Glen Abbey Golf Club, the first solo design from Jack Nicklaus, who was ably assisted by architect Bob Cupp, was built on the site of an earlier Howard Watson course and opened for play in 1976. One of Canada’s most famous golf courses, it is located in Oakville, Ontario, west of Toronto and is home to the Royal Canadian Golf Association and Canadian Golf Hall of Fame.
More than a quarter century after it first opened, Glen Abbey is still one of the best public courses in the country. It offers two distinctive nines – holes 1 to 9 are routed on a flat stretch of land around the clubhouse, while the final holes are more dramatic, with many running along a wonderful river valley.
The first nine, though weaker than the inward half, still includes some great holes – among them the par four 2nd with its shallow green, and the tough par four 9th, protected by water on two sides. The real drama, of course, is reserved for the back nine and in particular, the “valley holes” which are strong, strategic holes that make good use of the terrain – the first of these holes is the spectacular 11th, with a drop of over 75 feet to the fairway and treacherous long approach over 16 Mile Creek to the green.
The toughest hole on the card is the par four 14th, which doglegs right and has 16 Mile Creek running diagonally across the fairway. Difficulties at this hole continue onto the green as it incorporates a fiendish horseshoe-shaped ledge that brings about more than its fair share of three putts.
Glen Abbey had major green repairs carried out in 2005. The 11th green was moved twenty feet to the left to expose it to more sun and help increase the airflow, giving a healthier putting surface. This now means a more difficult tee shot as drives must now be in the middle or centre right of the fairway for a clear view of the green as anything else will be blocked out by maple trees to the left of the fairway. Four renovated greens at holes 1, 4, 7 and 12 were excavated down around a foot then old materials removed and drainage replaced before the putting surfaces were reconstructed.
The Canadian Open has been staged at Glen Abbey a staggering 30 times (more than twice as many times as any other national golf club) since it was first held here in 1977 so it has seen many great champions win the top prize in Canadian golf – from international players like Greg Norman in 1992 and Nick Price in 1994 to US star Tiger Woods in 2000, Vijay Singh in 2004 and Jason Day in 2015.
If you were to walk up to the average golf fan in the US or abroad and ask them to name one Canadian golf course, there is no doubt in my mind which name would pop up the most.
St. George's? Doubtful. Cape Breton Highlands? The National? No chance. Cabot Links? Might get a few picks but no sir.
For better or for worse, it would be Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario, making it the most famous course in Canada.
Really, it just goes to show how important a role hosting a PGA Tour event plays in marketing your facility, especially when it's a national championship. The Canadian Open, one of the world's longest running national opens, has been held at Glen Abbey an astonishing 30 times over the 100 year history of the event through 2018. It is believed that the Old Course at St. Andrews is the only course in the world to host more national championships.
That may be the only time in history you see Glen Abbey and the Old Course in the same paragraph. Okay, I've now done it twice!
Don't get me wrong - Glen Abbey is a solid test of golf but its popularity in recent years has waned. Once one of the top events on Tour, the Canadian Open has seen its popularity diminish substantially over the years due to a number of factors. For years, the event was held immediately after the Open Championship, so you can imagine that many pros weren't exactly thrilled with the prospect of flying all the way overseas to play in Canada after a major, even if the tournament chartered a private plane for anyone interested.
Another reason is the fact that Golf Canada, in many people's eyes, has become too enamored with holding the Open at Glen Abbey instead of moving it around the country like most would prefer.
Most pros have a love/hate relationship with the Abbey, none more than Canadian legend Mike Weir. He missed cut after cut at the Abbey and didn't hide his dislike for the course until finally realizing that he'd have to just accept the fact the Open would often be played at a course he wasn't comfortable with. If he had any intention of winning, he would have to figure out a way to get the ball in the hole there and since then, he's had a couple of good runs, barely losing to Vijay Singh in a playoff about ten years ago.
Even I have a love/hate relationship with the place. I vividly remember sitting on the second tee during a Canadian Open in the mid-80s and having 1981 champion Peter Oosterhuis toss me one of his balata golf balls as he made his way over from the first green. Talk about the thrill of a lifetime for a 10 year old kid! I also remember being close to tears on the driving range as a 16 year old, having won entry into a Canadian junior tournament being held at the Abbey. For the life of me, I couldn't stop snap hooking the ball during my practice session and not even my father could straighten me out. I remember taking a ten on the 4th hole and my old man bailed on me after seven holes, saying he couldn't bear to watch me.
I've warmed up to the place in recent years, having played the course numerous times in a charity event for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Halton. Glen Abbey was the first solo design from Jack Nicklaus, who had previously worked with famed designers like Pete Dye and Desmond Muirhead on Harbour Town Golf Links and Muirfield Village respectively. It was designed in cooperation with the RCGA as a permanent home for the Canadian Open and it is widely considered one of the first courses designed with tournament play and gallery in mind.
Highlights include the lovely 2nd hole, a 414 yard par four that has the fairway abruptly end at a gully about 140 yards or so from the green. The approach is uphill to a green protected in front by a large bunker.
The 3rd hole is a photogenic 156 yard par three that bears a striking resemblance to Golden Bell, the 12th hole at Augusta National. Both holes feature short irons over water to extremely shallow but wide putting surfaces. This hole, at the center of the green, is only five or six paces long and demands a very precise shot.
