G4G Year in Review: Courses and Critics

Plenty of new courses opened during the year, and I had the good fortune to see and write about a fair number of them. Some had mixed designs, but good business models (Piper’s Heath), some had great designs, but more difficult markets (Tarandowah), while others had great land and vistas, but had difficulty selling houses (Muskoka Bay). And of course there was Cobble Beach, a neat new Doug Carrick design that was forced to redo its fairways in the fall after they became invested with rye grass.

Additionally I spent most of the summer on the road working on my book (Going for the Green, out on Key Porter in May), which allowed me to revisit some favourites (Shaughnessy, Mount Bruno) and see some new (but old) courses like Victoria GC and Montebello that made me as happy as a tween with front row tickets to a Hannah Montana show.


Among the most discussed courses was Tarandowah, the Martin Hawtree-design in Avon, about a half hour from London, Ont. I posted a preview in 2006 that received dozens of comments, and my review once the full course opened in July 2007 also elicited some debate.

The course is fascinating, a throwback to an inland heathland gem, as Evan Smith was one of 40+ commentators on the course noted:

I finally made it out to Tarandowah last Wed. (Sept. 26) and I was very impressed with the course. Other than the turf conditions (not the proper climate to have links turf) and the surroundings (no ocean), its a very good recreation of what you see on a links course in the UK. The bunkering was done very well, seemingly always where you wanted to go with your ball, so you had to think your way around the course.

Finally it was ratings year for Ontario Golf, a magazine I contribute to. OG put out its Top 50 courses list, and I made some pointed remarks about some of the placement, including placing Brantford G&CC ahead of Glen Abbey, and the decision of one panelist to place Essex G&CC at the top of his list. The Brantford/Abbey debate raged on for more than 20 comments, including this one from Sales Guru:

Brantford is a classic members course with some great holes interlaced with a lot of average holes. I would argue with Robert over Brantfords uphill par 5 12th. While short, it is a classic example of how Stanley Thompson was a genius at making holes that play uphill seem a lot less severe than they actually are.

Glen Abbey has some all-world holes. Brantford has some great holes. Overall GAs week holes are better than Brantfords. But if I had to chose one to play everyday as a memeber it would definitively be Brantford.

I still think hole for hole it is tough to make a case for Brantford ahead of Glen Abbey….

Interesting to see some new courses on the list, including Galt G &CC, which clearly benefited from its media day two summers ago. It scraped its way into the lower rungs of the list, which is okay by me, but I find it hard to imagine it makes it while Maple Downsdoesn’t. Just proves that a lot of so-called pundits can’t tell a good golf course from a great one, or perhaps don’t want to drive 2 kms up the road from Eagles Nest to check out a fascinating design.

2007 also saw the collapse of Mystic GC near Ancaster, and its acquisition by Golf North. A post entitled “Mistake Golf Club, Pt.2”generated a lot of discussion, especially around the reputed sale price of $8M. Alfred Tonin took umbrage with the contention that GN paid too much for the property:

And how do you know they have overpaid? Golf North is in the golf course business. I think they can determine fair value much better than you can because they are in that business. The course may have strategic value to Golf North, and much less value to other bidders. You really cannot say they overpaid until a couple of years have passed and the purchase price is assessed against results achieved. Sorry, Robert, and I know you will get angry at me, but fair value can only be determined by the purchaser, taking into account what value the course may have to their particular circumstance.

G4G reader “John” disagreed:

Im not so sure that Golf North knows what they have gotten themselves into here Alfred. Im pretty sure the maintenance budgets of Golf North properties are fairly low. I would guess they are in the neighbourhood of $250,000 to $300,00. This is half(or up to 30%) of what they will have to spend if they want to try and maintain Mystic at any type of level. We are talking about a young bent grass golf course that needs a lot of TLC if it is going to mature properly. I agree with Robert on the pricing. Bereger struggled to get $85 and now Golf North is trying to get $95 on weekends with no more amenities? Im not sure the public player is now going to flock to Mystic now just because GN owns it.

