Canadian Open — A history of Glen Abbey

This first appeared in a magazine four years ago — but I think it is still a relevant take on Glen Abbey, which will host its 26th Canadian Open next week:


Glen Abbey Golf Club began as the vision of a man who couldn’t see.

In 1972, Rod McIsaac, a developer who had an interest in golf, went to see the Canadian Open which was being held that year at Cherry Hill Golf & Country Club.

A Walter Travis course located at near the Niagara Escarpment in Ridgeway, Ont., Cherry Hill featured Travis’ typical classic features and a fine set of greens. However, Travis, a former U.S. and British Amateur champion who created the Cherry Hill in 1922, never considered whether the course would be appropriate for the throngs of spectators who roamed all over during the ’72 Open. Simply put, McIsaac, a man who was large in ambition, but small in stature, couldn’t see over thousands of other fans to get a glimpse of Gary Player as he walk to the fourth tee, let alone witness Gay Brewer’s victory.

He complained to others at the tournament about his inability to view what was going on.

“A lady at a reception suggested maybe I should do something about it,” he said at the time.

Two years later, McIsaac followed the woman’s advice, purchasing the Upper Canada Country Club, located in Oakville, Ont., and land surrounding the golf club. He joined with the RCGA in hiring Jack Nicklaus to build a golf course that would test the best the PGA Tour had to offer, while allowing spectators to take in all the highs and lows of a Canadian Open. It was Nicklaus’ first solo design, opening two years after he developed Muirfield Village in Ohio with Desmond Muirhead.

Now 28 years since the course opened and 30 years since he was hired to design Glen Abbey, Nicklaus and his design company are back reworking some features of a course which has held more Canadian Opens and witnessed more exciting moments in tournament golf than any other course in the country.

“I think it has held up very well over time,” said Nicklaus in a recent interview with Golf Canada.

The changes, which will see the course converted to a par-71, are simply another shift in Glen Abbey’s long and notable history which began even before McIsaac sought out the Golden Bear to build his tournament track.

Once the site of a 350-acre estate, the area had been home to the Jesuit Fathers of Upper Canada for which the current course’s “swinging abbey,” logo is based.

The property had been owned by mining magnate Andre Dorfman and was sold in 1952 to the Society of Jesuits. However, the Jesuits who apparently never fond of the location, sold the property in 1962 and moved to Guelph. The land was purchased by Clearstream Developments Ltd., which intended to convert the Jesuit residence and Dorfman’s estate home into a country club.

The company also built a golf course, called Upper Canada Country Club and designed by Howard Watson. The course opened in 1965, though the country club project was never entirely successful.

Following his debacle at Cherry Hills, McIsaac approached Dick Grimm, then chairman of the Canadian Open and soon to be president of the Royal Canadian Golf Association, about building a course that could be home to the Canadian Open and that would allow spectators to view the increasingly popular sport. The pair focused their sites on Oakville’s upstart country club with the intent to purchase the land. McIsaac and his company, Great Northern Capital Corp., would reap the benefits from the site’s real estate potential, while the RCGA would have a permanent home and a course to house its most prestigious tournament.

While the existing Watson designed course used parts of the flatland and the valley along 16 Mile Creek and was 6,850 yards long, it was deemed to not be up to standard needed to host the Canadian Open.

Given the interest in selling real estate on the edges of the golf course, it is not surprising that McIsaac went looking for a name to make his project more marketable.

McIsaac surprised some when he chose Jack Nicklaus, then 12 years into his remarkable playing carreer, but still a relative neophyte when it came to golf course design. Despite just entering the golf business on his own, Nicklaus was a hugely recognizable figure and a perfect draw for the homeowners McIsaac hoped would snap up property around the golf course.

However, Nicklaus, who had already completed the Grand Slam by winning all four major championships by the time he was hired, had some experience in golf course design. He had worked alongside fabled architect Pete Dye on several projects, including Harbour Town in South Carolina. He had also partnered with quirky designer Desmond Muirhead on several clubs, including Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, which became the blueprint for the so-called “stadium” golf course. However, the project that would become known as Glen Abbey was Nicklaus’ first design that would feature his name without and assistance from another architect.

“I think I learned things from both Pete and Desmond, but the reason I went off on my own was that I wanted to use my own ideas and not somebody else’s,” Nicklaus says. “Glen Abbey was the first golf course that I believe was done with the spectator in mind. We did a wheel spoke design, where you had a central gallery, a halfway-out gallery and a following gallery where everybody could have a variety of ways to view the golf. It’s an idea that I came up with and it seemed to work.”

The design created one of the most famous courses in Canada and completely reworked the old Watson routing. Construction costs were pegged at $2-million, a large price for a course built over two years starting in 1974.

Even though he’s developed more than 200 courses since creating Glen Abbey, Nicklaus still recalls many of the hurdles which faced his solo design.

There were significant environmental issues surrounding 16 Mile Creek and the construction crew had to be certain water could flow freely through the holes which would become the middle of the final nine.

Nicklaus recalls: “You had a lot of issues in the valley that were environmental in nature, whether water issues or flood plain issues. We just tried to bring the golf into that and we decided going up the valley was the best way to play the valley.”

