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Beauty surrounds you in Toronto and the Niagara Peninsula

John GordonBy John Gordon,

TORONTO - Dwarfing the state of Texas, the Canadian province of Ontario holds close to 1,000 golf courses, the vast majority of which are within 100 miles of the Canada-U.S. border. They range from linksy to heathland, parkland to semi-alpine and, according to the experts, exist in some of the finest turf-growing conditions in the world. Thankfully, all but a tiny handful are open to the public.

While the huge province stretches from the shore of Lake Ontario to far beyond Lake Superior, from Quebec on the east and then west to Manitoba, most visitors arrive in one of two ways: flying into Toronto's frenzied Pearson International Airport, or driving through border crossings such as Windsor, Buffalo, or Niagara Falls. The latter portal provides instant access to the Niagara Region, long famed for fine wines, haute cuisine, the Falls, of course - and now golf.

No sooner does a visitor cross the international bridge than the first of the region's almost 40 golf courses appears, and it is no pushover. Americans discovered that half a century ago, when Jimmy Demaret and Cary Middlecoff barely defeated Canadian stars Stan Leonard and Bob Gray in front of 10,000 at the official opening of Whirlpool Golf Course.

Whirlpool was designed by Stanley Thompson, the legendary Canadian architect who was a founding member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and the mentor of Robert Trent Jones. Thompson gained renown with his designs such as Banff Springs and Jasper Park Lodge in the Canadian Rockies, St. George's in Toronto, and Highlands Links in Nova Scotia.

While not his finest work, Whirlpool set the bar for golf in Niagara when it opened in 1951, just a year prior to Thompson's untimely demise. The 7,000-yard course, owned and operated by the Niagara Parks Commission, was a forerunner of several other excellent public-access courses such as Hunters Pointe, Rockway Glen, Peninsula Lakes's 27 testing holes, and the brand-new, 27-hole Royal Niagara facility.

The Niagara region is renowned for its temperate climate, ideal for golf courses, orchards and vineyards - its ice wines are among the world's finest - but its relatively unremarkable topography has forced designers to be innovative with their earthmoving. The result is courses with creative mounding, plentiful bunkers, and lakes aplenty.

From several of them, you can see and/or hear the awe-inspiring Niagara Falls, a site that attracts between 12 million and 14 million tourists each year. Those visitors are also tantalized by Niagara's other attractions, including the famed Wine Route, the Shaw Festival, and picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake. For those who like more high-stakes excitement, another $800-million casino is under construction.

"We're not just about golf," says Niagara Parks Commission Chairman Brian Merrett. "Golf is just one more arrow in our quiver as a full-service destination. We've got everything from world-class golf to the butterfly conservatory to Marineland. There's fine dining, some of the best wines you' ve ever tasted, and when you take the exchange rate into account, you can't beat the value."

Dollar value aside, it is indisputable that Niagara offers some world-class golf, just minutes from the U.S. border. Local promoters trumpet that the region is about to become the "Myrtle Beach of Canada." Ignoring some of the cheesier aspects of that comparison, there remains no doubt that the area is gaining respectable golf product - some of it exceptional in quality - by leaps and bounds. Tom Fazio is already moving dirt at nearby Beamsville, design firms headed by Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman have tentative projects on the drawing board, and several new tracks have opened recently.

Hunters Pointe, designed by the Graham Cooke-Darrell Huxham firm in Quebec, was, until a year ago, the most notable of the new courses in the region. The layout, ranging from 5,300 to 7,000 yards, makes the most of an expansive, largely barren site. Uneven fairway lies, extensive mounding covered with thick fescue, relentless bunkering and a ninth hole that crosses a pond not once, but twice, make this a great test.

Late last spring, Hunters Pointe and its peers were joined by Battlefield and Ussher's Creek, designed by Doug Carrick and Thomas McBroom respectively. The two, Canada's most recognizable architects, literally flipped a coin to see who would design each course. In the end, they collaborated on the routing of both 18-hole courses, an 18-hole putting course, a nine-hole academy course, and a circular 45-acre practice facility on the 700-acre property, adjacent to a War of 1812 battlefield. Carrick's Battlefield course, surrounded by a mature Carolinian forest, hides its wide fairways by presenting the golfer with the intimidating optical illusion of a sea of gaping bunkers. In a tribute to Carrick's ability, most of the fairway bunkers exist more as aiming points than true hazards, and only a poorly struck shot will find one. His greenside bunkers are another matter altogether, deep and cunningly placed. The Battlefield course, which ranges from 5,428 to 7,224 yards, is also notable for the 20-acre lake on the finishing hole. Mist from the Falls and the nearby rapids can be seen in the distance from the 13th green.

