Impressions of the 2017 Toronto Golf and Travel Show

http://www.torontogolfshow.com/

I’m losing count but my guess would be that this is my 7th Toronto golf show in the past 8 years.  My motivation for attending has changed considerably over the years.  Gone are the days when I would show up early and line up to access the quality free golf giveaway (which still exists and creates significant buzz).  Now, I am interested in building and maintain relationships.  I have been fortunate to make friends in the golf industry in Canada and this event provides me a regular touch point to connect with key people in golf in Canada.

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Meeting golf ball inventor and legend, Dean Snell.

Let’s not kid ourselves here…there is an energy and buzz to this show which gets any golfing enthusiast excited for the season ahead.   Add to it exhibitors keen to share information on their products, courses, services and organizations and I was no different than the multitude of attendees.  So as I reflect back on the Golf and Travel Show, here are my impressions:

  1. There is something for everyone.

There really is.  Whether its discounted retail outlet shopping; numerous jurisdictions providing information on golf and travel escapes; access to local, national and international golf with strong promotional offers; chances to try new equipment; access to lessons from CPGA teaching professionals; draws and giveaways; speakers; and more.  The Toronto International Centre is sufficiently big enough to host an event of this magnitude and organizers had things clearly marked inside.

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Such a pleasure to meet and chat with Jim Burton.  For those active on Twitter, you’ll know him as The Grateful Golfer (@TheGratefulGolf)

  1. Make time to meaningfully engage.

The crowds are such that some people feel they should only spend a brief moment and gather information.  But I have learned that it is possible to strike up a conversation, ask questions and learn more about courses, organizations and golfing regions.  Carve out the experience you want from the show.  I appreciated the chance to meet The Grateful Golfer, a fellow golf blogger who does exceptional work (and possesses an exceptional golf game).  I spent time with my friends at Snell Golf Canada.  Highlighted here was the chance to meet Dean Snell, inventor of Snell golf balls and whom I most recently interviewed.  The booth got busier as the afternoon went on and I was happy to share my positive experience with these golf balls with attendees.

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It’s an annual tradition for me to head over and visit my good friends at Golf PEI.  Appreciated that Mark McLane could take time to talk and share insight on new initiatives.

I spent some time talking with my friend Mark McLane from Golf PEI and learned about some of the new golf initiatives happening on the gentle island.  It was a pleasure to meet Graham Hudson from Highlands Links who was at the Golf North booth.  Graham was excited to share some of the great developments happening on the course.  I met an old friend from grade school who heads up the On The Tee magazine.  And I had a chance to connect briefly with Jay from the 36 Golf Company, an amazing golf apparel company based in Canada.

I met and networked with many others.

  1. Grab now, read later.

I like to learn about new getaway destinations but I also like to learn about what courses in my area – the western part of the Greater Toronto Area – offer in terms of early season specials and promotions.  This approach of gathering as much information as possible truly helped me plan for my 2015 PEI golf trip and I find that once I am back in the quiet of my own home I can sift through the materials I have gathered and identify new courses to play, destinations to consider and products to learn about.  Along with making a direct connection with someone, I love this part of the golf show.

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As with any trophy, it’s only to be touched when you win it.  The base of the RBC Canadian Open trophy is being extended to allow for more winners to be added.

4. Shopping for Golf Gear

This part appeals to me less than others listed above.  The Golf and Travel Show has expanded over the years to include retailers offering discount product.  Often models which are older, there is value to be had but people need to be discerning in looking at product.  And if you can imagine it, they sell it.  Carts, bags, training aids, clubs, balls and apparel are all available.  I counted three separate discount retailers this year.  I grabbed a new putter grip but that was all.

  1. Education and Youth Engagement

This part excites me as the Golf and Travel Show works to engage junior golfers.  Being there on a Friday I did not see many kids (as they’d be in school) but understand that allowing kids to enter free and offering a real hands on experience in terms of contests, trying clubs, lessons and more, will provide people (kids of all ages) with a great opportunity to learn about the game and engage more within it.

I attended the Dean Snell talk and he provided a true master class on ball fitting which contradicts many approaches companies utilize today.  I learned a great deal from Dean during his 30 minute talk, including Q & A.   The speakers line up was diverse and impressive.

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Crowds were large and lineups long.  It moved steadily fortunately.  Great to see this kind of excitement.

The timing of this show is perfect, as it happens late enough in winter and before the Masters to truly pique the interest of golfers.  Based on the lineups and the large crowds on the first day, this is an event that just keeps growing and getting better and better.