Another contentious review was my perspective on Grand Niagara, first posted in 2006. Superintendent Paul Gurr wrote me in the summer to say I was being unfair and hadn’t given the course due consideration:

Gurr: What I am saying is that you need to look at more items when rating a golf course. When you tell the public that Niagara is flat as a table top you are pretty much telling the golfing public that what ever you play down here will look the same. I think when things are flat¦.. you will start to see when the expertise in design from each architect will be seen. To build on a flat piece of land is very hard to do.

The problem is that flat land rarely equals great golf, regardless of whether it is in Florida or Niagara Falls. And FLA has better weather.

While finding Gurr’s regard for his course laudatory, reader Matt wasn’t a big fan of Grand Niagara either:

I admire Pauls loyalty and moxie on this topic but as a Niagara resident who has played GN on a few occasions, I have to side with Robert here. While there is nothing wrong with the course and there are certainly worse ways to spend your golfing dollars, there is nothing unique about either the architecture or the experience at Grand Niagara that would make out of towners feel compelled to return for repeated visits.

[photopress:HumberValley10.1.jpg,full,alignleft]There weren’t a lot of big trips on my agenda this year — for the first time in five years I didn’t fly overseas to play in Scotland or Ireland. However, I did get to Humber Valley Resortin Newfoundland and found it to be among the best work to come out of Doug Carrick’s office. If you drooled over Muskoka Bay, well you ain’t seen nothing yet. While I’m on it, what a year for the Carrick office. Carrick won best new in Score for Humber Valley; best new in OG and T&L Golf for Cobble Beach; best new in Golf Digest for Muskoka Bay (with Humber Valley coming in third), while Humber Valley also got the nod in Hard to imagine a better year out of any design office anywhere. But in Carrick’s understated way, little was made of the impressive results aside from an article by Lorne Rubenstein.

The other trip of note was to North Carolina, where I had the good fortune to play Tobacco Road, Pinehurst No. 2, Pine Needles, Mid-Pines and Southern Pines. I’ve never done a full review of the courses I played, so that will be forthcoming in a few weeks.

Among the other cool courses I had the chance to see and review were Mad River GCnear Collingwood; Victoria GC and Royal Colwood in Victoria, B.C.; Mount Bruno and Montebello in Quebec; and Deerhurst in Muskoka.

Lastly, when the RCGA decided to bring the Canadian Open to Angus Glen North, they had to have been aware it might not be well received. That turned out to be a huge understatement. With one of the weakest fields in Canadian Open history, bashing Angus Glen turned out to be far easier than beating up the course with birdies. The problem, in the end, was that no one came — and that means neither players nor spectators. Even Davis Love, who did the redesign on the Doug Carrick/Jay Morrish course, didn’t bother to show.

As BennyHogan commented, it was a bleak time for the Canadian Open. Thank God, Furyk emerged as champion:

The Canadian Open is being played on a second rate golf course the week after the Open. Why would anyone expect top ranked players to enter when we dont even do them the courtesy of hosting the event on a world class course – of which there are a number in the GTA let alone across Canada.
Hope that the new leadership at the RCGA have the initiative to ensure that the Open is played at our best courses – not just the usual suspects.
I am surprised that Love isnt professional enough to show up at the course he took money to set up. This must be a new low in PGA self-centredness.

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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.

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • re: Essex at #1 – sometimes you just can’t keep Mingay down;-}

    re: Maple Downs – there are so many good Toronto courses that some of them get lost in the shuffle – those outside of the centre of the universe often complain that they are getting shafted but there are just tons of very good golf courses in the GTA.

    re: Brantford – I know it was a Thompson course but I thought that it is now generally accepted that this is Nicol’s course rather than Stanley’s.

