Course Review: The Lakes
Designer: Graham Cooke
Names are rarely reflective of the actual golf course, and when they are — like Ontario’s The Rock — the reflection isn’t usually a good one.
But The Lakes is the perfect name for Graham Cooke’s design on Cape Breton Island. It is a safe name to the point of being forgettable. In fact it sounds more like the moniker for a gated retirement community in Florida, where the old folks in white pants wielding walkers need to keep pace or become lunch for the gators hanging out in the ponds hyperbolically called “lakes.”
In this case, I’ve never heard anyone in the area talk about “The Lakes.” They call the course by its geographic location — Ben Eoin. Apparently there was concern that Ben Eoin (pronounced Ben Yawn) would be unpronounceable by all but the locals. Truth be told, the course’s mainstays will all be locals, and those from outside won’t remember such a forgettable title. But that’s beyond the point, I suppose. The fact is the name The Lakes is reflective of the course — safe, calculated for the widest audience, and in the end, lacking the sophistication or memorability to make one want to return. Cape Breton will get its distinctive course that draws people from outside of Nova Scotia, but The Lakes isn’t it.
That’s not to say the club’s management isn’t trying. As far as I can tell through my one visit, the staff is welcoming, and the modified clubhouse/ski chalet functions well. The range, pointed straight up a steep slope, is a mess, but far from the worst I’ve seen. And the golf course isn’t bad — though it stumbles in spots. Instead it is playable to the point of being benign, with designer Graham Cooke ignoring strategic elements to make the course easier for a wide variety of golfers. I’d suggest that probably makes it a bit dull to play time and again, though inoffensive to most players.
The trouble is that in this day and age, with few courses opening, average won’t cut it. That’s what happened in Prince Edward Island, where the province tried to take two good courses and a dozen sub-par ones and sell it as a destination. Golfers come once, but don’t return. Why? Because the golf isn’t compelling. That’s what I’d say about The Lakes — it isn’t bad, it is simply inoffensive. It is a case where the designer played it safe to the detriment of the overall project.
That’s not to suggest The Lakes was an easy build. Located on the side of a ski hill, the course was developed by a group of businessmen from Sydney, flush with some government cash. The routing on both sides runs from the bottom of the hill, making its way up the slope and then playing steeply downhill, with the front running counter-clockwise and the back running in a clockwise loop. That means Cooke needed to make some decisions to get the holes up the hill. Faced with this sort of extreme property, most designers will create a carts-only course; Cooke didn’t do that. Instead of huge gaps up hills — as has been the case with recent works by the likes of Doug Carrick (his new Predator course has several rides up steep hills) — Cooke decided for shorter distances on steep slopes. Basically it works well, though I’m not sure I’d want to walk the final product.
The course opens up with a relatively dull par-5 (which, incidentally, is how the back nine opens as well), wide with a slight rise to a green that comes in on-grade. Things tighten up on the following holes, with the third, a 555-yard par-5 and the sixth, a 456-yard par-4, featuring fairways that play away from the slope of the land, making tee shots tricky. But Cooke offers generous landing areas, meaning few will struggle off the tee at The Lakes.
The key holes on the course are the apparently drivable par-4 6th, the ill-conceived par-4 9th, and the stretch of 12 through 14, where Cooke gets the best out of the land. The 6th is the most dramatic hole on the course and also shows the limitations of the design. Most will only recall the hole for its breathtaking view of the Bras d’Or Lake in the background. Perched high above the fairway, Cooke has crafted a routing that yields one of those tee shots that appeals to all golfers — big, bold and downhill. I played it on a very wet day — but the options are clear from the tee — play safely with a fairway wood to the right (the widest part of the fairway) or challenge the cross-bunkers on the left and be handed a short pitch into the green. The issue is that I don’t understand the strategy in the placement of the green. If golfers are to take the bold line and successfully clear the left bunkers, it strikes me they should be presented with a relatively easy approach for their troubles. But the truth is the green is contoured more for the approach from the safe wide area on the right. In fact, I’m not sure why anyone would bother taking on the bunkers when the shot from the right of the fairway is easier and results in a sand wedge approach to a receptive green. In that respect the hole is a failure.
The 9th is an awful conclusion to the course, with artificial out-of-bounds on the right protecting the roadway and wetlands guarding the left side of the hole. It feels contrived, though the green and its short-grass surrounds are more interesting. Similarly, the 10th, with a creek that seems to cross at the wrong place, suits neither the strong player nor the hacker.
The meat of the course lays in the stretch starting at the 12th. Instead of taking golfers up the hill, and bringing them down dramatically as he does on the front, here Cooke mixes up the routing.
The 12th plays in a large valley, with a ridgeline on the right. It is a big, difficult hole that requires two strong shots to reach a flattish green. The 13th, a par-4 measuring 395-yards, uses the ridge again, and the 14th, a par-4 with a fairway that stops short of a creek and a green played into a bowl part way up a hill, is again a strong hole. Unfortunately the run is broken up by the dull 15th (which reminded me of the equally uninspired 4th and similarly uninteresting 11th), a long, plain par-3.
The course ends with two par-5s split by a short, downhill par-3. The final three-shot hole tumbles downhill to a green 100-yards from the clubhouse. While Cooke’s bunkering is usually unobtrusive, here it is abrasive, contrasting with the tree line on the right. In order to create a fairway that was playable, the left side looks like it has been lifted significantly, a fact highlighted by the row of bunkers off the side. While it doesn’t play badly — it looks odd, modern and over-shaped.
Truthfully, no one will be offended by The Lakes (though they may not remember the name). It is rarely bad, is interesting in spots and
has apparently been well received by its members. In that regards it is probably a success. However, Cape Breton — or Canada for that matter — didn’t need another average design. We need inspiration, intrigue — courses that are occasionally maddening, but are full of features we want to tackle time and again. If that’s what you are seeking, you won’t find it at The Lakes. I’m not sure this had a chance at being Nova Scotia’s Humber Valley — Doug Carrick’s terrific course near Deer Lake — but it strikes me that Cooke wasn’t inspired enough to try. That makes The Lakes a solid effort, nothing more.