Treasure Island: Canada’s Prince Edward Island

prince edward island golf

From one tip of pastoral Prince Edward Island to the other, Canada’s smallest province has always been big in its ability to inspire. Now golf has fallen firmly under the island’s magical spell. More than two-dozen golf courses, most positioned within a scenic half-hour drive from each other, are proof of that.

Prince Edward Island, Canada – As Canada’s only province with no land boundary, Prince Edward Island is a place where fantasy comes alive. It is the place where a nation was conceptualized, where color collides with contour and where golf has become as much a part of the landscape as its iconic counterparts.

Golf simply took a bit longer to do so.

Golf seems like such an automatic to the land known as PEI. Indeed, had the game first appeared along the lapping waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in eastern Canada — the topography certainly would have allowed it — rather than off the North Sea of Scotland, its history might have turned out somewhat altered.

Imagine this: movies depicting early island farmers with sticks swatting rock-solid potatoes into openings dug out of the fragile soil … or fishermen launching stones toward a lighthouse somewhere along its hundreds of miles of sandy beaches.

Instead, golf came along rather sluggishly to Prince Edward Island. Though no one knows for sure exactly how or why, the first actual golf course design debuted as early as 1909 at a place called Belvedere in its capital city. Only sporadic golf course piggy backing took place over the next 80 years, however. In fact, an islander could almost count on one hand the number of playing grounds that existed within the province’s craggy shorelines as late as 1993.

While the Scots and their guests have been fervently swiping featheries, gutties and more recently ultra-distance golf balls over converted pastures, fields and links land since the early 1400s, PEI has only mirrored that passion for the game, on a grand scale at least, for less than a quarter century.

But it teeing up on PEI these days, you’d hardly know the difference. As a golf destination, Prince Edward Island is as mature and well entrenched as you will find.

The golfing “boom” there, for all intents and purposes, became official with the development of the Thomas McBroom-designed Links at Crowbush Cove located on the north shore of the island in 1993. The notoriety generated by this primarily seaside links-type course, with no less than eight holes playing near the sea or dunes, has continued to reverberate across Canada ever since.

“I remember going to Prince Edward Island when there were only a few courses on it to speak of,” Bryan Sullivan, a former touring professional from North Carolina who competed on the Canadian Tour back in the 1980s, recalled. “It was like going back in time.”

These days, touring PEI is more like returning to a simpler way of life than a total rewind of the clock. That’s because the island’s imaginative inhabitants have kept up with the times, spurred on in large part by an engineering marvel known as the Confederation Bridge. Opened in 1997, this 8-mile crossing, the longest in the world over ice-covered waters, connects PEI with New Brunswick and ultimately the rest of Canada and the Northeast United States. Prior to this watershed event, the only way to get on or off PEI other than by plane was via one of two ferries.

Now, with such easy automotive access from the mainland, little wonder fine restaurants, elegant hotels and all types of businesses and industries flourish in its primary cities of Charlottetown and Summerside, not to mention the 27 golf courses featuring 405 holes of wide-ranging golf that dot the island.

But make no doubt about it, PEI (where fishing, farming and tourism dominate) is still a rural land shaped by Mother Nature. Its iron-rich red soil, evergreen trees, white birches, blue skies and sparkling waters are what make it colorful and the ideal location for outdoor adventure. And that certainly includes golf.

“Until Crowbush Cove came along, there were only seven golf courses on PEI,” said Terry Hamilton, the general manager at the Links at Crowbush Cove. “When it opened for play, it became one of the few places in Canada you could golf right on the ocean.”

So the word began to spread. And golfers — including some of the big names — began to trickle in. In fact, Crowbush Cove would soon thereafter host a televised “Skins Game” with then recent British Open champions Mark O’Meara and John Daly along with former Masters champion Fred Couples and eventual Masters champion Mike Weir in attendance.

“The event was held in absolutely perfect weather and it was broadcast across the country,” Hamilton added. “Crowbush Cove, and soon golf on PEI for that matter, really became famous after that.”

Crowbush Cove’s success, along with the timely opening of the Confederation Bridge, helped spark the development of several other instant classics, including Dundarave on the eastern side of the island; Eagles Glenn, Glasgow Hills and Anderson’s Creek in the popular Cavendish region on the north shore; and Fox Meadow on the outskirts of Charlottetown in the south central portion of the island. Of course, they would join a group of pre-existing venues including the vintage 1971 Mill River in the west, the 1939 classic Green Gables in the north and the 1969 stunner Brudenell in the east. This blending of traditional 18-holers, which also includes Stanhope and Glen Afton, and modern designs — add Clyde River and Countryview to the mix — in the 1990s and early 2000s, in essence, is what truly put PEI golf on the global golf map.

So now golfers are regular visitors from all over. And like it is phrased locally, “Why play one course when you can play an island?”

Toast of the Coast

Prince Edward Island, and its capital city of Charlottetown — named after Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, queen consort of the United Kingdom in the early 1800s — initially became famous back in 1864 when it hosted the Charlottetown Conference. That is where the unification of Canada as a nation was first proposed.

PEI added to its notoriety in the early 1900s when its red sandstone cliffs and dramatic scenery served as the backdrop for Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic fictional novel “Anne of Green Gables,” which was eventually spun into North America’s longest continually running musical by the same name. Other claims to fame include its long stretches of dune-backed beaches, its “Cows” Creamery and brand of ice cream, its wide range of culinary delights, its brews and even its moonshine. As one of the world’s largest suppliers of mussels, PEI is also a haven for lobsters and potatoes (due to its rich soil). In fact, PEI represents nearly a third of all of its country’s potato production.

Known as the “gentle island,” PEI stakes its reputation on being a family fun destination and an ideal retreat for couples. But don’t tell the avid golfer how ‘gentle’ it is when he or she has to knuckle down on a three iron while facing into a “two club” coastal wind.

“It can be quite cruel at times,” Hamilton, spoken like a true islander, said.

But that’s the beauty and the challenge of playing island golf. During the spring and fall, the prevailing winds across the province come from the north. During the summer, they shift from south to north bringing warm currents of air with them. Long days and no humidity make for ideal golfing conditions throughout the prime golfing season.

Whether you are playing along the descending hills overlooking Charlottetown Harbor of Fox Meadow, or deep within the forested corridors of Mill River — with its more subtle elevation changes and curving doglegs — golf variety is abundant on PEI. Here is just a sampling of highlights to seek out when you travel Canada’s most desirable and affordable golf destination:

Green Gables Golf Club (Cavendish Region) — Green Gables is the one course on the island that is truly steeped in history. Designed in 1939 by world-renowned Canadian architect Stanley Thompson, who was born in Toronto, it was rejuvenated by one of today’s leading designers, Thomas McBroom, in 2007. The course is tree-lined and honorably old school. When you are on any given hole, you almost don’t see anyone else with you other than your playing partners. As a bonus, from the course you can examine the famed Green Gables house and discover many of its main character’s (Anne Shirley) imaginative settings. It is truly a fictional creation that only a place like PEI can magically bring to life.

Links at Crowbush Cove (North Shore) — The course that started all the rage on the island is ideally located a mere 20 minutes from downtown Charlottetown. Crowbush Cove still maintains its presence in the top ten designs in Canada. Previously a coastal campground by the same name, this dramatic Thomas McBroom layout overlooks the Gulf of St. Lawrence and some of the best fishing grounds in world. This blended parkland and links-style design has been described as an “unbelievable combination of nature and imagination.” You’ll think you’ve crossed the big pond to Ireland or Scotland when you tee it up there.

links at crowbush cove

Brudenel River Golf Course (Eastern Region) — Another of the more classic designs on PEI, the course is named after the river it showcases. This unique 1969 Robbie Robinson design offers six par 3s, 4s and 5s. It is accentuated by numerous gardens, lakes and ponds and jumps out at you with its pearly white bunkers that contrast the native red soil.

Dundarave Golf Course (Eastern Region) — A modern challenge crafted by the team of Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dany Fry, this turn-of-the-century venue plays right next to its sister course Brudenel River, yet couldn’t be any different. A red sandstone dominated creation, the 1999 stunner thrills with some of the most memorable bunker patterns in all of golf. As the host to the 2006 Legends of Golf featuring Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, Dundarave is an experience that will leave you breathless.

Mill River Golf Course (Western Region) — Designed by Robbie Robinson, this mature golf layout overlooks the scenic Mill River. As home to a former Golf Channel “Big Break,” Mill River features wide rolling fairways that wind their way through mature forest. Its No. 7 hole, a par four, offers dual fairways because “a river runs through it” and is worth the price of admission alone.

Of course, these are just a few of the highlights that golf on Prince Edward Island affords.

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