive north from Saskatoon and the Lakes country.  Gently rolling dunes gave me the sense that this would be a completely different experience than the park style course the day before.  Again, showing up as a single, I was relieved when another player asked if we could play together.  The relief turned to joy and bewilderment when my playing partner introduced himself to me as a Head Superintendent of the course, Tyler McComas.  Our round felt more like a 3 hour conversation (yes, we walked 18 holes in 3h 15).  Tyler was able to share many stories and local knowledge about the course.  I also learned much about the role of a course superintendent, which following the winter back in Ontario where courses were dealing with issues of winter kill on greens and fairways, was a topic of conversation for us.  Dakota Dunes had its own challenges in areas on the fairway, with limited snow cover the winter before.  Talking over breakfast, Tyler shared the excitement and challenges of preparing the course to host the annual PGA Tour Canada event which is featured in Whitecap, SK.  The pride in his voice about being able to showcase this course on such a stage reminded me of the previous afternoon.  His gift of a Dakota Dunes flag, I was not aware he was the person I had written too, seeking to purchase one on my visit, will be a reminder of his hospitality, friendship and generosity along with a truly quality golf experience.  Dakota Dunes is worthy of its high rankings in quality and value in golf in Canada.

Playing so quick, I returned my car back to the rental office only 24 hours from when I rented it. The whirlwind of experiencing two completely different courses where the quality was only matched by a deep sense of pride and a modest confidence by staff and players alike was something I will never forget and hope I can return to experience again.

Over the course of one day I was able to cross off two courses on my bucket list. And that is nice, but what I experienced was two of Canada’s finest courses for completely different reasons.  I met great people with a common and unique bond of deep pride and respect for their local course, the game and genuine hospitality for others who share similar values.  It is a 24 hour stretch that reinforced and energized my passion for the game and my quest to fulfil my bucket list of great public play golf in Canada.  Don’t be fooled, there is quality golf in Saskatchewan.  Quality people too.  The license plates don’t lie, Pride. Lives. Here.