I think Toronto GC may be the most important golf course in Canada. Not the best. Or the hardest. Just the most important. I can’t say I came to this conclusion on my own — I know several others who put forth this point and I’ve become convinced by their arguments.
So why is the course so important, especially for those who have never set foot on the club’s grounds? Like National Golf Links in Long Island, Toronto GC set the standard for all courses in Canada. Designed by Harry Colt, it came before all the other great courses in Canada — before Hamilton (another Colt design), before Scarboro, and before all the terrific Willie Park and Walter Travis designs. It is likely at Toronto GC that Stanley Thompson met and studied the work of Colt, and it was likely this experience that led him into golf design (alongside Toronto GC pro George Cummings, likely Canada’s most underrated designer).
All of this brings me to Martin Hawtree’s so-called “restoration” of Toronto GC, which is currently going on and the course is shut to members while work is underway. I say restoration because that is the term I keep hearing from the club and from Hawtree’s writing on the subject. After all, Hawtree is a supposed Colt expert — he has connections to Colt through his father. And Martin is a fine designer as far as I can tell. I’m very fond of his work at Tarandowah in Avon, Ont. and I continue to think this is the best value and one of the most enjoyable courses in all of Canada. It keeps me coming back, despite a couple of weak holes (namely 4 and 17).
I started thinking about TGC’s work when an associate sent me the details of a blog by construction company TDI with offices in Canada and the U.S. that is doing the work at the course. TDI is regarded as one of the better golf construction firms in Canada. The firm bills itself as “classic restorations” (it is right there, under their logo) but I wonder whether TGC is a restoration in any way. Incidently, TDI is also doing the work at Toronto’s Lambton G&CC, but that one can’t be characterized as a restoration. It is a do-over, under the guidance of Rees Jones’ office. For the life of me that one makes little sense, but I digress.
So what is going on at Toronto? There is a new irrigation system planned and plenty of changes mandated by safety — namely moving the first fairway away from the entrance road towards the ravine, a change to #15 and the tees on 6 due to the entrance to the club, and two greens are being rebuilt — the great 11th and the 15th, which might be the best greensite on the property. I have no idea why the second green isn’t being redone — or the 16th — which are both Howard Watson greens, if my understanding of TGC’s history is correct. Also there will be new bunkers aplenty.
Now TDI are just following Hawtree’s directions. And Hawtree has the reputation of being a Colt “expert.” However, I’ve heard from several designers in the U.S. and abroad that they feel Hawtree is more interpretive than restorative. This has become a topic on Golfclubatlas.com, the foremost architecture site on the Net, where Paul Turner and golf architect Brian Phillips have raised questions about whether there are any restorative elements to the TGC work, or to Hawtree’s work in general.
Certainly Phillips points out that the bunkers at Sunningdale look nothing like those that Colt created at the course. That was reinforced by a photo sent to me by designer Martin Ebert, demonstrating what the bunkers at the New Course at Sunningdale looked like in Colt’s time. Today the work by Hawtree has cleaned up all the rugged edges and many feel the bunkers have far less character.
My biggest question with the whole matter — aside from why TGC bothered in the first place — is how can a plan that moves two original greens be called a “restoration.” Truthfully there’s very little restoration taking place — it is a renovation of one of Canada’s classic courses, one that set the template for those that followed. Sure it is a bit short by modern standards, but no one is talking about hosting a Canadian Open there any time soon. And it has tough holes — like #5, #9, #11, and #17 — all of which make up for anything short on the rest of the property.
“Restoration” is a buzzword these days — and a bit of a cliche. Rarely are true “restorations” done — though some will be sympathetic to the original aims of the designer. Is that the case with TGC and Hawtree? I can’t say — but I will state clearly that moving original greens, rerouting holes and making substantial alterations is not restorative.
I hope TGC and Hawtree gets this one right — they are tinkering with a piece of Canadian golf history.
For a tour of TGC, check out their site here.