Bucket List Review – Part 2 – Nova Scotia

Bucket List Review – Part 2 – Nova Scotia

This is the second of 10 posts that will look back on the current status of my bucket list.  Focusing on all 10 provinces, I’ll share links to courses played and remaining on my list, along with some new courses for consideration.  I’ll share some pictures, stories and wishes for future travel.  Canada is an amazing country for public golf, go play (once the snow is melted, of course).

Bucket List Courses PlayedCabot Links, Highlands Links, The Lakes

Bucket List Courses RemainingGlen Arbour, Bell Bay, Cabot Cliffs, The Links at Brunello, Fox Harb’r

Other Courses PlayedOsprey Shores

Bucket List ContendersDigby Pines, Penn Hills

Other Courses of NoteLe Portage, Northumberland Links, Bluenose

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Overview

Nova Scotia hosts some of the greatest golf courses in Canada and the World.  Yes, they’re that good.  The development of the two Cabot courses in Inverness has placed Nova Scotia at the epicenter of the golfing world with global media reports praising the courses, the resort and the community.  And while Cabot holds its rightful place as a powerful magnet for golf in eastern Canada one needs to look well beyond the their seaside courses – Links and Cliffs – to see other golf offerings which together make Nova Scotia a cherished golf destination for all golfers.  To me, this is one reason why Nova Scotia makes for such great golf; there is something for everyone.

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You may recognize this picture if you’re a regular to my blog.  The 6th tee at The Lakes course.  An incredibly tempting risk-reward par 4. (photo credit – Andrew Stoakley)

Acknowledging the grandeur of Cabot, I’ll start with a focus on fun and value.  Osprey Shores may be the most fun I have ever had golfing, be it as a single seeking to play as many loops of 9 as I could in a day, or, part of a group of 12 on a five day getaway (golfing in a kilt was a memorable experience, too).  Osprey brings breathtaking views, sensational maritime hospitality and an unpretentious nature which all golfers will appreciate.  A 9 hole course, I would recommend it for players to get their legs under them before heading north to tackle the wonderful courses of Cape Breton.  My experience golfing in Nova Scotia is focused mostly on Cape Breton.  So with apologies to courses on the mainland (and there are several on my bucket list) I will focus for now on Cape Breton.  Highlands Links is my favourite course in Canada.  Designed by Stanley Thompson, this course carved from the forests of the Highlands, with some seaside meandering, takes me back in time.  I love everything about it.  It hosts the greatest par 5 I’ve ever played and if I could only play one more round of golf it would be there.  Contrast to this is the beauty of The Lakes at Ben Eoin.  Set along Bras D’or Lake this course is cut along the hillside; creating stunning vistas on many holes.  Well designed and framed, this championship course has hosted the Mackenzie Tour Cape Breton Open (then Celtic Classic).

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Highlands Links – the 15th hole

This is not to forget the golfing perfection that is Cabot.  Links is the best course I’ve played and Cliffs is tops on my bucket list now.  I would advocate for a shoulder season trip to Cabot to get the full experience in terms of weather (could be amazing or raw…and either would make for a great story).  Fact is, the fall season stretches nicely in the Maritimes and can combine beauty and value.  Links is a course where the superlatives just don’t do it justice, though I tried in one of my first reviews on my blog.

Cabot, Highlands Links and The Lakes made for a great golf loop in a 2014 golf trip.  But with Bell Bay and Le Portage as options and a new course at Cabot, you can (and should) stretch your trip out to Nova Scotia longer than I did.

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Osprey Shores

Travel Notes

Researching your options for travel and play are very easy using Golf Nova Scotia or Golf Cape Breton.  The two offer excellent access to course information and links to additional details to help plan a trip.  But Nova Scotia is the kind of place you almost want to get lost and explore.  The TransCanada highway provides great access from PEI (via ferry) or New Brunswick and runs efficiently to Halifax and north to Cape Breton.  But sometimes the journey is just as fun as the destination.  Unlike PEI, where you can play days and days of 36 a day (trust me on that one), the distances between courses allow for a relaxed pace and some beautiful drives between communities.  Distractions abound with hiking, food, wildlife, culture, spirits.  It’s all there…not to dismiss the golfing of course.

Cabot Links 16th

This is my favourite golf hole I’ve ever played, the 16th at Cabot Links.  (photo credit – Cabot Links)

The Cabot Trail may be one of the greatest drives in the country, looping around the north and central part of Cape Breton Island.  But Nova Scotia hosts many other amazing coastal drives.  The drive from Guysborough (where Osprey Shores is located on the gorgeous shores of Chedabucto Bay) to Halifax following the Marine Drive route is stunning and underrated.  The proximity to the ocean in many cases is staggering and the small communities and hamlets which dot the coast are lovely.

