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Canadian Golf Architecture Review: Final Designers and State of the Industry

My Canadian golf architecture review was meant to show just how many designers are currently operating in Canada — a fact some were surprised by when Weir Golf Design said it approached 27 Canadian designers.

The truth is that these days, given market conditions, some will be pretty quiet, possibly for a few years to come. I’m not sure this is a bad thing — there are plenty of courses in this country that I’ve seen once and would like to get a second chance at (Blackhawk in Edmonton, by Rod Whitman, is one, while I still haven’t seen Digby Pines or the Lynx at Kingswood Park, for example). Therefore having fewer new courses to seek it out is far from a bad thing. Look at Ontario this year — with the exception of a soft opening of Turnberry, the project owned and operated by the Eagles Nest partnership — there are very few new courses of note opening to the public.

However, some designers are still busy. I met for lunch on Friday with Darrell Huxham, the former partner at Graham Cooke’s office. Huxham was in Ontario (he’s based in Montreal) meeting with the owners of Willow Valley in preparation to start a new project for them about a half hour from the existing course. Willow Valley, with its greens on steroids, has been a successful venture, and now the owners want to branch out. Huxham also talked about working for former Prime Minister Paul Martin on a six-hole course created on land owned by the politician. Apparently all the approvals were heightened for the course, with so much scrutiny that the project was more difficult than it should have been.

There were two designers I didn’t attend to in the initial list that I will include below.

What is next in design? There’s the launch of Mike Weir’s design firm, which will be formally announced at the start of February. Of course, word on it has already leaked out. But beyond that, I wonder what G4G readers think — far fewer golf courses forthcoming? Will the industry rebound when real estate prices come back in a year or two? What regions are hot in the country? Inner BC is stalled out — so where is the next boom? Or is there one? What happens to golf prices?

For what it is worth, I’ve had a number of calls with course GMs in recent weeks. Most are caustiously optimistic that the year will be at least flat, but I wonder if that optimism is misplaced. In Ontario, many in the industry feel some of ClubLink’s 15,000 members will walk away, having been lured in by attractive incentives on initiations that were less than annual dues. High-end public courses are hopeful that some of these rounds will come their way, but I’m far from sure.

The signs of a slowdown are already on us. Nigel Hollidge, GM of Bond Head was let go yesterday, the victim of a parent company that is struggling and courses that were built around development that now looks a long way off. Paul Villemaire, director of golf at Taboo in Muskoka, is also on his way out, leaving the club with no CPGA staffers. Lastly Ryan Wilson at Piper’s Heath was unceremoniously let go from his position at the popular public course a couple of weeks back. Where will they find jobs, especiallygiven that so few new courses are coming online.

Private courses face a bigger fight. Most have waiting lists, and many new clubs, like Coppinwood, are far from full. Gordon Stollery’s much-discussed Goodwood project still sits untouched near Uxbridge, with no business model or plan to launch. Sure Rosedale, Toronto and St. George’s have waiting lists, but that’s about it. Could we see a change in the private model? Already a club like Brantford is offering opportunities to play for a couple of years without paying an intiation. After all, some will be willing to pay $4,000 to play golf, but may not be prepared to kick out $30,000 on top of that.

With that, here’s a quick look at two final design groups:

Designer: Dick Kirkpatrick

Years in industry: 50+

Key Designs: Copetown Woods (near Ancaster, Ont); Otter Creek (Otterville, Ont)

Quote: “I just want to present them with a course they can enjoy. Something they can have fun at with an affordable fee.”

Recent Project: Otter Creek

Comment: Kirkpatrick has been involved in building courses for more than 50 years, starting with nine holes at Oakdale under Robbie Robinson. Since then he’s become among the most prolific builders in Canada, responsible for the likes of Crowbush Cove, among others. Now in semi-retirement, Kirkpatrick has created two intriguingly simple public courses — Ottercreek and Copetown Woods — that have both been successful and tap into the affordable daily fee market.

Strengths:

  • Deep connections to the key players in the industry
  • Is well respected as a course builder
  • Has worked on many key designs across Canada

Weaknesses

  • Sometimes you get the impression Kirkpatrick thinks each design is his last, and throws a lot of ideas at each
  • Has worked largely on lower budget projects on challenging land. Otter Creek is the exception to that, except it is located in an out of the way part of Southern Ontario

What’s Possible: Otter Creek could well be Kirkpatrick’s final design, but it is equally possible that one of the myriad of individuals he’s worked with could utilize him for another course. He builds what the country needs — good, affordable public golf. Otter Creek is strong and should garner him some attention.

Grade: B+

Designer: Richard Zokol and Armen Suny

Comment: It is hard to determine exactly where Zokol and Suny will end up. Zokol, a former PGA Tour player, and Suny, an agronomist of some repute, both worked with architect Rod Whitman on Sagebrush, Zokol’s ultra-private experiment in BC. The course looks terrific, but it hard to determine who did what. The routing was Whitman’s, but certainly some of the details were Zokol’s concepts. Zokol has embraced the concept of minimalist golf, so we’ll have to see where it takes him.

Strengths:

  • Zokol is very focused on what he likes in the game
  • Sagebrush looks like it is an artistic success, though the business is more in question
  • Suny was well regarded for his turf work, though that has little to do with design

Weaknesses:

  • Who is the architect here? Neither Zokol or Suny have created a course from scratch.
  • Questions will remain until they have their own project, and in the current climate, that is a big hurdle to overcome.

What’s Possible: There’s a chance that Sagebrush is heralded as a great collaboration, but that doesn’t mean it will bring the newly minted firm a lot of work. More questions here than answers, at least for the time being.

Grade: N/A

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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.

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  • RT,
    given the capital market and economy problems that we’ve seen and will continue to see for some time I’ve a few thoughts and opinions:

    – any course GM that believes rounds will be flat to last year is a GM with his head in the sand. Given that golf dollars are discretionary dollars I’d be planning rounds to be down %10-15%.
    – I believe the housing problem is going to be with us for many many years. If you consider that the DJ Industrial index is trading at about the same level it did 10 years ago and the fact that it’s down 40% since last fall – the amount of “wealth” that has vanished is massive and is going to take years and years to recover.
    – I’m not a banker but I would guess golf course development funding will likely be one of the last funding types to come back when the capital markets improve.

  • BC

    Terror,

    I have heard that the DMK and Player projects in the interior of BC have been stalled. Can you confirm? I know Maple Bay and Wyndandsea are probably dead and buried.

    I would love to see you interview Shackelford or Hanse about Union Bay.

  • travel a fair bit around Canada, and see a lot of public courses, and the GTA has done extrememly well with course development over the past 20 years or so. If things fall off at least we have those in place going forward. It shocks me, that Vancouver (given it’s population, and outdoor lifestyle) has such poor public golf, especially with their landscaping, it must be spending habits, as they belch when they find out what the rest of us usually pay! While the rest of BC has spectacular golf, is there some reason why Vancouver is so mediocre in this regard?

  • Glendale G&C let go of their GM with the board and club pro slated to take over the duties. Also, the greenskeeper was chopped to be replaced by his second who, in turn, won’t be replaced.

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