Review: Piper’s Heath Golf Club (Milton, Ont.)
Designer: Graham Cooke (with associate Jeremy Glenn)
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a fan of Graham Cooke’s work. I think Glen Arbor is passable, and Fox Harb’r is a big miss on a terrific site. Perhaps his standout is Dakota Dunes, but even that underwhelmed me, despite having one of the best natural sites for a golf course in the country. In fact, a lot of the best work most associate with Cooke (Lochness Links, Willow Valley) is actually that of former partner Darrell Huxhaum, who is now off on his own after an acrimonious split.
Which means I went to Piper’s Heath with few expectations. I knew the land was relatively mundane, but that the course, which opened in July, had received generally favourable reviews. An associate I respect had even said the design was pretty well done considering the land.
And by and large it is a strong mid-tier golf course aimed at the daily fee player. Piper’s Heath isn’t a facility gunning for big corporate tournaments — at least it didn’t appear to be and they weren’t referenced by GM Marc Gruehl during our round. Instead, the course hopes to attract players looking for an affordable green fee (at $79 and walkable, that’s where PH fits) while being offered something that isn’t quite top tier, but decidedly better than many other courses on the market.
One gets a pretty good sense of the course right off the first hole, a 445 yard par four that [photopress:hole1_1.jpg,full,alignright]is a more reasonable 407 from the regular tees. Sitting right next to the rather intriguing halfway house that serves as a clubhouse for now (interesting concept that works), the first hole is built on flat land. Random-looking mounding is used to distinguish the holes from the surrounding area, similar to that seen on Angus Glen North. The mounding is arbitrary enough to help conceptualize the course’s main theme — that of the links.
Now links courses have been done to death as of late, especially on relatively dull sites like the farmer’s field where Piper’s Heath is situated. That’s largely because the artificial mounding used to separate the holes doesn’t look as, well, artificial when covered with fescue. The scale at Piper’s Heath is not like Eagles Nest, where massive faux dunes were created; instead it is low-level bumps that largely obscure the surroundings. The shaping isn’t quite arbitrary enough and sometimes it becomes repetitive, but largely it works.
The concept immediately reminded me of Tom McBroom’s Ambassador GC in Windsor, where the designer took a similarly flat site and created a strong blend of holes. After one round at Piper’s, I’m not sure if it is as strong as Ambassador, but it did lack the repetition of holes that lessened the Windsor course for me.
Interestingly the best holes at Piper’s are not particularly links like. The 431 yard par four fourth, for example, utilizes a large oak on the left side of the fairway to great effect, and the green’s contours are at the right scale for the hole. The 11th, a par three with an astoundingly long green, offers a variety of shot options.
One thing that is absolutely positive is the decision on Cooke’s part to deviate from his typically understated bunkering. Replacing the battery of oval shapes are interesting bunkers with grassed faces in angular shapes. It really improves the aesthetic appearance of the course, and gives it more of a timeless look. It would have been easy to have simply embraced rough-edged bunkering that is so in vogue now (think Bond Head South as an Ontario example), but Cooke did something different and should be applauded for it.
Does that necessarily make it a great design? No, just a good one. Still, there are a number of issues throughout the course that made me scratch my head.
Cooke once told me he was interested in creating greens that led to “fun golf.” I suspect he meant greens like the eighth hole, a relatively obvious par three over water with a boomerang green punctuated by a bunker in the middle. The concept sounds intriguing enough, especially if the green has enough slope in the middle to allow a “swinging” putt from one end of the green to the other. In practice though, it doesn’t really come off. Putts hit from one end of the boomerang to the other don’t swing enough to make the shot plausible. I suppose that’s fair enough — after all, a shot intending to land on one end of the boomerang that lands on the other is just a bad shot — but the truth is the intent and the result on the green are not related in this instance.
In truth the greens are both the most intriguing and frustrating element of Piper’s Heath. Though it is called a “links-type” design, rarely does Cooke and co. embrace greens that come in on grade, a standard links feature. Like Doug Carrick’s work at Eagles Nest, Cooke chose to push up most of the greens, creating artificial contours. The greens rarely look natural within the setting and that’s simply because they aren’t. That’s not necessarily a negative.
But by creating chipping hollows around many of the holes, Cooke has actually creating surfaces more akin to Pinehurst No. 2, and I imagine that was the actual inspiration for many of the greens. The hollows do create options, though occasionally the slopes are too steep and make some of the greens one dimensional.
Every so often the concept gets ahead of the execution. Take the 14th green, for instance. Given that it is a 450 yard par four that requires a strong drive and a forced carry over an extended hazard, golfers might have expected a relatively low-key green. Instead Cooke dreamed up a strangely complex green that has a strange and narrow extension running out the back and parallel to the water hazard. It simply makes the hole artificially difficult and frankly not a lot of fun to play for all but the best players.
Sometimes Cooke’s excesses are tolerable, like the large swale in the 500-yard par five [photopress:hole15.jpg,full,alignright]third. Because the hole is relatively short, the huge roll in the middle of the green — while appearing like something taken from Willow Valley GC near Hamilton– adds some interest to an otherwise straight forward hole.
But the green on the par five 15th is set up to receive only one shot — a pitch from 100 yards out to the right — and its fall away at the back makes it almost impossible to hold for anyone trying it in two shots. Those that miss find themselves in a vast collection area pitching up at the green, a difficult shot few will pull off.
Does Piper’s Heath always fire on all cylinders? No. Is it largely successful? Yes. Why? Because the owners focused on offering a value-based design at a relatively affordable green fee. Match those two elements and place the course in the ever-expanding Milton market and you have all the characteristics for a successful project. And if people find the course fun to play — and Piper’s Heath succeeds when it comes to that element — they will return time and again.