5 Underrated Courses in My Canadian Travels

Playing golf in Canada can be about the journey as it is the destination.  Courses can surprise and amaze in aspects of beauty, quality and fun.  Over my years here are five which I have experienced that I loved.  You likely won’t see any of these on top course lists across the country so I’ve created my own modest list which places these gems front and centre.  Here they are, in no particular order.  The course link will open to my full review:

Waskesiu GC, Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan

It’s a Stanley Thompson design so right off the top I suspected I’d love it.  I drove direct from my flight to Saskatoon north of Prince Albert to the stunning Waskesiu Lake area in the heart of Prince Albert National Park.  The drive was peaceful and the course was sensational.  The rich history of this course and its iconic Lobstick Tree is worth asking about.  The butter tarts that the course sells may be the best in country but that’s another bucket list in itself.  My only wish was that I could spend time in the resort community adjacent to the lake and play this course again (and again).  Not the easiest course to access, but the memories made the drive well worth it.  My conversation with the Marshall the day I was playing was amazing as he regaled me about the history of this beautiful course.  I felt I had gone back in time.

Lobstick Tree

Lobstick Tree at Waskesiu in the first fairway

Stanhope GCC, Stanhope, Prince Edward Island

I have written much about my 2015 golf trip to the gentle island.  PEI is a golfer’s paradise, providing exceptional value (possibly the best in Canada) with variety, quality and diversity of post-golf activity to make everyone happy.  Stanhope didn’t make my top 5 list of courses on the Island but that speaks more to the quality and value options than it does about any shortcomings at Stanhope.  A true community course, this course brought a level of enjoyment and relaxation on the Island I had not experienced.  Add to it a stunning back nine, with a stretch of golf holes from 12-16 which may be the most underrated golf on the island in terms of sheer beauty.  With a breeze off the ocean on a peaceful afternoon, it was a golfing experience I need to get back and relive.

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A late afternoon sun shining down on the back nine at Stanhope

 

Talking Rock Golf Resort, Chase, British Columbia

The Thompson-Okanagan golf region of British Columbia provides more diversity for golfer than one might expect.  My spring 2016 trip west included an early morning drive (very early!) from Surrey to Chase for a morning round at Talking Rock.  First, the drive is amazing through the mountains – so peaceful and relaxing.  Arriving in Chase, just north of Kelowna, and the Little Shuswap First Nation community is the Quaaout Lodge and Spa which also houses the Talking Rock Golf Resort.  The large log-cabin style conference centre, pro shop and clubhouse set a tone for a tranquil and peaceful golfing experience.  The closing holes, notably 15 and 18, are jaw-dropping showstoppers and reflect the natural beauty of the region.  It’s well worth the visit.  Playing most of the round as a single created a sense of calm and peacefulness I appreciated.

TRock15tee

Teed up and ready to play the stunning 15th at Talk Rock overlooking Little Shuswap Lake

Batteaux Creek GC, Nottawa, Ontario

The Niagara Escarpment cuts along southern Ontario from a swath from Niagara to Tobermory and at various points along the way shows impressive prominence in the landscape.  Such is the case in Nottawa, south of Collingwood, where Batteaux Creek Golf Club has existed since 2002.  While not an annual play, I do try to make time in the fall season to travel the almost two hours north from Toronto, to enjoy this course in all its splendor.  Immaculate conditioning, diversity of golf holes, natural hazards and a stunning fall backdrop with leaves changing in golds, reds, oranges and yellows throughout the property and west along the escarpment.  It’s more a spiritual exercise than it is a golf game.  And for anyone who has experienced this course in the fall, you will know why it makes my list of underrated golf gems in Canada.

Early morning at Batteaux Creek on a flawless fall day.

 

 

Osprey Resort, Guysborough, Nova Scotia

https://36aday.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/osprey_andy2.jpg?w=660This is a rustic, 9-hole course set on Chedabucto Bay in scenic Guysborough, Nova Scotia.  The Marine Drive from Halifax to Canso is simply a must if you have the time.  From Canso, simply head west to Guysborough.  Don’t miss the Rare Bird Pub where after 9 holes (or 18…even 36) you can look over the water and lose yourself in the beauty of this part of the province.  The course is simple in its layout and players of all skill level will be welcome.  Take time to enjoy the views, what I think to be some of the best you will experience in eastern Canada.  My advice for travelers who have time; stop here to get your golf legs and your fix of seafood before making your way north to Cape Breton Island where you will find some of the greatest courses in the country and the world.  I love this course, its people and community.  It reflects everything I love about golfing in Canada.

 

Osprey 5th Hole

Beyond the 5th hole at Osprey, overlooking Chedabucto Bay.

 

This is not an exhaustive list.  There are more courses I’ve played I would categorize as underrated.  But I would love to hear your experiences, learn about your courses that would make your list (and that I’d need to add to mine!).

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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.

