Course Review: National Golf Club of Canada

The closer at the National — much improved since its renovation, but still damned difficult.


Course: National Golf Club of Canada (1976)
Architects: George and Tom Fazio

The scorecard:Long regarded as one of the “big three” courses in Canada, the National is also considered one of the toughest tests in golf –

The green on the 12th, slight and slightly over the top.

anywhere. For me that last bit was always off-putting. After all, who would want to play a course that beats you up time and again on a regular basis. However, I was looking forward to my visit to the National this time, largely because my game was relatively consistent and I thought it would be interesting to tackle the course’s challenges with a decent handicap.
Truthfully I’ve always been intimidated by the National, and I always thought it was a bit one-dimensional. In other words, miss its greens with your approach and you’d be made to suffer like Job. I can’t say that isn’t still the case, but on this trip to the National I found it fair for the most part, though the greens can still be diabolical.
It isn’t perfect – there are plenty of spots that still bother me, though no where more than the 12th green, with its raised section in the middle of a slight, narrow putting surface. I watched one of my playing partners try to play a ball up to the slight flat area in the middle, only to have it roll back to his feet on three occasions. Struck me as lacking a clown’s mouth, and it is disappointing, because many of the other greens are excellent.
Still, there’s no denying holes like the par four seventh, the 11th, and the 16th are among the best in Canada.

The tee shot on the 11th hole.

• Width — The best holes at the National are excellent and difficult without being too narrow or tight. In all honesty, the National is a terrific driving course, wide enough to allow one to make the occasional mistake and get away with it.
• Greens – With the exception of the previously mentioned 12th, the greens at the National are uniformly among the best in Canada. And that’s not about the quality of turf – which rolls very nicely – but about the shaping and subtle rolls. They can be devious, but they are a lot of fun at the same time.
• Land – There is no doubt the National is built on some of the best land in Canada. The stretch from 7 through to the 14th hole is as good as it gets.

• Double hazard – Am I the only one that finds the bunker/willow combination on the 4th

The fourth at the National, a par 5 with a double hazard down the left.

hole to be overkill? A fairway bunker is one thing, but to put a tree in front of it seems silly. Why not let golfers try to advance the ball over the creek, a long difficult shot without worry about the tree stuck in front of you.
• Twelve – a terrific tee shot on a strong par 5 is ruined by a silly, overcooked green.
• Sixteen – For the record I birdied this hole, but I still prefer the previous version, which was a breather before you got kicked in the cojones on the 17th and 18th holes. The scale seems off here and the green, with its front now saved down, doesn’t really work from the angle to the right.



The start of the finish at the National, the 17th requires two perfect shots.

The Final Tally: It isn’t hard to see why people who love hard golf courses regard the National as the country’s best. It does have several of the best holes in the country (7, 9, 11, 13, 14, 17) and even from the black tees is as solid a test as anything I’ve ever played. Truthfully it is a great second-shot golf course, one that gives you room off the tee, but forces you to carefully consider and hit your approaches. Missing in the wrong spot means a bogey – or far worse. I’ve never had a lot of affection for the National, but after my last visit, several holes revealed themselves to be truly great (I’m a big fan of 11, for instance, and 7 is one of the great fours in Canada). I’m still not convinced the National is truly great – I don’t see it as being Top 100 in the world as some have argued – but I do believe it to be the best course I’ve played that involved Tom Fazio. My respect for the National is intact, and my affection for the place has risen slightly.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  • The National is a great, tough golf course, and might be reason enough for Fazio dissenters to look at more Fazio courses!

    And 12 green is perfect for the hole! Always a challenge for the one iron, or the sand wedge. Birdies are great victories, but sometimes a par can be very satisfying.

    Does the National still have great hot dogs after the reno?

