The Royal York Golf Club, as St George’s Golf and Country Club was formerly known, was founded in the Roaring Twenties with the help of Canadian Pacific Railway money. Stanley Thompson, one of North America’s most talented architects was commissioned to fashion a championship course in downtown Toronto, close to the shores of Lake Ontario and in 1929 the course opened for play. In 1992, Doug Carrick was commissioned to renovate St George’s. We were unclear as to exactly what work Carrick implemented, so we asked Doug directly and his response follows:
“As you know Stanley Thompson designed the original course which was built in 1928 and 1929. C.E. (Robbie) Robinson was a newly hired design associate at the time and St. George's was the first golf course Robbie worked on with Thompson. Robbie consulted with the club following Thompson's death until his own death in 1989. I began working with Robbie Robinson in 1981 and established my firm in 1985. I continued to work with Robbie until his death in 1989. We became partners in 1987. So there have been only three architects that have worked on the course since it opened 1929, Thompson, Robinson and myself.”
Doug continued, saying that Robbie Robinson made the most significant changes to the course between 1965 and 1967 in preparation for the Canadian Open in 1968, which mainly comprised of lengthening a number of holes. Since then, Carrick has constructed a new green on hole 10, added various new tees and built new practice facilities for the club. In 2001 a bunker restoration was undertaken by his associate at the time Ian Andrew. In 2014, St George's rung further changes as outlined by Ian Andrew:
"Tom Doak and myself rebuilt the greens in July and August of 2014. During this process all the greens relocated or rebuilt by other architects (3rd, 4th, 9th, 10th and 15th) were renovated to match the original greens. The most significant change was the restoration of the original 3rd hole back to its Stanley Thompson configuration.
The club continues to restore a few more original bunkers each year and has undertaken a massive tree removal program to address issues of sunlight and to open up the landscape to view."
With tight twisting fairways and undulating terrain, St George’s is a man and woman-sized test of golf and the club has proudly played host to the Canadian Open on five occasions (the Open returned to St George's in 2010 after a 42-year gap) and the LPGA Classic also on five occasions.
Today’s layout measures a tad more than 7,000 yards from the back tees and with par set at 71, St George’s really is a serious challenge, especially at the two demanding closing holes, which were both par fives, but now they are each taxing par fours, having been converted for the Canadian Open. #17 measures 486 yards and its devilishly narrow, crowned green calls for an exacting approach The home hole is just as tough (465 yards uphill) to a steep, heavily bunkered green.
When the glaciers carved their way through the suburbs of Toronto, they must have had golf in their DNA.
It doesn’t take long to contemplate this being among the top 2 or 3 courses in Canada depending on which publication you prioritise. Old original photos show that the first tee used to be located where the pro-shop is now. It was a much higher elevation and played straight down the shoot of the 1st fairway. Today the opening tee shot is 50 yards to the right of its original location and much lower down which provides a pretty tough opening shot typically played with less than driver given the angle.
The front nine at St. George’s offers plenty of changes in direction, very challenging par 4s and beautifully discovered putting surfaces. There is an emphasis on accuracy all the way around the course, especially when you reach the truly epic stretch of 12-16 which is on the best parcel of land with almost unimaginable land formations which were carved out of the earth millions of years ago. The green sites will be celebrated for centuries to come.
The glorious 15th hole will always stand out in my mind as a par 5 that has stood the test of time and has not fallen victim to modern technology. I always judge the quality of a par 5 based on the strategy of the second and third shots. Too often we hear of par 5s where you can momentarily switch your brain off for your second shot and strike something up the fairway without thinking about it. Not the 15th at St. George’s. The land formations in front of you are so large and severe that you really need to carefully hit your ball into the best spot up the snaking pinching fairway; because the next shot will be through a narrow corridor to a green site that sits 40 feet above you. Going for this green in two is a splendid combination of stupidity, foolishness and utterly impossible. How many par 5s nowadays can consistently have that description? I can only imagine how exciting it was for Stanley Thompson to find, build and enjoy this hugely strategic hole as it’s in my top 10 par 5s anywhere in the world.
