By Robert Thompson
There are golf courses that call themselves private — and then there is truly private golf. The former expect members to pay big bucks to gain access to their club, but often these golf courses have hundreds of members who fight for tee times.
Truly private golf, on the other hand, is a different experience altogether. Rather than battle to get a Saturday morning round, these courses, with names like Redtail and Oviinbyrd, have an extremely limited membership. The lucky few who manage to get past the gatekeeper at these clubs can anticipate a world class golf experience, as well as the solitude and luxury one can only get at an exclusive country club.
While Canada does not have anything to rival the exclusivity of the famed golf courses in Long Island, N.Y., where $500,000 memberships and ritualistic entrance requirements are common, there are some whose fairways are tightly restricted zones.
Many will desperately try to find their way onto these exclusive enclaves. Occasionally a stack of bills handed to the starter might get you a round –but try that tactic at your own risk. In other cases, like Domaine Laforest or Redtail, hopeful golfers aren’t likely to even locate the club without a detailed map.
While we can’t supply maps, we can point you in the right general direction. And with that in mind, here is FP Weekend’s list of Canada’s most exclusive private golf clubs.
Domaine Laforest, Sagard, Que. The personal haunt of Paul Desmarais of Power Corp. fame, even Canada’s most notable CEOs can’t score an invite to this Thomas McBroom-designed golf course. Located north of Quebec City, the course receives very little play and even executives of Power Corp. companies, such as Investors Group, aren’t likely to get a chance to tee it up.
So what do we know about Domaine Laforest? According to Mr. McBroom, the course’s condition rivals Augusta National, home of the Masters, and it plays through a dense forest next to the Desmarais’ summer home. We also know one more fact about Domain Laforest — you won’t be getting an invite any time soon.
Redtail Golf Club, St. Thomas, Ont. The creation of two businessmen from London, Ont., Redtail remains one of the most exclusive golf courses in North America with approximately 3,000 rounds a year played by its 80 members and their guests. That contrasts with a typical Toronto private course, which may see upwards of 30,000 rounds annually.
Like many exclusive courses, Redtail is well hidden. You’ll need directions from the locals to find its gates among gravel roads. Once there, you dial the clubhouse. If your name is on the list for a round that day, you’re in luck. If it isn’t, you can drive back down a little-used road pondering how close you came.
That said, more people saw Redtail this summer. The club opened its gates to the public for the first time, allowing spectators to walk its fairways when it hosted the Ontario Amateur golf tournament.
Redtail sports a particularly warm and friendly clubhouse and a particularly nasty Donald Steel golf course. It gained notoriety when Queen Elizabeth II stayed in one of the cottages on the property during a visit to Canada.Oviinbyrd Golf Club, Muskoka, Ont. This Muskoka club opened for a handful of member rounds late last year and appears to be the heir apparent to Redtail when it comes to exclusivity in Canadian golf. Designed by Tom McBroom for an ownership that includes former technology executive Peter Schwartz, Oviinbryd didn’t even publish a phone number for members until recently. Instead, it developed its club through referrals. Former hockey players including Paul Coffey mingle with holidaying Bay Street CEOs at Oviinbyrd.
Cut through dense forest, the course is among the most spectacular to open in recent years, featuring wide fairways, flowing greens and a number of sporty, interesting and challenging holes. Unlike most Muskoka courses, Oviinbyrd features very little exposed rock.
Membership will be capped at 200, and given its short season, it is quite possible its round total will rival Redtail as the lowest in Canada.
The Ridge at Manitou, Parry Sound, Ont. Quietly opening nine holes last summer, The Ridge at Manitou is arguably the best course to open in Muskoka. Another design by Toronto’s Mr. McBroom, The Ridge at Manitou, which is now a full 18 holes, only has a handful of members to date and expects only 3,000 rounds this summer. That means if you can find your way to the course, which is near Perry Sound, you’ll likely have it all to yourself. The 18th hole, a majestic hole with a green perched in front of a Muskoka lake, is among the best finishers in Canada, and the clubhouse, framed out of local timber, is among the most beautiful in the country.
There is another way to experience this great Canadian course: Stay at the nearby Inn at Manitou. The Inn, an intimate facility with only a few dozen rooms, has access to 12 rounds on the golf course each day. Singer Tom Cochrane is one of the members at this quiet club.
Fox Harb’r Golf Club, Fox Harbour, N.S. While it still allowed a few public rounds for those willing to kick out $250, Fox Harb’r is planning to go fully private next summer, creating another of Canada’s most exclusive courses. The vision of Tim Hortons’ co-founder Ron Joyce, Fox Harb’r is located about an hour from Moncton.
Designed by Graham Cooke, Fox Harb’r winds through forests and parkland before emerging near the Northumberland Straits. The final nine holes snake next to the ocean, and Prince Edward Island can be seen in the distance. Top Canadian executives from the Atlantic coast and companies like Empire Co. Ltd. can often be seen hacking their way around Fox Harb’r’s immaculately groomed fairways.
The club’s facilities, including a runway, spa, full clubhouse and hunting lodge, are unparalleled in Canada. Fox Harb’r currently does about 5,000 rounds annually, but expect that number to fall dramatically once the club closes its gates to the public next summer.
Mount Bruno Golf Club, St. Bruno, Que. While Royal Montreal may garner all the attention in Quebec, the real gem in Montreal is this Willie Park Jr. design, which first opened 86 years ago.
Bruno’s exclusivity means few golf raters and media ever set foot on the property, which is located at the end of a winding road about 45 minutes outside of Montreal.
Old World is in vogue at Mount Bruno, which maintains its original clubhouse, a throwback to the club’s formation in 1919. While Royal Montreal may be more famous, the who’s-who of Montreal business plays at Bruno, including former Alcan CEO David Culver, Domtar CEO Raymond Royer, former BCE CEO Jean Monty and current BCE CEO Michael Sabia.
The course is not more highly regarded simply because so few have had the opportunity to tee it up on its gently sloping fairways.
Calgary Golf and Country Club, Calgary Part of the allure of Calgary Golf and Country Club is just how difficult it is to gain entrance to this Willie Park Jr.-designed course. Along with Capilano Golf and Country Club, Calgary features one of the longest waiting lists for membership of any course in Canada: more than 15 years.
Built in a parkland style with nasty, old-fashioned undulating greens, Calgary Golf is the top golf course in a city where golf is extremely popular.
The course’s location just near downtown Calgary makes it a very attractive draw for the city’s business elite. These businessmen may be flush with oil money, but it takes more than cash to find your way onto the membership list of Calgary — it takes a great deal of patience as well.
Magna Golf Club, Aurora, Ont. Built by Doug Carrick for Magna autoparts founder Frank Stronach, Magna has a mystique created by a $100,000 entrance fee and annual dues that are higher than any other course in Canada.
The course itself is big and bold, not unlike Mr. Stronach himself. Though the Magna founder does not play golf, he can often be found dining in the decadent clubhouse that sits just off the 18th green. The course gained some notoriety and exposure this summer when Tiger Woods played 18 holes there as part of a Nike-sponsored event for its top corporate clients.
Expect to see Maple Leafs star Tie Domi wandering around its fairways alongside bank executives and GolfTown CEO Stephen Bebis hitting its links.