Course Review: Toronto Golf Club
Architect: H.S. Colt
Renovation architect: Martin Hawtree
I’ve always found Toronto Golf Club to be a fascinating place, ever since I first set foot on it nearly 10 years ago. If ever there was a Canadian club that felt like it hadn’t changed in a century, it was Toronto. The clubhouse, with its simple Victorian structure, had never burned to the ground or been bulldozed by some near-sighted committee. It probably doesn’t function worth a damn, but man is it ever magnificent. Similarly the club had been altered (most notably by Howard Watson), but the routing was still Colt’s and the changes (to several greens including the second and the 16th), while not terrific, were not god awful either. Other than that, Toronto was a club that made you think of a simpler era. That didn’t mean it was simple — quite the opposite. The course’s routing is a masterpiece, and the holes themselves held up well despite changes in equipment. Besides, Toronto was never going to hold another Canadian Open, so what did it matter?
It mattered to someone apparently. A few years ago the club sought out architects to determine a long-term vision for the course. They made the then unusual choice of picking Martin Hawtree, largely based upon his reputation as an expert in the work of designer Harry Colt. Hawtree’s firm makes much of its legacy — that his father and his grandfather both worked in the design business, and at one time, many decades previous, had links to Colt himself. Of course Hawtree never met Colt — so the link is tangential. And I think there’s no guarantee that a second or third-generation golf architect will have the talent of his predecessors.
That’s not to say Hawtree doesn’t have talent. I love his work at Tarandowah, the faux links in Southern Ontario. The more I play it the more I think it could be the best value-based course built in Canada in a long, long time. I became worried, however, when Hawtree’s plans for Toronto became known. They included moving two greens, rebuilding and recontouring fairways and restyling all the greens. The theory is one for debate — Hawtree essentially said he would rebuild the course the way Colt would have had the legendary English designer been there a decade later and on property more often (Colt was only at TGC on a handful of occasions.) This sort of historical rationalization sounded like the plot for a disaster.
Thankfully that’s not what it turned out to be.
I went to Toronto a couple of weeks back highly skeptical. I’m not saying I’m 100% convinced — some of the work is busy and the terracing of the hill on the par-3 seventh is awful, and the bunkering on the par-5 16th could have used some restraint — but by and large it is a more aesthetically pleasing experience that didn’t fundamentally alter the elements that made the course so charming in the first place.
You notice the changes right away on the first hole where the fairway has been shifted right and the bunkers rebuilt. The change (like that on 5) were designed to make the course safer, especially for cars entering the parking lot on the right (it is very close for those prone to a short, snappy hook.) The previous bunkers were plain, relatively simple shapes that I thought suited the nature of the course. I doubt they had much to do with Colt’s vision for their appearance and instead were probably dumbed down over a long period of time by several greenskeepers. The new bunkers are much more vibrant, much bolder and make the course more visually appealing. They are occasionally very busy and by that I mean they overwhelm in places where subtlety and restraint might have worked. I’d point to the 16th hole — which now has “echelon” bunkering — or a staggered, progressive pattern — that all but crosses the entire fairway. It looks ugly, and doesn’t really make the hole any stronger. In fact for weaker players it probably just hurts them as they are more likely to hit their tee shot into them (the forward bunkers are in the 200-yard range, while the back left bunker is a carry of 265), while the better player will still blast over them.
However, there is some subtle changes many would not even notice. Take, for instance, the recapturing of greens (holes two and 14 spring to mind), which have allowed for additional pin positions. The two rebuilt greens (the par-4 11th and the 15th) are actually well done, thought it appears significant changes were made to the 11th, and the shaping around the green is perhaps too bold for such a challenging hole. The alterations to the 12th hole, a par-4 that plunges downhill, is one of the best changes made by Hawtree. Recognizing the area to the left of the existing fairway was once cut short, he returned the fairway to the lowlands, splitting the above and below short grass with a single bunker. It is a smart decision. Similarly the chipping areas around the greens are generally a nice addition, bringing in options for all levels of golfers.
Hawtree was less successful when it came to recontouring existing land. The reworked 11th fairway is just okay — and looks shaped — and the hillside on the par-3 7th is the most egregious alteration. The hole was previously a difficult par-3 which dropped steeply down a hillside to the right. In other words, miss the hole to the right and you might well lose your golf ball. Hawtree added a new tee to the right of the existing one (a nice addition), but the decision was made to make the hill slope easier, especially for older members. To do so he recontoured the hill, or “terraced” it as the club says. It might look like something found on a links course, but it is terrifically out of character with Toronto Golf Club, a course built on land that is softer throughout.
Despite that, Hawtree could have ruined Toronto Golf Club. He didn’t. His bunkering is tasteful, if sometimes overdone, and the significant changes he made are largely well done. Is it a better golf course for his work? The club members seem to think so, and by and large, I’m prone to agree with them. A resounding success? Maybe that’s not for me to decide.