Review: Muskoka Bay Golf Club (Designer: Doug Carrick)
Muskoka Bay is one of the more hotly tipped courses to open in Ontario in some time. The advance word was the course would be spectacular in appearance and be terrific to play as well. Until now, one of the knocks against Muskoka golf was that it looked tremendous, but was a bit of a let down to play. That changed with the opening in 2005 of Oviinbyrd, the Tom McBroom private enclave that is great fun to play and to look at. In most respects, Doug Carrick has delivered a course that offers both playability and aesthetics, though one has to wonder what he could have achieved had he been willing to risk more on the design.
The course opens with a brilliant downhill tee shot, with the back [photopress:mb4.jpg,full,alignright]tees, measuring 440 yards, tucked on a cliff near the driving range. The first hole gives players a pretty good sense of what’s upcoming — plenty of downhill tee shots, bunkering that is a bit ill-defined, and some great green sites.
The standouts at Muskoka Bay are pretty clear. After a dull second hole, the third, with its rambling fairway and uphill approach, is both precise and invigorating. The hole’s green site shows clearly Carrick (and associate designer Ian Andrew, whose work on this project was his last for the firm) had a pretty strong sense of how they wanted to use the Muskoka rock to frame holes and shots, something that is abundantly clear on the approach to the ninth.
[photopress:MB8.jpg,full,alignleft]The eighth, a short par five, shows Carrick and Andrew’s interest in spicing up the greens from the firm’s past work, and the ninth, with its green partially hidden between to large rocky outcroppings, is sure to stir strong feelings among players. The hole is brilliant in its deception — the forward facing rocks make the green appear long and narrow when in fact the hidden putting surface located behind is wide and receptive.
The strong holes continue with the 10th, with its rambling fairway [photopress:mb9.2.jpg,full,alignright]and dogleg right tee shot reminiscent of the second at Highlands Links, and the 11th, a short par three with a steep-sided green that makes recovery from the left very difficult. The finishing kick, with its added yardage (452, 457 and 460 respectively for three of the final four holes), and a long three over water that has distinct similarities to the signature hole at the awful Seguin Valley.
[photopress:mb11.jpg,full,alignleft]It is my perception the routing is good, but utilizes a lot of Muskoka cliches and eliminates walking in return for continuous downhill tee shots. Many may not notice it, but Carrick seems to really, really enjoy majestic downward tee balls at Muskoka Bay. That means there are numerous instances throughout Muskoka Bay where you tee off downhill, hit to an uphill or level grade green, and then move to the next tee, just to hit the ball downhill again (#1, #3, #4, #7, #8, #9, for example). Only a couple of instances (14, 18) does Carrick venture to have the golfer play even remotely uphill.
Still, it is a minor nitpick. In many ways, Muskoka Bay would appear to be have many of the facets of minimalism, the design notion that suggests doing less with the land is better. Several holes have one or no bunkers, and the bunkers that do show up on the course are a clearly defined part of the strategy. On courses like Magna GC, Carrick used bunkers as eye candy; here they are a central and important feature of the course. As well, the rocky bottom of Muskoka Bay means fairways rumble and fall, appearing more like those of a 50-year-old Stanley Thompson course than that of a modern track.
However, the design of the bunkers seems incomplete, like Carrick[photopress:mb12.jpg,full,alignright] was not sure what style he wanted to use to tie in the course. Instead of embracing a classic look or continuing with his flashed style that he has used at places like Bigwin, the firm opted for a rough looking style that is largely unflashed, flat and somewhat uninspired. Certainly a course with as many facets to draw in the eye would have been better off with a bunker style more reflective of the entire project.
Muskoka Bay is certainly more intriguing than previous Muskoka outings like Rocky Crest, Lake Joseph Club, Taboo or the Rock. However, in limiting his risks, Carrick comes up short of delivering the fun, playability and walkability of a club like Oviinbyrd. In many respects at Muskoka Bay, Carrick seems to be unwilling to take the chances that would see him either hit it out of the park, as he did at Eagles Nest, or fall flat on his face. That means Muskoka Bay is a success, but complete brilliance might have only been a couple of risks away.