Golf Digest wades into the Canadian course ranking business

The National Golf Club of Canada ranks tops in Golf Digest’s first rating of Canadian courses.

Golf Digest has become the latest to wade into the course rating business in Canada, bringing its own unique system, with its emphasis on difficulty, to the public. It is a list that is surprising in some aspects, and predictable in others, starting with the first course on the list. The National, arguably the most difficult course in Canada, is no shock as the top course in Canada based on Golf Digest’s criteria, which includes resistance to scoring and shot values (categories that seem very similar to me).

1. The National GC of Canada
2. St George’s G&CC
3. Capilano G&CC
4. Hamilton G&CC (West/South)
5. Jasper Park Lodge
6. Shaughnessy G&CC
7. Highlands Links GC
8. Banff Springs GC
9. Cabot Links
10. Devil’s Paintbrush

The 13th at Devil’s Paintbrush — a whimsical place to play golf.

I’d suggest none of top 10 are really surprising, though I’m a bit perplexed at Capilano, which rarely ranks this high on SCOREGolf’s lists. It typically falls behind Hamilton, a great course in desperate need of a restoration (and who apparently are interested in Martin Hawtree’s work at another Colt course, Toronto Golf Club). The factor that’s unusual about Capilano is while undoubtedly a great course, it has never struck me as a particularly difficult course, which is really a key factor to Golf Digest’s ratings. The other interesting inclusion is Cabot Links — which I would put much higher on the list, but it does break into the Top 10 on its first opportunity, which is impressive in its own right. I’d suspect it’ll challenge for the Top 5 in SCORE’s list in 2014, but there might also be a bit a reaction against what many see as hype for the course. There will clearly be some that feel it doesn’t measure up to the praise it has received, and a backlash could occur. Regardless, I think it is the best modern course in Canada.

With some slight tweaks Westmount is a Top 10 course in Canada.

11. Devil’s Pulpit
12. Muskoka Bay Club
13. Redtail GC
14. Beacon Hall GC
15. Dakota Dunes GL
16. Sagebrush G&SC
17. Westmount
18. Royal Montreal (Blue)
19. The Links at Crowbush Cove
20. Georgian Bay Club

The second ten is where things get a little odd, generally in what is missing. For example, Blackhawk near Edmonton, without question one of the best modern courses in Canada, isn’t in the Top 30 at all, while SCORE has it at 13. Dakota Dunes is 60 on the SCORE list and 15 on Golf Digest’s list. Royal Montreal’s Blue course is about 50 spots too high on both lists, but the really odd one is the inclusion of the Georgian Bay Club at 20. Strange because its wide fairways really limit the course’s difficulties — when the Nationwide Tour played there some really low scores were to be had. I’m not sure the width of the course really lends to the strategy. Nonetheless it is a solid course, but not one I’d include on my short list of great Canadian modern designs. In fact I might argue that designer Jason Straka’s work at the first Bond Head course is a better effort. Dakota Dunes is another on the list that ranks much higher on Golf Digest’s list. I think it is a solid course on a great site, but is somewhat plain and lacking in the memorability that one usually associates with great courses. I don’t think it compares well with the likes of Westmount, for example, which needs some TLC, tree removal and a bunker job, but has moments of brilliance lacking in Dakota Dunes.

Toronto GC — one of only nine classic courses on Golf Digest’s list.

21. Coppinwood
22. Bigwin Island GC
23. Mississaugua G&CC
24. Eagles Nest GC
25. The Ridge at Manitou
26. Toronto GC
27. Tobiano
28. Big Sky G&CC
29. Brudenell River GC
30. Black Bear Ridge

The final group is where the most unusual differences occur. Big Sky, near Whistler, is 65 on SCORE’s list, but #28 here. Brudenell River, which isn’t even on SCORE’s list, comes in at 29. That’s very odd because both Big Sky and Brudenell are very average designs and I’ve never thought of either as particularly difficult, though Big Sky has Bob Cupp’s typical strategies. In fact, Robbie Robinson’s Brudenell is a very average work, with nothing that really distinguishes it with the exception of a selection of greens apparently designed by a 5-year old with a modern art fixation. Similarly the Ridge of Manitou is one of Thomas McBroom’s better efforts, but I can’t see how one could pick it over Oviinbyrd, which is quite likely the designer’s best course to date. Maybe it is a case that Oviinbyrd, which typically eschews raters, simply didn’t let Golf Digest raters on the property?

