Don't overlook Ontario for superb courses in Canada

Trip Dispatch: Don't overlook Ontario for superb golf in Canada

ONTARIO, Canada -- Over the years, I've probably made 10 trips to play golf in Canada. Most of it was confined to British Columbia and Alberta at places such as Vancouver Island, Banff and Jasper Park. This summer I finally made it east to Prince Edward Island, which I consider a bucket-list destination. And until recently, I had never played golf in Ontario, even though at one point in my life, I lived in the Detroit area, which borders the large Canadian Province, and crossed over to Windsor many times.

So on my most recent trip, I sampled five of the hundreds of golf courses in Ontario, all of them within a couple of hours of Toronto, a metropolitan area as big as my hometown of Houston.

There are more than 200 golf courses in the Toronto area alone, and besides the many outstanding private clubs, there are some really good daily fees as well. Plus, for Americans, the U.S. dollar is trading about $1.30 Canadian, so it's a great time to visit Canada.

It was also a little warm for early October, and as we come to the end of the golf season there, you can either hurry to play some quality golf amidst the backdrop of spectacular fall colors or plan ahead for next year. Either way, Ontario is an area certainly worth exploring for golfers.

Four of Canada's top 100

At 416,000 square miles, Ontario is nearly twice the size of Texas, so if you're looking to sample all the golf the province has to offer, you've got a lot of territory to cover.

Fortunately, most of it is within a couple of hours of Toronto, so you don't have to go very far, for the most part, to find the best in Ontario.

Our journey on this quick trip started with a stay at Cranberry Golf Resort in Collingwood, which is located on the Georgian Bay off Lake Huron. Ironically, the golf course there, a really nice Thomas McBroom design, was the only one of the five courses I played that wasn't in Canada's top 100. Still, at 6,600 yards from the back tees, it was an enjoyable test and probably more difficult than the first course we played, Cobble Beach Golf Clinks, which is at Owen Sound, about 45 minutes west of Cranberry Resort and also on the Georgian Bay.

Cobble Beach was one of two courses we played that were designed by one of Canada's more prominent architects, Doug Carrick, who mentored under Stanley Thompson associate Robbie Robinson. With generous fairways, elevated tees and some great views, the 7,174-yard, par-72 layout that opened in 2006 is ranked no. 62 on Score Magazine's list of top 100 golf courses in Canada.

If the wind is up, it's a difficult test to be sure, no matter what tees you play. But catch it on a calm day, and it's quite manageable. The finishing stretch on the water is particularly scenic, including the par-3 17th, which features a lighthouse in the background.

Back to Cranberry (yes, there are cranberry bogs nearby), the golf course there was probably the tightest of the five that we played on this trip. The trick there is to find fairways because they are tree-lined with plenty of hazards on the approach. A few elevated tees make Cranberry picturesque as well, a common theme for all the courses on this trip, especially in the fall.

The next stop was Osprey Valley, where all three golf courses are ranked in the top 100. Located in Caledon, which is about 45 minutes northwest of Toronto, we played Osprey Valley's Heathlands Course, ranked no. 55 in the top 100 and no. 30 on Golf Digest's list of Canada's best 30 courses. Also designed by Carrick, the course has that Scottish links feel with pot bunkers, tall fescue and plenty of undulation in the fairways and greens. The great part about Osprey Valley, of course, is that there are 54 holes of golf, and they're all good. Offering packages with the nearby Millcroft Inn & Spa, Osprey Valley makes for a great long weekend.

Next it was Black Bear Ridge in Belleville, about two hours east of Toronto just above Lake Ontario. What's remarkable about Black Bear Ridge, other than it's on a spectacular piece of property, is that the course was designed by the owner Brian Magee, with an assist from Boyd Barr. Magee, who has always been a pretty fair golfer himself, is a member at other prominent clubs in Toronto and has a good relationship with Jack Nicklaus. But he decided to do this one himself and knocked it out of the park.

Most of the time when an owner decides to design his own course, it's a disaster, but in this case, it's just one beautiful and challenging hole after another. Ranked no. 68 in Score Golf's Top 100 in Canada, the course starts out with a magnificent elevated tee shot and ends with an uphill par 5 that's as good as most you will play. Black Bear Ridge also has a quality short course you can play as well.

And, finally, just outside of Toronto is Eagles Nest Golf Club, another Carrick design and arguably the most difficult and dramatic golf course we played on this trip. At 7,476 yards from the tips, it's a bear of a championship test with high fescue, pot bunkers, elevation change and twists and turns carved out of a former aggregate pit, ski hill and former testing facility for off-road vehicles.

The course offers great views of the Toronto skyline as well as some of the most dramatic par 5s you'll ever play, including back-to-back par 5s on 16 and 17 before the dramatic finishing hole that ends in front of Eagles Nest's imposing clubhouse. Ranked no. 28 on both the Score top 100 as well as Golf Digest's list of best Canadian courses, it's a must play for anyone in the Toronto area. I shared some more of my thoughts in this video below:

While none of these courses are on the bargain list at around $100 Canadian or less (which means around $60-$70 U.S.), they're certainly priced competitively.

More than golf, of course

Honestly, I'd be content just playing golf on a trip like this, but we did sample a few other activities on our journey during the week.

First, there were plenty of great restaurant choices, starting with the terrific dining at Cranberry Resort, which among its offerings includes the elegant Lakeside Restaurant, known for its outstanding steaks and seafood.

We also enjoyed outstanding Greek fare at Tholos, located in the nearby Village of Blue Mountain, and I had a pretty fair shepherd's pie at Port Bistro in Trenton near Belleville, and the steaks and ales at the Nineteen Restaurant & Bar at Bay of Quinte Golf Course (which we did not play) were fairly memorable as well. Which brings me to this: The region has plenty of local wines and beers, and I was certainly impressed with the latter, including the Crosscut Canadian Ale from Mackinnon Bros., one of few craft breweries in the world that uses nothing but ingredients from its own farm.

As for other activities, there were plenty. We explored the Scenic Caves at Natures Adventures overlooking Georgian Bay, canoed through Algonquin Park, drove exotic sports cars and sampled moonshine at the new family-run Last Straw Distillery in Concord near Toronto. I highly recommend the sampling from the last activity after golf and lunch, not before it.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
Commented on

You checked off some great courses. Here's a couple of picks for your next trip.1. Bigwin Island.  Big elevation changes with amazing views of Lake of Bays. Only accessible by boat. My favorite in Ontario. Originally designed by Stanley Thompson in the 1920s and 1930s before it was abandoned. It was redesigned by Doug Carrick and brought back to life in the 1990s..2. Thundering Waters. This is a John Daly course in Niagara Falls. Surprisingly target golf from the big hitter but lots of variety with views of the mist coming off the falls. Head across the Niagara River to the Anchor Bar in Buffalo after for wings.3. Braeben Golf Club in Mississauga. This is a muni built on a garbage dump which doesn't sound great. However, it has huge elevation changes, views of the Mississauga skyline to the south and the Niagara Escarpment to the West and North. Great condition during summer droughts because it's owned by the city and they don't have to pay for water. There's nothing like it and it's only 15 minutes from Pearson Airport.

Commented on

Some great suggestions, Mike. I look forward to a return trip to try them out.

Commented on

Let me know when you're back. We can play two countries in one day along the Niagara River. Thundering Waters or Whirlpool (Stanley Thompson) in Canada then Seneca Hickory Stick (Robert Trent Jones Jr.) on the other side followed by chicken wings at the Anchor Bar.  Cheers.

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Trip Dispatch: Don't overlook Ontario for superb golf in Canada