Course Review: Chateau Montebello (Montebello, Que.)
Architect: Stanley Thompson (1931)
It is easy to overlook Montebello as a golf course. When Fairmont’s uber-cool log cabin resort isn’t hosting world leaders, it is simply an intriguing family getaway, part way between Montreal and Ottawa. In some ways its location means it gets little attention. That’s too bad because when Stanley Thompson designed this course it was among his higher profile projects. Today it suffers from some neglect, especially awful cart path work, and the fact it is short at 6,308 yards. But in other ways it is a fascinating link to some of Thompson’s best work, and that makes a trip to see it worthwhile for anyone who wants to understand the development of golf in this country.
Montebello, formerly the Seigniory Club, starts with a hole that demonstrates the architect’s fondness for rough landscapes. The opener is slight — only 320 yards — and partially blind up a rise and over a hill until it levels out. The fairway plunges and rolls like a moonscape, linking this course directly with other naturalistic Thompson work like Highlands Links. Truth be told, this is a rocky site and Thompson, who was working with a budget of $150,000, just did the best with what he had. In the current golf climate of flat fairways and even lies, Montebello is a bit of an anachronism, but that just increases my fascination for it.
The land at Montebello is largely rocky, but also features extreme contours in areas, including the 4th (see photo above), which drops 100 feet to the fairway below. In fact this stretch in the middle of the front nine is as good as it gets and rivals anything Thompson did. The 5th hole, at 448-yards and doglegging to the right over the knoll of a hill, is difficult, but features a green that lies flat on the existing landscape, allowing for a running approach struck by a long iron. This follows through to the fun and sporty drop-shot 6th, and the 7th, a par-5 with an intriguing greensite running just the other side of a small dip.
Unfortunately in some instances renovations to the design have weakened it. The pond in front of the landing area, which I’m told was added by John Watson, the son of former Stanley Thompson associate Major Howard Watson, ruins an otherwise interesting approach shot and largely eliminates any risk/reward from the hole.
Similarly, the obtrusive cart path on 13 — an otherwise terrific downhill par-3 — is an extreme eyesore and actually comes into play with a slightly pulled tee shot. I also suspect — though I’m uncertain — that many of the greens have been remodeled, as my understanding is that Thompson’s originals were relatively small and were expanded. This can be seen firsthand on the 9th, a par-3 that now features two greens. The one on the right is the original, though the new tee shot — up a rocky rise to a green perched on a plateau — is more interesting visually. Lastly, there is also a mix of bunker styles that can be seen in some of the photos here. There’s plenty of documentation on this course — someone needs to dig through it and come up with a plan to cohesively bring the course together.
There are some more standard Thompson-style holes, including the sweeping 438-yard 11th (below), and the closer, which features a rising fairway that then falls to a green part way down a hill and situated in front of the clubhouse. Montebello was dry when I played it and it brought in a wonderful variety of shots that could be hit into this final green.
All in all, this course should be a lot better known than it currently is. Fairmont, which controls the course, does little to promote it, which is unfortunate. And perhaps a nice restoration and locating a couple of spots to squeeze 200 or so added yards would lead to some more attention. I think it could be done without too much difficulty, and it would bring some of the bunkers and landing areas into play in the way Thompson envisioned.
This is a gem that has lost its luster. A quick shine and it could be returned to its former stature.