British Open Week: Canadian Links

Victoria GC: Almost a links and remarkably stunning (photo courtesy of Jeff Mingay)

My fondness for links courses is well known. I’ve traveled to Scotland four times in the last decade, and flown to Ireland, England and Wales in the same period, all to seek out seaside golf. Golf without trees might seem like a contradiction to some, but to my way of thinking it is the way the game was meant to be played. I’ve had the good fortune to play a lot of Open Championship courses (or places where the championship has been held), including Muirfield, Troon, Turnberry, Prestwick, Royal St. George’s, Birkdale, and Carnoustie. That doesn’t make me an authority, but it has convinced me this is the best the game has to offer.

In celebration of Open Championship week, I’m going to focus on links golf this week — including writing about my experience at St. Andrews, and a full review of Devil’s Paintbrush, the faux links in Caledon. Today I’m going to take a quick look at the faux links across Canada that I’ve played and give a quick synopsis.

I should start by saying there are no true links in Canada. Even places like Northumberland Links in Nova Scotia and Victoria Golf Club in Victoria, B.C., are not built on sandy soil and therefore don’t fit the true definition of a links. That is also true of places called “links” like Highlands Links, which once again isn’t built on sandy soil, but is near the sea. That said, there are a lot of courses designed to look, and occasionally play, like a links. Most of these courses miss the second part — they are over-watered and play wet, as opposed to brown and fast like a links is intended to. Anyway, here’s a list of my favourite “links” in Canada. This list isn’t comprehensive, so if someone has a suggestion of a course I should seek out, I’d love to hear about it:


Tarandowah's closer

 Tarandowah: This is currently my favourite course in Canada. Is it the best — no. But having played it a half-dozen times this year, its nuances and subtle features have really lured me in. The best holes — the uphill 5th and the long 11th — don’t worry about being fair, a key feature of most links, while the short par-4 6th and 13th, offer a multitude of options. Quirky elements abound — like the fuzzy hillock in the 6th fairway — making this a delight to play and a great value.

True links rating: 8

Fun value: 9

Drawbacks: The setting, in Southern Ontario, is about as far from a links as one can get. Some drainage issues have kept it from playing as firm and fast as it should.


The 9th at the Brush

Devil’s Paintbrush: Perhaps Canada’s best-known fake links, Devil’s Paintbrush is full of quirk and charm. Not long (it is under 7,000 from the tips), the course has some truly great holes — like the par-3 13th, and the closing 18th, which shares a wall with the equally stunning 17th. The course is wide, but fairways often yield blind shots, meaning it is no cakewalk. The most fun you can have with your golf clubs in your hands.

Drawbacks: Newly redone greens are just so-so at the moment. Water on the 15th hole and forced carry on the 1st seem out of place.

True Links Rating: 7

Fun Value: 10

Eagles Nest: My home course north of Toronto, Eagles Nest is the most muscular

The first hole at Eagles Nest

 of the fauxlinks in Canada. Built on a former aggregate pit, the course encompasses wide ranging terrain, starting as a links with fairways surrounded by large dunes before plunging into a natural valley. That’s not altogether unusual — think Nairn in Scotland as a comparative course that runs into trees part way through its routing. The back nine, with its exceptional 11th and 14th holes — is as good a representation of a links as we have in Canada.

Drawbacks: Almost all of the greens are raised, meaning it is usually very difficult to run a ball into them, a key element of a links; the 18th hole is a challenging finishing hole, but all the water on the right negates the links theme and makes it a bit cliche.

True Links Rating: 7

Fun Value: 9 (one point deducted for being damned hard in spots)

Highlands Links: A “sea to mountains” course, Highlands Links encompasses some links elements — the open greens, the plunging fairways. But truthfully its name is a misnomer — it isn’t really a links. Before 1996, when an irrigation system was added, Highlands played ultra-fast and firm in the summer, replicating what is found in the U.K. That said, there are several holes — 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 — that are seaside and have links features.

Drawbacks: Holes in the mountains have little to do with the concept of a links.

True Links Rating: 4

Fun Value: 10

The Links at Crowbush Cove: Designer Tom McBroom’s attempt at fashioning a links hits its mark in places. Holes at the end of the front nine and part-way through the back nine are true links, playing through dunes and on sandy soil. While some people hate the short uphill 17th, I think it is actually pretty representative of what one might find in Scotland or Ireland on a links. The problem is that the holes that aren’t on the water are often over-shaped and dull. If one stands on the 11th tee at Crowbush and looks down the coast into the dunes to the west, one has to wonder what was possible if PEI had been a bit braver.

Drawbacks: A bunch of holes that look like most McBroom designs, running through trees; a bit over-shaped for a links.

True Links Rating: 9 (for links holes); 3 for the rest

Fun Value: 6

Victoria GC: Perhaps the most links-like site in Canada, Victoria looks and feels like an English links. The only issue is it is largely built on rock, not sand soil that defines a links. Regardless, through the front nine, especially the holes that run along the ocean, Victoria feels like an old-fashioned links, sporting all of the quirks (tight holes, back-to-back par-3s, holes right on the water). It loses some of this feel on the back nine, but still might be the closest we have to an actual links in Canada.

