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Golfing in Muskoka

It’s rather ironic that the greatest obstacle associated with Muskoka—from a golf perspective, anyway—has now become one of its greatest attributes.

The rocky terrain that characterizes Muskoka is the region’s signature. The craggy outcroppings that abound are ruggedly beautiful, dramatically shaped, and dotted with pink and blue tones.

While Muskoka has long been a worldwide tourist destination, for many years golf wasn’t a part of that picture. For some, the ubiquitous rock made building golf courses an expensive and difficult proposition. In the last few years, however, designers have made golf and the natural landscape work together. As a result, Muskoka has become a North American golf destination with world-class quality courses. Few regions can compare to Muskoka’s flowing fairways of green with their towering trees, vast lakes and granite.

“The use of the rock is totally innovative—a strategic and aesthetic element that shows off the beauty of the Canadian Shield,” says golf architect Thomas Mc-Broom, who played a leading role in the development and design of many Muskoka golf courses.

The region’s first premium resort course was Deerhurst Highlands, which opened in 1988. The team of McBroom and U.S. designer Bob Cupp incorporated vertical rock faces into the course, especially on No. 10, which features a 100-foot wall that runs up the right side of the fairway.

“Deerhurst was the first high-tech course with a quintessential Canadian look,” says McBroom. “Although short at only 4,712 yards with one par five, it’s a solid course.”McBroom continued to experiment in the design of The Lake Joseph Club near Port Carling. Rock frames a number of holes such as the par-3 No. 8, where a granite wall looms behind the green.

Offering a nice balance of fairness and difficulty, Lake Joseph slices through thick woods and bobs across wickedly undulating terrain that provides spectacular scenery and variety.

ClubLink Corporation, which owns the course, and other golf industry folks began to realize that golf could work in Muskoka when The Lake Joseph Club was named Best New Canadian Course by Golf Digest in 1997 and SCOREGolf in 1998.Lake Joe, as it is known to locals, was such a hit that ClubLink and McBroom pushed the rock experiment further in 2000 with the opening of Rocky Crest. Arguably, McBroom took the design risks, but ClubLink took financial risks too, as at least 550,000 tonnes of sand had to be trucked in to facilitate grass growth.

At Rocky Crest, McBroom exposed rock throughout the entire course—along the turns of doglegs and around greens. No. 6 is one of the world’s most unique holes: from the back tees, a golfer must carry three acres of rock to the fairway 180 yards away.

Surprisingly, the topography is relatively gentle and Rocky Crest provides a lovely walk. With its seamless blend of holes and spectacular log cabin-style clubhouse, Rocky Crest was ranked Ontario’s number one resort course by Ontario Golf magazine.

When ClubLink retained Masters and British Open champion Mark O’Meara to design a new course in Huntsville, he said the use of rock was a novel evolution in golf design that he wanted to push forward.

The Mark O’Meara Course at Grandview Golf Club in Huntsville, which opened in 2001, brings rock into the playing areas, most notably on the short par-4 No. 8 where three rock knobs split the fairway in half. With its forced carries and steep slopes, it’s imperative that you play correct tees to enjoy the O’Meara Course, which sprawls across spectacularly rugged terrain.

The Inn Course across Highway 60 at Delta Grandview Resort is a nine-hole executive course that delivers all the features of a championship course in a smaller package.In comparison, Bigwin Island Golf Club, designed by respected Toronto architect Doug Carrick, is a gentler course on more rolling terrain. A scenic boat ride takes you to Bigwin Island, the site of a luxury resort in the 1920s and ’30s that attracted the rich and famous to the region, including the Rockefellers and actors Clark Gable and his wife Carole Lombard.

With its views of Lake of Bays, thick forests and elevated tees, Bigwin is gorgeous and offers enjoyable play for all levels. The wide fairways provide room for sprayed shots, and better players will find all the challenges they wish. After Golf Digest ranked Bigwin Island as Best New Course in Canada in 2002, it was safe to say that Muskoka golf was getting hot.

Although architect Ron Garl hails from pancake-flat Florida, he took full advantage of the region’s tumbling terrain and—of course—the natural rock at Taboo to design a wonderfully engaging course. Opening officially in 2002, Taboo plays through wooded valleys, weaves through shoulders of rock, and over lovely beaver meadows.

The home course for Mike Weir, Taboo is an especially strong course for its sheer variety of holes and the medley of shots it challenges you to play. Taboo’s No. 18 may be Muskoka’s most dramatic closing hole, zigzagging down through rock outcroppings and then back up to the green. Taboo Resort also offers The Sands nine-hole course.

The latest addition to Muskoka’s bountiful golf collection is, appropriately enough, called The Rock, the first design in Canada by Nick Faldo, a three-time winner of both the British Open and the Masters. As the name would suggest, rock features prominently through the course as both an aesthetic and strategic element.

The course, which opens fully this season, provides gorgeous views of Lake Rosseau near Port Carling, and the views from the tees are exciting too. The Rock is a challenging course and it’s essential that golfers play from tees appropriate to their ability. The course plays through corridors of trees and over cascading fairways.

The Rock is the latest course to join the Muskoka Golf Trail, a group that includes such courses as Rocky Crest, The Mark O’Meara Course, The Lake Joseph Club, Deerhurst Highlands and Taboo. The Muskoka Golf Trail invites visitors to enjoy the game at any combination of affiliated courses and to select one of its participating resorts for accommodations. Members include Delta Grandview Resort, Delta Rocky Crest Resort, Deerhurst Resort and Taboo Resort. For more information, visit the Web site www.muskokagolftrail.ca.

While the big-name courses command green fees in line with their marquee value, Muskoka also offers quality courses at affordable rates.

This includes the newest addition to Muskoka golf, the 18-hole Seguin Valley Golf Course just south of Parry Sound. Spread over 300 acres, Seguin Valley shares all the attributes of the more expensive courses—beautiful scenery, plenty of rock and playability.

Huntsville Downs Golf & Country Club is a classic Muskoka course—the original nine dates to 1925—that traverses through dense pine and features water on half the holes.

Another old-time course is South Muskoka Curling and Golf Club, designed by Robbie Robinson. A friendly tip: The serpentine fairways call for precision shot-making through the tall trees to greens that are well protected by treacherous bunkers.

Muskoka Highlands Golf Course is unique for its open Scottish links–style look, which brings the wind into play on most shots, but generally allows you to find errant shots.

Like Bigwin Island, you arrive at Windermere Golf Club by boat. This 18-hole layout provides a nice balance, challenging the better players while allowing the less-skilled to have a good time.

Highly regarded North Granite Ridge is a modern course—it expanded to 18 holes in 2002—with massive pine forests, hummocks and hollows, and a spectacular granite wall that lines the No. 8 fairway.

Muskoka also offers a strong collection of excellent nine-hole courses, including Diamond in the Ruff, a quality layout known for immaculate conditioning with plenty of variety, elevation change and true greens.

Other notable nine-hole courses include the Bracebridge Golf Club, which is ideal for families, Kirrie Glen Golf Course, featuring spectacular scenery, and beautiful Beaver Run Golf Club and Cottages, which is fairly short at 1,816 yards. As you have become aware, golfers living in or travelling to Muskoka no longer find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.—Tim O’Connor is a freelance writer and author based in Rockwood, Ontario.

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