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Five Questions for Lionhead: GM Responds to G4G Remarks

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a post on Torontogolfnuts.com about Lionhead increasing the slope rating on its back tees to 155, the maximum allowed. Through a connection to the GAO, I was told the increase in slope was determined by added length to the course. That led to a slew of remarks from a variety of readers — you can find those comments here — as well as a lot of talk about the merits of Lionhead, and exceptionally difficult courses in general.

I also received several emails on the subject, including one from Boris Uvakov, the general manager at Lionhead. As a courtesy, I asked if I could publish his response; he declined. However, he did agree to respond to some questions on the club’s decision and to explain where the club sits in the current GTA golf market.

1) Explain, from your perspective, the changes to the course.

The Legends was designed to be a very challenging course with the better player in mind. It has since evolved (whether by choice or necessity is a moot point). Over the past ten years changes to the course have occurred for reasons of safety, aesthetics, playability and challenge. The last two reasons are not necessarily contradictory. We have tried to make the course easier for the average golfer playing from blue, white or red tees, while maintaining difficulty for the better players choosing to play the gold or blacks.

The first step was in 2000 when, to avoid forced carries on some holes, the forward tees were shortened by 325. Then in 2001 we tried encouraging senior and more novice male golfers to play from the most forward tees possible. At that time, most men’s egos would not permit themselves to play from the red tees. Our thinking was that these golfers would play a short set of tees (the whites) as long as they weren’t playing the reds, which many men still thought of as the “Ladies’ Tees” (I believe that this view may be slowly changing). Therefore, we added a fifth set of tees, but created very little stagger (93-yards in total) between the reds and the whites (approximately 5-yards per hole). Unfortunately, the whites were too short and received little or no play. Consequently, most golfers (including senior and novice men) continued to play the blues which were significantly longer. Our efforts, though well intentioned, failed! A year ago, we re-addressed this issue, by creating a new set of white tees (333 yards shorter than the blues, but 780 yards longer than the old whites). Further to encourage golfers to play the whites instead of the blues or golds, we removed the black tees from our scorecard. Therefore, instead of seeing five tees, where the whites are the second shortest, golfers are looking at a scorecard with four tees where the whites and blues are in the middle. This past season we noticed a significant amount of play from these new white tees.

Another issue that we tried to address was forced carries that penalized the novice and average golfers more than the better players. Unfortunately, the topography of the course with the valley, river and wetlands allowed for only one change. Hole #7, a double dogleg par-5, used to have a massive greenside bunker that started at the 100-yard stake. This bunker was not penal for the better players, but was really tough for the novice. Therefore, we reconfigured the massive bunker into several small traps with an opening right up to the green. One could literally putt or chip the ball all the way to the green. The beauty of this change, is that the bunkering still comes into play for the bombers trying to reach the green in two. (Note: For those who can’t manage the six forced carries over the Credit River, we have placed drop areas on the other side of the hazard.)

Trees have been planted over the years, not to penalize stray shots, rather to separate adjoining fairways or to better frame a hole. However, several of the tighter areas (#6, #10, #11, #14, #15 & #18) have experienced significant pruning and clearing of underbrush allowing balls to be located and consequently hit more easily. Further, wooded areas have been designated (by local rule) as lateral hazards, allowing for drops as opposed to returning to the original spot and re-hitting.

Fescue was added for aesthetic and maintenance reasons, in areas that are mostly out of play (unless, like me last year, you developed a case of the shanks!). However, the rough has been reduced in height by half an inch. Further, rough leading up the start of fairways on holes 7, 9, 10 & 12 has been cut down to semi rough collar height to assist golfers not reaching the fairways.

In 2006 a major project was undertaken to restore the greens to their original size. Over the years many of the greens shrunk by up to 4′ on each edge. This restoration as well as new collars increased the greens by up to 15% in size. These changes are most noticeable on holes 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14 &18.

New Black Tees:

With the advancements of technology, the average high handicapper has not added significant distance. This is not the case for the low handicappers and pros. Lionhead hosted the Skins Game in its inaugural year (1991) featuring Arnold Palmer, Dave Barr, Fuzzy Zoeller and Peter Jacobsen. On what is now Legend’s #1 (458-yard par 4, from an elevated tee) each player hit driver from the tee and 4-wood, 3, 4 & 6 iron approach shots respectively. Last year, I witnessed a 16-year old junior, in wet conditions, hit 3-wood, 7-iron into the green. Canadian Tour member Will Mitchell played into a breeze and hit 4-hybrid, 9-iron into this same hole. Over the last 15 years since Legends has been played in its current layout (Lionhead was originally three 9 nines), new back tees have resulted in an average increase in length of about 11 yards per hole. This stat can be somewhat misleading, because some holes have not changed but others have significantly. Therefore, I will highlight the major changes to back tees.

