GRAVENHURST, Ontario, Canada -- Lots of hazards scare golfers.
Water, bunkers, wild greens, narrow fairways, large trees and tall rough can cause havoc. When you combine all that, plus add exposed rock and dramatic elevation changes to the mix, well, the game gets crazy tough.
The Canadian Shield just might be North America's greatest defense against par. Muskoka -- a tourist region of lakes, cottages, resorts and courses two hours north of Toronto -- makes a strong case as North America's toughest golf destination. Four area courses (plus three others in Ontario) earned the dubious distinction to be ranked among Golf Advisor's 50 toughest courses as determined by online reviews from average golfers. No other state or destination had more than two.
I'm not surprised by the results. I lost a dozen or more balls playing every Muskoka golf course that made the top 50 during my only visit in 2012. I fell in love with the area's beautiful lakes and forests, but watching my ball ping pong off the rocks before flying out of bounds was a bit frustrating.
Many of the best courses play like target golf to the extreme. Golf architects couldn't really tame the land by blasting too much rock or filling in wetlands. They merely worked to find as playable a routing as possible through the natural terrain. Some were more successful than others. Here's a look at the area courses singled out in the Golf Advisor top 50:
36. Oak Bay Golf & Country Club
Location: Port Severn, Ontario, Canada
Yardage: 6,503 | Slope/Rating: 146/71.4
Architect: Shawn P. Watters
Comment: Oak Bay, expanded from nine holes in 2011, wanders through thick tree cover near the Severn Sound of the Georgian Bay. The 165-yard 15th hole epitomizes the beauty and beastly nature of Muskoka's courses. The elevated green sits on a gigantic granite outcropping above a marshy lake cove. It's a do-or-die shot that many players under club. Me included.
29. Highlands Course at Deerhurst Resort
Location: Huntsville, Ontario, Canada
Yardage: 7,011 | Slope/Rating: 140/75.1
Architects: Thomas McBroom, Bob Cupp
Comment: I'm actually a bit surprised the granddaddy of Muskoka's modern courses made the list. I'd vote for Taboo Muskoka over the more resort-friendly Highlands Course. The Highlands Course, built in 1990, features some fun elevation changes. Most of the exposed rock guards the perimeter of the routing not the actual playing corridors.
23. Muskoka Bay Club
Location: Gravenhurst, Ontario, Canada
Yardage: 7,367 | Slope/Rating: 146/76.1
Architect: Doug Carrick
Comment: Muskoka Bay was my favorite round of the trip. It is kept in country club condition. The routing was fair and interesting. I even found it in my heart to forgive Carrick for the controversial ninth hole, a par 4 that climbs uphill to a green hidden behind a pair of rocky shields that pinch the fairway from either side, allowing only a narrow opening to reach the green. Beginners and women who can't get the ball airborne hate the hole. For better players, however, the challenge to hit the perfect approach induces a burst of adrenaline.
22. The Rock Golf Club
Location: Minett, Ontario, Canada
Yardage: 6,649 | Slope/Rating: 144/72.0
Architect: Nick Faldo
Comment: The Rock gets five stars for scenery and only three stars for its design flaws. There are a few quirky holes plagued by blind shots and small target landing areas. You probably need to play it three or four times before you feel comfortable. I'd like to play it again before I pass full judgment if it should be avoided altogether.