I considered calling this post “A golfing Chanukkah.” Yesterday I was at Oakdale, the oldest Jewish club in town, researching an article. The club has little in the way of an historical archive, with the exception of a letter from architect Stanley Thompson praising the course. There is, however, an article from the Toronto Star in 1926 with the headline: “Hebrews buy farm; build golf course.” Stunningly politically incorrect, but I must admit I found its incorrectness funny, especially since the article sits in the clubhouse.
Anyway, since there was so little to research, the GM of the club asked if I’d like to go and play, and seeing that it is unseasonably warm, I took him up on it. I do believe it is the latest in the year that I’ve played in Canada. It is surely the last club to remain open in the Toronto area, even in a year when we’ve had little to no snow.
Yes, Oakdale is a Jewish club, but the modern world of private golf is catching up with it. In time it will change, I’m sure. Its membership isn’t entirely Jewish, and during a chat with the GM he mentioned there are no restrictions on who could join the club. I didn’t suspect there would be — as that would really be going against the notion of why the course was set up in the first place (to give golfers of a certain ethnicity who were turned away from blueblood courses in the 1920s a place to play).
Thompson starting building the course in 1926, and it opened in 1929. History, as one might suspect, is thin, but we know that nine holes opened first and nine later. Robbie Robinson did the final nine holes five years after Thompson’s death (called #3).
The first time I played Oakdale — about five years ago — was for part of a golf series I was writing for the National Post. I remember thinking there were several interesting holes, like the truly terrific downhill par three fifth (one of Thompson’s great long par threes), and the 10th, a lay-of-the-land long four that is truly exceptional. But I didn’t recall some key elements and the course always, to my mind, was a tier three Thompson track, behind the likes of Cataraqui, St. Thomas and the like.
The second time around (the #1 and #2 courses are by Thompson), I realize my take on the course was wrong. It truly has many of the fascinating elements that are incorporated into the best Thompson courses — the wild rolling, tumbling fairways, some intriguing green sites, and though the current bunkers have little to do with Thompson’s style, their placement fits his philosophy.
Thompson says he was floored when he saw the land at Oakdale, and rightfully so. Rolling parkland, Black Creek meanders through and the land pitches up and down, creating numerous elevation changes. While never too extreme, the valleys and Thompson’s use of them in the design allow for a wide variation in shots and shot values.
One thing is clear — the order of the holes has certainly been altered at some point. I have yet to see a Thompson course that ended on a par three (though I’m prepared to stand corrected), but that would make the 425-yard monster that is the 10th, with a difficult uphill second shot, the opening hole, followed by three shot hole. At the very least this would make more sense than having the opening stretch consist of a short four, a long three, followed by a short four, as the course currently opens.
The one shot holes at Oakdale are certainly exceptional. Thompson seemed to enjoy long threes here — as he did at many of his courses — but two of them (the previously mentioned fifth, and current 18th) are both great, tough with smart, natural greensites. I also think the 12th, even with the apartment buildings in the background, is a terrific short three with some dramatic bunker placement putting the premium on challenging some pin placements, while always having the option of playing safe.
Certainly there are elements that keep the course from being considered among Thompson’s elite work. The current front nine is dominated by short, downhill fours, though the slightly uphill 330 yard sixth is excellent. The front nine really has no yardage to speak of — making it, at just over 3,000 yards, very short by today’s standards.
The back nine makes up for that by having some long holes (the 560 yard 15th and the 430 yard 16th stand out as terrific tough lengthy holes), and also offers greater variation than the front. It sort of limps to a conclusion, as the 17th is short and plain, and though the 18th at 190 yards with a stream running alongside the green site is a fine hole, it is anticlimatic considering what comes earlier in the round.
So why is there so little discussion about Oakdale? Why doesn’t it hold its rightful place among Thompson’s best? I think the Jewish nature of the club is a factor, though not in the way you might immediately think. The course has 1600 members, but only about a quarter play regularly. That said, a mystique has grown up around Oakdale — the fact that at $125,000 it is the most expensive club in Canada to join, for example. The fact that, as a full club that is 95% Jewish, Oakdale has done little to nothing to promote itself (writer’s note: The club does, however, have a policy whereby members must make a charitable donation each year that matches their annual dues and the club is very involved with the local community).
That’s changing though. The GM, Herb Pirk, acknowledges there are changes coming for clubs like Oakdale. Anyone can become a member, and at some point gentiles will clue in that the $125,000 entrance fee includes the member, his or her spouse, their kids, their spouses. When you think about it that way, it isn’t the same as the $100K plus for Magna.
At some point, given the current market, Oakdale will have to finally step out of the shadows and others will see the golf course for what it really is — a top grade Thompson course with some fascinating holes, and a club with an intriguing and important place in Canada’s history.