Course Review: Black Bear Ridge (Belleville, Ont.)
Designer: Brian Magee
Sometimes even when you haven’t seen a course, you have an impression of it. And those impressions aren’t always positive. So though Black Bear Ridge has been open for several years now, I had made no attempt to go down to see it. After all, its owner was reportedly some rich guy (Magee) who wanted to built his own version of a golf course. Sounded like a potential disaster to me.
With this baggage in mind, I finally went down to Belleville to see the course last week after the urging of an associate. I didn’t expect much. But thankfully, I came away pleasantly surprised.
There were a bunch of interesting stories that surfaced about Black Bear Ridge around its opening in 2006. Some said Magee, the owner and designer, had spent tens of millions on the course. Given that the site is two hours from Toronto, that seemed either remarkably decadent or stupid. Or not true, which is the real fact. Instead of paying big bucks, Magee was thrifty, using a builder, Boyd Barr (who created Smuggler’s Glen in Gananoque) and spending only a few million on the construction of the course, including the irrigation and pro shop. I spoke with Magee for a while on the course, and he said it was built as a reaction to the plans of Stephen Ross, then executive director of the Royal Canadian Golf Association, who was talking about building stadium courses. Magee wanted to build something simple and timeless, with great practice facilities. Now if only Ross had followed that model…
What you see is pretty much what you get at Black Bear Ridge. The course traverses some dramatic ridges (where the tees for 1, 10, and 17 are set) as well as some marshy low lands (holes 11 through 16). In all it is pretty solid ground for golf, with nice elevation changes, but still walkable. It opens with a simple downhill par-4, with a wide fairway and a green situated in a wide clearing of trees. Magee and Boyd were not elaborate with their bunker shapes, and the simplicity matches the course, including the greens, which have slight pitch, but avoid wilder movements. Soft and subtle, you might say.
What you end up with is a course akin to the better work of Stanley Thompson associate Robbie Robinson. There are a couple of clunkers. For example, the 11th hole, once consider a par-6 at 690 yards feels artificial and artificially difficult. Complete tree clearing along the wetlands would improve it, and alterations have already been made to its green site, which is located in a swampy area and allows few options that don’t involve the putting surface or water. The 16th, an uphill 436-yard par-4 feels like a routing issue, marching players straight uphill. It doesn’t have much character, but it certainly is difficult. Similarly, the second hole, a hard dogleg left, feels like the result of a strange routing decision.
Beyond that, Magee did pretty much everything right. He cleared under the trees, allowing for recovery shots. He used wide fairways on most of the holes, allowing for options and recovery. Greens are often created on-grade, allowing for running approaches in the right circumstances (which wasn’t when I visited, as it was wet). And the best holes — like the downhill par-4 17th, the big and bold 14th and the excellent mid-length par-3 15th — all over alternatives in the way they can be approached. Magee also throws in a strong all-or-nothing short par-4 (the 8th, which was playing 260-yards straight over water from the blue tees on the day we encountered it) and backs it up by the tricky ninth, a 215-yard par-3.
It turns out Black Bear Ridge is also great fun to play — and with a top green fee in peak months at only $70, it offers a strong value as well. Recommended.