That decision led to what many consider the finest stretch of holes in Canadian golf. From the 11th, with its dramatic drop and approach shot over 16 Mile Creek, through to the short, but tricky par three 15th, Nicklaus created golf holes that still challenge the best in the world.

Though the course was not ready for the 1976 Canadian Open as planned, Nicklaus and the public seemed very pleased with the result.

“It is the best gallery course in the world,” he said after doing a course tour in 1976. The course would be purchased by the RCGA in 1981 for the $3-million.

Glen Abbey regularly appeared near the top of Score magazine’s list of top courses in Canada (it was 13th in 2002) and has been lauded by some of the game’s most notable publications, both in this country and abroad.

But for PGA Tour tournament golf, the course, like many others used in professional ranks, has faced challenges brought on by the distances which the game’s best hit the ball.

At the time Nicklaus designed the Abbey he was quoted as saying the course expressed his belief that “golf is basically a game of precision, not power.”

However, the 2000 Canadian Open, which saw players overpower the course’s dramatic finishing holes, convinced many, including ClubLink Corp., the company which purchased the course in 1998 for a reported $40-million, as well as the RCGA, that Glen Abbey needed to be strengthened.

Today’s Abbey is essentially the same course Nicklaus created, but changes were made to strengthen it for this year’s centenary playing of the Canadian Open.

Was Glen Abbey in danger of becoming an obsolete relic of the past? Had it become a victim of technology?

“Glen Abbey, yes, as has every other course in the world,” says Nicklaus, who has argued in favour of limiting the flight of balls used in tournament play.

Though Nicklaus was consulted on the changes to the Abbey, Mike McBride, the superintendent at the Goldern Bear’s Muirfield Village Golf Club is also actively involved in the project. McBride oversaw much of the changes Nicklaus made to Muirfield Village over the years.

McBride says much of what’s being done at Glen Abbey, including narrowing fairways, has been done at Muirfield, home to the PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament.

“We’ve tested most of what we’re doing on Glen Abbey at Muirfield,” he explains. “We’ve seen what works.”

To many, the changes will be almost imperceptible. According to Andrew Keffer, ClubLink’s executive director of turf operations, fairways have been narrowed from 32-yards to between 28 and 26-yards. He says the new rough can be kept short for public play and grown in the weeks leading up to the Canadian Open in September.

As well, the par-five 13th, with its tough approach shot, is now 35 yards longer than previous and 15 yards were added to the 14th hole, creating a tougher angled drive. The 18th, which remains a short par-five, has seen 12 yards tacked on.

One of the biggest changes has occurred at the 16th hole. Formerly a par-5 at 516-yards, the 2000 Canadian Open saw players smash drivers down the middle and catch the slope of the fairway, leaving mid to short iron approaches into the green. That was a big change from 1994, when Nick Price hit a low hooking 2-iron into the green en route to making eagle and winning the tournament.

Though it had played as a par-four previously (from 1978 to 1983), Nicklaus never liked the downhill lies many players faced and changed it back to its original configuration.  It will now play as a 485-yard four shot hole, making the Abbey a par-71. Additional bunkering has been added on 16 and 18 as well.

Keffer says the club and McBride have been careful not to tinker too much with Nicklaus’ initial vision for the project.

“The last thing we want to hear from people is that they thought Hamilton Golf & Country Club (site of the 2003 Canadian Open) was great, but what have they done to the Abbey,” he explains. “I think they’ll find we’ve just tweaked things a little.”

While Toronto’s St. George’s Golf & Country Club or the remote Highlands Links in Cape Breton may eclipse Glen Abbey in the minds of critics, no other course can claim to have been witness to so many great moments in Canadian golf.

The dramatic finishing hole, protected by a large pond in front of the green, also became world famous when Tiger Woods hit a  218-yard six iron out of a bunker on the right of the fairway to claim the 2000 Canadian Open title in a duel with Grant Waite.

For Nicklaus’ part, the course never yielded a Canadian Open victory.

But even now,hundreds of courses into his golf design business, Nicklaus still thinks of fondly of his first solo attempt.

“It is my first solo design, and it is a pretty good golf course,” he said in an interview with Golf Canada. “I don’t think it is the most difficult golf course in the world, but I certainly don’t think it is the easiest golf course.  I think it has served its purpose very well for the Canadian Open. It’s been very popular over the years. They have held 22 Canadian Opens there, and it’s been open for 28 years. I think that is a very positive reflection on the golf course.”



Related Articles

About author View all posts Author website

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.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • This was a very interesting piece on Glen Abbey and I thoroughly enjoyed. I was unaware of the history and individuals behind the appointment of Mr. Nicklaus to design the course.
    As we all know, there are several interesting tales surrounding Glen Abbey, its ownership and eventual sale. It’s nice that you were able to get the plugs in for your two top courses in Canada- St George’s and Highlands. I’m quite certain that most Canadians would identify those 2 courses as the ones that would eclipse Glen Abbey:). If nothing, you’re loyal.

Leave a Reply