NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario -- The booming sound of rushing water from the Niagara River that tumbles over Horseshoe Falls is a captivating sight.
I was right there, in a window seat for dinner at Niagara Parks' Elements Restaurant after a 36-hole day of golf, gazing out over a glass of pinot noir from a nearby winery owned by Canadian golfer Mike Weir. As the calm water downstream gradually turned to rapids and ultimately plummeted 188 feet into abyss, the sensation felt so vaguely familiar to all those rounds of golf when my swing had started out so smooth, only to gradually break down into chaos by the turn.
The majesty and sheer power of the Niagara Falls -- whose three separate falls combine for the highest flow rate of any in the world -- is one of the great natural marvels of North America. While you can view them from either the U.S. or Canadian side of the river, it's quite clear from the bustling waterfront that the folks on the northern border are having most of the fun. Since the turn of the 21st century, the Canadian side has added new hotels, casinos and attractions - including plenty of golf.
But new stuff aside, there is plenty of history front and center. The Niagara Parks assumed stewardship of the Canadian riverfront in the 19th century and have preserved its beauty while adding all sorts of attractions to enhance the experience. They manage a 56-kilometer stretch of scenic sights and attractions along the Niagara Parkway, which includes a handful of the area's best golf facilities.
My visit to Niagara came during the festive summer of the "Canada 150" celebration. I visited not long after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was here kayaking in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Days later, a daredevil hung by her teeth from a helicopter over the falls.
I suppose my visit was tame by comparison. Nevertheless, I sampled a handful of the best courses while doing my best to keep my eyes on the road while driving the parkway. It's a wonderfully convenient destination with many of the must-play courses located very close to the hotels and attractions. The central business district is walkable, open late, and post-falls fun can be found for both families and bachelor parties.
As for if the falls should be on your golf bucket list (or, perhaps barrel list?), the area certainly makes a strong case, and particularly so when you consider the best courses peak out around $110 CAN. Stay-and-play packages are even deeper value. Here, you can play North America's oldest course in existence, an impressive parks course designed by Canada's foremost Golden Era architect and one of the most all-encompassing, standalone public golf facilities in the east.
Stanley Thompson's Whirlpool Golf Course
Golf course architect Stanley Thompson's contributions to Canada's parks beginning in the 1920s is one of the greatest lasting gifts in destination golf travel. His design in Niagara Falls came much later than his remarkable efforts out west for Canadian Pacific Railway. In fact, Whirlpool would be his final completed design, opening to fanfare in 1951 (Thompson passed away in 1953). The spirit of Thompson's larger-than-life personality lives on here in the form of a jovial halfway house attendant by the name of "Gizzy," who's been here long enough, 20-plus years, to have a breakfast sandwich named after her, and you're welcome to challenge her to serve you something special that's off the menu.
Whirlpool, operated by Niagara Parks and a short distance downstream from the falls, towers on an escarpment across the parkway that overlooks the spectacular spot where the Niagara River makes a sharp right turn and causes the flowing water to pool before moving downstream. Golf had been planned on this site ever since the 1920s, but construction didn't begin until after World War II. Without question, it's a special spot for the game. The parkland has a sublime, gentle roll with corridors framed by scattered evergreens. A handful of greens and tee sites are elevated, none cooler than the "hub" of three nearby championship tees, Nos. 6, 12 and 16. Accessible by a red staircase, you'll want to tee it up from back here even if the remainder of your round is from the whites.
With five par 3s and par 5s, Thompson's routing, largely in tact (the modernized and beautified 2nd hole being the greatest exception) has wonderful hole variety and is replete with birdie opportunities. It's one of those loops that seems to fly by all to fast -- a hallmark of Thompson's best stuff. In terms of a walk-in-the-park, there is nothing better around than historic Whirlpool.
A supreme golf facility at Legends on the Niagara
The popularity of Whirlpool through the years ultimately led Niagara Parks to consider an expansion of their golf product. They chose to do so on a 700-acre site that would aid in the preservation of the battlefield of the Battle of Chippawa, which took place during the War of 1812.
Legends on the Niagara is an all-encompassing and yet secluded place. Modern Canadian architects Doug Carrick and Thomas McBroom teamed up to build 18 championship holes each and collaborated on the 9-hole Chippawa short course. A mighty, 360-degree driving range and teaching academy, plus a 35,000-square-foot clubhouse that serves excellent pub cuisine (the "buffalo mac attack" was a treat) make it one of the most encompassing golf-only public facilities in existence.
Both courses stretch over 7,200 yards from the tips, and Ussher's Creek, whose namesake creek comes into play throughout the course, is the destination's supreme test. Carrick's Battlefield, meanwhile, is the fairer of the two fights at Legends, with wide landing zones, large greens, and closely-mown run-off areas. The dramatic 9th and 18th holes play parallel, separated by a lake spanning from tee-to-green. When my playing partner for the day, Legends Senior Superintendent Tom Newton holed out off the fringe for eagle on the par-5 finisher, I gladly waved the white flag.
North America's oldest course: Niagara-on-the-Lake
Follow the parkway north from the falls along the Niagara River and you'll eventually come to a charming little town where the river meets Lake Ontario, and where no older course exists in north America than at Niagara-on-the-Lake. This privately owned club offers public play, and for buddies trips, it makes for a splendid "emergency nine."
The nine holes are sandwiched between shaded estates in town and the lake as they have in some form since 1875. Town records from a match 1878 with club founder John Geale Dickson and four friends from Toronto (whose skyline can be faintly seen in the distance) described the outing as such:
a pony cart followed them from hole-to-hole, laden with every possible beverage with the human tongue could desire.
Dickson would be pleased to know that in 2017, the convivial spirit is certainly alive and well. The first tee is just steps from the murmurs of patrons at the outdoor bar steps away. This ever-popular loop is busy, but its patrons hustle around its layout 3,100-yard layout with the intention of returning back for a seafood meal and drinks of their own.
More golf around Niagara Falls
There are scores of courses in the area so you can really name your price to play. The best privately-owned course that rivals the parks courses is Grand Niagara, a Rees Jones design that opened shortly after the Legends complex. The course weaves in and out of trees on the back nine, but is predominantly wide open with big bunkers and fast greens. Thundering Waters, the John Daly course that opened to great fanfare with Big-John attempting a long-ball across the falls, isn't the top draw it used to be, having lost some yardage (and driving range) to development, but it's affordable and convenient near the falls. If you're in Niagara-on-the-Lake and would prefer an 18-hole course, visit Royal Niagara, a popular 27-hole course with good value. Those staying in Niagara Falls and looking for a casual knock can check out the pitch 'n putt at the Oak Hall Estate.
Stay and play
There are no golf resorts in Niagara Falls, so your best bet is staying in one of the many large hotels downtown, some of which have entertainment and casino complexes, or in a smaller bed & breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Two-night, three-round packages start at $309 CAN and include lodging at either the Best Western Cairn Croft or Comfort Inn Lundy's Lane.
For more information on the Niagara Parks golf scene, visit NiagaraParks.com