Travel restrictions imposed by various governments to battle the COVID-19 virus will likely keep us close to home for the foreseeable future. That annual buddy’s trip to Myrtle Beach or any other warm US destination is on hold for now, and even a once in a lifetime trip to play spectacular courses in Scotland and Ireland this summer may have to wait too.
Depending on how quickly Canadian provinces move to re-open, travel to Quebec, Atlantic Canada or the west coast could also be curtailed for some time yet, leaving Ontario as our only golf option in 2021. But, as Fairways readers know, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Among the 800+ courses in the province, there are fantastic options to play a Bucket List of your own creation, without ever crossing a border.
So, why not create your own Road Trip? It can be anything you want it to be and last from one day to a week or even longer. For this article, I’ve chosen travel to smaller cities not more than a few hours from Toronto, where there are plenty of accommodation options, lots to see and do in addition to golf, and great dining experiences beyond fast food and chain restaurants. We’ll explore the lifestyle amenities in subsequent articles but as far as golf is concerned, each of these destinations is easily accessible and has at least three really good golf courses that won’t break the budget.
This city of 50,000 is often bypassed on the way to Ottawa or Montreal but has a wonderful history and plenty of reasons to stop and stay. Only a couple of hours east of Toronto, situated on the shores of the Bay of Quinte, Belleville boasts two really good courses locally: (Black Bear Ridge, Trillium Wood); and a third just 30 minutes away in Brighton (Timber Ridge). Some of my friends make an annual pilgrimage to play six rounds over three days with this trio. The first stop is Timber Ridge (http://www.timberridgegolf.net/), a smart Steven Ward design that will tantalize and delight golfers of all skill levels. If you’re not rushing to get in 36-a-day, the clubhouse boasts excellent food and some great vistas to relax and enjoy a beverage or two. Our next stop is Black Bear Ridge (https://www.blackbearridge.ca/), annually ranked among the Top 100 courses in Canada. The course was designed by the late Brian Magee on land his family had owned for many years. Magee was a low single digit handicap and real estate developer, not a course architect. But he loved the idea of designing his own course and persistently sought input from everyone he knew in golf. That included everybody from Jack Nicklaus to me. The result is an exceptional layout with a unique variety of holes. It’s a course you’ll be talking about long after you play and one you’ll be itching to play again. The third leg of this Road Trip brings us to Trillium Wood Golf Club (https://trilliumwood.com/), a solid, picturesque course that isn’t as well known as the others in this group but holds its own and will be a pleasant surprise to most.
Muskoka golf is different. Stealing a line from a World Golf Village ad, “if you’ve never been, you’ve got to go.” It’s trees and wetlands, dramatic elevation changes, lakes and ponds … and rocks on steroids. There’s nothing quite like it. Typically, Muskoka is billed as the playground for Toronto’s rich and richer, with exclusive private golf clubs and cottages that routinely sell for several million dollars. But there’s another side to Muskoka, especially when it comes to golf – places the locals know, courses that don’t strain the wallet so much. In Huntsville, try North Granite Ridge (https://www.northgraniteridge.com/) a gem of a layout carved out of the rugged Canadian Shield, or Huntsville Downs (http://www.huntsvilledowns.com/) whose original nine holes was designed by legendary Canadian course architect Stanley Thompson in 1925. The other nine was added by John Robinson in 1992 in the same style. For a change of pace, wander over to The Diamond (https://thediamond.ca/golf/), an impeccably manicured, fun 9-holer just 25 minutes away. (Hint: the best time to play in Muskoka is May or September. Rates are lower and you avoid the crowds. Also avoid the first two weeks of June. That’s black fly season. Need I elaborate?)
Featuring two Top 100 Courses in Canada, both of which are spectacular, public and relatively affordable definitely puts Parry Sound on the golf map. But then there’s a third amazing course too, and a bustling town on the shores of Georgian Bay and more things to do than you’ll have time for on one road trip. The fun begins at Seguin Valley (https://seguinvalley.com/), which will blow you away with incredible scenery and a brilliant routing through some really tough landscape. Not to be outdone, The Ridge at Manitou is also carved out of the rock with delightful climbs and drops to flawless fairways and silky, smooth greens. Please check them out. They’re always on my Must Play list for anyone who asks. The third course on this road trip is Parry Sound Country Club (https://www.parrysoundgolf.com/), one of Tom McBroom’s early designs. At just 6,000 yards it may seem short, but the course places a premium on accuracy and avoiding the ever-present granite that guards almost every hole.
No, not that “Woodstock”. That one is in New York state. Conditions were muddy and noisy and smoky. Hard to believe it happened 52 years ago. This Woodstock is a scant two hours west on the 401 and features some of the best golf you’ve barely heard of. We’ll start with Craigowan Golf Club (https://www.craigowan.com/), right in town. It’s a mature Robbie Robinson design with tree-lined fairways and large contoured greens. It used to be private but now is part of the Cardinal Golf Group portfolio. If trees aren’t your thing, then Tarandowah Golfers Club (https://tarandowah.ca/) is just 30 minutes south and may be the best inland links (or faux links if you like that term better) in Canada. Tarandowah is the creation of noted British designer Martin Hawtree, who is often called upon to tweak Open Championship sites. The course is rugged and rambles about over relatively flat farmland dotted with wicked pot bunkers and nasty fescue-lined swales. The wind is ever present. Tarandowah is a Top 100 Canadian course for very good reason. And if Craigowan and Tarandowah are too flat, then Otter Creek (https://www.ottercreekgolfclub.com/) will compensate for that. Built along the banks of Otter Creek, this Dick Kirkpatrick course is quite hilly and picturesque. The elevation changes are dramatic and require extra consideration, but the course is very playable, and the greens are much like the course – generous, contoured and lots of fun.
There are so many reasons to visit the Niagara region that a golf road trip really has to fight for space. You could set your compass for Niagara Falls and stay at the casino. Obviously, the giant water hazard is the main draw, and the City has an endless supply of attractions. Or you could park yourself in any number of smaller towns in the wine region and sip and sample the days away. Our preference is the quaintness of Niagara-on-the-Lake, still just minutes from the bright lights of the Falls, but far enough away to avoid the sightseers. As for golf, the region boasts over 50 golf courses, most of them public, and many of them quite compelling. Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club (http://notlgolf.com/) bills itself as the “oldest golf club in North America”, founded in 1875. Situated at the mouth of the Niagara River with historic forts and battlements all around, this fun 9-holer has magnificent views of Lake Ontario and so much history to tell. Moving upriver, we come to another historic golf club at Whirlpool (https://www.niagaraparks.com/visit/golf-course/whirlpool-golf-course/), a legendary and charming Stanley Thompson design that should not be missed. Finally, let’s play Royal Niagara (https://kaneffgolf.com/courses/royalniagaragolfclub/). Designed by Ted Baker, who did most of the Kaneff courses in Southern Ontario, Royal Niagara has 27 holes and each nine is distinctly different, all very challenging and well worth a visit.