What happens when a course falls out of fashion

Some courses are timeless. Others not so much.

That seems to be part of the thinking behind the recently announced re-do of Angus Glen’s South Course, which will close on September 1 to have its greens regrassed (and in some instances recontoured) and reopen the following June (which seems aggressive to me). The work on the course, which held the 2002 Canadian Open, includes the addition of several new ponds as well, specifically on the 11th and 15th holes, as well as significant adjustments to the 3rd hole as well.The tees will also be expanded.

The question is why? This is a course that was once Golf Digest’s Best New in Canada — at a time when there were enough new courses opening each year that it meant something. In 2002, SCOREGolf had it ranked #18 in Canada. It was the course that I spent a lot of time playing when I first moved to Toronto — I know it well. Despite some remarks to the contrary on a recent post, I’d say there were several very good holes, particularly #2, #4-7, #10, #12, and #18, where Carrick does a nice job of utilizing the best land in interesting ways. Yes, there are some inconsequential throwaways (#3, #11, #15), but by and large it is a good — but never great — course.

In recent years houses have encroached on a number of spots. That’s really hurt some of its appeal. And a couple of years back the man who put the place on the map, Kevin Thistle, left to join nearby Coppinwood GC. The course was never as visible once Kevin departed.

This all contributed to the course falling out of fashion. But I’d argue there were other reasons as well. The course was assailed in 2002 at the Canadian Open by the likes of Richard Zokol, who said it was too easy to hold the country’s national open. Most weren’t as outspoken as Zokol, but many didn’t have much affection for the place. Then five years later the North course at Angus Glen was hammered by basically everyone when it hosted the second Canadian Open for the facility. By that time the perception of many had changed on Angus Glen. By that time SCOREGolf had Angus Glen South at #69. That’s a significant slide in six years.

Part of the reason for the deterioration of Angus Glen South’s reputation had to do with what grew up around it. Eagles Nest, another Carrick course, was a better design on more intriguing land (with a bigger budget) and redefined the high end of public golf. Copper Creek, also a Doug Carrick creation and again just off of Major Mackenzie (though on the opposite side of the city) was more picturesque and likely a better course for a majority of players as well (wider, with more interesting tee shots and the land through the valley is terrific). That hurt Angus. Thistle’s departure hurt its reputation and it lacked the exposure after.

All the same, Angus Glen is likely one of the most successful facilities in Canadian golf history — and quite possibly one of the most profitable.

Will a facelift change halt its reputation’s slide? Likely not. Angus Glen has hired Martin Ebert and Tom Mackenzie, who created their ultra-private Goodwood course, to do the work. Ebert is a solid designer, but not a guy with a ton of wow factor, assuming that’s what Angus was gunning for. And they can’t pull back on the houses that line many of the holes, diminishing their aesthetic appeal.

The truth is once a course — especially a modern design — goes into a decline, it is a spiral that can’t be broken. It isn’t like a classic course that can receive a renovation or restoration and suddenly be reconsidered. The truth is the houses that now surround Angus Glen hurt the appeal of the golf course. There’s nothing that can be done to change that, even if the renovation by Ebert and Mackenzie is successful.

Five courses in Canada that have fallen out of fashion:

ClubLink’s Lake Joseph Club.

1) Lake Joseph Club. Once SCOREGolf considered this among the best in Canada. Now it doesn’t crack the Top 100. Why? This one has always perplexed me. Perhaps the courses that followed in Muskoka — Bigwin Island, and Muskoka Bay — were just better.

2) Taboo. See Lake Joseph comment. Nigel Hollidge has recently left Angus Glen to try to reestablish Taboo.

3) Glen Abbey. Perennial home of the Canadian Open. Once sold for a fortune as the flagship course for ClubLink. Most people now think it has a handful of excellent holes, some very plain ones, and that ClubLink charges too much to play it.

4) Heritage Pointe. Once considered the Angus Glen of Calgary. A Ron Garl design, it was never a design that warranted the attention it initially received, though it is likely still one of the best overall public facilities in Calgary.