What’s missing?

Predator Ridge’s Ridge Course is one oversight in Golf Digest’s ranking of Canadian courses.

Interesting to hear some think that Redtail, the exclusive haunt near St. Thomas, shouldn’t hold a spot on the list. I actually feel Redtail is a more sophisticated course than many give it credit for and it has been too easily written off as a super-exclusive private facility where the course is secondary.  That’s simply a easy way of thinking about it without giving it much consideration. Terrific holes abound at Redtail, even if more width would add options  in spots. The second, third, fifth through eleven, are all very solid, very understated holes. In fact, I’d argue that Redtail is as close to a traditional course as anyone in modern times has built in Canada. I’d say the Ridge course at Predator Ridge should also be on the list, well ahead of average designs like Black Bear Ridge, which realistically in is the lower end of the Top 100 in Canada, if it makes it at all.

The other interesting change is the lack of Muskoka courses. Rocky Crest, Oviinbyrd and Taboo usually rate in the Top 30 (though all have fallen recently), but only Muskoka Bay makes the grade in GD’s list. Not shocking — Muskoka Bay would rank as the toughest of the group.

Overall, the other point worth noting is that 21 of the 30 on Golf Digest’s list would be considered “modern” — or built after 1960 (I include Royal Montreal in that list since it was reworked extensively by Rees Jones). Courses like Victoria, St. Thomas, and Lookout Point don’t seem to get a sniff at the list, but that’s likely because three of the four (discounting St. Thomas here) would be considered short and relatively easy in comparison to their 7,200 yard competitors.

There are no revelations in Golf Digest’s list. The only surprises are courses that shouldn’t rank as highly as they do or courses that were somehow overlooked in GD’s ranking system. I guess the magazine felt the need to create a Canadian list, and I guess two competing national lists isn’t a bad thing. For those interested in such things, who like to discuss the nuances of golf courses, it continues a healthy debate.


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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.

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I don’t usually comment on golf course ratings, but this one from Golf Digest has more holes in it than a screen door.

  • Robert, looks like a mix of rating styles and is/will be a good source of talking points. Which magazine has the most paid subscriptions in Canada,SCORE, GOLF or Golf DIGEST?

    Last question of 2012: where’s the best place to go to watch the US go over the fiscal cliff?

  • looks to me like GD picked a geographic list, making sure all parts of the country are represented rather than just picking the best, which might give it too much of a regional slant.

  • Happy New Year Robert,
    I have looked for the GD rating criteria and cannot find it. In your Op Ed you refer to the rating criteria a couple of times; if you would post it, we would appreciate it.
    You state (twice) that that the GD criterion emphasizes difficulty. Based on the results one has to believe there must be MUCH more to the process. Evidenced by St. Georges at # 2 and a slope of 133, Capilano at #3 and a slope of 136-(too high), Jasper at # 5(slope 124), Highland at # 7 (slope 141-too high) at # 7 and Banff (slope 134-too high). (NB -all slopes from back tees). Other than GD’s #1 course (The National which is rated #1 by most respected golf publications), the other top 9 are mid-sloped. Missing on the list is Eagles Nest (slope 141), Taboo (slope 153), Lion Head (slope 155), Muskoka Bay (slope 148), Bear Mountain (slope 152) etc. There are a multitude of tier 1 courses that are sloped significantly higher that are further down the list or not on the list at all.
    You also refer to Oviinbyrd as TM’s best course to date. Wow! Is this TM’s view as well? It certainly would not be this golfer’s. I do agree that Redtail is a more challenging course than it gets credit for and if the rating criterion is ‘difficulty’, it should be higher on the list. With respect to the obvious ‘absentees’ from the list, I have to believe that some ‘of the MIAs’ have not been visited yet by enough of GD’s rating panellists. I hope that’s the answer.
    As always RT, keep the good work coming.

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