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Championship Golf at HGCC

Hamilton’s championships mirror Colt course history

BY ROBERT THOMPSON

Bob Tway remembers Hamilton Golf and Country Club’s Colt course very well. For starters, Tway’s Canadian Open win was the final in a career that included a PGA Championship. But speaking in Calgary in 2015 while playing the Shaw Charity Classic, Tway’s eyes lit up when asked about his 2003 win.

Hamilton, it seems, fits with what Tway considers a great golf course—a variety of interesting holes, clever green complexes, and the right mix of challenging recovery shots.

“When we got to Hamilton we had this great old-style course,” Tway said. “I thought it was a whole lot better than Glen Abbey, to be honest. You have to play smart and you have some rough. Now everything is pretty much closely mown. There’s no high rough around the greens—and I’ve always enjoyed that.”

Hamilton’s history of holding top championships dates to the earliest days of the Colt course, hosting the Canadian Open in 1919. That championship featured two of the most legendary names in golf, who were both amateurs. Atlanta’s 17-year-old Bobby Jones came to the club to play a series of matches and stayed for the Canadian Open, and 1913 U.S. Open winner Francis Ouimet also competed in the tournament. It was Jones’ only appearance in the Canadian Open.

But it was J. Douglas Edgar who lapped the field, winning by an astounding 16 shots. Edgar would have few chances to return for the Canadian Open, dying in mysterious circumstances two years later.

Eleven years later, Hamilton had what is likely the longest Canadian Open in the history of the tournament. The event began on a Friday and was supposed to finish on Saturday, with 36 holes being played each day. Tommy Armour and Leo Diegel were tied at the end of the tournament, but since tournament golf wasn’t played on Sunday, and Armour had a commitment in Detroit on Monday, it was agreed the two competitors would battle it out on Wednesday, with Armour prevailing in the 36-hole playoff.

It took years for the Canadian Open to return to Hamilton, but the club has a lengthy history of supporting amateur championship golf as well, playing host to the Canadian Amateur six times (1922, 1927, 1935, 1948, 1977, and 1994.) The winners include several legends, with names like Sandy Somerville, two-time British Amateur winner Frank Stranahan, and Warren Sye. The Ladies’ Canadian Open Championship was also played frequently in the early years of the club (1920, 1924, 1929).

One of the most legendary Canadian Amateurs was contested at Hamilton in 1977. Jim Nelford, a rising force in Canadian golf and winner of the previous two Canadian Amateurs, was expected to win. Even those competing with him thought he had a good shot, especially after Nelford started strongly.

“Jim had a seven-shot lead after two rounds after winning the past two years—so that was the story,” says Rod Spittle, a two-time Canadian Amateur winner, as well as a winner on the Champions Tour. “The guy has a seven-shot lead and has won both past two years—they pretty much have his name on the trophy. And that’s what was supposed to happen. That was the first half of the chapter.”

Spittle had a connection to Hamilton through his father, who grew up near Ancaster and caddied at the course. Spittle grew up playing at Lookout Point in Fonthill, an hour east of Hamilton, and was well-aware of the course’s reputation.

“That’s the part of the story that no one knows—that my dad grew up in Hamilton and caddied at Ancaster,” Spittle says. “You can’t make that up. To go to Ancaster and play was a big deal for him.”

Nelford seemed destined for a win until the final day. Spittle, playing in the second-to-last group recognized Nelford might have a tough final day given his spot in the lead and the expectation to win for a third straight year.

“Frankly, all the pressure was on Jim because he’s in the last group,” says Spittle. “The last day I was playing in the group in front of him and I know I started par-par-birdie-eagle. How’s that? Suddenly, we were just about even after the first hour.” The pair were tied for the lead when Spittle hit the par-5 17th hole. He made birdie and Nelford made bogey. It was enough of a margin to give Spittle the victory. He’d win the Canadian Amateur the following year at Laval and graduate from Ohio State where he played on one of the great college golf teams (alongside John Cook and Joey Sindelar) before entering a career in insurance. Spittle turned professional in 2004, winning on the Champions Tour six years later.

In 1996 Hamilton hosted the du Maurier Seniors, and many of the biggest names in golf attended, including Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Bob Charles, Kermit Zarley, and Chi Chi Rodriguez. Charles Coody prevailed for the win. The return of the Canadian Open in 2003 was widely discussed. Many thought the course wouldn’t hold up under the onslaught of big hitters and the juiced-up Pro V1s that were being smacked out of sight. But Tway thought differently, feeling Hamilton’s classic look with slimmer fairways and difficult green surrounds would make the difference. “It just seems like these days you play bigger, wide open, long golf courses,” he says. “Hamilton was more like what we played 25 or 30 years ago—more of a U.S. Open–style golf course.”

It came down to a battle on the 18th hole between Tway and Brad Faxon, an erratic ball striker who is known as one of the best putters in golf. “It is a funky hole, no doubt about it,” Tway says of the 18th. “I didn’t hit a good tee shot in regulation and had to lay up. I hit a 15- or 18-yard pitch and I needed to make a 15- or 18- footer for par to get in the playoff. I thought I’d lost the playoff on 17 because Brad had a five-footer for birdie and he doesn’t miss many of those. But he missed it and didn’t play well on 18. I had a par putt on 18 and all I needed to do was two-putt, but I felt more nervous about that. You only have 10 feet and know you have to lag it up there, but at the time you’re not even sure, how to do that.”

Tway’s 2003 win was followed by Jim Furyk’s victory three years later, and Scott Piercy claiming the Canadian Open in 2012. Interestingly, Piercy struggled with the course, which forced him to be strategic in his club selection. “I like to hit driver a lot, and this golf course I felt took the driver out of my hands,” he said after his win. “I did say, however, that at the end of the week if the score is good, it is exciting. So I’m pretty excited.”

Similarly, Furyk praised the design: “It has a good mixture of length. Certainly, the golf course is under 7,000 yards, but it's still a good golf course. It's an old traditional golf course, where you need to work the ball a little bit more off the tee. I like the old traditional green complexes here. It's really a nice layout.”

One thing is clear—though it is now been in Ancaster for 100-plus years, there’s no sign that Hamilton’s Colt course is backing down when it comes to hosting significant championships. It will continue to force the game’s top players to bring their best, to hit shots that challenge them, and to showcase the skills needed to win. It will continue to separate the best player from the field, which is exactly what a championship golf course is expected to do.