Turmoil at Ancaster's Mystic Golf Club (updated)

Beleaguered Mystic Golf Club, which has struggled with conditioning issues and its ability to attract golfers to its fairways near Ancaster, will see its superintendent, Brian Taylor – the second this year – leave the club next week, sources close to the course say. Seasonal staff have also been told they will no longer be needed, though they could remain for longer if the unseasonably warm weather continues, according to sources close to the club.
The issues are the latest in a long series of problems the course has had since opening in 2005. The course conditions were suspect out of the gate, and though the club advertised extensively, it failed to attract the imagination of the golfing public. Mystic bought thousands of dollars of ads in major golf media in Ontario, but it never seemed to fill up their parking lot.

Then, suddenly, John Hayward, the club’s head professional, was let go mid-summer by the club as a cost cutting measure. Rumours swirled that the club would be acquired. That didn’t happen, but greens fees were cut significantly. Apparently conditions did improve (I played the course in May, and found patchy fairways, with the second hole being nearly unplayable), but the damage was already done.
So what is next for Mystic? There are lots of possibilities. There’s been speculation that a group from Ancaster could acquire the course and take it private. ClubLink could also been interested (and may still be), especially since nearby Heron Point has become quite a successful venture for the corporation.

Regardless, there are more questions about Mystic than answers. In many respects it isn’t hard to see why. The club’s premise — that players would want to tee it up at an exceptionally difficult course with many forced carries — proved to be wrong. Though there were lots of highlights at the course (#9 and #18 come to mind), there were also several strange decisions (like the difficult double carry on #10), and conditioning — a prime deciding factor for most players — was not adequate in the months after opening. Fairways were patchy, and the course looked like it had just opened, even though it had been opened for months (this comes from my visit earlier this year and late last year– by all accounts conditions did marginally improve.)
What can be learned from Mystic’s plight? It appears only Toronto is willing to support a high end public golf course. Corporate dollars for big tournaments were not coming to Ancaster very often, leaving Mystic competing for a rare public green fee. And owner Roland Berger, who knew little about the golf business prior to launching Mystic, proved that one should have some knowledge of the golf industry before building a course — or listen to people who do have expertise. If not, a course isn’t going to see its fairways magically filled up. It would be sad to see Mystic fail — but not at all surprising.

As mentioned in the next blog post, Berger has responded to criticism of his course, while failing to answer questions about his high employee turnover (a general manager, 2 superintendents, an assistant superintendent and the director of golf have all been let go or left this year, while Ryan Wilson, currently head pro, remains).
Berger (whose first language is German) had this to say about Mystic:

Mystic is open and will stay open depending on the weather, in fact we had a very busy day yesterday, lots of walk ons.
Mystic has fund (sic) its audience during this season:
“the avid golfer who is looking for a real challenge”.

Berger’s entire e-mail to can be found here.

He added the issues about the club have been exaggerated by disgruntled former employees, but made no comment to questions about the future of current employees.

“Be ensured, I did not spare any expense to built (sic) Mystic to the highest standards in golf and I will continue to get the finished golf course to the best conditions. Saying this, everyone needed to do what needs to be done to accomplish this goal is today working at Mystic. This includes Superintendent Brian Taylor his Assistent and Head Pro and Director of Golf Operations Ryan Wilson. At least to my knowledge, all of this people are committed (sic) to their work. I rely on them and enjoy working with them.”

As Berger says, apparently Mystic is still open and players can go and see for themselves what the situation is at the course.

Readers who responded to my Score column and on the subject were quite clear about their take on Mystic’s shortcomings.

Reader Murray Child said:

Just played Mystic yesterday with a couple of buddies, one of which is a 3.4 index. We all agreed it is a tricked up golf course that is in poor condition and is strictly set up for long ball hitters. We only paid $85 to play and still felt ripped off. reader Jason R. said this about the course:

It clearly looks like the management of Mystic, which it appears to be Mr. Berger the owner, is way in over his head. It’s not hard to figure out that he is either under financed or just has a very strange way of conducting business.
I played the course this fall and found the lay out superb but everything else a disaster. Too many things that are wrong about Mystic to list here. Potential is tremendous, but it appears it will never get there under the present ownership.

It is my sincere hope Mystic can be turned into a success and the flow of former employees stops. It is never good for the golf business to have a black eye, and with some small tweaks Mystic could be a fine golf course.

My review of Mystic is here, while a story I wrote about the club for Score can be found here.

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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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