Sometimes in golf, just like in life, you have to go on the road less travelled to discover something great. And thanks to a recent trip with my friend Scott, the editor of both Flagstick Golf Magazine and Ontario Golf News, I was able to discover a region of golf that I likely never would have.
Would I call the area and corresponding golf courses hidden gems? Hardly.
But was I pleasantly surprised with what I saw? Undoubtedly.
A few weeks ago I visited the Upper Ottawa Valley for two rounds of fall golf. Golf in the fall – in Canada – is one of my favourite things about the game. Sometimes, you’ll get a day that is so sunny and warm, you regret wearing long sleeves. And other days, you bundle up in as much clothes as you can – like a kid who happily fits his halloween costume over a winter jacket because of the candy-filled reward – and you keep playing because you know in just a few short weeks (days, even) the snow might fly.
That said, the day we played was perfect. The sun was out, and although most of the leaves were already on the ground, there was still a splash of colour on the trees on the links we chose to traverse.
I won’t try to sugar-coat it. If you live east or right in downtown Ottawa, then a drive to the Ottawa Valley is far. It’ll take over an hour (closer to an hour and a half) to get there. Luckily, the golf courses are fairly close to one another, and playing two in one day (maybe even three, if you can do it) makes the trip worth it.
First up was Renfrew Golf Club, a course with a rich history. Established in 1929, Renfrew GC was designed through rolling terrain and rich topography, giving golfers scenic vistas on nearly every hole. It’s the kind of golf you just can’t get closer to downtown. It was designed in tandem by Melville Millar, who was the secretary-manager at the famed Islington GC in Toronto and had close ties with the incomparable Stanley Thompson and the legendary Canadian Golf Hall of Famer George Cumming.
What really gave the club character are the green complexes. They were indeed complex, and all 18 were redesigned in 2000 by local architect Steven Ward. They feature large and challenging surfaces. Prior to the redesign, they were small and lacked defining features. Now, they are a pleasure to play (and to look at).
The closing two holes at Renfrew GC are the standouts. The first is a 160-yard par three. The forest that has seemingly followed you around for the previous 16 holes teases you on the left, while the green is perched on one of the aforementioned updated complexes. The bunkering is a challenge, as is the corresponding putt. It was recently ranked as one of the top three par-3s in the Eastern Ontario region by Flagstick Magazine readers, and it’s easy to see why.
That leads you to the par-5 18th. The finisher was ranked as the favourite par five in Eastern Ontario by those same readers. It’s a real treat to finish your day on. You start with a dramatic downhill tee-shot to a meticulously-cut fairway, then have an uphill approach to a well-guarded green. It’s a sneaky challenge, and Renfrew GC is a sneaky-good golf course.
We finished our round in less than three hours, and pressed on to Whitetail GC, located about 20 minutes from Renfrew in Eganville. It’s not an overly long golf course – 6,400 yards from the back tees – but it’s tricky. There is a lot of water in play (nearly every hole) and the course is, well, “homemade.” There’s no famous designer attached to the layout, it’s the brainchild of the land owner. It isn’t modeled after anyone, it’s merely a fantastic piece of land that was turned into a fine golf course.
The standout hole – once you finally finish it – is the 600 yard par-5 16th. It’s a beast, there’s no doubt about it. The hole could have easily been a throwaway, just keep hitting it a third of a mile until you finally reach the end, but instead, it’s a hole with character. Your tee shot needs to be precisely aimed so as to not make the hole even longer. Your second then goes over a large hill down the fairway, and your approach to the green must be on point in order to avoid a bunker complex on the right-hand side and the contest forest on the left.
Whitetail also has a wonderful clubhouse that is perched on top of the entire property and overlooking the challenging par-4 18th.
When I checked-in on Foursquare to Whitetail GC, there was a comment from a previous visitor who said that it was an “exceptional golf course” but “too bad it’s not closer to Ottawa.”
It’s a common thought that must be shared by all courses in the Ottawa Valley. They are exceptional. Exceptional golf courses on dramatic pieces of land at a value – most courses average around $40 for 18 holes at primetime in the summer – that can’t be beat. Whitetail and Renfrew are joined in the region by other gems like Arnprior, Dragonfly and the Oaks of Cobden. It’s a region rich with golf.
I hope that the courses will work together to bring more people out to them, and I think I’ll refrain from using the words “hidden gem” to describe golf courses moving forward. They’re not hidden. They’re there to be discovered and once you do – like Renfrew and Whitetail – you’ll want to make a point to go back.