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York Region focuses on the past and future, but golf's the present

Chris TraberBy Chris Traber,

TORONTO - Abutting Toronto, Canada's largest city and capital of commerce, resides a region frozen in time but moving at the speed of light.

York Region, an enigmatic wedge of topography blessed with a wide range of nature's offerings, is the country's fastest growing area, commercially and residentially. With a workforce burgeoning at an annual compound rate of 6.2 percent, twice the national average, and a regional government whose aggressive and attractive incentives continue to attract multi-national, Fortune 500 subsidiaries, York's nine municipalities fiercely promote heritage and nature conservation.

York is 678 sprawling, big-sky square miles extending from Metro Toronto's northern edge to Lake Simcoe's southern shore. Yet the region can be traversed in both directions in about an hour by car. The 18th-Century settlements built by Quakers from young America and immigrants from old Europe still exist, lovingly rehabilitated, in neighborhoods with glass office buildings. York's abundant rural landscapes blend seamlessly with controlled urban communities, many of which are regulated to theme the wedding-cake and farm-style homes of bygone days.

With amenities as diverse as a major theme park to jazz festivals, tourists outnumber residents 3:1. A population of 870,000 is expected to reach 1.28 million by 2026. The numbers suggest that York intends to remain a big space with a casual pace.

York Region is also one of North America's densest golf locales with more than one third of the Greater Toronto Area's 150 courses. Largely undiscovered, York's public golf facilities, from Tin Cup-type ranges to sumptuous links and everything in-between, serve up some of the finest three-season golf anywhere.

One of the true gems in this bejeweled lineup is the dual 18-hole Angus Glen Golf Club, minutes from the historic village of Unionville. Designed by Doug Carrick, the south course is less than 10 years old but has already hosted the national men's and women's Opens and a couple of made-for-TV Skins matches with the likes of David Duval, Mike Weir, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia. Playing from 7,400 to 5,721 yards, the South course blends elevation changes, natural terrain, water, wetlands and strategic bunkering.

Angus Glen's North course, new in 2001, is a Carrick and Jay Morrish collaboration featuring spacious fairways and valley land. Site of the 2007 Canadian Open, this 200-acre layout has a links-style feel with sweeping vistas, deep-faced sod-wall bunkers, fescue and a pair of substantial lakes that dominate the routing on the back nine. From the tips, the North course is 7,514 yards with a Slope of 143.

Deemed by various golf media to be among Canada's best, Angus Glen is open to the public May through October. Green fees range from $220 to $160 (all prices are in Canadian dollars).

The newest course in York's stable of delights is Eagles Nest Golf Club in nearby Vaughan. Scheduled to open in May, this Carrick design took eight years from design to fruition. The previews promise to make this 7,476-yard, links-inspired layout and its 36,000-square-foot clubhouse a favored destination. "The course has drawn similarities to the old links in Scotland and Ireland and particularly Ballybunion," says Euan Dougal, director of golf operations. "We have huge elevation changes throughout the course that'll offer incredible panoramic views."

True to its links heritage, Eagles Nest promises to threaten golfers with craggy waste bunkers, sand dunes, sod wall traps, gnarly fescue and wind. Each hole has a quaint Gaelic designation (Guid Fettle for good spirits, Wee Scunner for little menace) including the 470-yard par-4 12th signature hole, MacCallan (sic), named - but unfortunately misspelled on the scorecard - for the single-malt scotch, The Macallan.

You'll be able to tee it up and taste a wee bit of over 'ome for $175, including range balls and power cart.

A couple of miles south you'll discover The Richmond Hill Golf Club. Don't let the innocuous par-70, 6,004-yard layout fool you. This pretty, forested track has a pair of the toughest, tightest holes on the circuit melded with clever, bi-level design that utilizes the intersecting Don River. Number 11 is a 393-yard par 4 requiring a frozen rope drive splitting a narrow downhill fairway that tilts severely right to left. The finishing hole, a long uphill par 5, has an hourglass fairway. With the river to the right and sloping forest on the left, this needs a textbook three shots to a blind green. Despite the fact you're going north, your score can head south in a hurry on 18.

