Lionhead rebounds? more great Canadian golf holes

[photopress:lionhead_legends.jpg,full,alignright]Lionhead and great golf. Now there’s a name and a phrase rarely seen together these days. But once, not that long ago, Lionhead was regarded as one of the best golf courses in Canada. Now 15 years old, until recently Lionhead was rarely discussed in series golf circles, eclipsed by the likes of Angus Glen, then Copper Creek and finally Eagles Nest. God, I’ve heard more talk of Wooden Sticks in recent years than I have of Lionhead.

In a final indignity, it dropped precipitously down the Score ranking list, landing at 78 in 2004.

All of that said, Lionhead was the first of Toronto’s high-end public courses, the type that pretend they are a private club for a day, often quite successfully. It was part of the model that was used to make Angus Glen so successful. But somewhere along the way the facility seemed to have stumbled.

Part of it is clearly a taste issue. When Lionhead was conceived for owner Iggy Kaneff, it was designed by Ted Baker as a extremely tough test of golf, maybe the hardest this side of the National. But within a few years that kind of golf was out of fashion, replaced by a more user-friendly concept as designed by Tom McBroom and Doug Carrick. Both McBroom and Carrick liked golf with options — and there are few at Lionhead aside from hitting high iron approaches to hold the small greens.

In truth, Lionhead fell out of vogue almost six years ago. I recall being asked by management in 2001 to come and play the Kaneff courses given my capacity as a writer and provide honest feedback. I actually very much dislike Royal Ontario and Royal Niagara, which largely left the two Lionhead courses. In fact, if I had to pick one of the two tracks as superior, I’d side with the Masters. The Legends is just tricked-up target golf, of which I am not fond.

Anyway, after playing the course, I wrote three pages of comments, some of which suggested some of Baker’s design should be altered to make it more user friendly. I guess it wasn’t what they wanted to hear — as I never heard back from anyone at the facility.

Fast forward to 2006 and Lionhead seems to be doing the right things to garner the support of GTA golfers. On one posting board, a golfer referred to the facility as in “great shape,” noting all the work going on to spruce up the two courses and clubhouse. Apparently it is all part of Kaneff’s $1-million upgrade. To top it off, the club tomorrow will host some sort of media charity tournament to try to show off Lionhead. They’ve even hired someone to manage their media relations. It is a stunning about face.

All of which won’t improve the main problem — the golf course that makes up the Legends. It is still out of step with the times, but as we’ve seen with the introduction of Mystic Golf Club in Ancaster, someone thinks there is a market for “players” golf courses. Interestingly, in a conversation I had with Ted Baker earlier in the year, he said the only reason the Legends hadn’t hosted a Canadian Open was because of institutional prejudice against Kaneff, a Bulgarian by birth. I actually don’t think that has anything to do with why Lionhead isn’t more highly regarded, but I took note of the remark nonetheless.

Anyway, I’m part of this media boondoggle tomorrow, so we’ll see where Lionhead rests when I’m through. I haven’t played it in five years, so perhaps it’ll be refreshing. We’ll see….

More Best Canadian Golf Holes: Ian Chan, the new pro at Paris Grand GC, gives me the gears about not including an Eagles Nest hole in my top public golf holes (I have — #11!), but make a fine suggestion for #3 at Westwood Plateau, a great par three. He also suggests #9 at Big Sky, but loses points for suggesting a hole at Furry Creek, the world’s worst golf course ™.
Reader Jeff Nelson puts forward the sixth at Bigwin Island, the hole with the big drop. I actually don’t think it is a great golf hole — spectacular, yes. Great? Well, you could hit a putter down the hill and still have a wedge in. Keep’em coming.

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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.

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