  • A few comments on your most recent review of The National:
    I agree with you that when the pin is ‘on the hump’ of 12th green, it is too tricky however; it is the ONLY gimmicky spot on any green at the club.
    The National DOES NOT beat you every time you go out Robert. The National rewards good golf shots and penalizes poor ones. It rewards solid course management and severely penalizes those who cannot except a bogey after a poorly hit shot. (There are good bogeys Rob!) If you’re a golfer that MUST shoot a low number every day, enjoy hitting the same shots from the same place, wants to make pars after hitting poor shots and prefer flat greens that run at 10, The National is not for you. However, if you prefer a challenge and want a golf course that provides entertainment/excitement every time you play then The National is by far the best. The National was not designed for higher handicaps and was conceived by the founders to be “a player’s course”. You call the National 1 dimensional and for the life of me I have no idea what this means???? There are more dimensions to The National than any other 3 courses combined.
    I will agree the bunker/willow tree combo on 4 is an issue however; you can still chip out to 160 yards and attack the green. If you truly believe you should have a wedge in your hand for your 3rd shot (after a poor drive) then we’ll agree to disagree. It has been rated the best par 5 in the country and for good reason.
    The vast majority of players would call the National GREAT. From tour pros to higher handicaps to golf architects all consider to be in the top 100 in the world. To suggest there are other courses in Canada are even close to this golf course and the experience is simply wrong. Those who follow your writings know your ‘favourties’ are aware of your ‘dark side’ when it comes to The National.
    Yesterday the club hosted the 9th annual Ben Kern Pro-am and the comments from the pros were universal: “The National is best course in Canada and amongst the best in the world”. This comment came from a 9 time US Open qualifier. Other pro comments were, “the best in country”, “best conditioned”, “best greens and green speed”, “great practice facility”, “most challenging”, “most rewarding for good shots” etc. etc.
    I am not sure what the other 2 are in the “big 3” you referenced but I hope Hamilton is one. I would welcome going through the list of top 100 in the world and identify a large number of courses that do not come close to The National. I’d be happy to bring golf professionals, ‘players’ and industry experts to the event.
    Lastly, like most of your readers I have played golf around the globe and experienced hundreds of different courses. If the ‘golf gods’ ever told me I could only play 1 course for the rest of life, it would be The National. Which one would you choose??
    Keep up the good work Robert. I enjoy reading your work regardless of its accuracy.

    • John,

      Ian Leggat, Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia and John Daly all said Royal Ontario was a “great” course during the 2003 Telus Skins game.

      A pro, architect or high handicapper will never knock a golf course especially when playing in a charity event. They are there to promote the event not make people avoid it.

      If everyone considers The National top 100 in the world, why is it not in ANY of the Top 100 in the world course lists….in the world?

      Finally, how hypocritical is it to say the course was not designed for high handicappers and conceived to be a “players course,” yet you argue it is not one dimensional. If it wasn’t one dimensional it would be a course that plays well for ALL levels of player.

  • Frank,
    The comments from the pros regarding the The National go well beyond the 1 event mentioned. Obviously everyone will provide positive feedback when they’re at an event however; architects, ALL golfers and pros will be quite honest on their assessments of clubs once they’re off site. You will find that The National consistently receives the highest accolades from these groups. Mike Weir has publically stated the same as have several other current and former tour pros.
    With respect to The National not being in the top 100 I do not have an explanation. The real question is; how is it The National is perennially rated #1 in Canada (by a significant margin) but does not make the world rankings?? When you see the 2 Canadian courses they have on the list, one would question the criteria used. Do you not think Hamilton should be on the top 100 list? Ask the tour pros, “Which of the courses they played the Canadian Open on is their preferred track”? It WILL NOT be listed in the top 100 world rankings. Are there other courses in Canada that should be on the list? Are there courses currently on the top 100 list that are inferior to The National and Hamilton? Several!
    As for the 1 dimensional issue I clearly stated; I have no idea what the author means by this comment. Perhaps a definition would help. 1 dimensional clearly doesn’t mean easy or forgiving or boring, or does it? Do the holes run parallel to each other? Are there are elevation changes, varied hazards and holes that would be classified from easy to difficult. I don’t see the hypocrisy and in fact find the 1 dimensional comment on The National to be wrong.
    Thanks for your comments and that’s the great thing about this sport. We’re all entitled to our opinions.

    • I in fact am fully aware the National is on that list, however, the list is highly questionable and lacks validity.

      The panel has not one golf professional, touring professional or golf architect on that panel and further more there are no criteria by which members of the panel rate a golf course…it is left entirely up to the individual rater which discredits the whole process. The National can be on that list for reasons as simple as outstanding conditions or because the one person who played it is enamored by exclusivity. Furthermore, the panel is small consisting of only 19 people of whom only 1 is Canadian (I am willing to bet very few of that panel have actually played the National). I could keep going, but I believe the proof is in the pudding….those ratings are far from substantiated and may as well be on someones blog post.

  • So why did you say, “If everyone considers The National top 100 in the world, why is it not in ANY of the Top 100 in the world course lists….in the world?” You did capitalize ANY!
    I would suggest you check Golf Digest Top 100 outside US as well.
    Also, I’m not sure your comment that “… the panel has not one golf professional, touring professional or golf architect on that panel and further more there are no criteria by which members of the panel rate a golf course…it is left entirely up to the individual rater which discredits the whole process” is entirley accurate or fair to the website. The list looks pretty solid.
    Again, we’re all entitled to our opinions. Play well.

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