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Course Review: Riverbend, Bayview and Sunningdale Demonstrate that "Members’ Club" Isn’t a Putdown

Sunningdale Golf Club

Course Review:

Sunningdale G&CC (London, Ont.): Designer — Stanley Thompson

Bayview G&CC (Toronto): Designer — Robbie Robinson

Riverbend GC (London, Ont.): Designer — Doug Carrick

“Well, it is a fine members’ course.”

It is a comment I’ve made several times when playing a mediocre private club. Not wishing to insult my host, I’ve told them their course, with which they are obviously enamoured, is a nice course for members. In many ways it is the same as saying a course is “the best of its kind.” A nice “members’ course” conjures up Caddy Shack, a bunch of blue bloods and old folks prancing around an overly average and overly expensive private club. In this equation, the golf course is not even really a factor — it is all about the club.

Thankfully there are some private golf clubs in Ontario that are designed for continued enjoyment of members, and still hold their own as golf courses worthy of discussion.

There was a time when some thought Sunningdale G&CC would simply disappear. Built by Stanley Thompson for the Thompson family (no relation), the course stumbled through the 1990s in London, Ont., an area ripe with private and public golf. A fine Thompson layout that doesn’t quite measure up to the architect’s best work — places like St. Thomas and Cataraqui, for example — Sunningdale was at a crossroads. Instead of building homes on it, the club hired Doug Carrick (though the work was done by associate Cam Tyers) to undertake an extensive restoration of both the Thompson course, and a secondary course built by Robbie Robinson.

Despite starting out in a relative pedestrian fashion with two flat opening par fours, Sunningdale is largely a delight. From the third, a drop shot par three, through to the ninth, a difficult 200-yard par three (some trees could have been removed along the right side here to allow a draw), Sunningdale is intriguing. It also has some extremely difficult and clever greens. Witness the 14th, a relatively short four with a tee shot that belies its difficult, meandering green. There are some quirky bits to Sunningdale — the ultra-small 17th green, for instance — but largely the course is an easy walk, not overly difficult and great fun.

Members club is indeed what comes to mind at Bayview G&CC, which is the ultimate country club model, one that embraces families and curlers alike. The course, designed by Thompson associate Robbie Robinson, is a perfect example of architecture in the “lost era” of golf design, a period that yielded almost no courses worth noting. Robinson, a frugal man with both his money and that of his clients, didn’t have the style or panache of his former employer. Instead he crafted tight fairways on typically tree-lined land, with massive greens that were in vogue at the time.

Much of this holds true for Bayview, though the course has enough interesting exceptions and land to make it fun to play. It starts off meekly, with two opening par fives on land that is essentially flat, with some interior rolls.

The back nine is where Bayview gets intriguing, right from the 10th, a sharply downhill par four with a green perched in the side of a hill, through to the 17th, a nasty downhill one shot hole and the close, a par four with a steeply sloped green. Sure there are some plain bits to Bayview, but in design terms there is nothing that one would conclude is bad. Sure the greens are occasionally a little large, but that was the scale with which Robinson worked. Course super Tom Charters, along with Carrick Design, did a nice job of shrinking some of the greens to make them more managable and playable. All in all, a course that doesn’t have a lot of the eye candy that leads to the wow factor, but one can enjoy time and again. Along with Woodstock’s Craigowan, another Robinson course, Bayview is one of the better courses built in a barren era.

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Maybe Carrick took his love of big and bold from Robinson. After all, the pair worked together in Carrick’s nascent days in the business. Regardless, RiverBend in London, Ont. is a course built among houses that remains more interesting and fun to play than it should given its circumstances.

All in all, Carrick, and and associate Cam Tyers who led the project, designed a course that has largely flown under the radar. Sure there are some elements that we’ve seen before — like the par three 8th, with water surrounding the green on three sides, or the par five 13th, with water running the length of the fairway — but these elements are obscured by the large rolling land and several great two shot holes.

Despite some houses that have crept in on the edges, RiverBend’s back nine is a delight of tumbling land and large greens. It features Carrick’s most typical bunkering style (flashed sand bunkers, used judiciously) and like most of his courses, the strategy is in the angles. Some criticize the course for being too wide, but the width allows options and works well at RiverBend, especially given its clientele — an adult-oriented gated community.

Needless to say, “members’ club” doesn’t have to be a putdown. Though in most instances it is largely a negative, the examples of Sunningdale, Bayview and RiverBend clearly demonstrate the game does not have to be a good walk spoiled.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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