Manitoba has been kept off of SCOREGolf’s Top 100 since 2010 (Pine Ridge at 98th, another fine Donald Ross golf course), and at surface level, it is easy to think “understandable.” No one really talks about golf in Manitoba, but upon researching golf courses to play in early October, I was blown away that no one talks about the golf scene.
Manitoba itself only has a handful of Stanley Thompson designs with Niakwa, Glendale and nine holes at Clear Lake, but its other golf courses get to lay claim to Donald Ross designs, something very few courses in Canada can still say.
Elmhurst and Pine Ridge, both near Bird’s Hill Provincial Park northeast of Winnipeg, sit side by side on a beautiful piece of rolling Sandhills. Both are quite good, too, but the big ticket for me was St. Charles in proper Winnipeg, just south of the airport.
Originally home to 18 holes from Tom Bendelow before Donald Ross came in 1919 and overhauled the original routing. In 1929, the one and only Dr. Alister Mackenzie opened the third nine at the club to the North of the Ross golf course. Only one of Ross’ nines remain (the other sits under the East nine, designed by Thompson-associate Norman Woods in 1954), and together with Mackenzie’s nine, they make up the “championship routing,” with the Ross nine coming first, traditionally.
Opening the Ross nine is a gentle, fairly straight 338-yard par 4. A bunker right for short hitters, and two bunkers left for the bigger hitter await.
The classic Ross expression “a firm handshake” does not apply here. Rather, a welcomed introduction to the golf course, met with a relatively easy approach shot, but attractive nonetheless.
For the second, we definitely get a difficult hole out of the gate. At 190 yards, the green is quite long, and narrows towards the back. Luckily, on the day I played, I had a front pin.
A look at the very long and very narrow green complex at the 2nd.
The third is an absolutely brilliant golf hole that has fallen victim to a bit of overzealous tree efforts, but nonetheless, still a very solid golf hole. At 438 yards from the back marker, a sporty bunker complex on the right comes into play for those who potentially hit a weaker fade, or run into one of the infamous prairie winds. Standing on the tee, it certainly asks you to turn it over to the left.
After avoiding the difficult tee shot, an equally as demanding approach shot is played to one of Ross’ famous domed greens, with a harsh false front and a run-off on the right.
A closer look at the green, which I thought was stellar.
The 4th is the first par 5 on the golf course, and a rather plain three-shotter. The big bunker complex on the 3rd comes into play here on the tee shot.
At 551 yards, most big hitters will be able to get close to getting home in two, but a tree in the middle of the fairway complicates the hole for everyone. Thankfully, the tree will come out in 2022, and two bunkers will be restored (one to the right of where the tree is).
Once the golfer navigates the tree, the approach shot plays to a tricky green, which slopes heavily towards the front.
The fifth is another par 5 at 530 yards with the tee shot moving slightly to the right. This is also the golfers first introduction to the Assiniboine River, which is visible from the teeing ground.
While the par 5 nature of the 5th is not original, I think it works fairly well here, with the second shot being of particular interest. The second half of the hole swings fairly hard to the right, around an aggressive bunker complex. When the par 4 green is restored, it will not play to the right (the 5th green is where the new 6th green will be), but will be a straight straightaway hole.
On the approach, a delicate wedge over a small swale short to a well-protected green.
The second of two par 3’s, the 6th is a non-original Ross hole, but nonetheless, not a bad hole. At 199 yards, the green complex is smartly positioned behind a small depression area to make the run up shot difficult. For the Ontario readers, think about the third at Whirlpool, which has similar characteristics.
A closer look just short of the green below. For the restoration, the hole will almost entirely play backwards, back towards the 5th green, while the new 7th tee plays over the current 6th green.
On the 7th, an awkward tee shot awaits. At 392 yards, the hole doglegs hard to the left, around a group of trees, with the Assiniboine River on the outside corner on the right. It would be pretty difficult to hit it into the river, I would think, but it certainly complicates the tee shot.
What awaits after the awkwardness off the tee is a very fun Hog’s Back-esque fairway, which will be put to better use post-restoration.
The approach is also easy on the eyes, with a nice, rolling green filled with internal contour. This is one of my favourite holes, minus the tee shot, and I think the work being done will only improve this hole.
The 8th is a fairly plain, straight 357-yard par 4. A single bunker on the left will come into play on the tee shot.
On the approach, you’ll play to a pretty delicate green complex, with a respectable amount of movement. A handful of bunkers guard this green and can complicate the approach.
In fact, the original Ross hole played to the right of the current hole, towards the 9th tee box. You can see remains of the original green from the 9th tee (below), and oddly was chosen not to be restored.
Heading back to the clubhouse, the final hole on Donald Ross’ nine is a brute of a golf hole at 450 yards. The tee shot requires a straight drive, and for the very big hitter, the chance to play through the fairway into the ditch may loom.
For those who play up the left, a tree may complicate things, and ask the golfer to move their approach shot from right to left. The green, which is heavily titled towards the golfers approach, can make second shots difficult.
The wickedness of the green complex cannot really be summarized and would be terrifying come club championship weekend.
In all honesty, I found the Ross nine to be less interesting than I was hoping for. The Ontario Ross courses are well-preserved and feature a lot of character, but the Ross nine here has evidently lost some of its sparkle. No doubt, there are some real highlights throughout the round. Namely, the 3rd, second half of the 7th, and the 9th are excellent golf holes. With the restoration, I truly believe the Ross nine will see a massive upgrade and stand out.
