Course Review: The Rock (Minett, Muskokas)
Designer: Nick Faldo/Brit Stenson/David Moote
I first played The Rock in the fall of 2003. The course wasn’t officially open yet, and I took the drive up to Muskoka with another writer. A group of media had been invited to come and play the course, have dinner, stay over that evening at Cleveland House, and tackle the course again the following day. There were maybe 15 people involved, so it was a small group, and the weather was cold and wet.
The first look we had at The Rock was the first hole — tight as a bowling alley, and long, with the second shot playing over a rocky outcropping to a semi-blind green. I played the course entirely before coming back to the first hole and hitting about a dozen tee shots, trying to figure out how to play the hole. It wasn’t like I was trying to find the best option for the hole — I was trying to find the only option given the hole’s narrow width and limited approaches to the green. Turns out it was best played with a 285-yard cut tee shot off the left bunker and a mid-iron into the green. And yeah, lots of weekend players or those on holiday have that shot in their bag.
The first hole was indicative of the overall layout of The Rock. It was uncompromisingly difficult, with holes that were narrow and tricky. I’ve come to appreciate golf courses that present alternate ways to the green, but that wasn’t the case at The Rock. In most instances there were two ways to play the hole — the right way and the wrong way.
A short history at this point. The Rock was conceived of by Ken Fowler, a successful entrepreneur, but new to the golf business. I’m not sure he had a complete plan in mind at the start, and hired Guelph’s David Moote to build his course. Moote routed the design, but if I understand the situtation correctly, in order to get it through environmental approvals, agreements were made for a series of holding ponds throughout the property. Somewhere along the way Fowler decided The Rock would become part of a massive resort and Marriott would become part of that. Moote was cast aside, though his routing remained in place and Nick Faldo and IMG Design was hired to finish the design and build the course.
Perhaps it was the small playing cooridors, or decisions Fowler made to save money by not blasting expanses of rock in some areas, or Faldo’s lack of interest in the project — whatever the case, the course was ultra-difficult, despite playing to a par-70 and less than 6,700 yards. It would win Golf Digest’s Best New Course in Canada in 2004 (over Blackhawk in Edmonton, but don’t get me started on that one) but in time golfers gravitated to friendlier — or at least more fair — designs, places like Muskoka Bay, Bigwin Island and ClubLink’s courses in the area. The Rock struggled for a couple of years of diminishing returns, before Fowler was convinced that he needed a mulligan on his design. More than $1-million was spent blasting rock, shifting and cutting earth to prop up landing areas of several fairways and replacing sand in bunkers. The course closed for a year before reopening this spring.
So what is the result? It is a patchwork of changes to a handful of holes, with a lot of the work fitting unnaturally in the landscape due to the need to prop up landing areas. In others bowls were created in the fairway to make them more receptive. In making these changes The Rock is a (slightly) easier golf course.
The alterations are easy to see right out of the gate. The first hole, previously a par-4, still has limited options, but has been made an easier par-5. The most significant changes start on the par-4 third. Previously a rock protected the left side of the hole in the landing area, while the right side of the fairway was sloped in such a way as to kick most tee shots into the right rough. From there you had to hit a cut around a silly holding pond to the front right of the green.
The silly holding pond is still there, but the rock on the left of the fairway is pretty much gone, and the fairway has been popped up on the right so balls will come to rest there. It is still a difficult hole — and if there’s one thing to take away from the changes to The Rock it would be that this is still a very hard golf course.
Other holes to see significant changes include the par-4 fourth, the par-5 ninth (opening up the green to approach shots), the 12th (which used to be an iron off the tee — new decks allow a 3-wood), the 13th (leveling the fairway), and 16 (improving the landing areas of this par-5). All of these changes improve the course for players of all levels.
My main criticism is what the changes to the natural landscape. Take, for instance, the 13th hole (pictured here). The fairway was previously misgraded, so everything kicked hard to the left. The situation has been leveled, but now the fall off on the left side of the fairway is so extreme the club felt the need to add a fence to keep people, I can only assume, from slipping into the woods. The problem is that in fixing the poor grading on several holes, the fairways now look popped up and out of context with their surroundings.
Part way through my tour of the changes, Greg Downer, who is running the course, said regardless of the alterations, The Rock is still a difficult course. “But there are people out there who really like that,” he said. He’s right — there are. But there aren’t that many of them, especially when other courses can be made challenging for the best players, and playable for the rest.
Can The Rock be resurrected? Certainly the new hotel, which will open in coming months, will help. But in tough economic times, with people being careful about where and how they spend their money, I have to think they’ll take their credit cards and play somewhere that offers a experience without the extreme challenges.
In the end the changes are a positive improvement. But the course still fundamentally lacks the elements that would make it significantly better — and those elements aren’t going to be captured in a renovation.