Although the golfing season is relatively short in Canada, there’s at least 6 good months of the year where you’d give your left leg to play there. It had been 10 years since my last visit to St. George’s and I continue to be a huge fan.
This golf course is almost perfect. As a mid single digit handicap, the Blue Tees at ~6800 is a tough test. I hit more 3/4 irons than on any other golf course (200-215 yards). The greens are the best I’ve seen in Canada. Combining the history with the day to day test, you won’t find a better place to get your butt kicked if your long irons and putter aren’t on point.
There are too many favorite holes to mention, but what I will say is more than 13/14 holes on the course are on that’s favorite list. This place is a must play in Canada. The club is about 10 minutes from the airport, so check it out!
A visit to St. George’s Golf & Country Club is essential to start to understand the architectural genius of Stanley Thompson – arguably his greatest gift to the world of golf. This course is awesome!
Not only is it awesome, it’s been the influence of many an architect. Including a young Robert Trent Jones who went on to utilize many of its principles at Peachtree, his best effort.
Upon arrival at St. George’s, which finds itself just outside the bustle of downtown Toronto, you immediately realize you have landed someplace extremely special.
From the clubhouse you make your way under the highway and up to the pro shop. Hard to believe the city has grown up around this course as during your round it feels totally isolated. The routing takes you out through this highly undulated landscape over rolling hills and through their troughs. The start takes us from an elevated tee through a small valley on the tee shot and then up the back side of the valley to a green nestled at the top. Natural in its setting, the green slopes severely back to front with the slope of the hill. Thompson most certainly allowed the landscape and its features to dictate the routing, yet the end result was a seamless integration giving the idea that the course had always been there, one with nature.
Below is a short description of some of my favorite holes:
The par 3, 3rdhole demonstrates perfectly his genius as the deception has you thinking on the tee that the green is resting behind the small hill while in fact there is another 50 yards of fairway fronting it. The bunkers left and far out of play add to the illusion of this tricky par 3.
The 4this a reachable par 5 where a solid drive up the right side will catch the slope and run down the hills allowing a risk reward shot at the green in two. A hard back to front sloping green protects par on this hole.
The par 4 10this a slight dogleg left and plays to a highly elevated plateau green. The 11this a medium-long par 3 playing to a back to front sloping green with a false front and a bunker front left protecting it.
The 12tha par 4.5 that rewards a long drive to the left side catching a speed slot down the hills. Failure to reach this leaves a long iron or hybrid over a burn and green side bunker to a challenging green running diagonally from right to left away from the line of play.
An excellent back 9 ends with a long uphill par 4 playing back towards the highway with the clubhouse above it. Another testing green finishes things off on this brilliant course.
A day at St. George’s is not complete without enjoying a post round drink up in the clubhouse on the patio overlooking the highway and the course. It's worth a special trip to Toronto which is a wonderful city full of friendly people.
You immediately know that St. George's is going to be a great golf course when you stand on the tee and see the beautiful first hole winding its way through the rolling terrain. Stanley Thompson used the rolling terrain here very well when he routed the course. His par five holes in particular are very good, demanding holes.
For a variety of reasons, St. George’s is a wonderful place to play golf including the meandering fairways, the great use of terrain, the difficult greens and the imaginative elevated bunkers. The course is built on terrain containing a cornucopia of hills, valleys, ridges, nobs, inclines, hollows and hillocks. As Tom Doak mentions in his Confidential Guide to Golf, Thompson routed many holes alongside or through valleys rather than over them. This lead to a world-class golf course.
The greatest stretch of holes on the course are numbers twelve through fifteen, which are routed through the hilliest part of the course. The 12th hole has a green greatly elevated from the fairway off on the left side of the hole. The 14th is a picturesque hole with elevated bunkers above the green. True to his name, The Toronto Terror left us with many downhill sand shots above greens that slope away from you.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs