Yesterday the Stanley Thompson Society and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame held another in its ongoing series of golf architecture presentations. They started last year and have continued — and usually draw 20 to 30 interested patrons. The most recent panel was on the “restoration” of Toronto Golf Club, and included Michael Kalman, chief operating officer of TDI Golf, which did the work at Toronto GC, architect and historian Jeff Mingay and, for a reason that never made sense to me, John Smith, club historian at Cataraqui Golf in Kingston. Don’t get me wrong, John knows his club well, but brought little of value to a club he obviously isn’t very familiar with.
In fact, that’s a good place to start — the Stanley Thompson Touring Society’s role in a panel like this was awkward. The organization’s executive director, Bill Newton, was there and tried to lead discussion, but it mainly came back to Stanley Thompson courses, while Toronto GC is a Harry Colt design. Sure there’s a Thompson connection, as the Thompson boys grew up around Toronto GC, and Stanley’s one-time partner, George Cumming was the pro. But it isn’t a link that has anything to do with the current restoration work.
Here’s the gist of the debate — Toronto GC is one of the most important golf designs in Canada. It was, along with clubs like Tillinghast’s Scarboro, and Colt’s Hamilton, one of the first truly great courses in the country. It is relatively simple with a smart, regal routing that gets ev
erything out of a terrific piece of land. It is also a relatively simple design, and that subtle nature may confound some. Not me. I thought it was golf at its best. However, over several years the club made the decision to go forward with an aggressive plan to update and alter the course, and hired Martin Hawtree, noted for his expertise in Colt, to lead the process.
With that Toronto GC closed last July and work started. Two greens (11 and 15) were moved and replicated, new tees were installed, areas regraded (the fairway on 11, the “terrace” on 7) and bunkers were built in a style that was much busier than the initial simple traps that existed. These alterations were driven by Hawtree, who cited safety issues and a desire to use a later Colt style that didn’t match the one used when the course was built, as reason for the changes. It is a fundamentally different look, though the routing stayed the same with a couple of changes to tees (most notably on 6 and 7).
One thing everyone wanted to make clear right from the start is that even if Hawtree calls the work a “restoration” on his website, and even if it is listed in the “restoration” section on the TDI blog, this isn’t a restoration. It is a renovation, and I’d call it a classical/modern renovation which sees the course lengthened by 400 yards, with several changes made to help older members play the course. I found that juxtaposition interesting — on one hand many holes will be more difficult, while on the other hand slopes were softened to make them more accessible and walkable by older members.
“We want to be clear — we were not doing a full restoration — we were doing a full renovation of the course,” says Toronto GC member Jim Fraser, pointing out the job is incorrectly noted on Hawtree’s website. Fraser added the cost of the renovation was $5.6-million, with $2-million specifically aimed at replacing the irrigation system.
Among the odd changes discussed was the lengthening of the 7th hole, formerly a mid-length par-3, and now turned into a 221-yard beast over the “terraced” hillside with a change in the tee angle. Strikes me as an unnecessary change — or one aimed at just picking up yardage, though the angle might make the hole more intriguing. Now Toronto has three long par-3s (and I consider the Redan 4th long at 190-yards given the slope in the green) and one short one (the 14th).
That said I’ll reserve judgement on the changes until I see them first hand. Hawtree’s work at Tarandowah is excellent, in my mind, so there’s no reason to believe his changes at Toronto will be less than a success. It is the need for those changes in the first place that I wonder about.
Additionally, I’ll say Toronto did one thing clearly beyond what I hear about from most courses undergoing a renovation/restoration and that is the club sent its superintendent (Al Schwemler), its assistant superintendent (Bill Green), a shaper and other key members of the project, to the UK to look at examples of other Colt courses. That’s smart and a model other clubs could follow.