Golf - Canada, land of the tee

Epic settings, down-home hospitality, golf-ski combo in laid-back style
By Ian Cruickshank

The driving range at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu is skyscraper high, 300 m above the banks of the mighty St. Lawrence River. At this height, even the mis-hits soar like helium balloons. Seemingly snipped free from the pull of gravity, they float, rising above the tops of the red maples and white birches, finally disappearing into the watery blue horizon. Far below, a pod of 500 beluga whales that lives year-round off the edge of the resort patrols the banks of the river, the whales filling their deep bellies with white fish.

Temporarily mesmerized by the scenery and my John Daly-like hang time, it suddenly occurred to me that both Canadaís history and the Cruickshankís family history have sailed along this stretch of the St. Lawrence that runs northeast of Quťbec City, QC. Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Wolfe and Montcalm, even Winston Churchill on his way to discuss the D-Day invasion with Franklin Roosevelt passed beneath these cliffs. And in the early 1920s when my grandparents emigrated from Scotland to Canada, they, too, sailed this way on their voyage to a new life in the New World.

Over the past year, Iíve happily hooked, sliced, splashed, wedged, whacked, putted and, very occasionally, parred my way across Canada. The pilgrimage arced from the stony shores of the Atlantic in the east to the sandy beaches of the Pacific on the west coast, across the big-shouldered Purcell and Rocky mountains, the endless flatlands of the Prairies, along the granite seams of the Canadian Shield and into the deep boreal forests of Quebec.

Iíve teed it up in the core of downtown Toronto, ON and Vancouver, BC. The game is everywhere. More than 2,000 courses are sprinkled across this country, and with more than five million players, Canada boasts more golfers per capita than any other country on the planet. While the numbers quantify our passion for the game, they donít tell the full story. Golf in Canada is all about one-of-a-kind personal connections to the game. These are mine.

Maritime hospitality
The 16th hole at Crowbush Cove on Prince Edward Island is fronted by an intimidating tidal pond where the whitecaps chop across the water when the wind rumbles over the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the adjacent sand dunes. Itís a monster hole. In fact, the entire course is super-sized. It was originally intended to be a simple nine-hole layout built for the villagers of Morrell, famous across the island for their blueberries. But once the villagers realized the possibility of the landscape, a stunning course emerged from the edge of the dunes. In 1994, Golf Digest voted Crowbush the best new course in Canada. Not surprisingly, early visitors ranged from John Daly to Fred Couples.

Despite the five-star reviews, I was reminded that at its heart, Crowbush is still that modest nine-hole course, a true testament to world-famous Maritime hospitality. As one of the local kids from the back shop helped load my clubs into the trunk of my car, I asked him about a good place to eat dinner. He flipped over a scorecard and drew me a detailed map to the community of New Glasgow where his aunt was serving lobster suppers. Nothing is very far in tiny PEI. Twenty minutes later, I was pulling up to a table overlooking the River Clyde and soon swapping vacation stories with my new pals, a family from Maine whoíd made the pilgrimage to PEI to visit Anne of Green Gables country. We fastened up our bibs, then tucked into the chowder, mussels, salad and lobster slathered in butter. It was one of the most memorable meals Iíve ever had.

Whistlerís daily double
The wooden patio at the Whistler Golf Club overlooks the 18th green and the jagged tipped coastal mountains. Itís my favourite spot to tip back a frosty beer and saw through a hubcap-sized steak while the club cranks up vintage rock tunes in the background. At most buttoned-down golf clubs, this scene would be heretical. But in Whistler, BC, where the feel-good vibe wraps around both the course and the surrounding village, itís a way of life. Over on the eighth tee at the nearby Chateau Whistler course you can watch skiers and boarders carving their way down the side of Blackcomb Mountain, the same runs that will yield gold during the upcoming 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

Iíll never be confused with an Olympic skier, but on my last trip to Whistler, I decided to try the ultimate daily double. In the morning I schussed (very slowly) down the mountain, then after lunch on the patio, played 18 stunning holes. Iím not sure life gets much better than this.

Walking in Tiger tracks
The first time I saw Tiger Woods up close was in September of 1996, about a month after he turned pro. He was playing in the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey, the Jack Nicklaus-designed public course that curls just off the western edge of Toronto, ON. The Abbey was the Golden Bearís first solo design project and the first course in Canada built specifically to host a major golf tournament. Over the last 30 years, Faldo, Els, Ballesteros, Watson, Mickelson, Player, Palmer and Nicklaus have all teed off at the Abbey. On his first visit, Tiger didnít tame the course, but his potential was already so intoxicating that even grizzled golf writers swooned.

When the young colossus returned in 2000 to the Abbey, he had tweaked the last few imperfections in his game and was nearly unbeatable. On the final hole of the tournament, Tiger leaked his drive into a right side bunker. With 50,000 fans looking on, he calmly dug his heels into the sand and then blasted a six-iron, 216 yards over a pond to eventually make birdie and win the championship by a stroke. Now, whenever I play Glen Abbey, on the 18th hole I throw an old ball into Tigerís bunker and attempt the miracle shot. I always splash down in the pond, but it sure is fun to walk in the footsteps of greatness.

Golf - Canada, land of the tee
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