Review: Islington Golf Club (Stanley Thompson); Toronto, Ontario
Some have argued there are three tiers of Stanley Thompson golf courses. The first is obvious — the so-called “Big Five,” — that includes Highlands Links, Jasper, Banff, Capilano and St. George’s. Similarly, the second tier includes courses that are almost great like Cataraqui, St. Thomas, and Kawartha.
I wouldn’t include Islington in the second tier, though it does have elements that thrill. In fact, the course contains some of Thompson’s most interesting work, and with a facelift by Carrick Design associate Cam Tyers (ed note: working closely alongside boss Doug Carrick), Islington is certain to make a greater impression than it has in the past.
Most, especially in Toronto, are likely only aware of the course from its now infamous (and apparently continuing) battle with neighbours situated to the right of the third fairway. The neighbours, who built their house ridiculously close to the course, used to get peppered with golf balls on the short par fours. After a fight that included court action, the club erected a fence that is unsightly, but protects the house. Good thing too — my drive with my trusty TM Rescue got blocked right at the house. Without the fence, I’m pretty sure I might have heard the sound of breaking glass.
Thankfully the course has lots to offer beyond dueling lawyers. It starts out plainly — with two painfully flat openers, followed by the previously mentioned third. I’m pleased the club has stuck to its guns in regards to the third hole as it is one of the standouts on the front nine. Featuring a fairway that has all the classic Thompson elements — random, plunging and arbitrary — and a smart green site, the hole would even be better if one took out driver and tried to hit it just short of the green. I suspect the club isn’t too keen on that now, perhaps fearing another lawsuit in the near future.
From there the remaining holes on the front nine, with one or two exceptions, are smartly routed and fun to play. The fourth, a par three with a well-bunkered green that cants back-to-front, leaves golfers to carefully consider their options. The following hole, a par five, is relatively flat and plain, but the 7th, with its green tucked near the clubhouse and asking players to hit a draw off the tee, is smart. The short 8th looked intriguing, but it was out of play when I toured Islington late in the year, as Tyers was reworking it to add more punch and risk to those trying to hit it big with a driver.
The back nine loses much of the momentum. Starting with a long par three, it then moves to the 11th, a dogleg par five where tree encroachment really limits shot options off the tees. Currently it offers only a couple of shot possibilities — a high fade with a driver or a straight fairway wood or iron. I can’t imagine that was how Thompson envisioned it. I suspect that with many of the trees removed from the right side near the creek, the hole would provide an interesting risk/reward for those tempting to chew off yardage. With a few notable exceptions — like the rolling 13th — the back nine never really recovers.
However, it does offer one of Thompson’s great holes — the 345-yard 16th. Questions abound about this one. Do you hit driver and get near the creek, leaving a short, but blind approach to a green located on the top of a plateau? Do you lay back and hit a longer iron? Can you hold the proper part of the green, given its huge swales? Certainly the 16th is the best green at Islington, and in my mind one of the most intriguing Thompson holes in Toronto.
In the end, Islington is a minor chord in Thompson’s greater design opus. Despite that fact, the highlights — as well as Tyers’ fine renovation work — make it worth seeking out.