The Mackenzie nine, however, was an absolute treat. I was blown away by the Good Doctor’s lone contribution to Canada. Starting out, a 414-yard straightaway par 4. Out of the gate, you can tell the architecture is a bit different, and the scale is a bit bigger, with a massive bunker on the left.
The green has a fair share of its own movement, especially near the back portion.
One of my favourite features on golf courses are shared collection areas, which can be found over the back of the 1st and 7th.
The second is perhaps my favourite hole at St. Chuck, and maybe on the short list for my favourite long par 4’s in Canada. At 443 yards, the hole doglegs left around a complex bunkering scheme.
As you walk up the fairway, you get a look at the bunkering scheme laid out by Mackenzie.
Playing to one of the most undulating greens anywhere, highlighted by a knob in the back left, the golfer is kept on his toes from the fairway.
You can see the absolute roller coaster of a green complex below, which is just eye-popping.
And a look from behind.
The third is the only non-original Mackenzie green, but Urbina plans to restore that. At 294 yards from the tee, for those who think they can get green-side it will require a hard right-to-left tee shot.
Originally, the hole was straighter, playing into the hillside. Roughly about 270 yards, it would have been a dozy. The green complex now, which we will see gone after this year, is slightly elevated, with little movement compared to the rest of the golf course.
To get the optimal sequencing Mackenzie wanted, he was able to arrange the routing so that the golfer comes to a single gathering point around the short par 3, 6th in the northeast corner. In total, the 3rd green, 6th green, 5th green, 4th tee, 6th tee and the 7th tee all gather in a single spot. Mackenzie, likely wanting the par 3’s to play in the latter half of the golf course, has the golfer loop around themselves. Instead of walking directly off the back of the third green, the golfer turns to the right to play the 4th, a 398-yard par 4.
On the approach, a small, but brilliant bunker hides the front of the surface and the small swale short of the green. For first time play, or those without range finders, this can prove a challenge, and reminds us of old-time golf and the trickery in which it brought.
From the fairway, it looks like the bunker is greenside, but further inspection proves it is quite a bit short.
The fifth is the first of par 5 of the golf course at 503 yards, and a difficult tee shot between three bunkers pinching the landing area quite heavily. With Urbina’s upcoming work, one bunker will be removed on the right.
After turning the corner, the golfer is faced with the decision: layup short of the gully (which is fairway cut), play into the lower part of the fairway, or go for the green. In reality, this part of Winnipeg does not have enough movement in their land to really force a decision, but I think this small, micro decision helps provide interest, even if it is relatively small. From the bottom, the approach plays slightly uphill to a well-guarded green tucked into the corner of the property.
The attractive 6th, a shortie at 130 yards, and will likely be a fan favourite (who doesn’t like a short par 3?). With a big bunker short, and on the left, the wedge or short iron will demand accuracy from even the best.
Personally, I was surprised to see the green here not be a bit more dynamic, but I think it is still good. Mackenzie’s green building skills, from the 16th at Pasatiempo, or some of Augusta’s original contours, or even the lost hole of Sitwell Park can become really aggressive.
At 416 yards, the 7th on the Mackenzie nine is a gentle dogleg left, with two bunkers on the outside corner, and one on the left. The preferable shot asked is a righty-draw/lefty-fade off the tee.
The green at the 7th is really quite special, with two tiers—an upper left, and lower right—providing a ton of intrigue. Depending on the pin, being on the wrong side can cause havoc with the short stick.
A closer look at the green, which was one of my favourites.
While some may prefer the short 6th, the 203-yard 8th is a brilliant par 3. Well-protected, with bunkers left, right and short left, a demanding iron shot awaits. Where it becomes complicated, however, is the ridge running through the middle of the surface north-south, which splits the green into upper left, and lower right.
To make things even more interesting, the green is almost tilted on its axis, creating a potato chip like surface.
Ending on a stout par 5, the ninth on the Mackenzie nine is a 580 yarder, and a fine way to end the day at Manitoba’s premiere golf course. A singular bunker on the right awaits a weak fade for those who bail out on the final swing.
On the second shot coming home, a tree down the right could complicate things, and what seems to be a drainage ditch (not unlike the ones Ross used at Essex, another flat, clay golf course) up the left, as well as a handful of bunkers.
A better look at the trouble left, which I thought added a bit of complexity, and just like a fine novel, thickened the plot.
On the final full swing of the day, St. Chuck ends on a well-guarded green with a respectable amount of movement.
The Mackenzie nine has had recent work, with Mike DeVries (of Greywalls and Cape Wickham fame) doing some restoration upgrades. I suspect this is a big reason why the Mackenzie nine is in tact, and overall, a better nine.
Urbina’s work will mostly be cleaning up things that can arise in the 15 years since DeVries worked here, and restoring the 3rd, but if the Ross nine can match the energy and excitement of the Mackenzie nine, we will have a very, very good golf course that should be on every Canadians list.
Regardless, St. Charles today is still a wonderful golf course, and in my humble opinion, should be in the Top 100 in Canada. I would personally place it higher, and think it is a strong golf course.
Following the work, which should open in the fall of 2022, and fully open in 2023, I suspect we will see and hear a lot more about St. Charles.