The course that Jack built

The Bell Canadian Open is no longer played year in and year out at The Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario. It’s time for the national championship to move to other courses around Canada, as it should. The 2000 tournament marks the last time the Jack Nicklaus designed public — although expensive — course can be considered the permanent home of the Canadian Open.

The tournament had a long run there, and will return three more times after this year through 2009, at least once from 2010-2014, and at least once from 2015-2019 by agreement between the Royal Canadian Golf Association and ClubLink Corporation, which bought the Abbey last year.

The Canadian Open was first held at the Abbey in 1977, when Lee Trevino won. It did move twice by 2000, to Royal Montreal in 1980 and 1997. But other than that, the Abbey was the tournament’s home, and, of course, the RCGA has had its headquarters and Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, Museum and Library there.

A first for Nicklaus

The Abbey was Nicklaus’s first sole design. He was still playing full-time, comtitive golf and in fact would win the 1980 U.S. Open and PGA Championships, and then the 1986 Masters. But he had decided that course architecture would provide another significant outlet for his considerable energies. He first did the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, just outside his hometown of Columbus. But he worked with Desmond Muirhead, a co-designer there.

Nicklaus was asked to provide at Glen Abbey a course that could hold the Canadian Open while also offering an enjoyable day’s golf for the average golfer. That’s never an easy task — rather like designing a high-performance racing car and a family sedan at the same time. But Nicklaus, never one to shy away from a golfing challenge, came up with the goods for the most part.

The Abbey has stood up, and has been busy pretty much from the day it opened for public play. I remember when Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf played their ceremonial opening round there, and right away it was easy to see that the Abbey was a fine course. This informal opening occurred on a gloomy day in the autumn of 1976? Clearly, Nicklaus liked to hit the ball a long way-and he always had. He felt driving the ball was one of the fundamental pleasures of golf, and gave players wide swaths of fairway to receive their drives.

At the same time Nicklaus felt that it was important to test a golfer’s ability to strike his or her irons accurately. But he didn’t want small greens because he knew the Abbey would get a lot of play. They needed to be spacious so as to allow for the number of golfers walking on them, but then it was also important to make them interesting too. Golfers can soon tire of gigantic greens.

Tricky greens

Nicklaus solved this problem by creating at least four distinct areas on each putting surface where greenkeepers could cut the holes. Players would then need to find the proper quadrant to have a decent putt at a birdie or par, or whatever their handicap dictated. Meanwhile, Nicklaus protected his greens with fairly large but not excessively deep bunkers. It was always possible to play a recovery shot. Nicklaus’s experience had taught him that recovery shots were an important part of the game.

Weiskopf, for one, thoroughly enjoyed what he saw that opening round. He drove the ball well and found the spacious fairways, then felt challenged to hit his approaches near the hole. He, like most golfers, liked the valley holes 11-15, which move in part along Sixteen-Mile Creek. In the heat of the summer one gets relief down here, in an area with a microclimate all its own.

Weiskopf was also was taken with the final hole, a par-five that presents an authentic risk/reward situation. He hit a good drive down the last fairway, then played the most beautiful fairway wood shot — and it was indeed a real wood, not a metalwood — within three or four feet of the hole. Weiskopf eagled the hole, and then pronounced the last three holes on the Abbey — two par-fives sandwiched around the difficult par-four 17th, which — the finest three finishing holes he had played.

Some years later, after a spell in which I hadn’t played much golf, I went out to the Abbey on a lovely autumn evening. I was alone and zipped around the course, carrying my clubs. For some reason I played about as well as I can, finding the right spots in the fairways to approach the greens from favourable angles, hitting my irons crisply, holing putts. I played one ball and got around in less than three hours. I was reminded again of why the course that Jack built had maintained its reputation. It still does.

That night I thought I should play less more often, as I was so keen from not playing to get out on the course. And my play reflected my enthusiasm. But it was also clear that the Abbey had as much to do with my good feeling that evening — the open fairways ahead of me, the inviting greens, the attractive valley holes, the to go or no theme on the final hole.

The Abbey has become a course of which Nicklaus can be proud. It has stood up to the best players in the world and provided a super site for the Canadian Open. I’m glad that the tournament is now moving around Canada, but I know I’ll want to get out to the Abbey from time to time. The golf is good there. Nicklaus made sure of that.