Similarly, the Sunrise Trail on the north shore from Antigonish to Amherst is just as relaxed.   Stopping along the numerous beaches to dip your feet in the surprisingly warm ocean and seeking that perfect bowl of chowder are two quests to add to your own golfing bucket list.

Traveling to Nova Scotia on a number of occasions now, the consistent take away for me is that I never spent enough time and left with things I wish I had done and seen.  In closing, do your research; take your clubs; tack on a few extra days; take the scenic routes; and do, by all means, order the chowder (better yet, explore the Chowder Trail).

Penn Classic 2014 at Cabot Links

The excitement of playing Cabot with good friends at the 2014 Penn Classic.

Cabot Cliffs – Anticipating a Sequel to Golf Purity

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I’d argue the 15th Hole at Cliffs is the real show stopper, but my sense is it’s only one of many signature holes. (Photo Credit – Integrative Golf Company)

Cabot Cliffs – Anticipating a Sequel to Golf Purity

Reading the reviews and inevitable accolades piling in it is clearly an exciting time to be affiliated with Cabot Links.  The course; correction, courses, are located in Inverness, Nova Scotia. It has quickly become the mecca of golf in Canada; a true golfing destination now with 36 holes and a completed resort facility, restaurant, and practice facilities.  And while I could argue that Cabot was the crown jewel of a pre-existing golfing destination – Cape Breton Island itself – Cabot’s 36 holes will hold allure on its own for golfers across Canada and around the world.  Both courses are well positioned within the Golf Digest Top 100 List, so there’s no arguing their quality.

But having played the Links course in 2013, it is the golfing experience which was new and so pure.  And it is these memories which stoke my anticipation about a return trip and visiting the new Cliffs course.  While I have written about my golf experience at Cabot Links, in almost three years I have never experienced a golf course like it.  I was forced to play shots I never experienced.  The course, unlike any other, seemed so well suited to the land and the sea.  Add to this, genuine maritime hospitality (and lobster sliders, I mean, c’mon) and it was the most authentic golf experience of my life.

But now there is a new course, arguably better than the original.  Building on the excellence of Links, the Cliffs course brings some unique elements – 6 par 3’s, 4’s and 5’s.  Signature holes?  The stunning 16th is getting a lot of love.  But in seeing the pictures when the course was originally shaped I can think of about 10 signature holes.  This embarrassment of riches creates a level of anticipation I have not experienced since the opening of Links.

Penn Classic 2014 at Cabot Links

A day at Cabot with good friends creates memories to last a lifetime.

I would be remised if I did not follow up on an earlier point to mention the proximity of Links/Cliffs to other outstanding experiences and golf on Cape Breton Island.  Scotch aficionados will need to make their way south to the Glenora Inn and Distillery.  There is the world class Cabot Trail, one of the country’s best driving experiences.  For an authentic seafood experience travel to Baddeck for the Baddeck Lobster Supper.  While in town get 18 in at Bell Bay Golf Club, which is hosting a Mackenzie Tour (PGA Tour Canada) stop.  Cape Breton Highlands National Park hosts the iconic and perennial top 10 course in Canada, Highlands Links, a Stanley Thompson gem.  You could also visit The Lakes Golf Club and round out your golf experience.  If you’re traveling to Cape Breton, take advantage of the opportunity to experience more than just Cabot.

But for this Canadian Bucket List dreamer, Cabot Cliffs now assumes a rightful place on top of my list.  Anticipation is a wonderful thing and will only make the experience of eventually teeing it up at Cliffs (and Links again) as a highlight among many fabulous golf experiences across this country.

There’s just something about Cape Breton Island, the Maritimes overall really, that just does my spirit good.  Congratulations on your successful opening and continued success to Ben Cowan-Dewar and the entire team at Cabot.

Cabot Links 16th

This is my favourite golf hole I’ve ever played, the 16th at Cabot Links.  Will Cliffs offer a challenger to this majestic golf hole?

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.

Cabot Links versus Highlands Links

Cabot Links versus Highlands Links

I’m always fascinated by the search queries which bring people to this blog. Recently, I noticed someone arrived after typing in ‘Cabot Links versus Highland Links’ and it made me pause and reflect that is a fantastic query. I have been fortunate to have played them both, most recently Summer 2013. I have course reviews for Cabot Links and for Highlands Links and have also developed a regional review of golfing on Cape Breton Island. Most publications place both courses high in their top 10 publicly accessible courses in Canada. Canadian Golf Magazine has Cabot Links as #1 and Highlands Links as #3.

I’m resisting the urge to take this post on a different tact and avoid the ‘versus’ and implore people to consider them both as options for an extended golf experience on Cape Breton Island. After all, you’re only about 2 hours from the 18th green of one course to the 1st tee of the other. And that drive along the northwest portion of the Cabot Trail is absolutely sensational, one of the best in the country I’d contend. But no, I will address the query as is.