Hole #2 was lengthened in 2000 from 397 to 464 yards. One reason was safety. From the old tee, a 290 yard drive pulled to the left could endanger those on #18 tee. We have since planted some trees for protection as well. Another reason was to toughen up the hole. Interestingly, after this lengthening, the course was re-rated and actually had a slight drop in both course rating and slope.

Hole #13, was originally a 143-yard par three with a relatively large green
and had no bunkers. In 2006 a new black tee was built, lengthening the hole to 195
yards. Hardly a long tee shot for an accomplished player, and I personally think that it’s a much more interesting hole from the new deck.

Last fall, hole #5 was lengthened by 34 yards. The reason is because that hole was
originally designed to be played as a dogleg around a large bunker complex.
Only the longest hitters could manage the 275 yard risk-reward carry shot needed
to clear the bunkers giving them a lob wedge into the green. (note: this hole was a new hole that opened in 1994. That same year Davis Love III led the PGA in driving distance with an average of 283.8 yards). With new technology, a professional (even a club pro such as me) can achieve this shot with regularity (no more risk). The new carry is now 310 yards, and I have still seen some young bombers fly the traps!

This past spring, hole #10 was lengthened from 378 to 411 yards, by adding a new tee deck up the valley slope. The new elevated tee gives a much more dramatic view of the valley. Also, the fairway narrows about 110 yards out, allowing a very generous landing area for a tee shot ranging from 240-300 yards. It is now a great driving hole, whereas before, you were more likely to hit 3-wood or hybrid.

A new black tee on #3 has been built (it was not in play when the OGA re-rated the course). This new black tee lengthens this Par 3 from 191 to 224 yards. Before 1994 this green was part of a par four and, sloping strongly from back to front, is receptive to long approach shots. Prior to this change, the Legends had four par-3s all playing similar yardages. With no par-3s over 200 yards, this change added some variety to the tee shots.

2) Were any of the changes designed to increase the difficulty of the course? What does a slope of 155 mean to golfers or to a Lionhead player?

None of the changes were designed to increase the level of difficulty for the golfer playing the Blue, White or Red tees. In fact, as mentioned previously, changes were made to make the course more playable for this demographic.

The changes to the back tees were done mostly to address technological advancements or, in our opinion, to present an improved hole. We recognized that the lengthening of #2 back in 2000 and more recently #13 & #3, would make those holes more challenging, however this was primarily a byproduct of creating more interesting holes for the low handicapper. Did we intentionally lengthen it to jack up the rating and slope? No we didn’t. But, not that this wasn’t considered. There were (are) still many options available to lengthen the blacks, which were discounted in order not to be extreme.

Sloping is the statistical method used to determine what a player’s handicap should be on a particular course. The Legend’s slope of 155 is the highest calculable rating. Therefore, the greater the handicap index the greater the differential compared to the scratch golfer. Basically, what it means is that the course, played from those tees, is way too difficult for the average golfer.

3) Can anyone play the back tees or is that monitored?

Black tee play is restricted to professionals and those with handicap indexes of 5.0 or less. Appropriate signage indicating such is affixed in the staging areas and on the first tee. Those golfers meeting the criteria will be given a special black tee scorecard in the pro shop and the starter will permit them to play the tips.

What happens, sometimes, is that, after the first hole, golfers will drop back to the tips. If the course is not too busy and the group is keeping pace, then our marshals will often turn a blind eye. A few years ago the Legends increased its tee-off stagger from 8 to 10 minutes. Therefore, on days where the tee sheets are fully booked there are 25% less players on the course than in previous years. This certainly does not help maximize revenues, but it does wonders for pace of play.

4) Where do you see LH fitting into the market? Is there a segment for a very difficult public course? Can a public course be too difficult?

Lionhead’s primary market are corporate and/or charity tournaments. Since these events almost exclusively play a scramble format, the difficulty of the course doesn’t tend to matter. There are many 288’s where the Legends will provide a lower winning score than the Masters.

A secondary market is the type “A” alpha males who are determined to play the toughest track available. Hence the “Tame the Lion” ads we used to run not too long ago. It’s surprising how big this market is. On the days where Lionhead does not have events, the Legends, despite a higher greens fee, will book-up much faster than the Masters.

Another significant market is the Asian and South Asian population. This is a rapidly growing demographic that seems to relish the challenges of tougher courses.

