TORONTO, Ontario, Canada -- Planning a drive-to golf vacation from Toronto is not easy.
Driving directly south isn't an option. There are big water hazards -- Lake Erie and Lake Ontario -- in play. Border hopping into America requires a passport and likely traffic trouble at customs. Traveling to Montreal might mean a language barrier. On a golf trip to Mont-Tremblant several years ago, I played with several players who only spoke French. I should have asked them the French translation for "three putt."
These hurdles won't stop gung-ho Canadians looking for golf. I've heard stories of Canadians driving all the way to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to find the sun and get their fix.
You don't have to go to that extreme. There are plenty of golf destinations to choose from, spring through fall, within a six-hour drive of Hogtown. Here's a look:
Muskoka Lakes region
The golf architects who were able to manipulate the rock outcroppings of the Canadian Shield without being too penal built some beautiful golf courses in Muskoka two hours northwest of Toronto.
Golfers not lucky enough to own property in "cottage country" can find a home at various golf retreats. Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville has been updated since hosting world leaders at the G8 Summit in 2010. The Taboo Muskoka Resort in Gravenhurst is rebuilding after a devastating fire last year, but nearly 60 rooms remain available. The JW Marriott, The Rosseau Muskoka Resort & Spa sits within several tee shots of The Rock, a demanding Nick Faldo design. The Muskoka Bay Club, a top-10 course in Canada, offers villa rentals. I've never seen the Rocky Crest Golf Resort, although the Rocky Crest course regularly ranks among the best in Canada.
Slightly closer to Toronto is the Blue Mountain Resort, home to Thomas McBroom's course called Monterra Golf, vacation home rentals, the Blue Mountain Inn and the Westin Trillium House, Blue Mountain. The semiprivate Blue Mountain Golf and Country Club is nearby as well.
Northern Michigan's best golf would seem to be out of reach, taking a full six-hour-plus drive from Toronto. But the Gaylord Golf Mecca has been a popular outpost to find, holding promotions with Canadian money at par. The best golf comes at the Treetops Resort, with the Otsego Club & Resort and The Loon Golf Resort serving as a fine supporting cast. Getting to the three properties of Boyne USA Resorts take more time and effort, as will the resorts around Traverse City (Shanty Creek Resorts in Bellaire, Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa in Thompsonville and Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme).
The nationally ranked Forest Dunes Golf Club in Roscommon is slightly closer. Others –- such as the Bay Valley Resort & Conference Center (four hours, 30 minutes) and The Inn at St. John's in Plymouth in metro Detroit (four hours) -- feel more like corporate hotels than true golf resorts. Their courses are the most affordable.
Golfers who continue west on I-96 from the Windsor Tunnel or Ambassador Bridge can easily stop for nice stays near Kalamazoo (six hours) or in downtown Grand Rapids (five and a half hours). Cool breweries like B.O.B. and Founders have earned Grand Rapids the moniker "Beer City USA." A stay and play at the JW Marriott Grand Rapids opens the door for rounds at the Golf Club at Thornapple Pointe, Thousand Oaks Golf Club, Pilgrims Run Golf Club and The Mines Golf Club.
Augusta -- no, not that Augusta -- is a tiny golf mecca near Kalamazoo, featuring the Yarrow Golf & Conference Center and the Gull Lake View Golf Club & Resort. Gull Lake already boasts 90 golf holes and is building a new course scheduled to open in 2016. This collaborative effort between the Scott family that owns the resort and the associate designers of Tom Doak's Renaissance Golf Design is tentatively named Stoatin Brae (which means Grand Hill in Scottish Gaelic).
Niagara Falls, Ontario
The Falls are a tourist trap two hours from Toronto, complete with neon lights, honeymooners and families with strollers galore. Chain hotels sell stay-and-play packages to help golfers regain some sanity away from it all.
Whirlpool Golf Club, a classic by Canada's Golden Era architect Stanley Thompson, takes advantage of the backdrop of the Niagara River, the gorge and the whirlpool. Love him or otherwise, John Daly designed Thundering Waters Golf Club, the closest course to the tourist area. Don't forget Grand Niagara Golf Club by Rees Jones or the 45 holes at the Legends on the Niagara.
New York state
Canadians are a huge market for the New York Golf Trail, a slew of courses and resorts throughout mostly upstate New York. Rochester (three hours by car) offers a nice mix of public courses, notably the lush Ravenwood Golf Club in Victor and the hilly Greystone Golf Club in Walworth and Mill Creek Golf Club in Churchville. Bristol Harbour Resort features accommodations and a fine course overlooking Canandaigua Lake. Toronto Blue Jays fans might be interested in combining a tour of the Baseball Hall of Fame with a round of golf at the outstanding Leatherstocking Golf Course in Cooperstown, N.Y. (five and a half hours).
Not on the trail is the luxurious Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona (four and a half hours away). It's the most expensive but also most rewarding choice. First-class restaurants and a spa complement a clean and classy casino. All three Turning Stone courses are as good as or better than anything listed above. Atunyote, which hosted a PGA Tour event from 2007-2010, might be the best conditioned public course in the state. Turning Stone's Kaluhyat Course will be one of the toughest.
There's an under-the-radar 1-2 golf punch on the east side of Ottawa about six hours from Toronto: Club de Golf Heritage and the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello Golf Club. The first option is a family-owned outpost in the middle of nowhere. The second is one of the coolest golf resorts I've ever stayed in. The Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello is the largest log cabin hotel in the world. It sits along the banks of the Ottawa River.
Thompson, who designed the course at Montebello, took advance of the severe terrain to create some tough holes. The treacherous par-3 ninth hole, nicknamed "Ravine," climbs up the rocky wall to the tiny sloping green. It's one of the most intimidating par 3s I've ever encountered.
Club de Golf Heritage hides in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains near the Quebec-Ontario border. Once players get past the blind second shot on the opening par 5, there's nothing tricked up about the par-71 routing. The five par 3s and several amazing downhill shots spice up the round.
The Laurentian Mountains -- located six hours from Toronto if there's no traffic -- are better known for skiing. Summer's a nice time to visit, too. The French influence of nearby Montreal leads to a tongue-twisting set of names for the region's best golf courses -- Le Maitre (The Master), Le Geant (The Giant), Le Diable (The Devil) and La Bete (The Beast). They're all similar in quality. I recommend staying in the Fairmont Tremblant in the ski village, a walkable gathering spot of shops and restaurants. My all-time favorite bike ride toured the wooded trails in the wilderness near the resort.
Does Cleveland really rock? It's a pretty good golf destination just five hours from Toronto. In 2012, Golf Magazine ranked five area courses among the top 10 public golf courses in Ohio: Little Mountain Country Club (no. 2), Stonewater Golf Club (no. 4), Fowler's Mill Golf Course (no. 5), Sleepy Hollow Golf Course (no. 7) and Hawthorn Valley Country Club (no. 8). Hawthorn Valley, a Donald Ross design, and Sleepy Hollow, another Thompson gem, provide quite a classic twosome. The Quail Hollow Resort in Paynesville, the region's top golf resort, delivers 36 holes of golf down the street from Little Mountain C.C. Entertainment after golf might be an Indians game, an NBA playoff game with LeBron James in May or June, or a visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.