5) Magna. Opened to a lot of hype given its exclusive status. Turns out the golf course was good — but not great.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

16 CommentsLeave a comment

  • ‘never that strong a course’
    ‘there were several strong holes’
    ‘likely a stronger course as well’
    ‘was a stronger design’
    ‘by and large it is a strong golf course’

    I think you need to diversify on your choice of words in your ‘analysis’ of the courses in question. Do you mean it’s resistance to scoring? For tour pros or everyday players? Quality of the routing? Can you expand or elaborate on your use of the word ‘strong’?

    • By strong I mean a number of solid holes, not overly difficult, but not easy either — a design that can be played by many people. Sorry, I should have been more careful about my language but was writing this before doing some other work. Just something that was top of mind.

      I think the routing is solid — interesting in places, actually. I think there are good holes, which I list, and some weak ones, which are generally on the flattest parts of the property. I think Carrick overshaped some of it (between 11 and 15, for example). However, I think the 10th is one of the better holes he ever designed, despite the green, which might be a little difficult given the difficulty of the hole.

  • Your comments essentially echo mine (see comments) when you announced that AG South would be redone. I agree with you…it has always been a good (but not spectacular) course. It’s far better than AG North which has always been boring and never should have been designed as a faux links course UNLESS you went all the way like Carrick did at Eagles Nest.

    This brings up the question of whether high end public courses in very urban areas (such as AG) should be developed and built for a limited period of time…say 20 years. After that, they should be bulldozed (if not on flood plain) and used for houses/commercial or whatever. Frankly, I’m surprised that the Stollery family didn’t do exactly that…and make Goodwood and it’s surrounding property the new AG. I assume the numbers didn’t add up because I’m sure it was considered but I’d be willing to bet it happens in the next 10 years in some variation or another. However profitable AG was/is, developing the site for reidentail or commercial use is far more advantageous.

  • Who says these courses have fallen out of fashion?


    Based on what knowledge/info/research????????

    Maybe they have fallen out of fashion with you because they don’t give you your freebie rounds of golf anymore.

    You have ZERO research to back up your comments. Maybe this is just a consensus guess discussed when you and your writing buddies get together for those freebie Taylor-Made, Titleist, Callaway trips you get!!

    • Pete: I’d say the course owners think there’s an issue here. In fact, last year I was contacted by someone there asking about architects to rework the course to freshen it up.
      So I have some research — direct sources in fact — to back up my claim.

  • I would say that falling out of fashion happens very often for high end public courses. Back about twenty years ago Lionhead was considered one of the top CCFAD facilities in the GTA and that has certainly changed. Wooden Sticks started out strong and has also faded.

    This also happens with resort courses – I would say that Crowbush is an example of a resort course that was once in the top 10 (or close) in the country and has now fallen. Taboo has also fallen in the rankings, but that may also be due to the tough competition in Muskoka as you point out with Lake Joseph.

    It would be interesting to see what public courses have gone in the other direction and have gone up over time. Over a decade ago I thought that Osprey Valley (the original course) was a much better course than AG South. The ratings didn’t show that at the time, but I am pretty sure that they do now. But that is a unique case since the course was strong but the other amenities were pretty much non-existent for a long time.

    @CG – Regarding Goodwood – are you sure that development is allowed in that area. I know that parts of Uxbridge are in the Oak Ridges Moraine green belt and development is very restricted. That is apparently the case at Coppinwood.

    In fact I find it hard to understand how you can make money from a golf course without the real estate angle considering that a high end course complex can cost $20 million or more to develop. Looking at it from a purely financial perspective can you generate a return commensurate with the risk that you have in such an undertaking without getting the uploft on all of the adjacent lots?

  • One more thing – housing on a golf course.

    Sure it detracts from the golf experience. But the perennial top three courses in the country (The National, Hamilton and St. George’s) all have homes adjoining the course on some of their holes (although at Hamilton I think it is just on the right side of #2 for the West-South routing). It doesn’t seem to stop these courses from being considered the very best that Canada has to offer. So if the course is strong enough this negative can be overcome.

  • Rob,
    I don’t think I quite said Angus Glen is too easy to hold a country’s national open. But I have always stated that we cannot afford to not play our country’s best courses in our national championship.

