Course Review: Devil’s Paintbrush (Michael Hurdzan/Dana Fry)
Rarely do courses seem to get a stronger response over time. Mostly, when it comes to ranking panels and the like, a course debuts strongly, wows the voters, and then slips down the list over time. In Ontario terms this is exactly what has happened to Magna, Rocky Crest, Angus Glen and numerous others.
But not Devil’s Paintbrush. Though honored with Golf Digest’s Best New Course award when it opened in 1992, the Paintbrush always seemed overlooked when compared to its more elaborate cousin, Devil’s Pulpit.
The Pulpit seemed to be a testament to modern golf. Tons of earth was moved to create several of the holes, and though it has matured nicely, its shaping, unusually styled greens and fairway contours all point to a course built at a time when golf was embracing the style of Tom Fazio and Jack Nicklaus was pumping out courses to support housing developments.
And yes the Pulpit is an engineering marvel. But in the 15 years since it first opened, the Paintbrush has eclipsed the Pulpit in the minds of most. So why did this slightly obtuse, quirky and often strange heathlands design, with its railway ties, double greens and putting surfaces with extreme contours overcome it sister course? Largely because the Hurdzan/Fry created a course that can be played in myriad of ways and whose odd features add an element of randomness typically missing in modern golf design.
That players have embraced this is a testament to the fact golfers don’t need to be spoon fed the same type of “fair” course over and over. Because fair isn’t one of those things you always get at the Paintbrush. Balls can bounce off hillocks and into crazy swales in greens, or run through fairways and into trees, or come to rest against a stone fence. Any of these things are possible — and likely one of them will happen.
The best holes at the Paintbrush offer a number of ways to play them, and often the quirky elements make them more intriguing. Take, for example, the second hole, a marginally long three shot hole of just over 500 yards, with a wide fairway and a large bunker protecting the right side. Sounds simple? The issue is the small hill right in front of the green that makes shot selection on the approach critical. Hit it short and you’ll leave it on the hill. Hit it long, on the other hand, and your ball will ride the swail providing no guarantee of a two putt.
The other way the Paintbrush excels is through the use of short grass. While one player in my group a week ago commented on the width of the course, and how it must be expensive to keep up, the truth is it also allows players of a wide variety of abilities to play it. Good examples are the 17 and 18th holes, both strong par fours. Since both share one wide fairway, they allow the weaker player to be certain they are hitting off the fescue short grass. The longer hitter can challenge both holes by taking aggressive lines to the green, and in fact can put it within 100 yards of the the downhill 17th.
But the great equalizers in both instances are the greens. The 17th, with its swale that runs into a back tier, is so expansive that a wide variety of approach shots are needed depending on pin placement. The 18th, on the other hand, is more exacting, while still offering options. By challenging the right side with an aggressive drive, golfers can get to a wedge away from the green. Those who play it safer can hug the wall of the right side of the fairway, leaving a longer and more difficult approach. The approach itself then forces players to avoid a deep and penal bunker, while also needing to find the correct side of the fault line that divides the green.
Some of the course isn’t that strategic, but most of the quirks do force players to consider their options. On the 8th hole, a long par five, the remnants of a farm house splits the fairway, and the shell bunker on the right side forces golfers to be more exacting on the second shot. Do you lay back and avoid the trouble, or challenge it for a stronger position?
That doesn’t mean everything works. The short 15th, is simply an awkward hole, and the holding pond in front puts it out of character with the remaining course. Similarly, the opening hole, a short downhill par-4 has limited options and the significant forced carry on the approach is unlike most other holes on the course. And I’m still divided on the tree in the middle of the 11th hole. That it is still there after more than a decade is remarkable in itself (one would have assumed it would have been the victim of lightening), but I’m not sure it adds anything to the hole other than a talking point.
The truth of the matter is the Paintbrush is fascinating, a course one never tires of playing. Its a delight every time one tests it, as long as you can get your head around the arbitrary nature of some of the features. But golf was never meant to be fair — just fun, and that’s exactly what the Paintbrush accomplishes.