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Oakville whiffs on Glen Abbey golf course decision

When Tiger Woods hit a 6-iron from 218 yards over a pond at Glen Abbey during the 2000 Canadian Open, it became one of golf's most iconic moments.

But does that make Glen Abbey Golf Club, the high-end public course in Oakville, Ont., worthy of historical preservation? With the facility facing the possibility of being developed into homes and swimming pools, the city is arguing that it does and is seeking to designate the site a "cultural heritage landscape." On the other hand, it is easy to see Glen Abbey for what it is: a relic that time has passed by, an arguably average golf course that had its profile elevated because it had the good fortune of hosting dozens of high-profile tournaments. It isn't even favoured by the pros that play there – a few years ago, a Golf World poll of PGA Tour golfers ranked Glen Abbey among the worst courses to hold a tour event.

Oakville Mayor Rob Burton said the move by the city won't necessarily save Glen Abbey, but will protect "heritage" elements of the course and will surely make it more difficult – and likely not as profitable – for owner and real estate mogul Rai Sahi to develop.

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But the question is whether Glen Abbey warrants such a designation, part of an Ontario government plan that "publicly recognizes and promotes heritage properties," in turn "ensuring that changes to a heritage property are appropriately managed."

According to the provincial government, golf courses fit the criteria for a cultural landscape, although to date, only two facilities – one in Mississauga and another in Windsor – have received the designation. Both courses are owned by their respective municipalities and have been around for almost a century. Their designation is a testament to keeping the game readily accessible to the public. Glen Abbey, on the other hand, with its $236 green fee, was never part of the average golfer's rotation.

How does Glen Abbey measure up as a design? Proponents for a heritage designation argue the course is significant because it was golf legend Jack Nicklaus's second design.

A report filed to support the designation covers key areas that made Glen Abbey unique when it opened in 1976, including spectator mounds that allow fans to see the action (35 metres from the action was apparently a key) and the fact the view from the bridge on Upper Middle Road is engaging.

"The current designed landscape was built by Glen Abbey Golf Club resulting in a transformed landscape that was dominated by a new championship golf course," Marcus Letourneau writes.

Truthfully, history hasn't been kind to Glen Abbey as a golf design. Some of the elements highlighted for preservation could readily be considered the biggest shortcomings of the course. Described as "unusual," the report says the "17th green with its horseshoe configuration around a left greenside bunker … is in keeping with the design intent of the course," and "its uniqueness and novelty in tournament play deserves attention." Some might also just contend the green is awful, and it has even been rebuilt to deal with its challenges. Other parts of the course are pedestrian to the point of being plain and dull.

What, if anything, at Glen Abbey is worth preserving? Truthfully, Mr. Sahi and ClubLink, the corporate golf giant controlled by the developer, have already thrown a bone to those who contend that parts of the course should be retained. In its proposal, ClubLink offered up the so-called "valley holes" that run along Sixteen Mile Creek for parkland. The most picturesque part of the course, these holes are the heart of Glen Abbey, but apparently that's not enough.

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There are golf courses in Canada that changed the way the game is played and should be retained. Glen Abbey just isn't one of them. At its core, a golf course is a playing field upon which history happens. Baseball history was made at Toronto's old Exhibition Stadium, but no one thought it needed to be preserved when a new dome was developed. The same can be said for Glen Abbey.

If we need to keep some token of the course when it is turned into boulevards and million-dollar homes, let's keep Tiger's bunker. It can be turned into a sandbox with a sign designating what happened there, and the children who play there can wonder what all the fuss was about.

Robert Thompson is senior writer at SCOREGolf and has covered golf in Canada for more than 20 years.

Video: Jhonattan Vegas grateful his family saw his Canadian Open win (The Canadian Press)
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