If Glen Abbey Golf Club is on any golfer’s bucket list, then the priority to play may need to be placed at high.
Since opening 41 years ago, Glen Abbey, just west of Toronto in Oakville, Ontario, will play host to its 29th RBC Canadian Open this week. Some admittedly questionable research indicates it has hosted more national opens than any other course in the world besides the Old Course at St. Andrews.
The course’s history is impressive and well documented. When the Royal Canadian Golf Association was looking for a permanent home for Canada’s national men’s open championship, the association partnered with a real-estate developer to bring in Jack Nicklaus to rework an existing course for that purpose.
Nicklaus’ first solo design was, and remains, remarkable, especially from a spectator-friendly perspective. The routing was impressive, looping back and forth to the hub centered on the clubhouse. Mounding ensured just about every hole is in an amphitheater. Working largely with flat topography, Nicklaus did an admirable job.
Glen Abbey has matured over the years. And so have the nearby surroundings. What once were the farmers’ fields that encircled it now are upscale subdivisions. The once sleepy town of Oakville has exploded into a city.
Not only is Glen Abbey the venue for the Canadian Open, but the grounds are home to the headquarters of Golf Canada (the rebranded Royal Canadian Golf Association), Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame and Museum. The building where these organizations are housed has a ton of poetic history. It was at various times a millionaire’s mansion and then, appropriately, a Jesuit abbey. Some say a specter still haunts the building.
In 1999, that lyrical history took a commercial turn.
ClubLink, one of the world’s largest multi-course owners and operators, purchased Glen Abbey from the RCGA for about $40 million Canadian. At the time, critics of the deal said, perceptively, this would be the demise of Glen Abbey.
Turns out they were most likely right.
In 2015, ClubLink applied to develop the 200-plus acres into a residential community. The golf course would be demolished, except for the iconic valley holes, 11 through 15, which are on a floodplain and would remain green space.
Not surprisingly, when that application was made, those folks who purchased homes years ago close to Canada’s most famous golf course have gone from proudly IMBY (in my backyard) to NIMBY (not in my backyard). Strenuous opposition resulted. The application is mired in various levels of governmental reviews at this point.
In a statement to Where To Golf Next, the Save Glen Abbey coalition said it believes the property can be preserved “using the Ontario Heritage Toolkit as never before.” This includes defining the entire site as “Cultural Heritage Landscape” and the floodplain lands as “Natural Heritage System.”
Glen Abbey Golf Club’s future is in doubt. In 2015, ClubLink, the club’s owner and operator, applied to develop the 200-plus acres where Glen Abbey sits into a residential community. (Photo: Nicklaus Design)
The smart money says this is just a rearguard action. Such a valuable property in the middle of a burgeoning community will be developed. Time will win out.
Glen Abbey is a relative rarity in another way. It’s an iconic PGA Tour venue open to public play.
So will Glen Abbey’s successor, most likely to be built just north of Toronto in the bedroom community of Vaughan on a total of 900 acres. The concept includes not only a golf course and the headquarters of Golf Canada and its subsidiaries, but also a comprehensive multi-sport facility. Sources say Nicklaus likes the property and the concept.
Chances are the inevitable move from Glen Abbey is four to five years away.
But in the meantime, book a tee time now before the “ghost of Glen Abbey” becomes a reality.
John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game.