Course Review: Lambton Golf and Country Club
Original designer: Willie Dunn
Redesign: Rees Jones and Keith Evans
Review: Lambton G&CC
It is often hard not to have expectations of a course even before you’ve seen it. The designer on a project, and his history of previous work, colours what you anticipate. The advance comments of trusted associates provides an advance impression and photos and discussion on the Web offers you perspective, even if it then coloured by the quality of the photos and the prejudices of those who write on forums and message boards.
I came to Lambton predisposed against the work of Rees Jones. I’ve never seen any of his work that left me particularly impressed, from original work like Reynold’s Plantation or Royal Oaks in Moncton, NB, or Grand Niagara outside St. Catharines, through to renovations at courses like Quaker Ridge in Scarsdale, NY, or London Hunt in London, Ont. or Royal Montreal’s Blue Course. The scale always seems one-dimensional – ie. big and bigger – the greens appear contrived focusing on occasionally clumsy movement, and the overall work seems singular in nature.
So it doesn’t altogether surprise me that Lambton, a prestigious private club previously saddled with an equally unimaginative course, initially told me I wasn’t welcome to see what Jones had done the previous year (the course reopened late in the summer after being closed for a year). I was initially invited to join a couple of local pros for a round in early October; it turns out they were welcome, but the head pro at Lambton said in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t join them. Fair enough, I suppose. There is no reason a club has to allow me onto its fairways. In this case the head pro said it was because of my critiques of Jones’ renovation work at Lambton. Problem was that I’d only once referenced Lambton, and that was in connection with the financial failures of Royal Oaks and Grand Niagara. I responded back to the club that they could do exactly what they wanted – that was their prerogative.
Anyway, I thought for a while that my commentary on Lambton would have to come from what I could judge from Scarlett, the roadway that runs parallel to several holes on the course’s front nine. Then, somewhat surprisingly, the president of the club, former mining CEO Peter Farmer, emailed and asked if I wanted to join him for a round. I gladly agreed and am pleased I did.
To be clear, Lambton is a much better course than it was previously. Jones, with much of the work done by lead associate Keith Evans, has taken a decidedly average piece of land that housed an even more mundane golf course and made it better than average – at least where the property allowed for it.
I’m still surprised at the selection of Jones. He’s costly and his renovation work, especially at Royal Montreal, was clumsy. Of course, it made more sense once Farmer told me that to the best of his knowledge no one from Lambton went to see Jones’ work in Montreal. Perplexing. If you were building a $5-million house, I’m pretty sure you’d interview numerous architects and then want to see their work, and speak with the homeowners about whether they had any issues. That doesn’t seem to happen when it comes to golf clubs.
Regardless, where Lambton had decent land in the previous design, the course was still very average, with the notable exception of the 9th hole, apparently a Stanley Thompson design that was terrific. And where the land was lousy – which is on former floodplain occupied by more than half the holes – the design was repetitive, bland and dull.
The redesign uses many of the key Jones features – he never ventures too far off the basic formula set out by his father in the 1950s. That means the scale of the bunkers is very large, even if the land doesn’t call for it, and there’s shaping of the land even where it isn’t needed. However, other typical features – the raised greens flanked by deep bunkers, and the tiered greens (ie Royal Montreal) thankfully don’t occur as often at Lambton.
Where the golf course is good – like the opening holes one through three – and the finishing stretch of 14 though to 18 (the final two holes are still in construction, but I walked them with Farmer after our round) are not coincidently where the best land is. The improvement on the course comes from changes to the bulk of the flat holes to the north of the culvert that runs through the course. Though still flat, holes like the par-5 6th and the meaty par-4 14th, use the culvert as a design feature and make the course tougher and more interesting. The best holes, 7, a par-5 along the river, 8, a connector par-3 that resides just below the ridge, and the 9th (good to see it was altered too much, though that bunker plugged into the face of the green is awful), still rest on the best of the property.
The greens are also much better than Jones’ work at Royal Montreal. Often subtle ridges divide the putting surfaces. There’s nothing particularly artificial about the shaping, and Jones doesn’t pop everything up, presently golfers with options on how to play them, as opposed to forcing aerial approaches. I’ve heard the club gave Jones pretty explicit instructions about slope in the greens, so perhaps that explains their relatively straight-forward nature.
Elsewhere the short par-4 13th utilizes a central hazard well, and was a particular favourite, though I found the one-shot holes, the 192-yard fifth and the short 140-yard 12th, to be a bit of a letdown. The fifth in particular is unfortunately bland, at least partly because the trees behind the green and in front of the river can’t be cleared. Additionally the shaping on holes like the par-4 second (the left side of the fairway in particular) is artificial and unappealing, designed to protect a hole on the short course, but coming across like Jones was trying to obscure a landfill.
After our round, I had a nice discussion with Farmer about the changes. I was cautious; I don’t want to overstate my feelings, only to analyze them later and come to a different conclusion. Yes, Lambton is a better golf course. But even the scalpel of Jones can’t turn water into wine. A great designer might – and I emphasize might – have been able to take the flat land and create something fantastic. Great courses are almost always a mix of great land and great designs. In Lambton’s case they now have a solid design, but can’t overcome the fundamental basis of where the course is built.