Not since Stanley Thompson’s groundbreaking layouts opened at Jasper and Banff in the Alberta Rockies has another golf destination equalled Muskoka’s impact on Canadian course design.
Just as Thompson established a template for mountain courses that is followed to this day, top architects such as Thomas McBroom and Doug Carrick are using the granite outcroppings of the Canadian Shield to create a uniquely Muskokan design aesthetic that is propelling the district to the forefront of Canadian golf.
In less than a decade, the Lake Joseph Club (1997), Bigwin Island Golf Club (2002), and The Rock Golf Club (2004) have each been named the country’s best new course by Golf Digest magazine, a record unmatched by any other Canadian golf destination. The region attracts more than 1.5 million visitors a year and earns approximately the same amount from tourism as Prince Edward Island.
“The biggest advantage is that Muskoka is just a two-hour drive north of Toronto,” says Jim Lee, executive director of the Canadian Golf Tourism Alliance, a national marketing association. “With such a large population base to draw on, developers can afford to bring in big-name designers. The potential for growth in Muskoka is huge.”
Muskoka’s rocky landscape has been drawing vacationers from Toronto ever since the district was first opened to settlement in the mid-1800s. Muskoka is the city’s essential summertime escape—a rocky, woodsy retreat with hundreds of resorts, more than 600 lakes and 32 golf courses.
Though golf had been played throughout the district for decades, Muskoka didn’t enter the high-end market until the 1990 opening of Deerhurst Highlands Golf Course at Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville. Typical of Muskoka’s courses, the routing of this superb McBroom-Robert Cupp co-design rambles through forest and wetlands, and features several immense walls of Canadian Shield granite.
Thompson, the godfather of Canadian golf architecture, established his reputation in the even more rugged terrain of Jasper and Banff by clearing gaps through the forest to point golfers toward greens aligned with distant mountains, and by whimsically patterning his bunkers after the snow formations on their peaks.
Today’s architects are using the unique outcroppings of pink Canadian Shield granite to shape and accent Muskoka’s golf holes in similarly dramatic fashion.
“There’s tremendous challenge in working with the rock,” says McBroom. “The key is to make the holes fit naturally into the wild terrain, exposing the beauty of the rock while not letting it get in the way.”
“There’s no point in fighting the rock,” McBroom adds with a chuckle, “because it would take an atomic bomb to blast it all away.”
Spearheading Muskoka’s drive to become a premier golf destination is ClubLink, Canada’s largest owner-operator of golf facilities, which operates two championship courses in the district and another a short drive away.
ClubLink’s first Muskoka course was the award-winning Lake Joseph Club, a McBroom design carved through the hills and valleys of a hardwood forest at Delta Lake Joseph Resort. The course’s par-three eighth, where golfers hit from an elevated tee to a valley green dwarfed by a giant wall of striated granite, is one of Muskoka’s signature holes.
McBroom exposed even more Canadian Shield granite at ClubLink’s Rocky Crest Golf Club, located on the grounds of Delta Rocky Crest Resort in West Parry Sound. Here, McBroom chiselled his rolling fairways through a thrilling mix of towering fir trees and marshes.
A clear signal of the coming of age of Muskoka’s golf product was the 2001 launch of ClubLink’s Mark O’Meara Course at Huntsville’s Delta Grandview Resort. For the first time, an internationally famous golf personality was hired to design a Muskoka course.
O’Meara, the 1998 British Open and Masters champion, responded to the challenge by building a gorgeous 7,065-yard brute of a track that frequently forces golfers to hit their tee shots over menacing rock faces to unseen fairways.
In 2002, Taboo Resort (formerly the Muskoka Sands) raised the celebrity bar even higher by signing Mike Weir to be the official spokesman of a Ron Garl-designed layout that offers a roller-coaster ride through wetlands, rock shelves, and a forest of birch, pine and balsam. In a setting that practically shouts Muskoka, the par-three seventh hole plays through two long walls of pink and gray granite.
“Mike is not just Canada’s best golfer, he’s someone people genuinely respect,” says Nigel Hollidge, Taboo’s director of golf operations and marketing. “Golfers trust that if he’s endorsing us, then we must be a great course.”
Thanks to Taboo’s affiliation with Weir, the resort enjoys the prestige of hosting the annual Globe and Mail Mike Weir Charity Classic. Another benefit is an exclusive partnership with Weir in a line of golf clothing.
Weir, O’Meara and other marquee names help to sell golf in an image-conscious marketplace where the lavish summer homes of wealthy Torontonians and Hollywood celebrities, including Goldie Hawn and Martin Short, adorn the waterfronts of Lake Muskoka, Lake Joseph and Lake Rosseau, the three most coveted addresses.Nick Faldo’s firm, Faldo Design, has built courses around the world, but was hired to design Muskoka’s latest award-winner, The Rock Golf Club in the village of Minett, as much for the cachet of his name as for his reputation as an architect.
