Okay, I get that it isn’t playing all of the Top 100 in the world, but it has taken my 10 years to get to the point where I will be officially able to say I’ve played all 100 of SCOREGolf’s Top 100 courses in Canada — at least until next month’s Top 100 magazine, where surely there will be some new addition I haven’t seen.
This didn’t exactly start as a quest. I first joined the Ontario Golf panel in 2002, when frankly I hadn’t played enough of the best courses in the Toronto area, let alone Canada, to really warrant a position on the panel. But I was interested in golf design, and as my curiosity progressed so did my desire to see more of the best courses in Canada.
I started writing for SCOREGolf around 2004, and joined the Top 100 panel soon after. By that point I’d been writing my Going for the Green column in the National Post for a couple of years, a gig that took me to many of the best courses and clubs in Canada, and afforded me some travel days to see other courses nearby. Even before I was on Score’s panel, I used the list to seek out the best in any area I was visiting.
In those days the panel was small and the results were hit and miss. Some courses were great, some not so good. The panel would change and it would dramatically impact Score’s list. But over time I played more and more and began to develop my own strong opinions on what constituted a great golf course. This blog and my golf course reviews stem from that developing process as I wanted to better formulate my perspective and find a way to articulate it. Interestingly, at the time no one would publish my opinions. They were generally too frank and off-putting. These days Score publishes two of my reviews of public golf courses in each issue.
By the last time the SCOREGolf list came out, I’d also been commentating on the Top 100 list on the magazine’s television program for the past couple of course rankings, often alongside Score’s Bob Weeks and Jason Logan. In 2010 I’d played more than 90 on the list — with only a couple needed to complete it. That led to this week’s trip to Edmonton to see the last two remaining on the list — Northern Bear outside Edmonton and the venerable Royal Mayfair in the city. Northern Bear turned out to be a surprise, and I’m intrigued at seeing Mayfair, an old Stanley Thompson design that has been tweaked a couple of times by other architects. This morning I’ll head to Mayfair and finish the list. I’m sure someone else has completed all 100, but it is tough to do — you have to have seen Humber Valley in Newfoundland and Victoria in B.C., as well as a lot in between.
So other than racking up a lot of air miles and expenses when I was at the Post, what did I learn from chasing a magazine list of golf courses? I gathered that in order to understand what a great course is you have to have comparison points. You need to have seen Capilano, Sagebrush, Jasper, Banff, the National, St. George’s, Hamilton and Highlands Links to understand what great golf looks like. You don’t have to agree these are all great courses — just understand that a majority of the panelists have picked these as among the best. You have to recognize that rating golf courses is entirely subjective, even when a ratings system puts numbers on various elements, as Score’s list does. And you understand soon enough that it is very hard to distinguish the best from second-best course in Canada (and you’d be thrilled to play either of them for the rest of your days), and it might even be harder to distinguish the 60th-best from the 80th-best.
In the end a lot of courses are very concerned about how they are perceived by the raters on Score’s panel — for better or worse. Clubs have pride in ending up high on the list, and dismiss the list when they fail to rank high enough. It is always entertaining and interesting — and always develops a debate.
A couple of years ago I was playing with a partner who asked me what a great golf course was. I thought about that for a bit and told him I could only give him my perspective, the way I see it. I told him I liked courses that offered options off the tee, with limited heroic carries. I expected bunkers to have character and not overly penalize weaker players. I liked greens with character, and to look natural, but not to be overdone. I liked short fours and a mix of yardages in the par threes. I liked one well-protected short three. I felt a course should have a hole that played to more than its listed par (a 4.5 par four, for example) — but not more than one a nine. I liked holes that bucked convention while respecting tradition. I liked smart designers taking a concept and tweaking it to make it their own. I loved elaborate bunkering. I wasn’t a fan of a lot of water on a course, but a small creek could be a huge design feature.
By the time I’d spit this all out, he looked awfully confused, but said it was clear I’d thought a lot about this.
“I think a great course is one I want to play again,” he said.
He’s probably right. That’s why I also went back this week to see Blackhawk, a Rod Whitman design outside of Edmonton, and made the four hour drive to Jasper to see Stanley Thompson’s gem. I wanted to see if they were as good as I remembered from nearly a decade earlier. They were.
With that in mind I’m hoping to be wowed one more time when I see Mayfair tomorrow. But even if it doesn’t, I plan, wherever possible, to keep seeking out the courses that should be recognized across Canada, wherever they might be.