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