Course Review: Humber Valley Resort, River Course (Deer Lake, Newfoundland)
Designer: Doug Carrick (2006)
Located in a province few are likely to seek out for golf, Humber Valley’s River Course stands alone as the sole beacon in an area with literally no other even marginal golf courses.
Thank God Doug Carrick’s work at Humber Valley is exceptional — otherwise no one would ever talk about this place. Part of a resort complex built for wealthy Europeans as a four season facility, Humber Valley’s golf course is among the best to open in Canada in a long time. It is better than Fazio’s Coppinwood near Toronto, and better maybe than even Carrick’s Eagles Nest in Maple. It is surely better than any of Carrick or Thomas McBroom’s Muskoka work.
Why? Well part of it is an untouched setting that is unlike anything I’ve seen in this country in a long time. Set on a set of steep hills with a surrounding low mountain range, Humber Valley would appear to be a tough site. Most mountain sites are not conducive to golf, with slopes that are too severe and require blasting or significant earth moving. Carrick may have moved a lot of land here — and there are indications he did make cuts, like the clear grade change on the 16th — but largely this is the most natural of Carrick’s courses I’ve seen to date.
It all goes downhill from the start — literally. The opener is a par five, and if there’s a weakness on the course, it is the three shot holes. With the exception of the seventh, a tough uphill par five that could be mistaken for the reverse of Highlands Links’ 16th, all are relatively simple holes that play downhill enough to be approached often by a mid-iron. But after the relatively easy opener — which is not a bad thing in itself — Carrick takes the golfer through a series of holes that require thought as opposed to brawn.
In fact, driver is not the preferred club in many instances off the tee and the elevation shifts, like the one on mid-length par three second, often leave the golfer deceived when it comes to club selection. It is certainly a course that reveals itself the more one plays.
The course has expansive views and the architecture attempts to match the scale. That means prominent bunkers and fairways that offer width without becoming overkill. Greens are relatively subtle, as is the case with most of Carrick’s designs these days, but several offer something unusual for the architect — greens that move from fairway to putting surface naturally on grade. Carrick seems to love his slightly elevated greens — which surely improve drainage — but lose the natural appeal. Several of Humber Valley’s greens have a distinctly natural character, something I’ve rarely seen in Carrick’s work.
Beyond the subtle greens, the course is bombastic and fun. After [photopress:HumberValley5.jpg,full,alignright]ending the downward trek on the 5th, a brilliant long four that uses the lake and beach to great impact, Carrick turns the players uphill. Surprisingly though one is climbing up for the last four holes, it rarely feels like one is playing uphill. That’s smart architecture and Carrick pulls it off wonderfully, especially on the 8th and 9th holes, both of which offer intriguing approach shots. Now if they had only dropped the clubhouse slightly so it disappeared from the skyline approach to the ninth, the hole would be damned near perfect.
Most will remember the par four 10th, with its drop of more than 180 feet from tee to fairway. Surely it is the most scenic of the holes, but unlike other Carrick attempts at using great drops in elevation (think the 6th at Bigwin Island) this hole is more than just eye candy, especially if playing into a breeze.
The back nine has the impressive capacity of actually playing downhill throughout all nine holes (though a couple, like 16, are essentially flat.) Carrick once again mixes the shots well, and though the back nine doesn’t seem quite as strong as the front, it does offer an interesting short four (#15) and a couple of fine par threes (including the exceptional #17).
When it is all over, with a par five that is toughened by a tricky swale in the middle of the green, you finally understand how Carrick routed the holes to play downhill. After putting out, players are left with a long cart ride up a steep slope to the looming clubhouse, which didn’t bother me, but might bug the purist.
There’s promises of a second course at Humber Valley, set on slightly less extreme land, but it is hard to imagine Carrick topping his first project at the facility.
My only concern is the project itself. It looks like golf — which could be a great draw for Canadians considering how easy it is to get flights to Deer Lake — has played second fiddle to the real estate. Take, for example, the facility’s website — where one can’t apparently find a green fee listed. That’s not the kind of thing that attracts visitors or instills confidence in them when they are being asked to travel so far.
Update: Fees, as pointed out by a reader, are on the site but are difficult to locate. Green fees range between $50 and $100, a steal for a course of this quality.
But that’s beyond the scope of the design. In Newfoundland, Carrick has hit a home run with Humber Valley. Now it is just a question of how many people see what might be his masterpiece.