Founded in 1873, Royal Montreal is the oldest golf club in North America, and many of its regulations are charmingly old fashioned in this 21st-century golf world. For example, golfers can wear shorts, but only in combination with high-top socks.
Royal Montreal’s 80,000-square-foot clubhouse, tastefully festooned throughout with first-rate golf memorabilia and illustrations, oozes golf ethos the way Pinehurst does. For all that, its 1,000 members imbue it with an egalitarian atmosphere seldom found at clubs with smaller, more restrictive membership rolls.
Still, it has changed with the times in many aspects, especially with regard to its course. The story begins with eight men convening near the port of Montreal in November 1873. Not surprisingly, the earliest enthusiasts were transplanted Scotsmen, including Alexander Dennistoun, the first president and captain of Royal Montreal, and “founder of golf in North America.” Born in Edinburgh, Dennistoun played Musselburgh and St. Andrews growing up.
In its various incarnations, Royal Montreal has occupied the equivalent of five 18-hole courses and four clubhouses. The first installment was a six-hole course, later nine, at Fletcher’s Field, part of city-owned Mount Royal Park, then on the outskirts of the city.
The first clubhouse was built at the edge of the park, and members embraced the Scottish protocol of wearing red coats while playing, to distinguish themselves from non-golf visitors to the public park. The red coat has remained Royal Montreal’s official ceremonial club garb.
Like many in-town tracks, Royal Montreal was squeezed by the burgeoning metropolis and in 1895 moved to Dixie, in the western parish of Dorval, about 10 miles from the city. Its initial 12 holes, opened the following year, soon received six more holes, with another 18-hole layout added in the 1920s. Completion of the second course was closely followed by construction of a new clubhouse.
Ongoing urban sprawl through the 1950s once again dictated a move, and in 1959 Royal Montreal moved to 675 acres of rolling farmland in an old-line Quebec island community, Ile Bizard, in the Lake of the Two Mountains. The late Florida-based golf course architect Dick Wilson won the commission for the club’s two 18-hole courses and its nine-hole track. Royal Montreal, essentially as it exists today, including the clubhouse, was built in two years.
In part due to Royal Montreal’s relative head start, club members initially dominated amateur competitions and fostered the growth of the game in the New World. They also staged the first interclub match in North America, against Royal Quebec Golf Club in 1876, as well as the oldest international match, against Massachusetts’ The Country Club in 1898. The inaugural Canadian Ladies Amateur Championship, in 1901, was won by Royal Montreal’s Lily Young.
Despite Young’s achievement, the saga of women at Royal Montreal reads like a microcosm of golf’s historic ambivalence toward gender equality. It all started in 1883, when 80 women were invited for tea—but not golf—but they soon progressed to hitting balls. In 1891 the first women became associate members, but according to the club history, “a long contest between the ladies and successive boards of directors for greater recognition and more playing privileges lay ahead.” The debate continues, but at least today women have unrestricted access to previously verboten spaces such as the 19th Hole, the Card Room and the delightfully named Leather Lounge.
The pro game’s track record at the club is pretty much confined to the Canadian Open, which has been held four times at Ile Bizard, in addition to five other times at the club’s previous venues. Highlights and lowlights include Tom Weiskopf’s sudden-death victory over Jack Nicklaus in 1975 and Tiger Woods shooting a Friday 76 to miss the cut in 1997. It was his first missed cut as a professional.
The course has undergone a Rees Jones-led renovation, which began as an initiative simply to re-core the greens but wound up as a much more comprehensive project. The Blue course retains the essential look and feel of the original Dick Wilson 1959 design, but the changes go well beyond the cosmetic.
Jones and his team, led by Bryce Swanson, reconfigured two holes on the back nine and added nearly 300 yards to the layout, which now measures 7,153 yards. The largest single increment is the 50 yards added to the 3rd hole, which now plays 437 yards.
But adding distance was just one factor. Jones has redone all but one of the greensites—only the 16th green was left largely as is. He added contour to the putting surfaces while working on the greenside bunkers to make them both more demanding and authentic to Wilson’s original shapes.
Among other recognizable Wilson touches are “fencepost” fairway bunkers that serve as directionals and “tongues” of greens that are tempting but elusive targets. Making the right choices about targets and corresponding ball flights will be crucial here.
From tee to green, the Blue’s main lines of defense are redeployed bunkers and reconfigured shot angles. No. 4 is a good example. Previously measured at 480 yards, this par 4 used to feature a sharply angled dogleg left at 250 yards, with bunkers guarding the turn. The designers flattened the angle of the dogleg and brought the bunkers back into play by moving the tee to the right and 21 yards back.
Water is a factor, especially in the closing holes, and should provide risk-reward drama as the matches reach their denouements. At the 369-yard 14th, water extends down the entire left side toward a wide, shallow, steeply contoured green.
A pond divides holes 15 and 16, two long par 4s. At the left-to-right, 448-yard 15th, a shorter shot takes the water out of play on the drive, but leaves a longer approach over water to a small target. At the 456-yard 16th, Jones moved the tee to create a lateral hazard rather than just a forced carry.
The 466-yard 18th often plays into the wind, and a pond to the left is in play. Jones also built a new greenside bunker to guard the front left of the green. This is the kind of hole on which par is usually the winning score.
If you want to arrange a visit to Montreal, your instinct is to be rewarded. The golf at Royal Montreal is great, and its host city, a romantic and cosmopolitan metropolis, is just as grand.