Believe it or not, I played my first round of golf in 2002 on Thursday the 3rd of April. Somehow I snuck in 18 holes across the big ditch in Niagara-On-The-Lake, at the humbling Royal Niagara Golf Club. I had hoped for 27, but frost precluded all but a cart tour of the Old Canal nine. Consider this, then, a partial Tips Treatise, until I make my way north again to challenge the third nine.
Royal Niagara is an easy place to find. You take the Lewiston-Queenston bridge to the QEW, then exit at the second opportunity (Glendale Road), turn left, and travel two stop lights (about one kilometer) and there it is, on your left. There is a gorgeous new housing development in the front yard, then up the main drive to the clubhouse, and the three nine hole courses await. Each is named for a distinctive feature of the land, an honest tribute by the owners to recognize the area’s rich history. The escarpment nine does climb up, then descend, a fair plateau, an iron bridge certainly appears on the eponymous nine, and a canal of some age indeed roars past its namesake nine. In fact, an ancient lock looks down on the 4th hole of the Iron Bridge nine.
Two features that help to define the Royal Niagara complex were absent on the wintry day that I made my visit. There was virtually no rough, and the greens were running at about 6.5 on the stimpmeter. After my first 18 holes, I will gladly accept the absence of roll in exchange for the elimination of high rough and speedy greens. Since my next visit will no doubt incorporate both the rough and the speed, please stay tuned for my reaction.
To the golf, then. Omnipresent from the tips on the Iron Bridge nine is the forced carry. The tee ball must fly wasteland that I call a barranca on no fewer than five holes. On the 7th hole, you make a choice: lay up to leave 200 uphill yards to the green, or fly 240 yards over the ditch to leave a shot of 150 yards in. Since I didn’t know how far the carry was, I made it. Check again the next time!
The par three holes on the Iron Bridge nine do not overwhelm. Depending on your length, they should require no more than a 4-iron, which is not a lot from the tips. Their strength lies not in the distance required, but in the target sought. Bunkers adorn their putting surfaces like a necklace of precious gems, each with its own unique contours and edging. Avoid these properly, and you face greens wrinkly as sun-dried fruit, certain to demand two or three reads of the multiple breaks. If you find yourself outside of the ring of sand, unless you are a master of the wedge, you will flinch. Recovery shots take place from deep swales, awkward lies, to unsympathetic green surfaces.
As highlighted by hole number seven, the par fours are a ruddy lot. With the exception of the ninth, they demand absolute accuracy from the tee ball. The proper line must be followed, or trees and mounding will close off site lines at best, deny flight lines at worst. On two occasions, it is best to play less than driver, due to the nature of the hole. This does not make the first shot less harrowing. On the other three par fours, the long, accurate driver has no replacement, if the hole is to be played in regulation figures or fewer.
The par fives, like big brothers, affirm the strength of this family of golf holes. The first is simply as picturesque a hole as is to be found in our area, and the only shame is that it ends so soon. An enormous lake dictates safe play to the right, away from its shore. On that opposite side of the fairway are exactly where hillocks and uneven lies await the overly-cautious player. The sixth hole is a journey. I remember a Golf Digest series about the untouchables, holes that had never been hit in two shots. Well, this 601 yard behemoth has little to fear from the likes of me. I smashed a driver, then crushed a 13-degree fairway metal, and still had 170 yards left. Even in the presence of roll, I doubt that I would have come much closer after two. The proper play here is a right to left tee ball that can take advantage of the down slope along the right side of the fairway. From there, the decision is to play short of the cross-swamp (mortals) or fly the goop to leave a pitch in (olympians). In my honest opinion, flying the brush serves no purpose, as the uphill pitch should spin as much as possible to hold the green, and anything beyond the trouble will be a partial wedge.
The Escarpment nine requires an entirely different interpretation of the tee shot. It is not over what, but where to, that is the question. The forced carry, with the exception of the 6th hole (more on that one later), is non-existent. What truly matters on this nine is the placement in the fairway, in order to optimally approach the putting surfaces.
The two par three holes on the Escarpment take place within a three-hole period and, like the first hole on the Iron Bridge, distress us only in that they end so soon. The fourth hole is as Irish as they come, a long or medium iron downhill to an elevated green, protected by three bunkers. Short of the green is an enormous swale, more valley than the original “Valley of Sin,” waiting to collect the least under-hit shot. The green is demanding, so maintain your focus until you finish. The 6th hole, which you pass on your way to the fourth, is even more unsettling when you realize that you must play it. An enormous pond fronts the green, and the farther back you go, the deeper around the pond you find yourself, until you reach the Tiger Tee, at six o’clock to a twelve o’clock green. Gather your thoughts, breathe deep, cleansing, yoga breaths, and hit your best 208 yard shot. Bunkers in front prevent shorties from rolling back into the h2o, while sand and mounds beyond punish the burly. The green, apparently gentle, increases its wrath as the speeds rise.
The par four and five holes on the Escarpment nine dare you to haul off and whack the devil out of the ball. In all but two cases, you can do just that. There is a lot of fairway room, so enjoy. However, you do have a second shot, and you must pay attention. In most cases, sand and water intrude (the latter not until the eighth hole) enough to inquire about your best irons. Holes one and three present downhill tee balls, inducing role/extra distance. Two is short enough that drive and roll are not necessary. Six and nine necessitate a second look from the tee, to determine the best route down the fairway. All approach shots on par fours call for nearly-pinpoint accuracy, as the punishing recesses of the swales and sands await the inaccurate.
The two par five holes demand different “best” shots. The fourth hole plays to a hidden green that slopes away from the fairway, so the third shot is by far the most demanding. However, in case you get careless, as I did, a miniature “Hell bunker” lies in wait in the middle of the second shot landing zone. The eighth hole asks that your best effort be granted on the second shot, as lake huge pinches the fairway from the left, narrowing the channel of short grass that leads to the green.
The two nines that I played at Royal Niagara simply wore me down. They were absolutely enjoyable, and I look forward to revisiting them this summer. I will keep a close watch on the results of the Canadian Championship of Golf, a tournament hosting the top twelve professional Canadian players, to be held May 21st and 22nd, as I believe their mettle will be tested by Royal Niagara.