North America’s Oldest Golf Course. Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club

The Set-Up

Historically speaking, when compared to other parts of the world, the United States and Canada are both considered to be quite young. Canada was born in 1867, and in the creation of this country, much of our history happened right here in the Niagara Region.

Both sides lost many lives here during the War of 1812 with blood being spilled on the battlefields in victory and defeat. Among those battles fought were the siege of Fort George in Niagara-On-The-Lake in May of 1813 and the Battle of Mississauga Point, both battles where the British and its allies were defeated. After Fort George was captured, soldiers and allies of the British were forced to retreat, while most of the town of Niagara was burned to the ground. In the winter of 1813-1814, British forces re-captured the ground previously lost.

Fort Mississauga

After Fort George was lost, a new fort was built in between 1814-1816, and this fort was later called Fort Mississauga. This area was strategically important because of its location. The mouth of the Niagara River sits here and was important for shipping and trading routes. Fort Mississauga, was built to counter the formidable Fort Niagara which sits in plain sight on the American side of the river. Sometime later, Fort Mississauga would be abandoned at during the 1860’s.

Who knew that approximately a decade later, these grounds would end up being the home to golf in North America?

Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club (NOTL Golf Club) is North America’s oldest golf course. Established in 1875, by founder John Geale Dickson, Niagara-On-The-Lake Golf Club was forged on the Fort George Commons initially as a three hole golf course.

NOTL Golf Club played host to the first ever match in North America, when Dickson, Charles Hunter, and a few friends played a match. According to club history and lore, a pony and a cart followed the players from hole to hole where every beverage that the “human tongue could desire” was available. In what seems so relatable the golfers had taken a lunch break over cigars. Having lost track of time, by the time that they were to resume play, it was deemed to be too late.

1895 would see a tournament played called the International Championship Tournament. It was the first-known tournament in North America to be contested and was open to both ladies and gentlemen. That event was won by Charles Blair MacDonald from Chicago (Men’s), whilst Miss. Madeleine Geale was victorious (Ladies). Mr. MacDonald also won the longest drive with a tee shot on the first hole, a staggering, 179 yards.

Looking up the 8th fairway. Your first look at NOTL Golf Club.

The Transition

Getting to NOTL Golf Club is pretty easy. From either direction from the QEW you would turn left onto Niagara Stone Road from the Glendale Avenue exit and proceed to Highway #55. Make a right-hand turn at the traffic light under the Garden City Skyway. You’ll pass many wineries on the way there including Gretzky Estates so don’t fall victim to temptation. Highway #55 turns into Mississauga Street and you’ll see the golf course right there at the stop sign. In fact, you’ll be looking at the 8th green and Fort Mississauga off in the distance. Turn left at the first street, take the bend to the right and you’re there.

Pro Tip: The area is typically laden with tourist traffic. Parking can be difficult as the area is congested thanks in part to the narrow streets. Finding a spot close to the Clubhouse/Pro Shop can be difficult. Take advantage of the bag drop and use the overflow parking.

Being local and being the historian that I am, it’s sort of amazing that until the other day, I had never played a round of golf at Niagara-On-The-Lake Golf Club. The number of times that I’ve driven past it is literally countless. Yet, it’s a golf course that I’ve talked about and recommended to golfers. Much of the allure for me is its history. When you’re talking about a golf course with such a significant history, playing this course should be a no-brainer.

The golf course itself is a 9-hole layout that measures 2,897 yards per nine from the tips, Although, if you were to play 18-holes, I’d recommend playing a different set of tee markers for a slightly different experience the second time around.

“Straightaway”. The first hole at NOTL Golf Club. Fort Mississauga awaits.

Following my own advice, I parked in the overflow parking, unloaded my clubs and push cart, and proceeded to enjoy my walk to the clubhouse. It was a beautiful late-October afternoon when I played and the golf course was pretty busy. This round of golf was so spontaneous that I have to mention that I was very appreciative of being “squeezed” onto the tee sheet upon calling in for a tee time at 2 p.m. that day. Checking in for my round was a breeze. The practice green is located right next to the first tee, and while there isn’t a driving range here, there is a hitting cage available. Although, it wasn’t available as it might be a part of the COVID-19 Protocols set in place.

My interaction with the starter was extremely pleasant and the tee was all mine. Just as I was ready to tee off, I was asked to pair up with someone and I was more than happy to oblige. A gentleman named Charlie and his wife (who was there just to walk and enjoy the late fall day joined me. When you’re a single, never expect to be able to play alone. Please don’t grumble about it. Golf is the only sport where you can “Rent-A-Friend” for a few hours and I love meeting new people.

