On Thursday night I sat in the clubhouse of Montreal’s Royal Montreal GC and chatted with golf designer Jeremy Glenn about the changes to the Blue Course (by Rees Jones), his renewed interest in the Red Course (not changed by Rees Jones) and what was good to see among the city’s multitude of golf courses. Part way through the conversation, Jeremy invited two fellow club members to join us — one does a fine Vijay Singh impression, including the big man’s laugh — and we began to talk about the Blue Course.
Eventually the one chap asked me a question.
“What makes a golf course great?”
I asked him what he though was the best course he’d ever played.
“Probably the Blue Course,” he replied.
I told him determining a great course from a good one is a tough challenge. Part of it involves the routing, the greens, the contours. But some of it involves great holes. I asked him how many truly memorable, great, “wow” golf holes the Blue Course had.
None, he admitted. Nothing made him stand on the tee and drool. He pointed to Le Diable in Tremblant as a course with several breathtaking holes, though he conceeded it wasn’t a great course. It just had some dramatic holes.
Jeremy asked what was the best course I’d ever played. Several came to mind. Pine Valley. Royal Portrush. Muirfield. Royal County Down. Kingsbarns. Highlands Links. Merion.
“It is pretty hard to say which of those is the best golf course,” I said. “They are all amazing.”
“For a variety of reasons. Portrush is hard, but fair, with an amazing routing and some terrific holes. RCD is breathtaking and fun. Kingsbarns is among my favourite courses in the world for its width and the ability to play differently every time you tee it up. Pine Valley is, well, Pine Valley. Highlands Links is the closest one gets to Scotland while staying in North America.”
I think the member started to get what I was suggesting. There’s a lot of good golf courses. But there’s something that elevates others to “great” status. Courses in Canada — like St. George’s, Highlands, Hamilton — have that character that raises them into the status of the best in the world.
Royal Montreal, on the other hand, doesn’t.
Well, the renovation made it interchangeable with a number of PGA Tour courses. It has decidedly unnatural tiered greens that look artificial, but made for a tour event. The ground it is built on is essentially flat. The mix of holes leans largely on the very long — including most of the threes and the fours. It is overly hard, but not much fun.
All of this would keep Royal Montreal’s Blue Course well away from the list of the best in the world. Which is interesting, because at one point the original Dick Wilson design was considered in the Top 100 courses. No longer — now it is a course that many will have seen in other places, with little to make it unique.
But let’s be clear. Royal Montreal is a great golf club. A historic golf club. But the club does not have a great golf course. In fact, the Red Course, which looks much like Wilson’s (and associate Joe Lee’s) work in Florida might well be the better course now. Certainly members are more regularly turning to it now, especially since the Blue has become so hard and so lacking in fun.
So what makes a golf course great? Sometimes it is an intangible quality. But largely it is one of several key facets — routing, greens, contours, aesthetics, fun, challenge, history — or some combination of those characteristics. A lot of courses have these factors — but Royal Montreal isn’t one of them.