Every year since 2005 at about this time I’ve returned for a game at Oviinbyrd, the private club that was established by Peter Schwartz, the former CEO of tech company Descartes Systems. I covered Descartes when I wrote tech for the National Post, and got to know Peter well — as well as his love of golf. He’s a chapter in my last book, Going for the Green.
Yesterday I made my return visit for a 3-hour round at Oviinbyrd. I don’t think it is the best course in Canada — that distinction is held by either Highlands Links or St. George’s — though I do think it is the standout in Muskoka. The holes are playable and intriguing, more so than a tough brute like Muskoka Bay. It also has great character all the way along, though I’m not sure I’m fond of the 8th hole, a marginal par-5 with water down the left.
A friend who joined me for the round asked how the club had done after opening. I told him it was essentially sold out before opening — while the Ridge at Manitou, another strong course in the area, struggled. I’ve long wondered why it was such a success, and I think it comes down to understanding customer demand and what they wanted from what is essentially a cottage course. I think it also raises questions about the future of private courses and their need to evolve.
For starters, while super private, Oviinbyrd is not a snobby course. Schwartz doesn’t seem to care if you show up in jeans or are wearing sandals when you arrive (not that I would, but I’m saying…). There are no tee times — access to the tee is the foundation of the course, which is why it has a small membership. It has great dining and the restaurant is part of a dining club, unique to the area. The foundation is not overwhelmingly large. Everything is in its own place, so to speak.
I first visited Oviinbyrd in 2004, before it was open. I stayed the night at the club and played with Schwartz the following day. The food was extraordinary, and the golf was exceptional. I reviewed the course in 2005, after it officially opened. In the meantime, it stayed out of the course rankings. It wasn’t that Schwartz didn’t want raters at the course; rather, it was about allowing access to the tee for members. Regardless it made a couple of the ratings, including sitting at #10 in the recent Ontario Golf rating.
1. The most important: Never throw a club in anger.
2. Do not change your shoes in the parking lot. (Perfectly OK at a public course, but the locker room at private clubs is preserved as the last bastion of golfing ablutions.)
3. No blue jeans, even the expensive kind.
4. Take off your hat when you go indoors or when sitting down to eat.
5. No cell phones on the course or in the clubhouse. (One club I know is very tough on this: Mobile phones are only permissible sitting in your car in the parking lot with the windows rolled shut. A friend of mine adheres to this rule with his convertible top down.)
Strikes me that this is really “five sacred rules” designed to keep the game from growing, even though I agree with many of them. He’s right — don’t ever throw a club, though I have no idea why one shouldn’t change their shoes in the parking lot and who cares if one wears jeans when entering a clubhouse, though on the course is another matter altogether. I agree one should take their hat off indoors (what’s the line Tony Soprano says — “They took the bleachers out years ago..”) but I could care less if you take a cell phone call as long as you play in under four hours.
Oviinbyrd works because it has the right mix of private golf and a great course while discarding some of the rules that hold the game back. Why has ClubLink been so successful? Certainly part of it is because of the multiple course offerings (though only a handful are really good). But surely some of that success is is because the organization isn’t too uptight. Founder Bruce Simmonds had it right — if you can’t make a cell phone call at a private club, a lot of professionals will find another place to play.
Golf, in many instances, has become bogged down in archaic rules that don’t help it move forward. In order to be successful maybe it needs to allow people to wear jeans in the clubhouse, and take the occasional cell phone call.
I will finish with this — I was at Cutten Club last week and after a 36-hole day of golf we retreated to the clubhouse for some beer and chili. After sitting there for a half hour I looked around — no one aside from our group was under the age of 60. And this was at a club that isn’t exactly a blue blood facility. If golf is going to survive amid economic turmoil, it has to change and in changing it will have to accept that some of its preconceived notions will have to be discarded.