Five Things to Know: St. George’s Golf and Country Club
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The RBC Canadian Open returns to the legendary layout for the first time since 2010
Written by Adam Stanley @adam_stanley
St. George’s Golf and Country Club has long been known as one of Canada’s finest golf courses. It comes as no surprise the RBC Canadian Open is returning to the club, even if it comes a couple years later than expected.
The COVID-19 pandemic stopped the PGA TOUR from being played at St. George’s in 2020 and 2021, but the PGA TOUR is now set to make its return to Canada at the Stanley Thompson gem, which first opened in 1929.
St. George’s is going to play very differently than it did in 2010 after a handful of changes and capital improvements in recent years, but it is no less spectacular.
“I’ll keep it simple for you,” said Ian Andrew, a noted Canadian architect who has worked with the team at St. George’s since 2013. “I think it’s the best course in Canada.”
1. NEW GREENS, NEW BUNKERS
The club contacted Andrew in 2013 as it had planned to rebuild its greens “in the future.” However, Mother Nature had other plans.
Toronto suffered through a terrible storm that winter and the club lost most of the turf on its greens. Thankfully the club was prepared. It had already begun its planning effort for the inevitable putting-surface work, but things were just accelerated.
Each of the greens – which are now bentgrass – were redesigned in 2014 to reflect the original 1929 designs from Thompson. They reopened in 2015.
Each bunker was also redone a few years later, along with some aspects of the third and 18th holes. Fairways on Nos. 5 and 9 were also rebuilt.
Mark Teskey, a longtime member and RBC Canadian Open tournament chair, said the real advantage in pivoting to bentgrass was that it would survive poor conditions a lot better.
“If you’re looking just at the Canadian Open, they’ll come out of the winter much better, so there will be fabulous playing conditions for early June,” he explained.
The bunkers were all redone using the Better Billy Bunker Method, a way of construction with a layer of gravel underneath the sand – so rainwater goes right through the sand to the drainage system.
“You could argue that was in preparation for the Canadian Open,” said Andrew, “but even if there were no Canadian Open, the members would have done that anyway.”
Andrew also “tinkered with” a few specific areas – the front-left bunker on the par-4 14th, a left-side bunker on the par-3 13th, a few of the bunkers on the par-5 11th, and each of the bunkers on the iconic par-3 third.
2. A RETURN TO TORONTO
This will be the sixth time St. George’s has hosted the RBC Canadian Open, with the first coming in 1933.
Thompson had worked with the Canadian Pacific Railway on two of its other hotel-adjacent courses in Western Canada and, being from Toronto, he was the architect of choice for St. George’s – which was to be associated with the Royal York hotel in downtown Toronto.
“It is one of those show places which is hard to describe, but one which everybody who visits Toronto should see,” wrote B.L. Anderson, chief executive officer of the Royal Canadian Golf Association, in 1929.
Joe Kirkwood of Australia won the inaugural Canadian Open contested at the course, while Dutch Harrison (1949), Art Wall (1960), Bob Charles (1968) and Carl Pettersson (2010) would go on to become champions at St. George’s.
The near 40-year gap between Canadian Opens at the course can be attributed to Oakville’s Glen Abbey Golf Club opening in the late 1970s. Jack Nicklaus’ first solo design became the de facto home of the Canadian Open and hosted the event 30 times.
Hamilton Golf and Country Club (about an hour from downtown Toronto), Royal Montreal (in Montreal), and Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club (Vancouver) have also played host in recent years.
Oakdale Golf and Country Club, about seven miles from St. George’s, will host its first Canadian Open next year (and in 2026). The event is back at Hamilton in 2024.
“We all, through this COVID-19 pandemic, dreamt of days where normalcy came back and these guys would play St. George’s,” said Teskey. “Hopefully there’s an overall pride that everyone stuck with it … we’re ready to bring the world here.”
St. George’s has also hosted the CP Women’s Open on the LPGA Tour five times, most recently in 1984 (won by Juli Inkster), and the 1963 Ontario Open won by Moe Norman in a duel with eight-time PGA TOUR winner George Knudson.
3. PREPARING FOR THE U.S. OPEN
With the Canadian Open now sitting the week prior to the U.S. Open, expect some of the conditioning to reflect The Country Club at Brookline.
The greens will run to about 12.5 on the Stimpmeter and the newly constructed putting surfaces now have five areas for hole locations. The green speeds in 2010 were a little slower, admitted Teskey, because the greens had too much slope before the changes.
Things will be much faster this time around, and the rough is set to be thick and penal.
“St. George’s is a tight property (but) the fairways are wide for a national event like this,” said Ian McQueen, the club’s superintendent. “To protect the golf course, the rough needs to be thicker than a standard TOUR event.”
4. SWEET 6-0
The last time the Canadian Open was contested at St. George’s, the course record, which had stood for decades, was broken by eventual winner Pettersson. He shot a third-round 60 after making the cut on the number and narrowly missed a putt for 59 on his final hole.
Could another low round be recorded in 2022? Perhaps. Rory McIlroy fired a tidy 61 in his final round at Hamilton in 2019 and was threatening 59 all day.
McQueen, whose turf team will double in size from 43 to 90 workers during tournament week, said St. George’s is a second-shot golf course.
“Off the tee it’s pretty forgiving, but the greens are dynamic and small and surrounded by bunkers and thick rough,” he explained. “A good long game is going to do well here.”
In a 1932 article in Canadian Magazine, Golf and Sports Illustrated writer Baxter Dobell said Thompson “took full advantage of the natural contours and wooded valleys to make every hole of exceptional golfing character.” Despite the course approaching 100 years old, the no-flat-lies challenge will continue for 2022 – if not become accentuated.
“There are, architecturally, no half-measures to (St. George’s). It’s really strong, and it’s strong throughout,” said Andrew. “I thought Thompson made tremendous use of the land. You play up valleys, you play across valleys, you play diagonally along valleys. The valleys keep coming into play.
“You’ve got some tremendous holes by embracing some unusual spots on the property.”
5. AN ALTERNATE PRACTICE AREA
It’s not unusual for TOUR pros to be shuttled from the driving range to their first tee (it happens each year at Pebble Beach, for example), but using the practice facility at a different golf course altogether is a different story.
While St. George’s will be the host golf course, the tournament practice area will be at nearby Islington Golf Club – just down the street.
Players will tee off on Nos. 1 and 9 (versus 10) at St. George’s due to efficiencies with the drop-off of the seven-minute shuttle ride.
The first and second holes at Islington will be used as the driving range during tournament week, while the seventh hole and second green will make up the short-game area.
En-Joie Golf Club (host of the DICK’S Sporting Goods Open on PGA TOUR Champions) is the only other TOUR-sanctioned course where an off-site range is used.
“We’ve got a great relationship, and I know we’re really happy to partner with them for this event,” said Phil Kavanaugh, head golf professional at Islington.