NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario - As a kid, I use to travel to Niagara Falls regularly. Whenever out-of-town relatives dropped in for a visit, my parents felt duty-bound to pile everyone into the Pontiac and make the pilgrimage to the Eighth Wonder of the World. We'd pack the visitors off on the Maid of the Mist and watch them pull on their yellow slickers and then hear their nervous giggles get swallowed up by the wall of sound as the boat bobbed to the edge of the abyss.
But sometime in the 1980s when I started to go to the Falls on my own to golf, I noticed a change in the place. Suddenly it was awash in Elvis impersonators and museums featuring two-headed calves. The natural grandeur had faded. However, I'm happy to report that in the past couple of years, the class is returning to the Falls. I'm even more pleased to advise you that golf is leading that regeneration.
The course that attracted the lion's share of the limelight this summer is Royal Niagara Golf Club, which played host the Telus Skins Game in June. This year's fab foursome included John Daly, Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh and Canadian Ian Leggatt.
Singh emerged the winner, with six skins worth Cdn$140,000, after a four-hole playoff with Leggatt. Garcia, who reportedly enjoyed the local nightlife immensely, missed a 12-foot eagle putt on the final regulation hole that would have clinched the victory, and then was bounced on the first playoff hole. Crowd favorite Daly hung around until the third extra hole, and spectators are still talking about the tee shot he hit cleanly off an open soda can, launching the ball without spilling a drop.
Royal Niagara, which opened in the spring of 2001, is located about 10 minutes from the U.S. border and an hour southwest of Toronto. Owned by the Kaneff Group, a real estate and construction company that owns six Ontario courses, Royal Niagara was designed by Canadian course architect Ted Baker who made his reputation at the Legends course at the 36-hole Lionhead Golf Club in Brampton, Ontario. At Lionhead, the course owner instructed Baker to, "Make it the most private public golf facility in Canada and make it tough." Baker was successful on both counts and Golf Digest has ranked the Legends course as third toughest public course in North America.
Royal Niagara is a 27-hole facility, built on a hilly chunk of real estate that runs along the edge of the massive Niagara Escarpment. The three nines, all of which are par-36 and measure at least 3,500 yards from the tips are cleverly punctuated with holes keyed to the local history.
The Old Canal Course runs along the edges of the old Welland Canal, with water coming into play on seven of the nine holes. Ironbridge -- the tightest of the nines, with a couple of long carries over marshland, cuts in and out of the shadow of an historic railroad bridge. The Escarpment Course runs up and down the region's high ground. From the sixth tee, a 415-yard par-4 that sweeps down the hillside, you can see ships sailing through the new Welland Canal.
Most of the course is open off the tee, with generous fairways and large greens. However, Baker has guarded his layout with elevated greens, nasty deep bunkers, heavy rough and doglegs that are bent around either the former canals or man-made lakes.
For the Skins Game, the club cherry-picked its best 18 holes from the three nines. "The Skins course will play 7,225 yards long and at a par of 73," said Dan Lisle, the club's director of golf, prior to the event. "I think it is going to be a fun test. All the par-3s will be more than 200 yards and for these guys, there will be some driveable par 4s on the front nine. The final hole will be a 570-yard par-5 with water all the way down the left side. It will all come down to who is the most aggressive."
Besides Royal Niagara, there are another 40 courses in the region. Golf has a long history in Niagara -- the Niagara-on-the-Lake course dates back to 1876, making it one of North America's oldest layouts and Hogan, Snead and Nelson played in the General Brock Opens in the 1930s held at Lookout Point Golf Club.
The best in the region now includes Whirlpool, Hunters Pointe, Peninsula Lakes, Beechwood and the 36 holes at Legends-on-the-Niagara. The latter, a $27-million extravaganza that opened last spring, will host to the 2004 LPGA Canadian Women's Open, and also is home to Canada's best practice facility and one of its finest teaching pros. The Legend's head teacher is Cathy Sherk who in the late 1970s was the top-ranked female amateur on the planet. After winning the world, U.S., Canadian and Ontario amateur titles, she turned pro and teed it up for a number of years on the LPGA. After returning to her Niagara roots, Sherk established herself as successful teacher, coaching a number of Canadian national teams.
Once you put the clubs away for the day, the Niagara region has more attractions per square inch than any other spot in Canada. Culture crunchers will want to try the Shaw Festival in neighboring Niagara-on-the-Lake with its full schedule of plays, both dramatic and musical. Wine connoisseurs will be happy to discover that Niagara is also home to more than 40 wineries, estates and cellars, all open to the public. (Keep an eye out for the Hillebrand, Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake.)
Since 1966, the Falls has also been home to a classy casino (it doesn't have to be an oxymoron) and next April, a new $800-million ring-a-ding-ding gambling den is scheduled to open across from the Falls. Shopaholics will want to check out Canada One Factory Outlets. Not only do you get the usual great rate on the Canadian buck but also discount prices on such brand names as Polo Ralph Lauren, Roots, Levi's and Black & Decker.
The perennial kid favorite spot is MarineLand, with new attractions including Arctic Cove, a three-million gallon habitat for beluga whales, and the Sky Screamer, which at 450 feet, will be the world's highest triple tower ride.
If that all sounds too hectic, there is always Niagara's soothing Botanical Gardens or its Butterfly Conservatory.
In the end though, any trip to Niagara must end with a pilgrimage to the Falls. Remember, a big-league fireworks show is ignited every Friday evening throughout the summer.
(For more information on Royal Niagara, contact royal
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