2018 RBC Canadian Open preview

    Tee shots hang in the air forever at Glen Abbey’s 11th hole, with its 150-foot drop off the tee. But where will they land?

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    ‘Drop’-dead gorgeous

    At the 11th tee at Glen Abbey Golf Club, PGA TOUR members and the golfing public alike encounter a brass sign adhered to a slate-gray stone column, next to a water fountain.

    The sign, featuring gold lettering against a black background, is less a warning (for the longest-hitting TOUR pros) than a relic from a quirky moment in time (for the rest of us).

    It reads:

    “In the 1994 Canadian Open Pro-Am, John Daly drove his ball into 16-mile creek from this tee. Total distance: 390 yards.

    “Good luck and please enjoy one of the most famous tee shots in Canadian golf.”

    Glen Abbey, in Oakville, Ontario – approximately 30 minutes from downtown Toronto – has held the RBC Canadian Open more than any other club. This year marks the 30th time the Jack Nicklaus-designed course will play host.

    Although questions surround its future – the ownership group has applied to develop it with housing, retail, and office space, but litigation is ongoing – one thing is for sure: the par-4 11th hole stands out for its dramatic vistas and soaring tee shots that seem to hang in the air forever.

    From tee-to-fairway, the 11th, which measures just over 450 yards and last year had a scoring average of 4.071, has a more significant drop than any other hole on TOUR: 150 feet.

    By comparison, the par-5 opening hole at iconic Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, which boasts another sweeping view from the tee, features a mere 75-foot drop.

    “I love the signature hole at Glen Abbey, number 11,” says two-time RBC Canadian Open winner Lee Trevino, who won the first-ever tournament contested at Glen Abbey in 1977. “That was just a beautiful golf hole.”

    Trevino was generally a low-ball hitter, but no one is a low-ball hitter at the 11th at Glen Abbey.

    Golfers must navigate unpredictable winds and find the fairway with an elevated tee shot that can be hit with anything from a driver to a long iron. To the left is heavy rough and mature trees, while complex bunkering takes up most of the landing area to the right of the fairway. From the tee, it all seems far, far away.

    The approach shot is to a small green tucked just beyond the aforementioned 16-Mile Creek.

    “That is one of Nicklaus’ better-designed holes. It’s a really unique one,” says Mike Weir, who lost in a playoff at the 2004 Canadian Open, his best-ever finish. “It’s like going into the back nine at Augusta National and you get to number 11 and you drop into Amen Corner. It’s a similar feel at Glen Abbey.

    “When you get into number 11 you start to head into the valley holes and it has a unique feel,” Weir adds. “The players have talked about those valley holes for a long time.”

    THE HISTORY

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    Not only is there a steep drop from the tee box on No. 11, but bunkers are also in play on drives. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

    In 1963, developers planned a multi-million-dollar country club and residential neighborhood in Oakville – a booming suburb of Toronto, Canada’s largest city. They earmarked 229 acres for what would become Glen Abbey.

    The original owners used the name Upper Canada Golf and Country Club, and in 1974, the owner of Great Northern Capital bought the property and reached an agreement with Golf Canada (then the Royal Canadian Golf Association) to re-develop it as a venue specifically for the Canadian Open.

    Glen Abbey remains the lone course in the country with its first objective being the ability to host a PGA TOUR event.

    Jack Nicklaus designed the golf course from 1974-1976, and it first hosted the Canadian Open in 1977. Nicklaus himself would finish runner-up a record seven times.

    “I never won a Canadian Open, so my wife kept making me go back until I could get it right,” Nicklaus said with a laugh in 2017, which marked the 40th anniversary of the first-ever Canadian Open hosted at the course.

    “I’m very proud of Glen Abbey,” he added. “I think it’s a great golf course, I think it’s a great venue for the Canadian Open, and I can only say I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

    Nicklaus said Muirfield Village, host of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, was to his knowledge the first course designed as a so-called “stadium,” while Glen Abbey was the second. It kept the spectator in mind, first and foremost.

    “It was my first solo golf course design,” recalled Nicklaus. “I was ready to express my own feelings on a golf course.”

    Seldom has he been bolder in expressing them than at the wild and unforgettable 11th hole.

    Jeff Mingay is a Toronto-based golf architect who works on courses across both the United States and Canada, including helping with the famed Cabot Links in Nova Scotia. He calls the 11th a great transition hole, taking golfers down into the valley in a dramatic way.

    The valley holes, starting with No. 11, also include the par-3 12th, the par-5 13th, the par-4 14th, and the par-3 15th.

    “The valley holes… are the best holes on the golf course,” Mingay says. “(The 11th) does a spectacular job of getting you down into the piece of the property with the most interesting golf. To present that view, architecturally, is just gorgeous.”

    Although they’re the most picturesque holes, they’re usually playing as the hardest, especially No. 11.

    “The bottom (of Glen Abbey) was full of demons,” says Curtis Strange, who won the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey twice.

