Course Review: Redtail Golf Course (near St. Thomas, Ont.)
Designer: Donald Steel
In recent years, uber-exclusive golf courses have become relatively commonplace in Canada. There is Magna with its $125,000 initiation. There is Oviinbyrd, with its quiet approach and membership. Soon Richard Zokol’s Sagebrush will open, joining the list, and last year there was the launch of the Thomas McBroom-designed MemphrÃƒ©magog Club, with its $250K memberships that seem to be the purvey of Quebec’s powerbrokers.
But before all of these there was Redtail. For a very long time after I became a golf writer, I’d be asked by casual players as to whether I’d played the fabled, remote course. When I answered to the affirmative, I would always be quizzed on how good the course was.
“I hear,” they’d often say, “that it isn’t that great a golf course.”
The implication, of course, was that the experience — often being the only players at Redtail on a given day, for example — outweighed the merits of the actual golf, which was built inexpensively and in minimalist style, long before that term was in vogue.
Of course, getting there is a big part of the attraction of Redtail. Located somewhere on a rural road between St. Thomas and Port Stanley, players typically show up directions in hand. Otherwise you simply wouldn’t find the course, which is set away from the road, which isn’t well traveled anyway. You arrive at the gates, which slowly open, allowing you, with all likelihood, to arrive at your own personal golfing retreat for the day.
The vision of John Drake and Chris Goodwin who built the course after making a fortune in a leveraged acquisition, Redtail has now been around for 16 years, having opened in 1992. Whether you love Redtail or feel marginal about it, there’s no denying that vision, right down to its clubhouse, a small, classic take on the best in the world, which fits perfectly.
With all the hoopla around Redtail, the question is this: Does it live up to the hype? For a long time its exclusivity was as much its claim to fame as its golf, so how does the actual golf measure up? Pretty well, though its subtle nature might underwhelm some.
The opening hole, which is little more than a 3-wood and a wedge, does show off many of the elements that occur throughout the course. The tee shot is partially blind, with a large bailout of rough to the right and fescue on the left. The fairway is slight and rolling, and the green is guarded by a large fallaway to the right. It isn’t an exceptionally difficult hole in appearance, but can be a tough two-shot test, which is the case at most at Redtail. Often times the challenge may not look overwhelming, when in fact it is.
Which is the case with the third hole, a long, tough par-4 that may at once be the most difficult hole on the golf course and arguably one of the more intriguing on the course. It highlights the best and most challenging aspects of Redtail, as well as demonstrating its shortcomings. The hole is U.S. Open tough, featuring a narrow fairway trimmed with fescue, often deep, on both sides. The fescue is punctuated with naturalized grasses, meaning there’s no guarantee you’ll find your ball if you are wayward and you might not like what you find if you hit it a little off-line. The narrowness is largely a product of the single-line irrigation used to keep the costs of the course down. The result is a natural hole that is exceptionally — some might say too much — difficult. The green is perched over a small ravine and is small, with a slope that rolls to the right. Even missing this green slightly can make recovery difficult.
If the third is some of the best golf, the fourth is one of the worst. A short par-4 that is little more than a mid-iron off the tee, Steel has tried to compensate for lack of distance by carving a slight line of trees out for the approach. The legend has it that Nick Price hit driver on this hole and managed to find the fairway between the trees. It must have been during the period when Nick was taking beta blockers, as one would need to be medicated to try such a shot. The problem with the hole is that even in the instances when Redtail feels unfair, there is usually more than one way to play it; in this instance there really isn’t, and even with Steel dictating the terms, there is no certainty of success given the extreme green one finds on the other end.
The remainder of the back nine plays through some remarkable natural landscapes, from the fifth, with its meandering stream and downhill tee shot, through to the eighth, with its ridge line that forces decisions off the tee. It may be tough, and it may often be narrow, but it is also a lot of fun, and recoveries are possible. Steel has taken exceptional land and simply placed golf upon it. This is where the term “minimalism,” now much abused and over-used, came from.
The back nine is a touch of a letdown after the highlights of the front nine. The land, for starters, is rarely as intriguing, certainly an issue with such a naturalistic course. The 10th, however, is one of the best on the course, with a draw tee shot to a natural greensite set behind a steep drop off. The 11th, with its tee shot played near the driving range, is bland in comparison and saved only by a strong greensite.
Which is the case with much of the back nine. With several holes running along the roadway that leads to the clubhouse, many feel like they are simply running back and forth on the same land, which is actually the case. Most, like the 16th and 17th — two testing par-4s (and the 17th fairway is actually kind of ridiculously tight) — are salvaged by great greens. However, there are several holes that have both the same aesthetic and the same shot values.
Strangely, this all changes on the 18th, which features a much wider fairway and options for the golfer. Once again the hole is made by the green, but there are possibilities off the tee. For those bold enough, they can play it down the left side and leave less into the hole, which is a par-5. For those that are looking for a bailout, there’s room down the right. It is a strong, fun finisher.
Which is what Redtail lacks in comparison to other modern minimalist courses — options. Many of the tee shots are one-dimensional. Thankfully many of the greens are outstanding, making the course fun and challenging regardless of how difficult it is off the tee.
Is Redtail a modern masterpiece, worthy of its ranking among the Top 10 in Canada? It surely is an exceptional golf course, and its minimalist style set it apart from almost everything built in the 1990s in Canada. Since then there have been other courses down in a similar style, perhaps to greater success, like Blackhawk near Edmonton, and Richard Zokol’s forthcoming Sagebrush (which is patterned after Redtail). Regardless, Redtail remains a subtle course, and a testament to a specific vision, and an intriguing test to play.
Interestingly, for years Redtail never advertised its existance. That apparently has changed — there is even a website now. I guess the hermit has opened itself up to the public (it recently hosted the Ontario Amateur) — at least to let them take a look.