Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario, is this week hosting the Canadian Open for the 30th time. Golf course architect Ken Moodie of Creative Golf Design provided GCA with an insight into his recent heritage review of the course.
Two years ago, I was asked by the town of Oakville to conduct a heritage review of the Glen Abbey course, which was under the threat of closure as the owners, ClubLink Corporation, had submitted an application to build houses on the site.
Glen Abbey opened in June 1976 and hosted its first Canadian Open in 1977. While it is not regularly selected among golf’s ‘best course’ lists, there are some key reasons why the course could be considered worthy of a heritage status: it was the first 'solo' design by Jack Nicklaus, it has a unique ‘spoke-and-wheel’ layout, and it was at the historic forefront of the stadium course concept that was developing at the time of construction.
Nicklaus’s brief was to create a course that could provide a home for the Canadian Open, and to be designed not only for the tournament player but for the average golfer.
As part of the review process, I compared aerial photographs from 1979 and 2016, as well as walking and playing the course to identify the changes that have been made. Overall, the integrity of the course layout has remained intact. The holes are all where they were originally positioned, with a small number of changes to some of the features. Most of the changes have been made with Jack Nicklaus, or at least his company Nicklaus Design involved.
The fact that the course has been able to sustain high-level tournament golf and can still host the Canadian Open without a significant increase in its length from the championship tees shows that the course has enough playing strategy interest to make it challenging.
I’m a mid-handicap golfer myself and found the course very playable. I feel it is safe to say that Nicklaus met his brief.
Over the years the course has proved its credentials as a successful tournament host. It is known as a good spectator course – it has been able to accommodate the large crowds, television cameras, needs of officials and commentators to access key parts of the course quickly. These attributes cement its position as a forerunner for stadium golf design, Even Pete Dye visited the course as a reference prior to designing his own famous stadium layout, TPC Sawgrass.
During my review I looked at the design features of the course, including greens, tees, spectator mounds, lakes, fairways, practice facilities, trees, and the clubhouse, and identified special characteristics of each feature, and their role in maintaining the course as a cultural heritage landscape.
I also provided a hole-by-hole analysis, and made recommendations concerning preserving the key heritage attributes of the course while allowing some scope for future small-scale, sympathetic modifications to maintain it as a challenging tournament course. One of the best features of the course is its greens and they should definitely be protected, especially the third, fourth and twelfth, which have very interesting contouring. I have also advised the club to consider rebuilding the tenth green so that it becomes in character with the other greens on the course and ideally closer to its original shape and position.
There are also some areas where the original design could be reinstated, including the seventh’s back tee which could restore the holes original length. There is also the matter of the seventeenth hole, which should have its diagonal feature of carry bunkers restored, possibly starting and extending a little further up the fairway to better challenge the low handicap golfers.
I have recommended that all the greenside bunkers should be maintained in their current position, and that no fairway bunkers be removed unless another replaces it. I also believe that the bunker to the right of the eighteenth fairway should be given special protection and maintained in its current form, given its fame for the spectacular shot Tiger Woods played to the right-hand pin position on the final hole of his victory in the 2000 Canadian Open, considered by some as one of the best shots ever played in tournament golf.
The main area of change needed to the course in its current layout would be the selective removal of self-seeded trees which are impinging on the drive down into the valley on the eleventh hole and trees on other holes that have been recently planted. For instance , the trees which lie between the Tiger Woods bunker and the eighteenth green will need to be managed in the future to allow golfers to see and experience the shot that Woods faced in the 2000 Canadian Open.
It is very clear to me that the special ‘spoke-and-wheel’ design – which sees holes playing out and then returning to the central clubhouse area multiple times – needs to be protected. The ‘spokes’ are most evident in the ‘Tableland’ holes directly around the clubhouse, but the Valley area is also recognised as providing a very fine sequence of holes. Former PGA Tour player Tom Weiskopf, now a successful golf course designer, said: “The last three holes at Glen Abbey were the finest closing holes in golf”.
My main recommendation was that a golf course architect with heritage experience, and ideally a good appreciation of Nicklaus’ design style and work, should be employed to carry out any alterations planned for the Glen Abbey golf course in the future so that it can be done in a sensitive manner and only where the benefits can be shown to outweigh the potential damaging impact of such changes. Any proposals for change which are made should be scrutinised by a golf course architect with similar experience and no financial or political interest in the changes being proposed.
Since I made my recommendation to save the course for its heritage values, it has been designated as a protected landscape.