The National Golf Club of Canada is an exclusive men-only club and naturally, in this day and age, eyebrows are raised. But usually, the course is in the spotlight for the right reasons and that’s because it’s one of the world’s most demanding courses. It’s just a pity that more people can’t enjoy the experience.
In 1976, George Fazio was hired to design National Canada and his aspiring young nephew Tom assisted him. The brief was to create one of the toughest courses in the world and they have certainly achieved the objective. Tom Fazio returned recently to ensure that this course remained true to his uncle’s original brief.
With narrow, undulating and tree-lined fairways, it’s easy to see on the surface why The National Golf Club of Canada is so tough, but the more formidable challenge arrives at the greens. Far too many superlatives have been used to describe them. These putting surfaces are among the best in North America and they are prone to the Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. Sometimes they’re subtle tricky to read and sometimes they are wickedly borrowed and viciously quick.
Get your best putting boots ready and if you do get the call up to play at The National Golf Club of Canada, see if you can threaten Lee Trevino’s 67, which he posted on his way to winning the 1979 Canadian PGA Championship. We are sure that these scary greens will protect Lee’s course record for some time to come.
"For three decades, The National was rated the #1 course in Canada by a magazine poll,” commented Tom Doak in The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, “a result clearly at odds with our own ratings… It’s tough and it’s in great condition, but the same is true of hundreds of other courses. The land is too handsome and diverse for there not to be more memorable holes here… In the end, it just amazes me that a couple of promotional events at the club’s beginning could keep it in the limelight for so long.”
The National, which opened in 1975, was designed by George Fazio and his nephew Tom, who was relatively unknown at the time but would eventually become one of the most famous architects in the modern era. The course has a well-deserved reputation as being one of the toughest tests of golf in the world. To prove the point, the course record score of 67 was shot by Lee Trevino in 1979 at the Canadian PGA Championship and astonishingly, I believe that record still stands 40 years later, a testament to the difficulty of the course.
Through the years, the National has received near universal praise for its layout and design and currently sits at or near the top of most Canadian top 100 lists.
The course opens with a dogleg right par four and thankfully, it's a relatively gentle opener. The second is a longer hole but relatively straight forward as well but things start to get interesting on the 3rd, a mid-length dogleg right par four. The tee shot is relatively blind for the first-timer, with the green finally revealing itself once you crest the hill at the top of the fairway. The second shot is slightly downhill to a green flanked by bunkers on the right and water on the left.
The par five 4th hole will raise the blood pressure of even the most lucid player. At 600 yards, this is a true three shot hole for all but the longest hitters in the game and the drive itself demands supreme accuracy, as there are bunkers and large willow trees left of the tight fairway and a creek that runs down the entire right side. Even if you successfully find the short grass off the tee, a challenging layup lies ahead. The aforementioned creek winds its way across the fairway and over to the left side right around the natural landing area, forcing you to attempt a heroic carry to the other side, or alternatively, laying well back. Even the third shot offers significant challenges, as the green sits elevated from the fairway and is surrounded on both sides by deep bunkers. A very unique and extremely difficult par five.
The excellent par three 5th is up next and that is followed by the 531 yard par five 6th, which offers a rare birdie opportunity for those that keep the ball in play off the tee.
The par four 7th is an outstanding par four. 460 yards and slightly uphill, the hole bends well to the left, with bunkers to the right and a native area and ravine to the left. The approach demands a mid to long iron or even a fairway metal and it's almost all carry over the ravine to an angled green that best accepts a draw. Great golf hole.
The 8th is another strong par three, with a mammoth bunker protecting the entire front portion of the green. Good luck to low-ball hitters here! The last hole on the outgoing nine is a mid-length par four that bends right to left, with the driving range coming into play off the tee on the right side.
The 10th is calendar material: a significantly downhill and pretty par three over water. Equally as beautiful is the par four 11th, which shows off the tremendous topography available to the Fazio’s at The National. This stellar hole demands a draw off the right fairway bunker off the tee then follows up by asking for a fade approach over a depression area to an angled green protected by bunkers front right and back left.
