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|Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club's trees are old monsters that seem to collect golf balls. (Chris Baldwin/WorldGolf.com)|
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario - Turn down a side street on a town that looks like it's straight out of the 1950s (it's Canada so you're not far off), and they're there. People walking down the street with golf bags on their backs, strolling to a course.
It's a scene you'd expect to see in St. Andrews or some other shrine to golf. Instead it's found in this town of almost 14,000 that stands out as one of the most unique towns in North America - one that happens to have one of the best nine-hole golf courses in the world.
Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club stakes a claim as being the oldest golf course in North America, tracing its roots back to 1875. Royal Montreal Golf Club counters that it came on the scene in 1873 and actually is older.
"Yes, it's a dispute with those guys from Montreal," proud local Taylor Lawson said. "But we know which side's in the right."
With all apologies to the honor of Niagara-on-the-Lake, you're not likely to care. For this isn't a great golf course because of the history. Oh, that helps. It's cool to be walking down fairways that are 133 years old.
But this is anything but a staid old relic. Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club provides an often-rollicking golf environment. The few tourists who find their way here mingle with locals who all seem to know each other and have plenty of laughs playing with that old adversary from grade school.
Shots are exchanged on a very friendly, 3,104-yard layout that has a few challenges you'll have never seen before. Jokes fly. And in this round, my playing partners passed around a marijuana cigarette to each other.
"I'm sure you've heard the stories about us Canadians," one of them laughed as he puffed away.
All this happens on a golf course squeezed into a tight section of land right on one of the bluest lakes you'll ever see - Lake Ontario. And the whole experience costs less than a night out at the movies - $20 in the afternoons. You get 18 holes for that Canadian 20 too - they encourage golfers to play the nine holes twice.
It's like stumbling upon a golfing nirvana where the sport actually returns to its roots of being the people's game. Almost everyone walks. Most carry their own bag. This golf course is about as stuffy as a pub with peanut shells all over its floor.
Which doesn't mean Niagara-on-the-Lake is in bad condition (in fact, it's surprisingly good for the play it receives in such a short season) or that it's a course without character to go with it characters.
Play begins with a 326-yard par 4 that's as straight as a Mormon missionary. There is plenty of room to blast away between the trees, but you might be distracted by the hulking old brick structure about 60 yards behind the green up a hill. That's one of the oldest forts in Canada.
It also used to very much be in play. But historical societies and government agencies stepped in with golfers playing caroms off the old walls and made Niagara-on-the-Lake tweak the course so Fort George would not be pelted.
"It used to be really cool," Lawson said of using the fort like a pool table.
Luckily, the rest of Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club still is. You navigate doglegs around hulking trees. These are the Dolly Partons of trees. They're super well endowed. They also seem to snag golf balls by the dozen.
You also get those Lake Ontario looks. No. 5, a 515-yard par 5, probably boasts the best view. If this was one of those snazzy resort courses, you'd think those sailboats out there in the distance, providing postcard picture opportunities, were put there on purpose.
Because it's Niagara-on-the-Lake, the oldest or second oldest course in North America, you know the golf found its way here way before those weekend sailors.
"It's real honest golf, if you know what I mean," local Jay Hoge said.
You will after you play a round at Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is one of those rare golf courses that brings you back to why you love this crazy game in the first place.
If you're going to Niagara Falls, you want to work in a day at Niagara-on-the-Lake and its old-time, small-town Victorian vibe. And if you're going to Niagara-on-the-Lake, you have to play this nine-hole charmer.
It's a better course and a much better experience than many of the new high-end plays that have spouted up in this casino-hopping Niagara Falls region. It turns out that John Geale Dickenson, the guy who laid out the first of these holes 132 years ago, is a much better golf course architect than, for example, John Daly, who came up with Thundering Waters in the region.
And that's just for starters.
Most visitors look at this par 35 with only one hole as long as 500 yards and three par 4s under 335 yards and think they'll be able to tear it up. Only Dickenson found a way to make shortness fierce. On No. 7, a 330-yarder, the dogleg's as sharp as Chris Rock's wit and trees block every path.
Plus, there's a drop to the green and two big bumps right in front of it. Getting your ball to stop near the pin is akin to getting Daly to turn down a night at Hooters.
"This hole is like shooting through the windmill," Lawson said. "It's a mini golf hole in real golf dimensions."
It's both ingenious and wicked.
Yet Niagara-on-the-Lake does not have any forced carries off the tee. It's a great course for women and seniors. Just another way in which Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club is both historic and ahead of its time.
There are a number of bed & breakfasts in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but the casino-central Niagara Falls area is a better choice for a longer stay.
Fallsview Casino (6380 Fallsview Blvd., tel. 888-325-5788), is the top hotel, but the Marriott Renaissance (6455 Fallsview Blvd.) right across the street is a nice option, too. Just don't feel the need to splurge on a "falls view" room. The views are not that great, and you'll likely find a lot more enjoyable ways to spend the extra $100 per night you save by going city view.
Walk Queen Street - main thoroughfare in Niagara-on-the-Lake - and you'll have a plethora of choices for your dining spot. Everything from sandwich and salad shops with fresh ingredients to homemade bakeries to fancier sit-down places are available. Tons of spots let you sit outside and watch the people stroll by.
Despite the ongoing dispute with the Royal Montreal Golf Club over who has the oldest course, Niagara-on-the-Lake knows exactly what its oldest hole is. That's No. 8, and it's barely been changed over more than 130 years and counting.
April 29, 2008
Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
Referred to by its hosts as a "hidden gem," the greens alone at Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo, Calif. make this a stone worth turning over. Located an hour northwest of L.A., it's a pleasing, quiet and generally engaging round that will appease players of all levels.
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