The fairest of fairways: luxury golf

How to get on to the world's most exclusive courses — and a salute to those who make golf cool.

Golf is widely misunderstood to be elitist. Not true. The vast majority of golfers play on public access courses, lining up for precious weekend tee times. And the game humbles duffers regardless of their station: It took Bill Gates, world's richest man and all that, several tries to gain membership at the hallowed Augusta National Golf Club–site of the Masters each spring. The story goes that he only succeeded after proving he could play well enough to not hold up the other members.

That said, golf still offers that intriguing outpost–the private course–and it's the almost complete inaccessibility of such courses that stokes curiosity, not to mention the urge to jump the fence and play. After all, without connections, you're better off buying lottery tickets than vying for a tee time at Augusta, Cypress Point or Pine Valley.

Then there are the really private clubs, such as little-known Domaine Laforest, in the Charlevoix region northeast of Quebec City. Renowned course architect Thomas McBroom has played there, only because he designed it. Sitting at the boardroom table in his downtown Toronto office, he's a bit wistful as he flips through an album of photographs, each one a stunning portrait of a hole at a layout few will ever actually get to appreciate.

Completed in 2002, Domaine's 18 holes are meticulously groomed and routed to take advantage of the thickly forested property's dramatic elevation changes and mountain views. It's an exotic, divotless, open-fairwayed Shangri-La, where no one has to book a time. “I'm very proud of that course,” says McBroom, whose designs have won awards both in Canada and the U.S. “It's some of my best work, and it was a wonderful commission. The only downside? Hardly anyone will play it.”

He's not exaggerating. Domaine Laforest was conceived and paid for by a single client, Paul Desmarais Sr. of Power Corp., and it was built on the lavish 202-square-kilometre estate that suffices as the Power king's cottage. Desmarais, 79, his wife, Jacqueline, and their sons Paul Jr. and André all like to play, and they've attracted many notable guests, from PGA Tour pros to heads of state. Even with good weather and the odd charitable event thrown in, it has been estimated Domaine Laforest hosts fewer than 500 rounds a season. That works out to about $2,000 a round, based on the annual average cost–$1 million–to maintain a top-notch course (not including the millions to construct the course and chalet-style clubhouse).

Maybe that's the price of doing business, or at least impressing your best friends and clients. But Desmarais can afford it: on Canadian Business's current list of the richest Canadians, the Power Corp. supremo ranked sixth, with a personal fortune estimated at $4.25 billion.

Redtail Golf Course, in southwestern Ontario, was built by London Ont. businessmen Chris Goodwin and John Drake in rolling horse country above Lake Erie. Playing privileges only extend to a very limited group of friends–Sean Connery allegedly among them.

Redtail has been around since 1990, and was designed by renowned British course designer Donald Steel. Steel gave Redtail a heathlands feel, letting holes heave and roll naturally. The knee-deep fescue that borders the tight fairways is penal, so an invitation is an implicit compliment on your game, because no member would bring a guest knowing they'd spend all day searching for errant balls.

Speaking of Steel, he's partly responsible for another elite golf thrill, the Carnegie Club, in the egalitarian home of the game–Scotland. In the late-1800s, the noted Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie refurbished 800-year-old Skibo Castle, near Dornoch north of Inverness. It's been converted into an 3,350-hectare private club–so private Madonna could get married there without the intrusion of paparazzi. It exudes both history and luxury: rooms are furnished with mahogany four-posters and crystal decanters of single-malt scotch.

For celeb members, the golf attraction is Steel's redesign of the estate's links course on the shores of Dornoch Firth. One fall morning many years ago, a surprising number of caddies had assembled near the clubhouse–too many to justify the short list of names on the tee sheet. A visitor asked two young loopers whose bag they were hoping to carry. “Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing today,” one said enthusiastically. “And she's a fine player,” the other added, just as enthusiastically. The Scots do know their game.