Lastly a market that has been growing for Legends is, surprisingly, women. With the reds playing 5,380 (shorter than the reds on Masters), more women then ever are playing Legends.

Certainly a course (public or private) can be too tough. But as long as the customer is not sold a false bill of goods, then he or she is entitled to that experience. Legends has always positioned itself as a tough course. Even with our considerable efforts to make it more playable from the blue, white and red tees it will never be an easy course. Playable, but not easy!

5) The Legends course seems to have as many detractors as fans. Why do you think it is such a polarizing experience for many?

I think that the Legends can damage one’s ego. Some players will get beat up on the course and can’t wait for the chance to get back and try to improve on their performance. Others will get beat up and blame the course for being unfairly tough. I too have a love/hate relationship with the course. What I have come to realize about the layout is that there is not a hole that is unfair. Over the years, I have birdied each hole and have gotten up and down from every possible position. What make Legends tough for most, is that it is relentless. There are no holes where you can just relax and still expect to make par. Very few golfers, who do not play competitive golf at a very high level, posses the consistency required to master this course.

Other factors, which do not relate directly to the layout, can also influence one’s experience. For instance, pace of play. Prior to going to 10 minute tee-time intervals, it was common to experience slow play. This more than anything will aggravate golfers. Further, service levels can also affect people’s overall experience. There were times, particularly when Lionhead was the only game in town, where clients were taken for granted. For years now, we have been trying desperately to change this reputation.

Legends is not everyone’s cup of tea. Golfers tend to love it or hate it. Fortunately for us, those in the former group still play our course on a regular basis. Unfortunately for us, those in the latter group can be quite vocal.

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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.

6 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Great response, thanks Robert for posting. Lionhead Legends seems to stir up quite a bit of emotion with people. I for one love the course but I understand also why people love to hate it. 20 years from now when the trees are 15 feet taller what will we be writing about the Legends course. How tough will it be then. I think Alan’s blog about the course was one of the funniest things I have ever read.

  • I too thank RT for posting. If Lionhead’s goal is to get people talking -they sure have- I think they know they’ll never be a high or mid high handicap friendly course so might as well get as much publicity as possible even if most of it is bad. Just from the talk on tgn.com and this fine site -how many people that havent played it will be tempted to go out and just see what all the fuss is about. To correlate with your other story oif the day -too bad Humber Valley couldnt have been built on the Humber river we have here and transplant Lionhead to Newfoundland – then we’d all be saying good riddance! Also would like to hear from the “Asian population” that Boris refers to confirm that they all like hard courses.

  • Full kudos to Boris for his insightful and detailed response. I think he succinctly covers both sides of the argument that has been running passionately here on the message board. Thank you, RT, for running his rebuttal in full. I guess I can count myself as one of the the “Some players will get beat up on the course and can’t wait for the chance to get back and try to improve on their performance”, as opposed to the countless whiners who can be categorized as the “Others will get beat up and blame the course for being unfairly tough”. Cheers, all.

  • Last yr a part time marshall of theirs arranged a group outing on the wknd for 8 of us. When the very first of our group stood on the first tee, to tee off, a heavy rain started. We looked at each other and shrugged saying maybe it would lighten up.
    Well we reached the first green and our putts were no joke….skidding and aquaplaning.
    The rain became a thunderous downpour and we rushed back to the pro shop. Completely soaked we inquired on forecast. They said it would not clear….likely….for hours.
    When we asked for a raincheck we were told that they would not offer one…further angry interactions…resulted in the staff saying A. we were informed it was calling for rain and would get no compensation ( a complete lie) and B. that they would ‘maybe’ ‘consider’ a 9 hole credit.
    Keep in mind an actual part time marshall of theirs is being told this news….if this is how they treat a group, several who had never played, including one of their staff albeit part time…imaging our image and impression of Lionhead?

    In the end they took our prime time payment and gave us an off peak twilight credit. Nevertheless, after the raincheck i never went back…and never will.
    Horrible service and unfortunately i hear from many a fellow golf nut…that this arrogant and surly service is all too common.

  • Same raincheck nonsense happened to me. However, that was just one of many examples of where I have felt abused as a customer.

    I’m not a big fan of the golf course, however the service is worse. I actually drive right by the course and continue 45 minutes further to play Osprey Valley. Even when gas was $1.40 a litre.

    I used to play there 10 – 15 times a year. No more.

  • Nice to see Boris’ response. He made some good points.

    As a South Asian, I do not enjoy “more difficult/challenging” courses. I enjoy courses with options. Personally, not a huge fan of any of the Kaneff courses for those reasons. Rather play Pipers, Osprey Healthlands, or Lakeview…

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