Course Review: Memphremagog GC, Magog, Quebec
Designer: Thomas McBroom
Redtail. Oviinbyrd. Goodwood. Sagebrush.
Yep, Memphremagog is one of those courses, the type the average guy never gets to see unless he happens to hang out with bank CEOs or some other powerbroker. The type of course than costs $200K to get the front door to open, and thousands more to play each summer.
Interestingly, Memphremagog, more typically referred to as simply “Magog,” aspires to be more than just a haunt for the ultra-rich. Its founders, Paul Desmarais Jr. and Jean Monty, wanted the course to be a tough test of one’s game as well. And while it might not be the National Golf Club of Canada in terms of difficulty, it may well have 18 of the most difficult greens in Canada. Of course, being exclusive and having difficult greens does not necessarily get a course set among the best in the country — the true elite, like Highlands Links, St. George’s and Hamilton GC. But more on that later.
There’s a lot to be overwhelmed by when you make the drive up the winding entrance road to Magog, which is located about an hour and a half outside of Montreal. The clubhouse, white and still new enough to be luminous, rests at the end of the lane, where the staff will take your car to be parked. The clubhouse itself is grand without being overstated or ostentatious (see Magna as one that goes too far), and the attention to detail and scale is right for a club with so few members (I didn’t count the lockers — but it can’t be much more than 30 or so in the men’s locker room).
So it is one of those clubs, one where the experience is such that it can overwhelm any comment on the actual course. I’ve often heard my peers, when offered the opportunity to play a virgin course or high-end facility, comment on the experience, but not the course. I recall one actively raving about the Ridge at Manitou, saying it was so good because no one was there. Which begs the question — would it have been as fine an outing if the course had been busy? You can’t always expect to have a course to yourself, after all.
There are plenty of great golf experiences in Canada. Mount Bruno in Montreal is isolated with a course that intrigues time and again. Redtail has its mystique, still intact though pretty much everyone I know has played it. Oviinbyrd restricts pretty much everyone, but the club isn’t pretentious at all. I’ve also had the good fortune to play Ron Joyce’s Fox Harb’r without any other golfers on the course. It isn’t my favourite course in the country — but it is hard to ignore the fact you have the course to yourself.
On the day I played Magog, it was only me and my host, as well as the head pro, playing. Oh, and some caddies along for the ride — at least our rounds gave them something to do.
So the experience is remarkable. How is the golf? The answer is exceptional, but perhaps not at the level that would include it with the most elite courses in the country.
It starts off relatively plainly, with designer Thomas McBroom crafting a slight dogleg that runs to a tricky uphill green. That’s followed by a long, well-bunkered par-5 that is relatively plain until the green. It really isn’t until the 6th hole, a long (it plays 525 yards from the tips) par-4, that one gets a sense of the expansiveness of the course. The tee shot, hard downhill, yields at a greensite that is both large, well bunkered and tricky. In fact, if there is a common trait among the holes, it is the greens. McBroom’s early career was noted for his emphasis on rolling, undulating and sometimes downright punishing greens. The huge steps and other characteristics of those greens don’t reappear at Magog, but in many ways the putting surfaces at the course are as challenging as anything McBroom has ever created.
Perhaps because there is so little play at the course — less than a few thousand rounds, I’d guess — the greens have some intriguing elements. The first green plays hard back to front, forcing players to carefully judge their approach early in their round. The par-3 fourth looked harmless, but proved to be anything but, while the seventh green and the par-3 13th were unrelenting. The 13th is actually worthy of further comment, with a bulge placed in the middle-front portion of the green, punishing any long approach with the difficulty of putting downhill and having to navigate the correct portion of the bulge to get near the hole.
Beyond the greens, McBroom has built some exceptional holes on land that is reminiscent of Muskoka in Ontario in terms of topography. It doesn’t have the rock that is ever-present in Muskoka, but it does have the tree-lined appearance. The 9th hole, a par-five with a fairway that runs along a stream, forced players to think about the placement of their layup, while the stream comes back in play on the approach by running the length of the green. Other standouts include the 13th, with its magnificent green complex, and the intriguing 17th, with its natural flair.
There are some elements that don’t work as well, or have been utilized on previous McBroom designs. Not that everything has to be unique and original, but the holes surrounding the created holding pond that becomes a design feature on holes 7 and 8 are a bit obvious, while holes 7 and 12 have been tried by McBroom on other courses. “Human nature has induced architects to repeat the forms which have been well received in the past,” writes Tom Doak in “The Anatomy of a Golf Course.” That’s clear with the 7th hole, which plays from a set of tees alongside the holding pond. The tee shot — in fact much of the hole — is similar to the second at McBroom’s Firerock in London, Ont. The golfer is offered a clear route up the middle-right, while the water angles away to the left, making any attempt to that side longer and more challenging. The right side of the fairway is well bunkered, while the approach plays slightly uphill to a green. The greens are different in the two holes (Magog is angled perpendicular to the fairway, while Firerock’s is pushed up and with the length of the green receiving the tee shot.
The other lift by McBroom is the 12th, the so-called “short four” on the course at 336 yards. This one has its similarities with the second at Ridge at Manitou, another short four that I don’t think works particularly well. In both instances the tee shot plays down to a fairway to the left, and then returns right up a rise to the green. In both instances the only way to get close to the green, without hitting a massive cut, is to take the tee shot over the trees in the hope of approaching the green from the right and shortening the approach. It is a low percentage shot and one I imagine few actually take.
So where does Memphremagog sit? There are some that think it is the best course in Quebec, and pound-for-pound I think they are probably right. I might still take Mount Bruno over it, but there’s no doubting it is an attractive, interesting test of golf, with decidedly fairways of the needed width and greens that would capture your imagination time and again.
The legend has it that when determining the design of the course, Jean Monty traveled to Oviinbyrd to see Thomas McBroom’s work there. In that instance Ian Leggatt happened to be playing the course and card a boatload of birdies, enroute to shooting 60 or some such number. Monty was said to have enjoyed the course but told McBroom that Magog couldn’t allow players to post such a number, which probably accounts for the difficulty of the greens.
And it is the difficulty that separates Magog from Oviinbyrd or even the Ridge at Manitou. Is it in the elite in Canada? Does it rest comfortably next to St. George’s, The National and Hamilton? Not quite — in fact likely a ways outside of that famed threesome. But it is intriguing and if only for the greens alone, it is one of McBroom’s more inventive courses.
One wonders though, about the need to make such an exclusive course so difficult and long — 7,498 yards from the tips. Sure the best amateurs in Quebec have tested it and found it can repel their games. So what? If the course’s founders weren’t so concerned about the details of difficulty, I wonder what they might have accomplished.