A funny thing happens when the PGA tour makes its annual pilgrimage to the United Kingdom’s windswept shores to contest the Open Championship. I always start Thursday with loads of excitement; eager to watch the world’s elite golfers navigate around some of the best tracks in England, Scotland or Ireland. But as the final putt sinks on Sunday and the Claret Jug is awarded, I find myself in a sad wallow because I am so far away from playing true seaside golf. The lashing wind, bouts of rain and knee-high fescue all seem to be calling me – a true links golfer stuck in a parkland kind of world.
Real links golf is defined as a course on or very near the ocean and loaded with dunes, undulating greens and miles of unforgiving fescue. Telltale signs include scads of high-walled bunkers, uneven fairways and few, if any trees – not really an apt description of southern Ontario’s topography.
Thankfully, a number of great designers have not let those geographic limitations get in the way of their imaginations. Ontario has a selection of great courses that are more heathland but still manage to embody the spirit of that rugged and original nature of golf.
So, if you are like me and know you’re golfing soul is more in tune with ocean links and rolling, bumbling, tumbling terrain, don’t fret, there’s a number of great heathland options in the GTA and beyond to satisfy that links love.
Loch Ness Links: Built in 2000 and designed by Graham Cooke & Associates, Loch Ness is an interesting layout with double fairways, fescue mounds and undulating greens that offer a faux-links feel. The Welland, Ont., track sits on 225 acres of land once owned by the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority and is just a pitch and a putt away from the Welland Canal.
Though not a seaside track (clearly), Loch Ness is closer in essence, given that you can spot the odd ocean-going ship floating down the canal. Watch out when the wind whips up as the open design means there can be little respite when it is breezy. Walkers pay just $59 at peak times.
Eagle’s Nest: Perhaps the best known links(ish) course in southern Ontario is Eagle’s Nest. The championship 18-hole track has raked in heaps of accolades since the first tee shot in May 2004 and is an official must-play among public courses in Canada.
At over 7,400 yards from the tips and with holes three to seven plunging down, around and up a former ski hill framed by tall pine trees, it is a little hilly to pass for a traditional heathland course. But designer Doug Carrick used the uneven land and surrounding nature to create a great test, regardless of how some decided to pigeonhole it.
Beware of errant tee shots as gnarly fescue bordering most fairways will gobble up your ball and make you pay for inconsistency.
Piper’s Heath: Another Graham Cooke gem, this 18-hole championship course opened in 2007 and is loaded with old-world charm. Located in Milton, the course can play anywhere from 5,200 to 7,054 yards and is punctuated with meandering fairways and mounds of blowing red fescue.
Cooke says he designed the course to be one of “anticipation” with changing looks and varied scenery around each turn. Bunker-laden fairways and square tee boxes help give the illusion of links golf and windswept mounds help separate holes very effectively. Piper’s Heath is also noted for a stellar 20-acre, double-ended practice facility incorporating a series of target greens and traps.
Muskoka Highlands: Called a “wee touch of Scotland,” this shorter course has four sets of tee decks and lots of room to play making it a great option for beginners. With a minimal use of water, Muskoka Highlands can get dry and brown at the height of summer heat making for great bump and run golf.
The relatively flat property had previously been a dairy farm before being converted to a 9-hole track 1993. A second nine was added in 2000 and small additions – pot bunkers, new tees and cart paths – have slowly been made over the years giving the par-69 course a Scottish feel. Despite its open layout, the thick gorse grass bordering much of the rough rarely demonstrates mercy so shot making still counts here.
Tarandowah Golfers Club: Though not usually mentioned in the same breath as Ontario’s elite golf courses, Tarandowah Golfers Club outside London, Ont., definitely should be. Designed by Dr. Martin Hawtree, a third generation English golf course architect in one of the longest serving golf design offices in the world, Tarandowah is a devilish heathland course that certainly lives up to the acclaim.
Finishing third in SCOREGolf magazine’s rankings of Canada’s best new courses in 2008 and taking home the top prize as the best new public course in Ontario, the par 70 plays a little on the wild side. Design cues include a countryside layout framed by rolling fairways, deep fescue and over 100 round pot bunkers liberally sprinkled throughout. One of its best features, however, is not found on the frolicking layout but rather in the pro shop – a paltry primetime greens fee of just $52.21 makes it the best value proposition on this list.
Heathlands Links at Osprey Valley: Once a guarded secret of local links aficionados, the word is now out about this Irish-like test in Caledon about an hours drive northwest of Toronto. The par-71 track plays anywhere from 5,248 to 6,810 and is one of three courses at the Osprey Valley Resort. The Heathlands features tight fairways, rock walls and tall sheep’s fescue amid a variety of meandering bunkers and ribbons of fairway.
When the wind blows hard and the rain starts to fall, it is not hard to mistake parts of this course for a local track in the Irish countryside. Designer Doug Carrick did a masterful job at shaping the mounds and bringing elements of traditional UK golf such as hollows and swales around the greens.
By: Jackson Hayes