Cabot Links is the best course I have ever played golf on. It is the most unique golf experience I have ever had and is quite possibly Canada’s only true links course. The 16th hole which runs along the ocean is my favourite golf hole I’ve ever played. That said; if I could only play one course for the rest of my life it would be Highlands Links. There is no other layout I have experienced which brings the natural features of the land, and its’ incredible diversity, so close to a player. I’ve cited often my love for Stanley Thompson designed courses and this is beyond a doubt his crown jewel.

I do not mean to firmly place myself on the fence here. I’m not trying to avoid the question. I sincerely feel I am providing you with unique answers that are grounded in important context. The character of Cabot Links despite being less than five years old will not allow one to view these courses around a ‘new’ versus ‘old’ argument. Cabot looks like it’s been around for ages and in some ways it really has as the manipulation of the land to create this course was relatively minimal, in my understanding. In fact, with recent renovations which are aimed to bring Highlands Links back to its former glory, one could argue that Highlands is a newer design. Removing trees along some holes on the back nine and working hard to support the oceanfront holes which have historically been susceptible to flooding has really improved the play and the look of Highlands.

Perhaps one needs to view these courses as one would two boxers with a ‘tale of the tape’ but numbers truly belie the character, beauty and absolute uniqueness of them both. The fact that both have ‘Links’ in their title is also cause for possible confusion; Highlands Links was originally meant to be titled The Mountains and Ocean Course. That, to me, is more accurate a representation of the course.

Character? Cabot has an active caddy program and the greatest sound you’ll ever hear when your ball falls into the cup, as it hits a metal plate below with a hole in for the flag (which is also now the tone I get when receiving text messages). The 10th and 11th holes run adjacent to MacIsaac’s Pond and are stunning in their own right. Highlands Links has each hole named in Gaelic and the Clyburn river is a prominent early in the back nine and this gives way to the impressive views of the ocean on the par 5 15th. The 7th hole, Killiecrankie, may be the greatest par 5 I’ve ever played. I won’t even try sharing pictures of my own. The pictures available on the Cabot and Highlands site will provide breathtaking images that may have you booking flights to Sydney or Halifax tomorrow morning.

I hope you’re able to experience both courses for yourself at some point. To me, with my limited experience golfing throughout Canada, these are my top two courses in the country…by a wide margin.

The Stunning Cabot Trail

The Stunning Cabot Trail

Good golf versus great golf

“It’s the little things that separate the good from the great”

–          Bob Schneider

My first encounter with the good v great golf course question was in reviewing a blog post by Robert Thompson in his CanadianGolfer.com blog. Specifically, Robert was writing about the challenges and current shortcomings of the state of golf in Prince Edward Island, specifically Crowbush Cove.  With a recent trip to Cape Breton Island in my rear view mirror and with good memories of world class and top ranked Canadian courses like Cabot Links and Highlands Links and an underrated gem like The Lakes, I shifted my gaze and anticipation to PEI.  Robert’s premise is that PEI offers good golf but not great golf and the chance to upgrade Crowbush Cove is the real hope to move the needle to true greatness for golf in PEI.

For myself, a public player who is only starting to explore Canada’s excellent public golf courses I was taken aback by this critical and candid review. But it did leave me with a lingering question of what makes a golf course good versus great?  And like many debates in the world of golf there is a significant element of subjectivity to it.  I have played courses over the past year or two, highly touted courses, which are not ‘great’ in my opinion.  They’re very good courses I’d happily experience again but I don’t prefer them to others and there are characteristics about them which I do not enjoy.  I acknowledge others may disagree, especially since they sit prominently on top 50 or 100 lists.

So allow me to wade into the debate and offer my opinion to help support myself and others answer this difficult question.

Factors such as location, scenery, layout, conditioning, unique/ memorable quality, facilities and staff are the foundational pieces around greatness.  But I offer forward the following for consideration which complement the clear factors above:

–          Enjoyment

–          Relevance

–          Worthy of travelling to play

–          Challenge

–          History (a trait which I find to be underrated)

–          Diversity (of holes throughout the 18)

–          Fairness

–          Value

But perhaps greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And with that, I can take comfort in knowing I have some courses off the beaten path which I find to be great.   For that reason I am comfortable offering my opinion and listening to criticism around what courses are good and what courses are great.  After my fall 2015 trip to PEI I can offer an informed opinion on the greatness of PEI golf.  For now, I am happy to reflect on my own experience, read and listen to others and explore what greatness in Canadian public golf means to others.

What do you feel makes a golf course great?