A bargain at $60 and less for twilight, Richmond Hill also has senior rates.

If adversity builds character, you'll be a Zen master once you're finished with St. Andrew's Valley. The colossal 7,304-yard green tees, Sloped at 143 and a 76.0 rating, is as large a course as you will want. Perhaps more. St. Andrews is fortified with more bunkers than an All In The Family reunion. Water waits on all but four holes and the greens, while large, have more grain and movement than a Paris Hilton video.

This intimidating monster will set you back $89 in prime time, $69 before 8 a.m. and after 3 p.m.

While visiting York one should give the nod to Wooden Sticks, so named for the various National Hockey Leaguers who have partial ownership. Meandering through the undulating timberland of Uxbridge, minutes north of Markham, Wooden Sticks' unique sales proposition is that 12 of its 18 holes are faithful replicas of famous PGA originals. Course architect Ron Carl has captured the essence of highly recognized golf landscapes from Augusta, St. Andrew's, Royal Troon, Sawgrass and Pine Valley.

Playing from 7,012 to 5,216 yards, Wooden Sticks is a memorable experience. A package, including cart and an excellent meal, runs in the $200 range.

Other courses worthy of consideration include Silver Lakes Golf & Country Club. With 7,029 yards coursing through well-forested terrain, ample wetlands and along the Holland River, this lush track is reminiscent of the Carolinas.

The pastoral Maples of Ballantrae Golf Club in Stouffville is a R. F. Moote design that has matured into an enjoyable challenge for all skill levels. Playing to 6,662 yards, water is a factor on 10 holes.

The picture postcard town of Kleinburg in King Township has several uncommon courses. Visits to Hunters Glen Golf Club, Kleinburg Golf Club and the lavish Copper Creek Golf Club are sure to please. The Cardinal Golf Club in Kettleby offers 36 holes.

Tourism is a $172-million industry in York, advises Don Eastwood, director of economic strategy, Regional Municipality of York. "Golf is a relatively important component for our visitors given the range of available public courses," he says. "Our golf product is very good and there continues to be expansion and renovation in this industry."

To counter a dismal 2003 tourist season due largely to the SARS scare, the region's courses and hospitality industries are cooperating with a new "Meet and Play" program. "We have attractive promotions for business travelers and conventioneers who may wish to spend an extra day playing golf in the region," says Eastwood.

While Canada's most cosmopolitan English-speaking city and its high-voltage diversions are within easy reach, York's pleasures are distinctly and elegantly provincial. Between rounds the region's purveyors of cuisine, culture, accommodation and entertainment serve as congenial hosts. A popular pastime is exploring the past at the many heritage museums including the Markham Museum, a 25-acre site combining a heritage village and modern agricultural exhibit buildings with both static and interactive displays. A jaunt to the north brings you to the picturesque village of Sharon, home of the Sharon Temple Museum Society. This 4.5-acre gem of historical restoration is as close to time travel as one can experience.

There is Canada's Paramount Wonderland in Vaughan with heart-thumping roller coasters and professional theatrical productions. Kleinburg's McMichael Canadian Art collection displays an array of homegrown art, including works of the Group of Seven artists along with Inuit and Native art and sculpture. Catch a wave at the Wave Pool or ponder the distant stars as you gaze through the giant telescope at the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill.

A half hour from Pearson International Airport, minutes from ButtonvilleMunicipal Airport and 90 minutes by car from the U.S. border at NiagaraFalls, York is as accessible, affordable, affable and assorted as golfgets.

Chris Traber has divided his career between journalism and corporate communications. Graduating with a journalism degree from Ryerson University in Toronto, he was a feature and sportswriter for The Toronto Sun and United Press International covering major league baseball, basketball and hockey. His freelance work has appeared in ranging international publications including The Globe & Mail, New York Times, Success and Global Reinsurance.

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