Course Review: St. George’s Golf and Country Club (Etobicoke, Ont.)
Designer: Stanley Thompson
On Friday, with the weather a little frosty for mid-October, I drove down to Etobicoke for a round at St. George’s Golf and Country Club, which will host next year’s RBC Canadian Open. Though I’ve written about it extensively (including a chapter in my book, Going for the Green that included designer and member Tom McBroom) and played it numerous times, I’ve never actually written a review about it.
The question about St. George’s is simply whether it is the best course in Canada. Many think it is; it typically ranks either #1 or #2 in most course rankings in the country and is in Golf Magazine’s Top 100 courses in the world. Tom Doak put it in his “gourmet’s choice” section of the Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. Its routing, where valleys are often traversed as opposed to played down, is a unique feature and one most architects think makes the course great. It isn’t an obvious way to route the course, but it creates several great holes (#2, #7, for example). The course actually plays harder than it looks and several of the par-4s are simply outstanding, including the previously mentioned second and seventh holes, as well as the 14th, and the closers, the long and challenging 17th and the dramatic and pretty 18th. Simply put, St. George’s has that fine mix of being a great members course and a great course. That doesn’t often happen. Typically a great course becomes too difficult to be a great members course, but that isn’t the case with St. George’s.
The all-world holes start after the casual opener, a par-4 that plays downhill and then up to a raised green, protected by artistic bunkering that is full of fingers and noses. As previously mentioned, the second, a lengthy par-4, bucks convention by playing over a valley, leaving the golfer forced to hit a draw to avoid the right bunker and make it to the top of the fairway, allowing for a look at the long, narrow green that is flanked by bunkers. There are alternate ways to play the hole, typical of Thompson, and the fairway is not particularly narrow. The difficulty is in the strategy of the hole, not some contrived method of tricking it up to make it a challenge.
At St. George’s, Thompson seems to have found the appropriate mix of length, strategy and playability. Such is the case with the fifth hole, a long par-4 with a bunker cut into the hillside just outside of the landing area. While the second plays across the valley, the fifth plays down into a valley, and emerges with an uphill approach shot, before one plays the sixth, which once again crosses over a valley to a green perched on a steep slope.
The back nine doesn’t let up either. Though the 11th is a par-5 at only slightly more than 500 yards, will prove a pushover for the pros at the Canadian Open (and counter balance the third, a par-5 for members that will play as a long par-4 in the tournament), it is still a stunning hole, with long views and a tricky narrow green that falls off to the left. The 14th is often regarded as the toughest on the course, with a downhill tee shot to a wide fairway and an approach over a meandering creek to another narrow green. Interestingly, Thompson provides players with a way out — there is fairway short of the hole over the creek that provides an opportunity to lay up and still chip on for a possible one-putt par.
While the par-3s are (generally) terrific individually, as a whole they have similarities in length, certainly a drawback. The sixth, a brilliant par-3 over a valley to a steeply sloped green, is a great hole, there are back tees that stretch it to nearly 200 yards. Hopefully these aren’t employed often at the Canadian Open as the hole was meant to be short and there’s more excitement in seeing pros challenge a short three with a tough green than in watching them flail away from 200 yards.
Interestingly, the par-3s also indicate what could become a problem at St. Georges’s — the greens. The third hole, which I’ve written about elsewhere, has a green that was altered for the 1968 Open. The work was done by Robbie Robinson, Thompson’s lead architect. The third green is now an abomination, a putting surface that is only a clown’s mouth away from being at home on a miniture golf course. While most greens need flat areas in which to safely place flags, the third at St. George’s has two (center and left front) and both of those are questionable as well. Balls hit to the right back will come off the front of the green, as they did when I played — and the greens were aerated. The green should have been fixed prior to the course holding the Canadian Open, but for some reason that didn’t happen. Additionally members are said to “love” the green, though after playing the green that statement seems incredible. There are simply few ways to keep the ball from rolling back to the front of the green — and that was on a day when the greens were quick, but not fast.
The third isn’t the only green where the level of slope could become a problem (#7, #12, and #15 all have similar issues), but it is the one where the problem seems most obvious. I’m sure a solution has been considered, but I’m anxious to see what they’ve come up with.
Overall St. George’s is magnificent, a mix of lengths and holes that are almost without rival in Canada. However, there’s one other consideration worth mentioning. Like Hamilton, which hosted the 2003 and 2006 Canadian Opens, St. George’s in now narrowing fairways, adding blue grass to what was previously fairway. Often this has been done on slopes on the edges of fairways that were designed to move the ball back into the fairway (see this on #1, #5 etc.). I find this odd since it will have little impact on the pros, but makes the course more enjoyable for members. But if members like the green on #3, perhaps they are big fans of getting tangled in blue grass rough just off the fairway as well. No accounting for taste, apparently, but I find these changes make the holes more one-dimensional. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
Overall, as a Canadian Open course, St. George’s is a fascinating experiment, and a challenging one at that. But as a members golf course, it is as good as it comes in Canada.
(see below for video of the third green at St. George’s)