Scenic regions of Ontario littered with wild game, golf
TORONTO -- It's the photo-op every tourist wants: a whitetailed doe and her tiny fawn gazing at you from the other side of a babbling brook, verdant ferns at their feet, azure sky dotted with cottony clouds.
That shout reminds you that you are, unbelievably, on a golf course and you must keep the pace despite these pastoral distractions, a task that is difficult in the spectacularly scenic Georgian Bay and Muskoka regions of Ontario.
Georgian Bay is the gigantic eastern lobe of Lake Huron that takes an enormous bite out of Central Ontario between Barrie and Sudbury. Muskoka is just a tad east of there, a matter of a few minutes' drive really, its towering pines and hemlocks ringing what seems to be an endless progression of crystal-clear freshwater lakes. Nudged up against those rugged shorelines are some of the best courses not only in Canada, but in all of North America.
The first taste of this uniquely Canadian golf experience begins less than one hour's drive north of Toronto on Highway 400, one of the province's well-maintained multi-lane freeways.
National Pines GC, just off the highway south of Barrie, is a 10-year-old Thomas McBroom design that intersperses traditional parkland holes with a few linksy breathcatchers. It is consistently ranked among the country's top courses, not only for design and conditioning, but also in categories ranging from food and hospitality to special considerations for women golfers.
From National Pines, it is a short swing over to Collingwood, which is poised to become Canada's latest four-season destination. Already noted for its alpine and Nordic ski facilities, the region received a recent boost when Vancouver-based Intrawest (www.intrawest.com) purchased the Blue Mountain facility.
Intrawest, a world leader in developing and operating mountain resorts, is also becoming widely known for its golf properties across the continent. These range from the Whistler and Panorama courses in British Columbia and Quebec's Mont Tremblant complex (Le Geant and Le Diable) to Sandestin in Florida and South Mountain in Arizona.
Blue Mountain was already home to the McBroom-designed Monterra course, and the Intrawest-inspired influx of investment and summer visitors has prompted the establishment of other new courses.
The most notable of these is the Georgian Bay Club, due to open this summer. Jason Straka of the renowned Hurdzan-Fry design firm in Ohio is handling the onsite responsibilities at this private club where several holes offer a stunning view of Georgian Bay from a vantage point some 230 feet above the water.
Rocky Crest Golf Club, just south of Parry Sound, is without a doubt the best place to begin a tour of Muskoka for it defines the experience you will be given hints of at its illustrious neighbors such as Deerhurst Highlands (Robert Cupp and McBroom), Taboo (Ron Garl), the Lake Joseph Club (McBroom), Grandview's Mark O'Meara Course (with Brit Stenson), Bigwin Island (Doug Carrick), and the soon-to-come Nick Faldo signature course, The Rock.
"The Rock" is more than a simple name for Faldo's course. Granite outcroppings, part of a geological phenomenon known as the Canadian Shield, are an integral part of the design process up here.
Take, for example, Rocky Crest, where sand was trucked in for seven months to cover this massive spine which bisects this part of Canada. Once the growing medium for the bentgrass tees, greens and fairways was in place, architect McBroom went to work, uncovering certain specimen rocks. His crews used high-pressure hoses to blast the dirt and other detritus from rock faces which now serve not only an aesthetic purpose, but also as unforgiving hazards.
Perhaps the best example of this is the par-5 sixth hole. Like its counterpart filled with water, a forced carry over a chasm gouged from ancient granite seems twice as long as the course guide indicates. From the back tees, only a 185-yard carry is required to reach the fairway, but much hilarity occurs when usually proficient golfers who could easily accomplish the task under normal circumstances begin wildly swinging from their heels, sending golf balls careening off the rocks willy-nilly.
Other courses in the area use this philosophy as well, with varying effectiveness. While McBroom seems to have mastered the concept, others - such as O'Meara and Stenson - are apparently baffled by it, utilizing rock inappropriately in landing areas, for example.
Rocky Crest sets the standard in clubhouse design, as well. It features a simple yet elegant structure, constructed of massive hand-hewn pine logs. It is rivaled only by the granite mansion which presides over the O'Meara course. These two, plus Lake Joseph, are owned by ClubLink Corporation (www.clublink.ca), the country's largest golf course owner and developer.
In contrast to some ego-driven design philosophies, several of these courses were laid out with the paying customer uppermost in mind. While they all can test the best players from the back tees (several are more than 7,000 yards, with narrow landing areas containing cunningly placed hazards), playing the proper tees for one's handicap level reveals generous fairways and a rewarding round. Of them all, Rocky Crest, Bigwin Island and Taboo are the most gratifying for both men and women of average ability.
Prospective visitors will be pleased to learn of the new Muskoka Golf Trail, a "stay and play" concept involving Rocky Crest, Grandview, Lake Joseph, Deerhurst Highlands, Taboo and The Rock. Accommodations are offered at Grandview, Rocky Crest or Muskoka Sands, the resort of which Taboo is a part. (Visit www.ultimategolf.ca or call (800) 465-3034.)
The accommodations and cuisine at all three are reflective of the quality of the golf itself. In addition, these full-service resorts offer every amenity from heated pools, spas and water sports to child-care programs.
These easily accessible regions are dotted with dozens of less ostentatious courses which offer a more affordable, but not necessarily lesser experience. Guest fees at the upper end range from $75 to $200 Canadian and a cart, if not mandatory, is recommended at some because of the severe elevation changes and distances between greens to tees. However, walking is recommended at Rocky Crest and National Pines. Some courses in these regions are nominally private but access usually can be gained by making prior arrangements.
March 22, 2003