Without a warm-up I generally struggle. So my opening tee shot was a little unnerving. The 1st hole at NOTL Golf Club is a straightaway Par-4 dubbed “Straightaway”. This fairway features sneaky undulations in the fairway, trees down the left side and not to mention a busy street. Lake Ontario is very prominent down the right side. Down in behind the green lies Fort Mississauga, omnipresent, an eerie reminder of the past. I struck a 3-wood and found the left-side of the fairway. A PW later, I was sitting on the green in regulation. A sigh of relief.

Putting out, I made my way to the second hole, a dogleg-left Par-4. Named ‘Mississauga” because of the fort that looms there. A right to left shot is desired from the tee. Remember that the golf course isn’t long, but what NOTL Golf Club lacks in distance is made up because NOTL Golf requires an ability to hit golf shots. The second hole is just a sign of things to come.

The Par-5 5th. Fort Niagara can be seen off in the distance.

The third and fifth holes at NOTL Golf Club are both Par-5 holes that offers tight tree-lined fairways. a street down the left side respectfully depending on which of the two holes that you’re playing. So control is important here. I failed to find the fairway either time finding a fairway bunker on the 3rd hole and the trees on the 5th hole. Having duffed my attempt out of an easy fairway bunker on the 3rd hole, I found the back of the green with a rescue club. Meanwhile, on the 5th hole I was in tree trouble down the right side. The third fairway which runs adjacent to the 5th hole was void of golfers, so I elected to play up the third fairway. I saved par here. The greens for both of these Par-5 holes feature great bunkering. Standing on the tee of the 5th hole, you can see the imposing Fort Niagara off in the distance.

The Par-3 4th hole is another hole that runs alongside the road. This might be the “low-key” prettiest Par-3 hole in all of Niagara. Guarded by bunkers left and right, Lake Ontario offers a beautiful backdrop. Meanwhile, NOTL Golf’s Par-4 6th Hole is driveable, as long as you’re trusting your driver. I wasn’t and hit a lousy block with a rescue club. A wind-swept tree lies here waiting to block out your approach to the green from this angle. Centre-left is the favoured spot to place your tee shot.

The hues of green and blue of the grass, Lake Ontario, and the sky of the 6th hole.

The 7th hole is what NOTL Golf Club refers to as their “Signature Hole” a term that I generally don’t like to use. Dubbed “Silverton”, this hole is a dogleg left. It’s a pretty golf hole with trouble running down both sides of the fairway. The green complex here features two bunkers that sit down in a depression and a narrow two-tiered green awaits. Trouble abounds everywhere on this golf hole as Fort Mississauga stands, acting in a way, as a sentry as if it were paying homage to those men that stood at their posts performing that very duty.

The tee for the 8th hole sits right alongside the moat that protects Fort Mississauga’s walls, and the green here remains completely unchanged from when it was constructed in 1875. “Home” is the Par 3 9th hole which is said to be one of the toughest in Niagara. From the tips the hole measures 225 yards and plays slightly uphill. If there’s a north wind coming off of Lake Ontario, this hole will certainly play like a Par-4.

The Finish

Playing on these grounds felt very special to me. In a way, I could envision the red battle dress uniforms of the British troops and their allies. I could, with my imagination, smell the wood smoke of the cooking and campfires of the soldiers that fought for this land and called these grounds home. Standing there in the silence, I could hear the sound of musket and cannon fire. This golf course is built on hallowed grounds,

NOTL Golf Club is without a doubt the nicest 9-hole tract that I have played golf on. This is a golf course, while not long, is a “shot-maker’s delight”. You have to work the ball to score here. But, this is also a golf course that’s terrific for all skill levels because of it’s modest length.

The approach to “Silverton”. Fort Mississauga stands sentry on the right.

The course conditions were amazing, especially for late-October and I enjoyed the last of the fall foliage that was imminently going to fall. The greens were pristine, for all intents and purposes, void of any ball marks. The greens rolled very true and were surprisingly quick. The Superintendent and his staff have done an amazing job in a year where I’m certain that they’ve seen a spike in rounds of golf played and under a little duress.

As you might expect, NOTL Golf Club has experienced an evolution of sorts. The course has seen some lengthening, greens being moved, and having new bunkers built, however, the fairways remain where they were approaching 150 years ago.

If you’re in the area, play Niagara-On-The-Lake Golf Club. It’ll be a treat on any trip to Niagara.

Until The Next Tee!!

#fightandgrind #seeuonthenexttee