Golf Digest’s much discussed “Best New Course in Canada” awardwas posted on their website today, with Gravenhurst, Ont.’s Muskoka Bay Golf Club, designed by Doug Carrick and associate Ian Andrew, taking the prize.
Coming in second was Coppinwood, the vaunted Tom Fazio design, followed by Humber Valley in Newfoundland. In fact, it is actually a very strong list, with three worthy courses.
In full disclosure, I’m part of the Golf Digest panel, and played all three courses this summer as a rater. I would have shuffled the deck in regards to the result, but more on that later.
Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten had this to say:
Which makes the accomplishment at Muskoka Bay Club, in Gravenhurst, Ontario, our 2007 Best New Canadian Course winner, all the more impressive. The honor acknowledges what veteran Toronto architect Doug Carrick (this is his fourth Best New Canadian win since 1995) and his then-associate Ian Andrew achieved in routing, flow, presentation and quality of golf shots. They produced a silky smooth destination daily-fee from hard-tack topography.
I first saw Muskoka Bay in 2005, and came away unimpressed. Yes, there are some sensational holes on the property, including #3, #9, #10, #11, but the bunkering left me flat and I couldn’t help but feel the routing was a touch contrived, marching players up to ledges just to have them hit down to the fairway. Then repeat.
The second time, playing it on a warm summer day, I was more impressed. The bunkering is still plain, not fantastically flashed like Bigwin Island, nor craggy and rough like Eagles Nest, but the highlights seemed more impressive, like #15, a big and bold four with width in the fairway and a raised green site. The other high points, #9, which is mentioned in Whitten’s article, is likely to split golfers, with some finding the blind approach charming, while others will find it off-putting.
Truth of the matter is I haven’t talked about the views. Too many people I know who played Muskoka Bay simply came away talking about how beautiful it was, lulled into not actually investigating the architecture. As one writer friend says, “Every hole is so beautiful.” But that is not exactly the point — there’s very little in Muskoka that isn’t beautiful, so if that’s the barrier to greatness, all of the courses in the region are great. And they’re not. You can’t separate a golf course from its surroundings — say take the ocean out of Pebble Beach — but you can’t be overly distracted by the visual appearance. In my analogy, Pebble’s ocean plays a central role to many holes on the course. In Muskoka Bay’s case, the vistas aren’t part of the actual course, though rocky outcroppings come into play in several instances.
Muskoka Bay struck me as better than most the second (and later third) time through, though some of the holes that get a lot of attention — like the par-3 17th over water — didn’t hold up on repeated playing, coming across as a bit one-dimensional. That said, this might be nitpicking — it is a fine course that was in great condition and kept me interested and challenged.
My No.1 course was also by Carrick, but it was Newfoundland’s Humber Valley. With five downhill holes on the front reaching a climax at the par-3 along the water, a truly special hole, and Carrick’s smart routing that has the next four holes play largely uphill — but not feel uphill — Humber Valley starts with a bang. The back nine is almost equally as good, with my only criticism being that the par-5s seem to play shorter than their distance on the card. That’s a small criticism and I think in time the reputation of Humber Valley will grow. It would be close to the Top 10 courses in Canada in my book.
Which leaves Coppinwood. Few courses in recent years have come with more hype, this stemming from the fact that it was Tom Fazio’s first job in this country since working with his uncle, George, at the National. The natural land, with massive rolls, was terrific. But Fazio still feels the need to push a lot of dirt around even it might not be necessary, and Coppinwood’s owners spent a lot of money moving land and capping the site with sand.
The result is good, but I have this feeling that coming in second or third on all best new course ratings (OG, Score, and now Golf Digest) isn’t exactly what they had in mind. The back nine – from 11 through to the end – is undoubtedly special, with the par-3 11th, and the par-4 12th features as two holes that play as grand as they look. But that front nine — especially two through nine, excluding #5 and #6, do not get the blood flowing. That’s partly the responsibility of the land — the least interesting on the property.
A little known fact is the property that is now Coppinwood had a routing by Doug Carrick and Bob Cupp before Fazio’s crew was brought in at great expense. Given the fact that Carrick’s work seems to have upstaged Fazio’s vision, one wonders how this might have turned out had the owners of Coppinwood dialed a different number. And if the owners felt a need to have a different face from Carrick — one can only wonder what might have happened had the name Fazio been replaced by Doak or Coore.