Waskesiu Golf Club – A Venerable Thompson Design Worthy of Bucket List Status

Course Reviews – Waskesiu Golf Club – A Venerable Thompson Design Worthy of Bucket List Status

http://www.waskesiugolf.com/

Lobstick Tree

Lobstick Tree

The Stanley Thompson golf trail makes stops in every province except Newfoundland. The Saskatchewan stop on this trail is set in the beautiful Lakes country in the resort community of Waskesiu Lake, set within Prince Albert National Park.  The layout is classic Thompson and is an underrated, stout course.  From its iconic Lobstick tree (and tournaments) to staff who demonstrate genuine Saskatchewan pride, to the course itself, Waskesiu will provide an enjoyable and memorable golf experience.  I have written about Stanley Thompson’s crown jewel design (in my experience and opinion) at Highlands Links in Ingonish, Nova Scotia.  The similarities make me appreciate more the design brilliance that was Thompson.  Playing as a single in a cold, blustery June afternoon, it would seem Thompson barely moved earth to create this course.

Rolling terrain, so much it felt like I rarely had a level lie but not in an extreme or detracting manner, is a similar feature to Highlands Links.   Some holes require blind shots and I have never seen a course utilize large mirrors to allow groups on the tee a chance to see down the fairway to ensure the landing area is clear.  This was unique for me and it too did not detract from the experience.  The halfway house is set on after the 10th hole and you simply must try the butter tarts (thank me later).  The log cabin-style clubhouse is very well stocked and practice facilities are very good and conveniently placed.  I was unable to stay to try their food and regret that.

The course is not known for its length and is a nice throwback from modern day conditioning standards. I felt the conditions were excellent and appropriate for the historic layout.  A park style design, cut from Boreal forest, a short par four is a nice start but facing the iconic Lobstick tree adds to the first tee jitters.  I heard the tree has recently been replaced following irreplaceable damage to the older original.  I am sure that was a sad day, as the Lobstick tree provides a real identity for this course.  After a short, downhill second hole, the course moves out and provides a good variation of holes over the first nine.

5c at tee time

The defences of this course are the surrounding forest and the terrain which requires imagination and accuracy. Greens are not too large and with recent rains earlier in the week were rolling true, albeit somewhat slow.

The holes are very unique, using slope, mounds and forest to define them. The first is iconic with the Lobstick tree looming in the fairway.  The second is a beautiful downhill par three with trouble left and right for wayward shots.  The par 5 8th hole is a beautiful golf hole, one of the nicest par 5’s I’ve played in some time.  The back nine provides a great risk-reward hole on the 15th, a drivable par 4.  And the home hole rewards a well struck drive with a good luck at the green.  Considering the distance many would have to travel, I’d recommend taking a full day and playing two rounds…you will learn much after your opening 18 to allow you a chance to score well on this great course.

Aura – 7.5 out of 10 – There is a strong sense of history here. While this course makes some lists as a value play, it is when you do your research where you will see this is an impressive, historic track.  I acknowledge my bias as a growing fan of Stanley Thompson designs.

Value (cost / experience) – 8 out of 10. A peak fee of $57 is a solid value for a strong Stanley Thompson design.  Experience is an excellent word for the day of golf I had, including the relaxing and beautiful drive to Prince Albert National Park.

Course Condition (fairways/greens, layout) – 7.5 out of 10. With recent rains, the course was in surprisingly superb condition.  Playing the day after their annual opening Men’s Lobstick tournament provided me tee boxes which were well mown, fairways that were clearly identified, rough which was not too penal, and greens which were true but a little slow due to the moisture.  A shorter course, accuracy off the tee of more of a need than length.

Overall Experience (how did the round make me feel; would I return) – I loved it. I could play here every day.  It was a comfortable, relaxed yet respectful golf experience – 8 out of 10

Highlight (what is great about the course) – The drive to the course, especially once reaching the village of Waskesiu Lake is a treat. The log cabin clubhouse creates a relaxed feel and the first tee shot was the real treat.  OK, the Butter Tart gives that tee shot a run for the money too.  But both pale in comparison to the amazing staff who demonstrate great appreciation and respect for their course.  I did not see elk on the course, but evidence of their presence (hoof prints) were evident on a few holes.

Recommendation (magic wand…what would I change) – I would make sure this course was on everyone’s top 100 list in Canada. Mind you, I’m just starting my cross-Canada golf journey but struggle to see there being 100 courses in this country better than this.  It is golf the way it was meant to be played – rugged, natural and fair.

Just So You Know – $1475 can get you an annual membership and with extended summer daylight hours the chance to play 36 holes a day would be so easy. It’s a family friendly course but can provide good challenge for skilled players.

My Best Shot – Hole 18, after a poor drive I hit a hybrid pure to 4 foot. Lipped out the birdie putt but it left a great feel after a fun round of golf.

P.S. – My sincere thanks to the marshals and pro shop staff who went above and beyond to make sure my experience at Waskesiu was a memorable one. Your book on the history of your course is a cherished keepsake of a golf experience I will never forget and hope to enjoy again in the future.

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.