    Your point does speaks to the importance of distinctiveness in character & design… most of those courses in that conventional era have single-dimensional playability, are void of soul and are too much alike.

    That design era got left behind after some remarkable design work evolved in the minimalist movement. Sand Hills, the Bandon Dunes courses, Friars’ Head, Ballyneal, etc. south of the border… Sagebrush & Cabot Links in Canada came out at a fraction of the cost to build with multidimensional playability.

  • RT, Angus was never really that great. Your comment that Eagles Nest is a better design on better land is not really true, either. That course is so manufactured, you’d never be able to find the true topography of that land. Copper Creek is synonymous with Angus and will likely experience that same fading appreciation. The Osprey courses are admittedly manufactured as well, but their design is vastly better than Angus.

    The assertion that Muskoka Bay or Bigwin are better than Lake Joe is bunk. Talk about being seduced by eye candy! They’re newer, not better and that is why they get the current favour. In time, both Lake Joe & Taboo will be more appreciated than the other two. They’re better courses.

  • Just a couple of points re AG…it was VERY profitable as a golf operation for most of its history. That excludes money made from the real estate angle. Not sure if that continues today.

    Stollerys have lots more property at Goodwood and plans are already sketched out for a second 18 and a full clubhouse. I’m sure there would be restrictions but my guess is that it would get approved. Development is already headed towards Goodwood…Ballantrae to Goodwood is at most 10 minutes and will be close in another 5-10 years.

    AG South was not all that easy for the Canadian Open. If memory serves, Rollins won it at -16 or 17 in relatively no wind weather. Today, with #16 as a par 4,and perhaps #7 as well, it would probably end up about the same.

  • Angus South was very playable for the average golfer and the pros could not eat it up, for that it deserves some respect. I think it has several really good holes but the landscape visually is not so appealing. Perhaps some more dramatic bunkering would help??
    The Pulpit and the Paintbrush are two good ones I would like to see considered for the Open as well as Ospreys Hoot course which has some great terrain and fun risk/reward holes. I know the waterfall is a joke but for tournament golf, it a fine spot IMHO.

  • Does anyone seem to remember what Angus Glen brought to the southern Ontario golfing community since its inception in 1995. How many courses were built to emulate it?? If Angus Glen is refreshing itself, will all the other courses follow as they have in the past??

    I see refreshing and changing a course as reward to the community and clientle for supporting the course for many years. Shows they are committed to the future and not relying on the past.

  • Doug: Nigel Hollidge called me last year to talk about the need to put a facelift on Angus, and before that had spoken with IMG about bringing in Weir/Andrew to freshen the place up. That’s a fact. Where there other reasons for it? You’d know, I’m sure — and indicated to John Bladon that functionality of the bunkers was also an issue. I’m sure that’s the case.

  • Hey Rob,

    I’m an avid public golfer, not the best player but I can slap it around and get the ball in the old Rabbitt hole.

    Let’s start with the ease of the South course for the tour players. Pretty sure the final score of 2002 South Course Open was-16 on a par 72 course which is pretty average for the tour these days. I was there that week sweating my way around the course as there wasn’t a breath of wind all four days. Perfect scoring conditions I think, so Im befundleld on how Zokol managed a lowly 6 under…If you look at Hamilton last year the winner shot -17 on a Par 70 course and further to that at St.George’s the score was 14 under on a Par 70 course. Those two courses anually rank high in the top 10 in Canada. I think the South held its own!!

    As far as good holes how can you not consider #1 a good hole. Off memory it always ranks as one of the better opening holes in the Gta or have YOU only played it off the “forward tees”. Try it from the Blacks then talk to me.

    Now you talk of these holes that are lined with houses. Forgive me as I didn’t get a chance to play Angus last year but is there a new housing development that lines the back 9 holes? Playing the course in my head isn’t it only holes 2-5 that have houses on one side of it? Not really lining the course there Bob. I’m confused as well don’t you like holes 4 ad 5 as mentioned?

    Btw I like a lot of your articles but this one gets a double bogey from me IMO.

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