Course review: Glen Abbey GC (Oakville, Ont. — 1976)
Architect: Jack Nicklaus
Overview: It has held a boatload of Opens, and been witness to some of the great shots in Canada’s golfing history. But is Glen Abbey any good? I’ll admit it was the first course of its kind that I played — back when the novelty of getting free range balls was a real novelty. But now there are plenty of top tier public courses in the Toronto area — Eagles Nest, Copper Creek, Angus Glen — and somehow Glen Abbey seems to have lost its lustre. SCOREGolf’s Top 100 has it at #43 in the country, down significantly from its once lofty perch.
Truthfully Glen Abbey was built at one of the worst periods for golf design, when modern architecture was in vogue and moving land and creating unnatural features was considered a positive. How else can one explain things like the convoluted 17th green, and the overdone third and ninth holes? Many split Glen Abbey into two — the tableland holes and the valley holes. That’s the easy way of looking at it — that Glen Abbey has five good holes, and 13 very average ones. I actually think that’s simplistic — the Abbey actually has some lousy holes even in the valley (the much heralded 11th has one of the worst greens both in design and conditioning, for example) and some good ones in the tableland.
Frankly, Glen Abbey is a flawed golf design by a golfer whose design work never rivalled his success on the course. Many say it works well for the Canadian Open, and logistically it does — though players neither hate it or love it. It is inoffensive architecture — which isn’t a compliment.
- The use of the valley for the 11th through 15th holes is impressive, even if it came with airflow issues and turf conditioning problems. Nicklaus loves the creek that runs through the holes, using it to front the 11th, and 12th greens, and force angled shots over the river on the 13th and 14th. It is a very modern construct, but Glen Abbey will always be known for these holes. Of the group, I think the most interesting is the 14th, with its angled tee shot to a green banked into a hillside.
- I’ve always been partial to the 4th hole, one of the more straight-forward tee shots on the front nine, even if it is on some of the most plain ground on the property. The 9th hole uses the water to great effect, though the green is far from my favourite on the property. The 7th, the par three over a pond, also has some interesting elements and rivals the 15th as the strongest one-shot hole on the course.
- There’s no denying the history at Glen Abbey — Tiger on the 18th, Weir on the 16th — make it interesting, but I wonder if it also adds more scrutiny to the design, and leaves people expecting something they don’t get.
- Where to start? Awful mounding, but it works for getting great viewpoints for spectators. Jack loved his mounds early in his career — and they look horribly artificial, which they are.
- The greens — namely the horrible horseshoe 17th — who would come up with such an awful concept? — and the previously mentioned 11th. Jack didn’t like subtle, so there are flat areas in the greens that meet dramatic sloped areas (like the back right pin on 13 that doomed Mike Weir’s Canadian Open run in 2004).
- Has time hurt the Abbey? The 18th is now rarely more than a driver and a mid-iron on a par five. And the course is landlocked, so there’s no where to go with it. For a tournament it would be far more intriguing now as a par four that really forced the hand of the best players.
- The tableland is, largely, featureless and dull. To compensate Jack upped the ante on the greens (No. 2, for instance.) I suspect many people can’t recall all of the holes on the front nine after playing them — they kind of blend into one flat, uninteresting blandness. Truthfully some of the holes (No. 6, for example) manage to overcome their plain setting, but it is hard to love any of them.
The final tally:
I doubt time will be kind to the Abbey. Would anyone really care about the course if the Open didn’t show up there every few years? And what can the PGA Tour players who tackle it after Hamilton, St. George’s and Shaughnessy be thinking? In that company it looks like the ugly sister, still wearing clothes she bought two decades ago. Yep, that’s Glen Abbey — retro like bad disco music from the late 1970s. Kitsch without being cool.
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Interestingly The Abbey and Jack’s Muirfield in Ohio were mainly Bob Cupp designs before he went on his own. Glen Abbey didn’t end up as good as Muirfield but could have IMHO. I don’t think the builders knew the difference in climate between Dublin Ohio (and a private club requirements) and the Credit River Valley (and a public venue), or they might have used different grasses.
I feel Glen Abbey is a superb modern championship course, I’m glad I don’t have to play it but will enjoy watching the RBC Team play for our National Championship. Thanks RBC, thanks also for keeping Harbourtown on Tour.