By Ted McIntyre
Want to play the top-rated golf courses in Ontario?
No, you actually don’t. Not most of you, anyway. The National in Woodbridge has often been ranked No. 1 in Canada, but it can eviscerate mid- and high-handicap players with its lightning-quick greens and relentlessly demanding tee shots.
Is it cool to play St. George’s G&CC? Abso-friggin-lutely! But if you don’t have the greenside expertise of a Tour pro, it will remind you of that fact regularly, as will the members waiting for you to stickhandle around the green.
And Toronto Golf Club in Mississauga? There’s a reason they’re thinking of possibly hosting an RBC Canadian Open there in the near future, and it’s not because it favours the public player’s wayward game. I love its recent bunker work, but it’s a relentless test, and the rough was thick enough to swallow a caddie the last time I played there. Not exactly a bowlful of giggles for those who regularly shoot above the 70s.
Are the previously mentioned layouts masterful designs and thorough tests of your game? Damn straight! But what every golfer should really seek out is a great golf experience — to come away from an outing knowing you’ve visited someplace special, where it’s as much — or more — about the scenery as how well you played.
So with that said, here are five cottage country classics to scribble onto your must-play list in Ontario. Each has regular public-player access. Just remember to bring your closest golf buddies. And for God’s sake, don’t forget your camera!
The Ridge at Manitou
When this secluded Tom McBroom design, tucked away 20 minutes east of Parry Sound on the shore of Manitouwabing Lake, first opened in 2005, it was expected that the facility would eventually go private, but it never came to pass, which has been wonderful news for golf enthusiasts everywhere.
Tee it up here and you’ll often feel like the only group on the course. Flowing up and then back down to the shore of the lake, the layout offers significant swings in elevation, some classic bunkering inspired by the great golf architect Alastair Mackenzie and fairways defined by dense forests. The golf course comprises less than half of the property’s 300 acres, with the remaining 150 acres dedicated to preserving the rugged landscape that is home to deer, moose, black bears, wolves, great-horned owls and a myriad of other wildlife.
The beautiful wooden-beamed clubhouse, with light streaming in through floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto Manitouwabing Lake — is one of my favourite places to dine in Canadian golf.
But nothing beats the finale at Manitou, a reachable par-5 that slides downhill all the way, doglegging left after your tee shot to unveil a dramatic view of the 18th green beyond, backed by the sparkling lake. Ridgeatmanitou.com
Bigwin Island Golf Club
Probably the most forgiving course on this list, Bigwin, sitting in the Lake of Bays southeast of Huntsville, was designed by golf architect Doug Carrick to capture the spirit and elegance of the original grand resort known as the Bigwin Inn, which lured Hollywood stars and celebrities through the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. It’s as cool an arrival as you’ll experience at on Ontario course, parking your car on the mainland before boarding a ferry for the short trip across to the Bigwin dock. (I’ve arrived by float plane, which, needless to say, is grander still).
Wide, sweeping fairways drape over the rugged Muskoka terrain as this course heaves to and fro’ in all directions, exposing glorious lake vistas. The local reddish-gold silica sands makes the bunkering unique, but the course’s two highlights are, without question, the “Lookout” 6th hole, which plunges downhill to showcase one of the best views in all of Canadian golf, and the breathtaking 18th, the green of which curls into the bordering Lake of Bays to the right hole.
I’ve spotted many a deer on this course. It’s truly a special place.
Assuming they follow suit with last year’s tee times, public play is available Monday to Thursday after 10 a.m. and after 1 pm on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and holiday Mondays, in the months of May, June, September and October.
Seguin Valley GC
Haven’t heard of this one? OK, now you have. Sitting just south of Parry Sound, Seguin weaves its way through 400 acres of pristine wilderness. While there is a minimalist approach to bunkering here — there are just 25 sand traps on the entire course — and there’s no driving range yet. But there’s no shortage of eye-popping memorability throughout the property. Among the most spectacular examples is the par-3 7th over McRae Lake, where the 180-yard-long bridge that curls from tee to green was constructed at a cost of $350,000. But there’s really almost one signature hole after another here, including the short, downhill, dogleg-left par-4 15th, about 90% of which appears to be environmentally sensitive marshland, 7% fairway and 3% green, with a Canadian Shield cliff to the left to help frame the jaw-dropping picture.
Bring extra golf balls, though — this is not the place where you’ll get away with spraying your tee shots — but it will be worth it in the end. And then hoist a brew or glass of wine afterward in the clubhouse —essentially the biggest log cabin you’ve ever seen.
Muskoka Bay Club
I played this course about five years ago in dry, windy conditions and got beat up pretty badly as my ball continually careened off granite outcroppings and other pretty parts of the Canadian Shield. But it’s sort of like getting wrestled to the ground Scarlett Johansson — not the worst way to lose a fight.
Golf Digest ranks this place as No. 10 in Canada overall and No. 1 in Ontario among public-access courses, and for good reason. As photogenic as they come, this Doug Carrick masterpiece meanders over a breathtaking landscape near Gravenhurst.
“Finding a routing that melded perfectly with the rugged terrain required a great deal of creativity and perseverance,” explains Carrick, who was instructed to preserve the more benign land for the accompanying residential community, while taking advantage of “some of the most rugged Muskoka landscape imaginable” for his course.
As a result, from the dramatic downhill tee shot of the opening hole onward, Muskoka Bay dazzles with a variety of rocky cliffs, deep valleys, scenic wetlands and dense woodlands, while providing exceptional shot values throughout the round.
Keep your ego in the car and play the appropriate tees to truly enjoy this place.
Cobble Beach Golf Links
Pressed up along the western shores of Georgian Bay, 15 minutes north of Owen Sound in the town of Kemble, Cobble Beach has been among the province’s most unique golf experiences since it opened to much fanfare in 2007 (including Best New Course honours from Ontario Golf magazine.
The Doug Carrick-crafted layout takes full advantage of more than three kilometers of dramatic shoreline, but the views of Georgian Bay are pretty much constant throughout your round.
While not as consistently dramatic as the other four courses on this list, Carrick’s sophisticated design twists, turns and plunges across undulating terrain with great flare. The routing’s distinct Scottish feel is enhanced by pot bunkers, hummocky fairways, closely mown chipping areas and hollows surrounding the greens that provide the bump-and-run characteristics one would expect from a links-style course, although I don’t know if I’ve seen the layout quite dry enough to truly play in that fashion.
Conditioning is consistently first-rate here, as is the service. And the dining in the clubhouse, complemented with fabulous Georgian Bay views, is impeccable. And if you and your guests indulge a little too much, there are 10 beautifully appointed guest rooms upstairs — a perfect excuse to play again tomorrow.