Drawbacks: Not on sandy soil; half the holes are inland and have parkland characteristics.

True Links Rating: 8

Fun Value: 10


The Heathlands is a long-time fave.

Osprey Valley Heathland: Doug Carrick’s first attempt at a links, the Heathland course still stands up nearly 20 years after it opened, largely because it is subtle in all the right places. Holes without bunkers, vast chipping hollows, and the ability to play the ground game make Osprey’s first course a standout. Interesting that the Caledone region has two of the best fake links in the country.

Drawbacks: Water on several holes, including the current par-3 closer.

True Links Rating: 7

Fun Value: 9

The Links at Monck’s Landing: A little-known nine holer north-west of Peterborough, the best links elements on this course — at the low-key opener, or the big second hole and fine closer — are minimalist golf at its finest. It loses the plot a bit in the middle, but this is a course you should seek out if you’re interested in low-budget golf that works.

Drawbacks: The middle of the nine diverges from the links theme, and includes trees and a pond.

True Links Rating: 6

Fun Value: 8

Fox Harb’r: Tim Hortons co-founder Ron Joyce’s seaside resort is getting a renewed marketing push this year, encouraging people to play this course located near Wallace, NS. Yes, half the holes are on the ocean, but only a couple play like a links and none of them look like a links. The inland holes are largely nondescript.

Drawbacks: Front nine has nothing in common with a links; only a few holes on the coast have links characteristics, with most built on heavy soils. The course is way too green!

True Links Rating: 2

Fun Value: 5

Glen Cairn: Tom McBroom’sattempt to do an inland links, one has to wonder if this course would have been better with18 holes. As it is there are plenty of standouts, though styles are mixed, with some of the best holes feeling more like something from Gleneagles than Cruden Bay.

Drawbacks: A couple of holes have more in common with McBroom’s work in Muskoka than they do a links.

True Links Rating: 6

Fun Value: 7

Northumberland Links: Down the street from Ron Joyce’s Fox Harb’ris this value-priced gem. Several holes on the front nine skirt the ocean and have links elements, though that basically disappears on the back nine, with holes running admist pines.

Drawbacks: Only a couple of holes are even built in a links style.

True Links Rating: 4

Fun Value: 8

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • You have sold me, I have always wanted to play Tarandowah and even though it is a two hour drive I am going to try to get there next Monday.

  • Good list Rob – did Sagebrush get consideration here? I personally think that the playing characteristics mimic a links more than any other course in the country despite the mountain setting.

  • Having been priveleged to play many Links course in the UK, including 5 of the Rota and other “hidden Gems” there is one true Links course in Canada. Kings Links in Vancouver sits directly on the water and mimics many of the best links that sit directly under the Rota courses. No worse, simply a little “less” in size and scale. Think of Leven, Lunden, Crail, Elie, Dunbarm Kings Links fits perfectly into that group. No grand clubhouse but a perfect and complete Links experience. It is not my favorite course, very good but not perfect, but if people want to see a true links in Canada and what they might see in smaller communities in the UK, it is perfect. In fact the location reminded me a little bit of Royal St. Georges although the course is much flatter, think the old course.
    Give it a try and you will realize that we do have a “pure Links” course in Canada. It should not and cannot be viewed as a “top 100” but the experience is as close to “pure Links” as I have ever seen or experienced in North America.

  • I love true Scottish Links particularly on the North Sea side of the island. I have made three trips over in the last six years. I am also a believer in building to your environment. If your land is on rolling hills in the middle of a forest, a faux links just doesn’t do it for me. While I can appreciate and enjoy courses such as Tarandowah, Eagles Nest, Paintbrush, I just don’t get the wow feeling of a Kingsbarns etc. I have always been surprised that there haven’t been enough places in Canada where there is land available on larger lakes or on the coasts where decent links simlar to GB & I could be built. The obvious examples that come to mind would be a Bandon or Whistling Straits. I do hope that Cabot Links gets built before the decade is out! I am not a designer by any stretch but I think places like Fox Harb’r missed an opportunity. I don’t know the final tally for building that course except that is was large. While a decent course, I think you could have done more with the land even if soil conditions don’t quite match what is across the pond. Heck, Ron could have filled a tanker and brought whatever he needed over!

    I have never played Victoria pictured but from that one pic, I have to say wow. I have check out pics of the other 17 holes..


  • Grand mere golf club , a Walter Travis design seems more like a links course …….has anyone tried that experience!!

  • I couldn’t agree more with the Trandowah assessment – I highly recommend it to anyone within a 2 hour drive – you won’t be disappointed. I’m in Burlington, and have been able to get there in roughly an hour – not horrible at all. It’s worth the extra gas for teh cheap green fees – especially if you’re a member.

  • Glad you gave a shout out to Monck’s landing, just north of Norland off Highway 35. It proves positive you really went looking for unique courses. It is off the beaten path of the golf world in a sense, but it is a links of sorts. The whispy fescue off the fairways and the rough are typical of Links style courses in the UK, but you are also correct in the middle holes with their trip through the forest. That said, it is a fun little course, and just 5 minutes from my trailer park where I am up in the summer, so I am a big fan.

    If only someone would build Canada’s answer to Whispering Straits…..

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