The final hole of the front side is a beauty - a 458 yard par four that has a large lake that runs for about 100 yards in front of the green. The putting surface, like most at Glen Abbey, is quite tiny and chipping and pitching is made more difficult due to the amphitheater setting of the green.
The 10th is a 443 yard par four into a relatively tight fairway and the approach must be hit into a very tiny little green that slopes sharply from back to front. This is one of the holes I always shake my head at upon playing - the greens are so small out here and precise iron play is a must.
Now the first ten holes out here aren't really remarkable. It's solid but unspectacular golf.
Then, Nicklaus takes us to the gorgeous valley holes.
The tee shot on the 11th is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The 452 yard par four plays well downhill into the valley below, with a fairway guarded by towering trees and a bunker right. The approach is terrorizing - likely a mid-to-short iron over Sixteen Mile Creek to maybe the smallest green on the golf course, so small that there is a second green that sits to the right of it to help give the main green some needed vacation time every now and then. This is simply a tremendous hole and usually plays as one of the most difficult during the Opens played here.
The par three 12th is another beauty, measuring 205 yards from the back tees and featuring a shot over the creek to a pretty shallow putting surface. There used to be a wicked tee set up on the hillside many years ago but it's not in play anymore.
The 558 yard par five 13th is a tremendous risk/reward hole. Pretty straightforward drive but the real decision comes on the second shot - do you layup in front of the creek or do you give it a go and try to reach the green in two? The creek is pretty wide in front of the green and swallows up a lot of golf balls. There is major undulation in this green and there are chipping areas to the left and in behind the putting surface to wreak havoc on misplaced approach shots. A very stout par five.
The 457 yard par four 14th might just be my favourite hole on the golf course, especially from the back tees. The ever-present creek winds throughout this hole and you must decide how much of it you want to cut off with your tee shot. This diagonal type hazard is used brilliantly here by Nicklaus and if you want to set up a short iron approach to the severely undulating and elevated green, you'll need to be bold with your line off the tee. Tremendous hole with a really fun green too.
The par three 15th looks pretty benign on the card at only 141 yards but the green is no bargain. It slopes severely from back to front and you must really control your spin to ensure the ball doesn't roll off the front and down a huge false front. Keep your ball below the hole!
You venture back up from the valley for the last three holes. The 16th is the best birdie chance on the golf course, a 516 yard par five that doglegs hard to the left. The approach shot is likely played from a downhill, sidehill lie to a very wide but kind of shallow putting surface that is protected by a little pot bunker. This hole has been played as both a par four and five in recent Opens but was changed back to a par five in 2009 to bring some excitement back. Fun hole for amateurs and pros alike.
The 17th used to be a beast and was notable for all the bunkers that lined the fairway. Those bunkers are pretty much obsolete now due to technology, as most players can blast right past them on the 436 yard par four. Still, a very interesting and somewhat controversial "S-shaped" green surface here.
The 18th at Glen Abbey is one of the most famous risk/reward closing par fives in golf. At only 524 yards from the tips, it's eminently reachable for many players but the second shot must be played over a huge lake to a very shallow putting surface protected by bunkers in back. The hole has forever been etched into golf history after the remarkable 218 six-iron shot Tiger Woods played from the fairway bunker onto the back fringe of the green, over the water to beat Grant Waite in the 2000 Open by a single shot.
I've tried the shot - trust me when I say it's almost unfathomable what he did there.
Glen Abbey is a prototypical 'stadium-type' course and as such, is very fan-friendly with all of the mounding and amphitheater viewing areas throughout the course. I've also warmed up considerably to the architecture over recent years.
Glen Abbey offers quite a bit in shot values, offering many risk/reward opportunities while also requiring deadly accuracy with irons and a deft touch around the small putting surfaces. Playability also ranks high out here, especially off the tee. The fairways are quite generous, but the Abbey most certainly is a second shot course with the small greens.
The slope and course rating out here is quite high from the backs but I don't really feel it plays that tough. This was Nicklaus' first solo design and he gets caught repeating himself numerous times - every par three but one plays over water and there are way too many dogleg rights, something Nicklaus incorporated into his early work due to his left to right ball flight. The valley holes offer tremendous variety, however, and are extremely memorable.
The aesthetics wouldn't necessarily be a strong point at the Abbey but the beauty of holes 11 through 15 can't be denied. I've never really played the golf course at peak condition, quite shocking since the annual charity event I play is usually only about a week or two before the Open. The greens are never smooth, run slow and the fairways are shaggy as well.
It's always cool to play a Tour course but there is a lot of housing on the outskirts of the holes that mar the landscape somewhat. The land is also pretty flat here and other than the long hikes down into the valley and back up, it’s a very walkable golf course.
I've been warming up to Glen Abbey quite a bit as the years have gone on. The front nine isn't remarkable, save for the second, third and ninth holes but the last eight holes are truly wonderful.
Overall, this is a fun golf course to play, with five par fives, all reachable from the proper tee and some neat par fours sprinkled in as well. That said, it's a very expensive course to play during the summer season and I’m not sure if the value is there for the dollar.
What I can say is that I always look forward to my rounds at the Abbey and I never leave disappointed.
My full Glen Abbey course profile and pictorial can be found here at Now on the Tee: http://nowonthetee.blogspot.com/2010/02/glen-abbey...