  • Interesting that golfers place such an emphasis on honesty and honour on the golf course (which we all know is highly valued especially when compared with the cheating in other sports). Where is that honour in business dealings? Shame really that Davis Love bypassed the Canadian Open this year.

    Imagine being a business consultant who worked extensively on a study for a corporate client located in a different city. When the time comes to present the results, he or she does not bother to be present in person for the presentation but instead mailed in the report for the client to read. Obviously, it would be unacceptable.

    While the situation is different for Davis Love (as he did make a separate trip to Toronto to review his work and comment on it to the media and others), his no-show at the Canadian Open is a sad commentary on his professionalism.

  • Wayne: Yes, Brantford is designed (as much as we can tell) by Nicol, though the second nine was built by Stanley. Hard to say what the relationship was between the boys in regards to design at the time, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to think Stanley would have had some input on the design.

    Weekend: You and I agree on this. Love III should have been there.

  • IMO, Brantford is the most overrated of the Canadian classics.

    Maple Downs is a nice little course, but probably one of many, many courses that could fit in that 35-50 range.

  • Mr. T,

    What is your thoughts on Tarandowah vs. Dakota Dunes, given that both are inland links-style golf course that opened in the last 2 years?

  • Matt: I actually think Maple Downs is 30-50 in CANADA, not in Ontario. That’s how highly I think of the course.

    KC: Tarandowah v. Dakota.

    Dakota Dunes is built on some of the most impressive golf land in all of Canada. But somehow the architecture doesn’t match the land; several holes are forgettable, some don’t work and the mixed bunker styles are awful. Still it is a great value for the golf — it is more a question of what it could have been.

    As for Tarandowah, it is a case of an architect getting the best out of a very average piece of land. Sure there are a couple of holes that don’t work — 17th, 4th — but by and large it is an exceptional test of golf. The question at Tarandowah is one of money — how much they have and whether they can sustain it in the condition it deserves.

  • RT is bang on with Dakota Dunes vs. Tarandowah. Driving out to Dakota Dunes you sense you’re coming upon something potentially magical – at least if you’re an armchair architect like me. But other than say 7 or 8 holes DD is a big letdown. Not because it isn’t a good course (it is – especially for SK) but because it failed to capture the glorious possibilities nature laid before them.
    I’ve been a fan of Graham Cooke’s greens for some time. They often contain interior mounding that will funnel your ball close to the pin even with an average shot – hey who doesn’t like making birdies?? Many of the greens at DD fit this mould and many of them fit the land beautifully. But as RT said how they chose and executed the bunker styles is beyond comprehension. There are some gnarly (i.e. beautiful) blowout bunkers reminiscent of Sand Hills but for the most part none of them are in play. Instead we get shallow – I mean really shallow flat lifeless bunkers flanking every green. Rumor was that another course was to be built in the not too distant future but I’m not sure if those plans have been permanently shelved. Regardless I’d love to see Doak, Hanse, or some of his contemporaries breathe new life into what is still one of the best pieces of land for golf I’ve ever seen.
    Conversely, driving up to Tarandowah you begin to wonder if you’re at the right course. The term “goat path” comes to mind. How can this course be as good as “they” say? But Tarandowah is a testament to what great design can do with an average at best piece of property. As RT alluded to only the 4th and 17th holes are awkward, with latter simply too difficult and too confusing for the first time visitor. Strategic thinking from tee to green is required if you want to avoid Tarandowah’s plethora of bunkers. However when the wind blows even the best strategy will need a little luck to put up a decent score. IF this course is given the proper nourishment and care it needs to mature it could arguably be one of the best “links” style courses in Canada.

  • How does golf north justify the high greens fees I recent went to dundee for a function and there was dandelions on the fairway! This can’t happen with the green fees charge out at golf north! U nned to lower your green fee with the quiltity of courses golf north porperties ruins course buy cheap and never put money back into them charge 45 green fees for a sub par course! I will not be playing golf north again this summer

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