Course Review: Redtail Golf Course

The tight par 4 third at Redtail.

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 Memphrémagog 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.

Redtail's opening hole

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.

Strangely tight, the fourth hole is not one of the course's standouts.

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 par 3 14th hole at Redtail.

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.

Redtail's closing hole.

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.

The ninth hole -- a short par 3 over water.

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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.

20 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I’d love to try it – maybe they’ll let me in on name alone! They’ve taken down the website though, I noticed.

  • Totally overrated. In great shape but the layout is nothing special. Played it for the Am that year and was let down in every aspect except for the greens. They are supurb.

    • For those that played it in the Am. You guys missed the point.Normally..they have no paint (hazard lines) on the course and if you can’t find it, sorry, you rehit it. You boys would be playing in 7 plus hours a round. Pure true golf. And your 73 round would be 78. Have a great day and learn about what makes golf courses great. Red Tail plays by it’s own rules and they are how golf should be played. Cheers mate.

  • I played it in July 2009 and was extrememly disappointed. Was invited with a Round Table member on the premise that the course was something special. How I was misled?

    The condition of the course was fine, nothing more. There are several holes that are so open that it seems to have taken little vision to have carved a hole out of the meadow land. The routing was uninspiring and certainly wasn’t worth the effort required in travelling out of Toronto for that experience.

    The quaint clubhouse is very good, packed full of memorabilia collected over many years. It’s homely and comfortable, but in my view, is secondary in importance to the experience of playing a fine course.

    Sadly for Redtail, golf course 0, clubhouse 1.

  • I think golfers should be less critical of courses like these ones, I think its a great course and look forward to playing it in the next week or so….

  • Red Tail is a superb course in absolutely pristine condition. The holes offer tremendous variety and challenge. There is no single style that is overdone, instead you get a very good mix of obstacles during the round so its not ALWAYS this or ALWAYS that. Accuracy is paramount, but good putting and length are needed as well to score.
    Anyone who’s played this course and denigrates it just doesn’t understand good course design. This course is strong from the opening hole to the finishing hole, with not a single weak hole in the entire mix. There isn’t the same accommodation of 45 different tee decks as in more commercial courses, but its also not needed. The holes are very natural, and its very easy from the tee to ascertain where one should hit their shots.
    Any course can be criticized, nitpicking is always easy, this course doesn’t deserve that, its a truly great course, one that would be fun to play and challenging under virtually any conditions, and after repeated rounds. The only regret for most will be that they can’t enjoy it enough times to satisfy them, its one of those courses where you finish wanting to jump right back onto the first tee and do it all over again !

  • I had the opportunity to play Redtail on the week-end. I consider the experience one of the best ones I have ever had. The course played tough but fair. Greens were exceptional & fairways tight. The rough was very thick & hard to get out of especially for a golfer of my caliber. The front nine was definately more challenging than the back. I could play this course over & over again.

  • Really? The course was tight? Fair but tough. Good god. Get a life. It’s a game. U pay more and they market your tail. A bill of goods.

  • Played the course 26/06/2011. What a great experience and a fabulous golf course in pristine condition. Only one other group on the course mid day speaks to it’s exclusivity. Each hole sets up completely different and demands you evaluate the risk reward factor before play. Greens are fast and difficult but fair.

  • Played the course last week and am going back in another 3 weeks. Can’t wait! For those that speak poorly of the course they have no idea of true golf. This course was designed with simplicity in mind. From the clubhouse to the cottages that blend into the course perfectly. The problem is everyone wants large manufactured courses that are uninspiring compared to Red Tail. With the addition of it’s exclusivity it creates a golf experience tough to replicate.

  • I recently played Redtail, and did it live up to the hype… Simply No.. It was a good and fair test for any golfer and could be quite challenging for the high handicapper, somewhat challenging for the mid handicap (as I am) and most likely fairly easy for a low handicap. The front 9 is where all the danger really lays, the back 9 it there for the taking. What you get when you do go is the experience of exclusivity. You approach the narrow steel gate and enter the grounds along a long and winding road to the clubhouse, which is looks small but stately on the perfectly manicured grounds. Once you enter the clubhouse and check in, you load up the carts and head off for the round. The one area of real disappointment was the lack of hole markers and yardage indicators. Not playing the course before added at least 5 strokes due to hidden dangers or hazards that were hidden due to the bends and elevation changes. We asked a grounds keeper about yardage and here a tip, the sprinkler heads are about 30 yards apart. All in all, I had a great day and I’m happy to have had the experience. Would I go back at the cost I paid, nope, one and done; time to move one.

  • I worked at redtail for almost five years in the club house and I can tell you that what makes this golf experience even more unique is that it is all about golf first and foremost. It is not the famous people or people of power that come there that makes it unique but the fact that as soon as you come through those gates everyone is equal. They are all there just for the pleasure of the game and the challenging course. ( maybe a little business as well but mostly golf )

  • I had the pleasure of being entertained at Redtail a number of years ago just prior to the amateur championship. The greens preparation was undeway which adds a stroke to any traditional golfers game, LOL. From the second we entered the gate, until the time we departed, it was a first class experience that I have not had since. Unless you are semi-pro, this course creates many challenges and presented a true golf experience. The small, private cottages on the course also present some entertaining views and stories of the periodic inhabitants that I will not repeat as I’m sure I may violate some NDA somewhere. I sincerely look forward to my next round should I have the luck of being engaged.

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