Course Review: Redtail GC (Union, Ont.)
Architect: Donald Steel (1991)
Hard to imagine that Redtail GC is now more than 20 years old. When it first opened it was one of a kind in Canada — a private haunt of a few dozen members, notorious for having very limited play and incredible conditioning. That really hasn’t changed, it is just there are a few more courses out there like it (Sagebrush was patterned after it, Goodwood aspires to be a Toronto version of it, Memphremagog is even more exclusive) and Redtail has matured. In fact, maybe matured too much — yesterday I saw the result — plenty of tree removal, especially around 4 and 5.
I first went to play Redtail in 2001 for a feature in the National Post on the most exclusive course in Canada. The kind of place where the Queen stayed and Sean Connery flew in to play. I met with co-owner Chris Goodwin and chatted about golf design; he kindly gave me my cherished copy of Tom Doak’s the Confidential Guide to Golf Courses.
Fast forward a decade and perhaps a dozen visits later and I’ve come away with a far greater appreciation of Redtail, while also recognizing its shortcomings. I still find it one of the more delightful places to play golf in Canada, and still contend that those who think it is all about the experience and not the golf are overlooking the fact that Redtail was minimalist golf before minimalist golf was cool and before anyone knew who Doak or Bill Coore were. It stands up to the test of time for those seeking a terrific golf course, though one that is understated and subtle. There’s no glitzy bunkers or flashy eye candy at Redtail — which is why it is likely such a divisive experience for those lucky enough to play it.
- The front nine is really quite exceptional, built on a terrific property with ravines, small streams and land that dips and rises. It makes for a great routing, walkable with interesting variations throughout, it is an ideal parkland setting and reminds me of playing in England. The second hole, which legend has it had no land moved when being built, is also intriguing.
- There are some great golf holes at Redtail, especially on the front nine. I’m partial to the par fours — No. 3 and 8 — both of which use the ravines to interesting effect, and the par threes — No. 7 and 9 — which are juxtaposed in length but both intriguing in their own way.
- The 18th is a great closer, even with the trees in the fairway (which I dislike). But the proximity to the clubhouse is excellent and the hole, with its fallaway area on the left of the landing zone off the tee, is clever and simple.
- Trees — or lack thereof. Last year Redtail struggled with its legendary conditioning. This year a lot of trees are gone — specifically around No. 3 and No. 4. It has made a great deal of difference in air flow while not impacting the golf at all.
- The great land at Redtail ends after No. 10, when the property becomes more subtle and with less elevation change. The holes are still solid, but never quite match the excitement of the best on the front.
- I’m always uncertain at Redtail of whether the greens are its strengths or pushing the limits of what is acceptable. At their pace this week, I think they were fine — kind of like Old Fashioned Thompson greens where you certainly didn’t want to be above the hole. But the breaks aren’t one-directional — in other words, the humps and bumps make them trickier than what you’d experience on one of Canada’s classic, which still maintaining a similar speed. You have to know where to miss at Redtail, though I doubt many people play the course enough to figure that out.
I think many head to Redtail expecting a course full of eye candy that matches their anticipation of what an exclusive private course should look like. In many ways that’s what the even more exclusive Goodwood, near Uxbridge, pulls off. Instead Redtail is nuanced and doesn’t immediately reveal itself. It doesn’t have many bunkers, and it uses the land well. Its greens border on severe.
With all that in mind, I find it a delight to play, especially in a year when the fescue is not overly thick. Thought hardly benign, in that state it is playable with recoveries possible. As one of my playing partners pointed out, the fairways might be slight, but the playing corridors are actually relatively wide. That means it feels tighter than it actually is.
More than two decades on Redtail remains one of the most exclusive courses in Canada. But it was minimalist before that became a fad, and like the great English heathland courses, it continues to improve with age.