Course Review: Beacon Hall and Mad River

Above Photo: Beacon Hall‘s Par 3 16th.

Course Review: Beacon Hall GC (Aurora, Ont.) and Mad River GC (Creemore, Ont.)

Designer: Bob Cupp

Bob Cupp’s influences are intriguing to place together. Clearly there’s elements, especially in his greens, that stem from the time the designer spent leading Jack Nicklaus’ design team. On the other hand, the clear natural use of the land seems to go against the early Nicklaus designs, many of which seem more crafted by machine than by nature.

So what to make of Creemore’s Mad River, located near the summer retreat of Collingwood, and Beacon Hall, the notoriously private enclave guarded inside a gated community? Both are fascinating examples of Cupp’s work.

There are elements to Cupp’s designs that make them specific to themselves. He’s a big fan of plunging, downhill tee shots, but he also makes walkable courses, not an easy feat. He likes greens with lots of contour, something that has been discussed a lot in regards to Mad River (especially on holes like #2, with its nasty false front), but there is plenty of movement at Beacon Hall as well, though it is often a touch more subtle.

His holes rarely seem forced into the land, and though I have no idea how much earth was moved at Beacon and Mad River, I’d guess very little. That leads to some blind shots, like the second on the par five fourth at Beacon Hall, or the blind pond on the 9th at Mad River. Occasionally one wonders why Cupp didn’t move more earth, like the [photopress:bh18.jpg,full,alignleft]narrow and largely untenable par five fourth at Mad River. However, in other instances where he embraces rolling land on a vast scale, like the 6th at Mad River, an intriguing 416-yard par four with a raised green site, or the terrific 458-yard closer at Beacon Hall (photo, left), Cupp’s work is exceptionally lay-of-the-land. That typically makes the holes fun, though often very difficult as well.

The best holes at Beacon Hall are clearly the par threes, especially the dramatic 16th, with its 223-yard tee shot from the crest of one hill to another, and the 11th, a shorter three that offers tons of options given the short grass on the right side. In other places, like the short 8th, he takes an approach Jack would approve of, forcing players to hit a very precise, very delicate shot. It isn’t always easy, but it is almost always interesting.

Perhaps that’s what Mad River lacks — distinctively great holes. Sure the 291-yard par four sixth is fascinating and offers a wonderful array of possible tee shots, but it isn’t a truly great hole. Perhaps as close as Mad River gets is the 12th, a nasty 447 yard par four that forces players to carefully work their tee shot, and then hit to a green that falls away on the right side. But even that hole is just very good and never truly aspires to greatness.

Even with that in mind, for me the most surprising thing about Mad River and Beacon Hall is that critics seem to see them as completely separate. OG magazine recently had Mad River listed at 40th on its Top 50, while Beacon Hall was at 4. Score Magazine typically has Beacon Hall in its Top 10, while Mad River doesn’t make the list at all. Simply put, that doesn’t make any sense.

Yes, there are a couple of quirky holes at Mad River, including the 10th, which feels a bit forced into the routing, and the monstrously difficult 13th, with its pinched landing area, odd bunkering running up the left side, and impossible approach shot. Or the 17th, which features the best tee shot on the course and the strangest green (about the size of a kiddie wading pool). But overall the land is every bit as breathtaking as that of Beacon Hall and the course is every bit as challenging.

So what, in the end, do Beacon Hall and Mad River demonstrate? They show that allowing access to a course can improve its standings in the golf community. Not that it is easy to get on Beacon Hall. To the contrary, the membership is small and one must play with a member. However, the club has done a strong job of keeping itself in the eyes of those that vote on them for ratings panels, and its hosting of an international amateur tournament this summer surely helped as well.

On the other hand, Mad River is extremely reticient about allowing any access to its fairways, and perhaps that is reflected in its ratings. That has to be it — because rarely does one find two more similar courses created on similar properties by the same designer.

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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.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • My personal opinion is that the national ratings are biased against Ontario since people from the rest of the country complain that there are too many Ontario courses. Therefore Score makes an effort to get rankers from other parts of the country who want to make sure that some of their local courses are on the list. The fact of the matter is that Ontario has far more great courses, particularly more great courses from the classic era (pre WWII) and more excellent recent courses (i.e. Devil’s Paintbrush, Eagle’s Nest, etc.)

    There also appears to be a bias against Ontario courses from outside of the GTA with the exception of the Muskoka resort courses. Courses such as St. Thomas, Cataraqui, Kawartha, etc. likely deserve to be ranked much higher than they are. I don’t know why that is – perhaps all of the Ontario rankers are from the GTA and they don’t bother travelling to the rest of the province since there are so many great courses close to home. The other thing is that the level of service (i.e. locker room, clubhouse, practice facilities) are generally much higher in Toronto since the cost to join a private club is so much higher.

  • The year Mad River opened the 3 founders, by a vote of 1 to 2 (the 1 was worth more than the other 2) decided that they did not want to be in any ratings game despite the marketing advantages. “what if we finished second?”
    IMHO Mad River was better than Beacon Hall when it opened but rapidly made some non-Cupp related changes (changing some bent to rye, etc.). Both are good courses but Mad River had the potential to be outstanding. Neither is as good as Deerhurst as a test of golf, even with the 1st at Deerhurst being so “quirky” bad.

  • I concur with your comments about Glendale and Mad River – two courses I’ve been fortunate to play quite a number of times. However, I wouldn’t put Glendale in my top 50 in Ontario – I’d rather see Burlington there. But it is a very enjoyable course to play and normally in very good condition.

    Everytime I’ve played Mad River it has been in superb shape, but I’ve heard the conditioning has been an issue on and off. I don’t like the par 5 fourth, and adding red stakes to make it more playable is not a solution. And the routing of 15 and 16 – it doesn’t feel right and 18 is a pretty weak finishing hole. But I agree it belongs ahead of many courses in the rankings (including Glen Abbey and Deerhurst).

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