Several holes on Ussher's Creek blend in with the natural wooded landscape, while on other holes, McBroom has attempted to create a linksy style. The creek also comes into play on six of the nine water holes on the 7,300-yard layout.

The Niagara Parks Commission is promoting its new courses as the anchor for the Niagara Parks Golf Trail, where green fees range from Cdn $11 at the picturesque nine-hole Oak Hall course to Cdn $120 at Battlefield and Ussher' s Creek.

About 90 minutes up a busy expressway from Niagara lies Toronto, Canada's largest city. Its rolling hills, mixed forests, rivers and fertile soil make the region a course architect's dream, along with some of the finest turfgrass growing conditions anywhere. As a result, more than 150 courses are within a half-hour drive of City Hall, ranging from ragtag munis to high-end beauties like Angus Glen. Designed by Carrick, the original Angus Glen course sprawls over a former horse farm and played host to the Bell Canadian Open last September. A sibling, the North Course mapped out by Carrick and Jay Morrish, opened in 2001.

The most famous public course in the country is undoubtedly Glen Abbey, the very first course Jack Nicklaus designed on his own back in 1977. Until recently, it was the semi-permanent home of the Canadian Open, one championship Nicklaus never won, although he finished second an amazing seven times. The nearby 36-hole Lionhead layout is the darling of corporate outing convenors, but its environmentally sensitive location makes it a potential nightmare for high handicappers. It has been called, with some justification, a course designed specifically for scrambles.

While scores of other excellent facilities bracket the Toronto area, two are worthy of special mention: Wooden Sticks to the east and Osprey Valley to the northwest. Florida architect Ron Garl and his Canadian cohort Alan Chud designed Wooden Sticks, a superlative new layout that combines some fine original holes with replica holes from St. Andrews, Augusta National, TPC at Sawgrass, and others - a first for this country. Reviews of the so-called "tribute" holes are split, but there is no denying their allure especially to those who may never get to play the originals.

Last year, Carrick added a parkland course and a pine barrens-style course to his existing heathland course at Osprey Valley, a layout that golf cognoscenti call one of the country's most underrated. These 54 tremendous holes are just around the corner from the storied Devil's Pulpit and Devil's Paintbrush, built by Scott Abbot and Chris Haney, inventors of the Trivial Pursuit board game. Both Devil's courses are private, but prior arrangements through your club pro may provide you an entrée.

Time spent between games will not be wasted in the multicultural mecca of Toronto. Far from it. The city of more than four million boasts the third-largest theater district in the world along with more and better restaurants and hotels than any other city its size. Museums, art galleries, clubs, and the Lake Ontario waterfront presided over by the CN Tower, the world's tallest freestanding structure, provide more than enough distraction for any tourist.

Time it right and you can also schedule a Blue Jays baseball game at the world-famous SkyDome with its retractable roof, or watch the NBA's Toronto Raptors, starring Vince Carter, or the NHL's fabled Maple Leafs at the spectacular Air Canada Center. (The Hockey Hall of Fame is just across the road.) Toronto at night is scintillating and safe. Walking is encouraged and provides an exciting insight into one of the world's truly great cities.

(More information about many courses is available at www.canadagolf.com or www.niagaraparksgolftrail.com. Specific courses may also have their own Web sites, such as Hunters Pointe, www.hunterspointe.ca. General information about the Niagara Region is available at www.niagaratourism.com, (800) 263-2988. Potential visitors to Toronto will find many Web sites to explore, such as www.torontotourism.com, (800) 499-2514. We recommend www.torontolife.com, which features more than 400 restaurant reviews, plus updates on attractions, nightlife, and city guides. Their online golf guide is objective and unbiased for the most part.)

John Gordon has been involved fulltime with golf since he became managing editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, in 1985. In 1991, he was recruited by the Royal Canadian Golf Association to create their Member Services and Communications departments, and to revive Golf Canada magazine, their national membersmagazine which had been defunct for a decade. After successfully relaunching Golf Canada and serving as its inaugural editor, he was named executive director of the Ontario Golf Association. He returned to fulltime writing in 1995.

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