It would be relatively easy to put forward an argument that English designer Harry Colt was the greatest golf architect of all-time. His designs and redesigns include Muirfield in Scotland, assisting with Pine Valley in New Jersey and the creation of Toronto GC and Hamilton Golf and CC in Canada.
At Hamilton, a course he built in 1915, Colt created his Canadian masterpiece. It is more muscular than the excellent Toronto GC, and is built on one of the most stunning and dramatic pieces of property in the country. The land, called the “Grange, according to an early Canadian Golfer report, with its rolling hills and deep valleys, as well as relatively flat plateaus, is nearly perfect for golf. Given the setting, it isn’t surprising that Colt managed to come up with a routing that utilizes all of the property’s key features.
Needless to say, the greatness of Hamilton was recognized from the start:
“To lay claim to having one of the finest inland courses on the continent of America — and that, too within the short period of eighteen months or so — is a pretty ‘tall’ claim,” according to the 1915 edition of Canadian Golfer. “But the directors of Hamilton Golf and Country Club make that claim, make that statement and in the making it are backed up and confirmed by leading experts.”
Some think the greatness of Hamilton comes from its exceptional par threes. Certainly the 6th hole, at 224 yards and slightly downhill, gave players fits at the last open. The green is perched with dramatic drops to the right, forcing players to play towards the left side to avoid a near certain bogey. The 8th, a 210 yard monster plays over a valley to a green with significant movement.
The real difficulty of the course is found in its par fours. Though Hamilton sports a gentle enough opener, the second and third holes ask for precision in both tee shots and approaches. The second has a clever on grade green, while the third could not be more different, with a dramatic downhill tee ball to an extreme green cut in the side of a hill that is protected by bunkers in front. Most players hit irons or mid-woods on the approach, but need to be certain of at least a mid-iron approach in order to position the ball below the hole, a necessity if the flag is on the right side of the green, an area that slopes steeply from back to front.
Perhaps the most interesting fours are the two extremes — the short 5th, at 318 yards, and the much longer 11th, at 481 yards. The two holes demonstrates Colt’s interest in contrasts, especially where shot selection was concerned. At the 2003 Canadian Open, players rarely challenged the 5th, instead positioning the ball just short and left of the green. This approach removed the possibility of overhitting the green and seeing their ball plunge to a wooded area beyond. For amateurs, the hole allows players to attempt it in a single swing.
The 11th is very different. A massive dogleg left, Colt asks players to position their downhill tee shot at around 200 yards to the green and then hit a long iron. Though technology has fundamentally altered many golf holes, the 11th at Hamilton likely plays today in a similar fashion to the way Colt envisioned in 1915.
Intriguingly the finishing holes at Hamilton are not its strongest.
The 17th is a downhill par five that, while attractive, offers few of the challenges of earlier holes. Similarly, the 18th, which forces careful selection of the tee shot, seems almost contrived in its difficulty. That said, its natural amphitheatre setting makes for great viewing and surely creates one of the more dramatic closing holes on the PGA Tour.
Arguably the only hole that anyone seems to have issue with is the 16th, a slightly uphill one shot hole where players can not see parts of the green. Though the hole may not be as scenic or exciting as the other threes, it is no less a strong hole.
Certainly Hamilton has changed over the years. According to Canadian Golfer, the initial course was only 6,350 yards long. But that has been greatly extended over nearly 100 years to now sit nearly 7,000 yards. The bunkers, as is witnessed by the photos from Canadian Golfer, have little in common with Colt’s work. A restoration to the look of Colt would certainly benefit the course, though that’s a slight nit pick.
Perhaps Canadian golfer put it best:
“There are “ear-marks” of genius everywhere manifest throughout this superbly laid out course. It’s a poem in golf links.”
Indeed it is.
The Canadian Open will be held at Hamilton Golf and CC starting next week (Sept. 7-10).