    THE PLAY

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    Bill Haas hits a tee shot on No. 11 at Glen Abbey. (Rober Laberge/Getty Images)

    Although TOUR pros have gotten longer and longer since the first Canadian Open in 1977, the difficulty of the pretty 11th remains – mostly because the wind coming down into the valley.

    “Usually the wind is coming off the right, so you’re trying to start it off the right bunkers and let the wind blow it into the fairway,” says 2008 winner Chez Reavie, who beat Billy Mayfair by three. “I hit driver down there and hope for the best.”

    Adam Hadwin, whose best finish at Glen Abbey is a tie for seventh in 2015, and who is not one of the longer hitters on TOUR, hits driver off the tee to try to leave himself with only a wedge approach into the small green.

    “When the wind swirls around that corner, it’s almost too difficult,” he says with a smile. “It’s a good hole, but it’s almost harder to walk down the hill than it is to play it.”

    That wind can be sneaky as well as swirling, says Nick Price, who won two Canadian Opens at Glen Abbey.

    “A lot of times the wind comes blowing up that valley and you can stand on the tee and you don’t feel it as much,” Price says. “But it’s hard. It’s hard to aim it at the middle of the bunker on the right when the wind is blowing right to left, or at the trees when it’s left to right. … You just have to hit the fairway.”

    That means using anything from an iron to a 3-wood or driver, and then, above all, trusting your decision, and your swing.

    “You stand there and you make a commitment to hit as solid a tee shot as you can,” Price added.

    Weir, who admits he’s had a “love-hate” relationship with Glen Abbey since he first started playing the Canadian Open in 1989 – he’s now played more Canadian Opens at Glen Abbey than any other active golfer – says his strategy on 11 hasn’t changed. He hits driver or 3-wood off the tee, and tries to guess the wind.

    BIG HITTERS BEWARE

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    Long-hitting Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar walk over a bridge toward the green on No. 11 at Glen Abbey. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

    Like Reavie and Price, Weir says it’s hard to accept that in a stiff breeze you may need to aim away from the fairway. At least he’s not prodigiously long, which on 11 can lead to complications.

    “If the fairways are firm,” Weir says, “you’re going to get a pretty good bounce, so it makes the hole more narrow than the actual width of the fairway, because you’re so high and the ball is staying in the air such a long time.”

    Once the guys actually get down to the fairway – after carefully walking down the hill – it’s not much easier.

    Trevino says he always tried to just hit it to the middle of the green.

    “It’s a green not to be messed with,” he says. “If you’re over the green and chipping back, it’s dangerous.”

    Strange, who says one of the great thrills of his life was to win the Canadian Open after being paired with Nicklaus and Greg Norman in 1987, says the number one priority is to put it in the fairway in order to have a chance at the green.

    “If you put it in the right bunker or the left trees, you had to negotiate the creek there, which was actually beautiful until you drove it into the right bunker and then you didn’t care much for it,” Strange says with a laugh. “But what a fantastic hole.”

    Architect Mingay says he can see why the hole can be daunting even for the greatest players in the world. It’s a “spectacular” look from the back tee, he says, but from a pragmatic standpoint TOUR pros can also see that they have little margin for error.

    “It’s speaking to you on the tee, saying if you don’t hit it between this tree and these bunkers, you’re dead,” Mingay says. “The approach is one-dimensional too. You’ve basically just got to loft it over the creek to a tiny green.

    “It’s a green not to be messed with,” he says. “If you’re over the green and chipping back, it’s dangerous.”

    Strange, who says one of the great thrills of his life was to win the Canadian Open after being paired with Nicklaus and Greg Norman in 1987, says the number one priority is to put it in the fairway in order to have a chance at the green.

    “If you put it in the right bunker or the left trees, you had to negotiate the creek there, which was actually beautiful until you drove it into the right bunker and then you didn’t care much for it,” Strange says with a laugh. “But what a fantastic hole.”

    Architect Mingay says he can see why the hole can be daunting even for the greatest players in the world. It’s a “spectacular” look from the back tee, he says, but from a pragmatic standpoint TOUR pros can also see that they have little margin for error.

    “It’s speaking to you on the tee, saying if you don’t hit it between this tree and these bunkers, you’re dead,” Mingay says. “The approach is one-dimensional too. You’ve basically just got to loft it over the creek to a tiny green.

    “It’s not strategic architecture,” he adds, “it’s penal architecture. So I can see, in that way, how those guys have fits with it, especially when the wind starts blowing.”

    A year ago, Nicklaus said that if he re-did the course it might look different owing to his 40-plus years of experience. But, he added, the crown jewel 11th at Glen Abbey, which remains one of his more creative course designs, likely would have remained.

    This week Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson will be among those who take aim at “one of the most famous tee shots in Canadian golf.” On a hot day, with the right wind, perhaps they’ll reach the creek, as John Daly did many moons ago.

    They can’t say they weren’t warned.

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