The par five 12th is another interesting hole. At only 503 yards, it looks like a breather hole on the scorecard but diabolical challenges await, especially near the green. The tee shot is a tight one and there is a bunker ready to gobble up shots that run too far through the fairway. At the landing area, the hole shifts about 45 degrees to the left and you finally get a look at the sliver...and I mean sliver of a green. Perhaps Jack Nicklaus in his prime had the requisite high fade needed to hold a long iron or fairway metal to hit this green in two but not this writer! Even hitting a wedge third shot is a challenge, as the green is extremely narrow, angled from front left to back right and features a large ridge that runs right through the middle. I was quite proud of my par here and I believe this is one of the toughest short par fives I've ever played.
The 13th is a pretty dogleg left par four, with a creek causing issues down the left side in the landing area off the tee while the 14th is a long but relatively routine par four that features one of the very few open-in-front greensites, allowing for a ground approach.
The 15th is yet another tough par three, this one measuring 221 yards from the back tees, with a large native area and deep bunkers all needing to be successfully navigated in order to hit the angled green. The 16th is a shorter par four that was being worked on when I visited last - I believe they were lengthening the hole and making it more difficult - perhaps that's the reason why I was able to make my only birdie of the day here!
The finish is enough to make anyone a bit queasy. The 17th is a true beast - 458 yards to a ridiculously tight landing area flanked on the left by trees and the right by a large holding pond. If you're somehow able to hit a straight ball here, something that eluded me, you still have a challenging uphill approach over bunkers to a very small green. A round killer!
That's followed by the difficult 18th, a 460 yard par four that starts from an elevated tee but requires a nerve-rattling drive over the same pond you were forced to avoid on the previous hole. The landing area is wide but looks like it's only ten yards wide from the tee, especially if you were driving it as crooked as I was on the day I played! From the fairway, the approach is straight uphill to a long and multi-tiered green flanked on both sides by deep bunkers.
The National is, quite simply, a ball-buster and perhaps the most difficult driving course I've ever played.
The fairways, for the most part, have enough width but the penalty for missing is almost always severe, whether it's a 1/2 stroke penalty for hitting a fairway bunker or a full shot penalty for hitting in a creek or pond. Even if you have your driver working, one could argue that the National is, at heart, a second shot golf course. Most of the holes feature challenging uphill approaches, many of them to well-bunkered and undulating greens.
The land at the National is superb and the Fazio's did a fine job of routing the golf course. The green to tee transfers are all reasonable and while the walk would be a challenge for many players, it's certainly doable. Conditioning is superb for the most part - I played after an aeration, so green speeds were down somewhat from the norm but the course itself played firm and fast, just how I like it.
This would really be an interesting course to hold a Canadian Open on but it likely won't happen anytime soon. The National is one of the very few courses left that has a male-only membership, something that's an absolute no-no for anyplace that would like to host a PGA Tour event. Despite its modest length, I'd bet the National would hold up quite well to the touring professionals.
To sum up, the National Golf Club of Canada ranks up there with the likes of Oakmont and Bethpage Black as being one of the toughest golf courses I've played. It's an unrelenting test and I wonder how much fun this course is for the bogey golfer - I played with three very strong players that day but I'd be interested to watch an average player try to navigate his/her way through the course. I wonder about playability a bit for the lesser player, with all the demanding tee shots and approaches necessary and that's saying nothing about getting the ball into the hole, a daunting challenge for sure on the incredibly fast and undulating greens.
While it may be tough to love, the National GC of Canada is a course to be respected. As my 88 would attest, it certainly can be a humbling experience trying to score here but I'd love the opportunity to give it another shot when my game is in a better place.
My full National GC of Canada course profile and pictorial can be found here at Now on the Tee: http://nowonthetee.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-nation...