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A Return to Oviinbyrd

Muskoka's Best: Why did Oviinbyrd work when other private clubs have failed?

Muskoka's Best: Why did Oviinbyrd work when other private clubs have failed?

Every year since 2005 at about this time I’ve returned for a game at Oviinbyrd, the private club that was established by Peter Schwartz, the former CEO of tech company Descartes Systems. I covered Descartes when I wrote tech for the National Post, and got to know Peter well — as well as his love of golf. He’s a chapter in my last book, Going for the Green.

Yesterday I made my return visit for a 3-hour round at Oviinbyrd. I don’t think it is the best course in Canada — that distinction is held by either Highlands Links or St. George’s — though I do think it is the standout in Muskoka. The holes are playable and intriguing, more so than a tough brute like Muskoka Bay. It also has great character all the way along, though I’m not sure I’m fond of the 8th hole, a marginal par-5 with water down the left.

A friend who joined me for the round asked how the club had done after opening. I told him it was essentially sold out before opening — while the Ridge at Manitou, another strong course in the area, struggled. I’ve long wondered why it was such a success, and I think it comes down to understanding customer demand and what they wanted from what is essentially a cottage course.  I think it also raises questions about the future of private courses and their need to evolve.

For starters, while super private, Oviinbyrd is not a snobby course. Schwartz doesn’t seem to care if you show up in jeans or are wearing sandals when you arrive (not that I would, but I’m saying…). There are no tee times — access to the tee is the foundation of the course, which is why it has a small membership. It has great dining and the restaurant is part of a dining club, unique to the area. The foundation is not overwhelmingly large. Everything is in its own place, so to speak.

I first visited Oviinbyrd in 2004, before it was open. I stayed the night at the club and played with Schwartz the following day. The food was extraordinary, and the golf was exceptional. I reviewed the course in 2005, after it officially opened. In the meantime, it stayed out of the course rankings. It wasn’t that Schwartz didn’t want raters at the course; rather, it was about allowing access to the tee for members. Regardless it made a couple of the ratings, including sitting at #10 in the recent Ontario Golf rating.

I’ve been thinking about what makes a great private course after reading a post on Geoff Shackelford’s blog about Golf Digest editor Jerry Tarde’s “5 sacred rules,” for golf courses.

1. The most important: Never throw a club in anger.
2. Do not change your shoes in the parking lot. (Perfectly OK at a public course, but the locker room at private clubs is preserved as the last bastion of golfing ablutions.)
3. No blue jeans, even the expensive kind.
4. Take off your hat when you go indoors or when sitting down to eat.
5. No cell phones on the course or in the clubhouse. (One club I know is very tough on this: Mobile phones are only permissible sitting in your car in the parking lot with the windows rolled shut. A friend of mine adheres to this rule with his convertible top down.)

Strikes me that this is really “five sacred rules” designed to keep the game from growing, even though I agree with many of them. He’s right — don’t ever throw a club, though I have no idea why one shouldn’t change their shoes in the parking lot and who cares if one wears jeans when entering a clubhouse, though on the course is another matter altogether. I agree one should take their hat off indoors (what’s the line Tony Soprano says — “They took the bleachers out years ago..”) but I could care less if you take a cell phone call as long as you play in under four hours.

Oviinbyrd works because it has the right mix of private golf and a great course while discarding some of the rules that hold the game back. Why has ClubLink been so successful? Certainly part of it is because of the multiple course offerings (though only a handful are really good). But surely some of that success is is because the organization isn’t too uptight. Founder Bruce Simmonds had it right — if you can’t make a cell phone call at a private club, a lot of professionals will find another place to play.

Golf, in many instances, has become bogged down in archaic rules that don’t help it move forward. In order to be successful maybe it needs to allow people to wear jeans in the clubhouse, and take the occasional cell phone call.

I will finish with this — I was at Cutten Club last week and after a 36-hole day of golf we retreated to the clubhouse for some beer and chili. After sitting there for a half hour I looked around — no one aside from our group was under the age of 60. And this was at a club that isn’t exactly a blue blood facility. If golf is going to survive amid economic turmoil, it has to change and in changing it will have to accept that some of its preconceived notions will have to be discarded.

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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.

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Robert I played Oviinbyrd last Friday … and it truly is a great golf course. It certainly doesn’t have the “wow” factor that Muskoka Bay does … and really not that difficult of a golf course, but very fun to play.

    The exclusiveness of playing a club such as this or Redtail definitely adds to the entire experience … both of which I was lucky enough to play this year!

  • I disagree with the concept that cell phones should be allowed on the golf course (or in the clubhouse for that matter). Practically speaking when cell phones are not allowed, they are used anyway but in a way that is respectful of those around them.

    The problem when you allow them to be used is that people abuse the privilege and act in ways that are not respectful of others (talking too loudly, not putting the phone on vibrate, not moving along to play their ball because they are engaged in a conversation etc).

    The optimal result is having people use cell phones on the golf course in a manner that does not take away the golf experience from other golfers. Practically speaking, this means a loose enforcement of a no cell phone policy…

  • I one saw Ernie Els changing into his shoes in the parking lot at a PGA event on TV.

    Well, if it is good enough for Ernie, it is good enough for me….

  • Hey RT…

    Just curious how much did you and your buddy pay to play and did you ever get the bill from Cypress yet?

    Still waiting to hear about that one

  • I did get a bill for Cypress — more than $100 and less than $1,000. Let’s leave it at that and say I found it more than reasonable for the experience.

  • Robert you might take note that many people under the age of 40 work during the week there is a group of about 30 20-30 year olds that play every Friday and there are plenty of younger members. I was a member since Junior golf and just recently returned to find it better than ever. You write one review were you played with Jason Ireton who has been a member since he was well in his junior years.

  • Hole #9 (not 8) has been changed to add some extra teeth. If it seems like a short par 5, then you are probably too close to the ladies tees. A 300 yard drive (with water left and OB right) leaves you with 2oo some odd yards to the green, which is always into the wind, and of course, over the water. Your approach is all carry and long is dead. I think you should go play the golds (at least) or the black tees where 6 and 7 is never out of the equation.
    Oviinbyrd is a course that is fair off the tee from the front tees, but requires precision from the backs. Muskoka bay is a great club, but there are gimmicky holes that you wish you could skip – their signature hole for example. On the other hand, Oviinbyrd’s signature hole (#14) is one that you want to empty all the balls out of your bag and play the hole over and over. There are seven tee decks ranging from 105 yards to 230 yards. Once again it is all carry over water and the scenery is out of a fairy tail.
    Those who play Oviinbyrd are truly privileged and they recognize the beauty and quality of the golf course. If anyone has the opportunity to play they should not pass it up. I have played all the top golf courses in Ontario and I would take a trip to Muskoka to play the byrd over St. Georges, Hamilton, or the National any day of the week, rain or shine.

  • I’ve been lucky enough to have played Oviinbyrd twice as a guest and I will be playing again this August and I can’t wait. My pockets are not deep enough to become a member of a beautiful club like the Byrd but I count myself fortunate to have a friend who is a member and has given me the opportunity to enjoy this beauty. Golf courses are like women, they are all beautiful in the own unique ways but this Byrd has really turned my head.

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