Faldo, a three-time British Open and Masters champion, built a course of tightly carved fairways, bold bunkers and multitiered greens. With its natural hazards and challenges, the 6,545-yard layout has been designed to reward accuracy, a reflection of Faldo’s reputation as one of the game’s most skilled shotmakers.
“We had to fight the rock in places,” Faldo said of his first design project in Canada. “But more than anything it’s the rock that gives Muskoka courses their ‘wow’ factor.”
With the profits from golf tourism rolling in, Muskoka’s golf course building boom continues unabated. Set to open this summer is the Oviinbyrd Golf Club, a McBroom-designed private course near the town of Port Carling. And scheduled for a 2006 launch is the Muskoka Bay Club, a public-play facility in Gravenhurst designed by Doug Carrick.
Carrick first made his mark in Muskoka at the Bigwin Island Golf Club, the winner of Golf Digest’s top prize in 2002. Unlike most Muskoka courses, which have been carved from the wilderness, Carrick built his course on top of a long-abandoned 18-hole Stanley Thompson layout at the site of old Bigwin Inn, a once internationally famous resort on the Lake of Bays near Huntsville.
Every hole at Bigwin’s 7,166-yard layout (reached by motor launch from the mainland) is surrounded by thick stands of hardwoods, creating a sense of maturity rarely seen at a new course. Elevated tees offer glorious vistas of the Lake of Bays beyond the treeline. And in a nod to Bigwin’s proud heritage, the waterfront pavilion that was once the resort’s dining hall has been rebuilt to serve as today’s clubhouse.
Muskoka’s rapidly expanding roster of marquee courses has made the district one of Canada’s—and potentially North America’s—hottest golf destinations. Another key to its success is a solid lineup of attractive and challenging courses ideal for golfers on tighter budgets.”Even the rich balk at paying green fees of $150 and more every time they step onto a course,” says Don MacKay, the president of Golf Muskoka. “Like Prince Edward Island, Myrtle Beach and other established golf destinations, a big selling point for us is that we offer plenty of choice.”
A course often on the playlist of visitors is Huntsville Downs Golf and Country Club, a classic track dating from 1925 that expanded from nine to 18 holes a few years ago. Another affordable golden oldie is the South Muskoka Curling and Golf Club, a tight and winding Bracebridge layout designed by Robbie Robinson, who began his career as an assistant to Stanley Thompson.
Also found in Bracebridge is Muskoka Highlands Golf Course, an appealing Scottish links-style design that constantly forces golfers to whack tee shots into the wind. Three more popular choices are Windermere Golf and Country Club, a demanding test of golf at historic Windermere House Resort on Lake Rosseau, and North Granite Ridge, midway between Huntsville and Bracebridge, where rolling fairways are tightly squeezed by thick stands of towering evergreens; and The Diamond ‘In the Ruff, a nine-hole jewel north of Bracebridge.
Though there are courses for every pocketbook, no one doubts that the bedrock of Muskoka’s success is its starry roster of high-profile courses.
In 2003, the Muskoka Golf Trail was launched as a showcase for six of the area’s most prominent courses (Deerhurst Highlands, the Mark O’Meara Course, the Lake Joseph Club, Rocky Crest, Taboo and The Rock) and four popular resorts (Deerhurst Resort, Delta Grandview Resort, Delta Rocky Crest Resort and Taboo Resort). Golfers can stay at one resort and play all courses, or mix and match accommodations and courses to create their own itinerary.
“Taboo, The Rock, Deerhurst and the rest…that’s an impressive lineup,” says Jim Lee of the Canadian Golf Tourism Alliance. “No wonder Muskoka is the envy of Canadian golf.”
Brian Kendall is the author of Northern Links: Canada from Tee to Tee. Reprinted from Golf Canada Magazine.Bigwin Island, 705-635-2582
Deerhurst Highlands, 705-789-7878
The Rock, 705-765-ROCK
The Lake Joseph Club, 705-765-2020
The Mark O’Meara Course at Grandview Golf Club, 705-788-9978
The Inn Course at Delta Grandview Resort, 705-789-0857
Rocky Crest Golf Club, 705-375-2240
Huntsville Downs Golf & Country Club, 705-789-4512
South Muskoka Curling & Golf Club, 705-645-4221
Muskoka Highlands Golf Course, 705-646-1060
Windermere Golf Club, 705-769-3381
North Granite Ridge, 705-385-0808
Bracebridge Golf Club, 705-645-2362
Diamond ‘In the Ruff, 705-385-2222
Kirrie Glen Golf Course, 705-645-4520
Beaver Run Golf Club & Cottages, 705-762-5245