Not once, but twice Muskoka has beaten stiff competition and long odds to win Canadian golf’s equivalent of a lottery jackpot.
Named the country’s best new course of 2002 by Golf Digest, Bigwin Island Golf Club’s victory confirmed Muskoka’s status as one of North America’s hottest golf destinations. Another local layout, The Lake Joseph Club, won the same prestigious award in 1997, back in the early days of a decade-long building boom that has seen acclaimed courses open in rapid succession.
Top architects including Tom McBroom and Doug Carrick have created a distinctly Muskokan design aesthetic that has captured the attention of the golf world. They’ve done it by using the unique granite outcroppings of the Canadian Shield to shape and accent golf holes the same way that Arizona’s courses are framed by cactuses and desert sand. Like restored artworks, especially beautiful rock formations are often cleaned with high-pressure hoses to make their colours more vivid.
While most of Muskoka’s more than 20 courses have been carved from the wilderness, newly crown-ed Bigwin Island Golf Club took a different route to the spotlight. Toronto architect Doug Carrick built his course on top of a long-abandoned 18-hole Stanley Thompson layout at the site of old Bigwin Inn, an internationally renowned resort that in the 1920s and 1930s hosted everyone who counted, including honeymooners Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Bigwin Island’s rolling terrain inspired Carrick to design one of Canada’s most beautiful and playable courses. Every hole at the 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-notably at the sixth and 18th holes-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 gorgeously rebuilt to serve as today’s clubhouse. As certain as the wildflowers of spring, Muskoka has unveiled at least one new championship course each of the past several golf seasons. Last Canada Day saw the launch of Taboo Golf Course at Taboo Resort (formerly the Muskoka Sands Resort), which already boasted The Sands, a popular nine-hole layout.Designed by Floridian Ron Garl, Taboo (the home course of 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir) offers a wild 7,174-yard ride through wetlands, rock shelves, and a forest of birch, pine and balsam. In a setting that shouts Muskoka, the long par-three seventh hole has been chiselled through two immense walls of striated pink and gray granite.
Another signal of Muskoka’s coming of age as a golf destination was the 2001 launch of ClubLink Corporation’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 7,065-yard layout that flows seamlessly with the rugged terrain. Stands of pine, white birch and hemlock separate the holes, giving each one an identity of its own. Tough but fair, the course frequently forces golfers to hit their tee shots over menacing rock faces. Also found at Grandview Resort is The Inn Course, an attractive nine-hole executive design.
ClubLink, Canada’s largest owner-operator of golf facilities, has been a driving force in the development and promotion of Muskoka golf. In addition to the Mark O’Meara Course, ClubLink operates two other high-profile layouts, the award-winning Lake Joseph Club and Rocky Crest Golf Club.Both courses are the handiwork of Toronto architect Tom McBroom, who has perfected the technique of using exposed rock to give his routings character and strategic nuance. At The Lake Joseph Club, located on the grounds of the Delta Lake Joseph Resort, McBroom carved his course through the hills and valleys of a hardwood forest overlooking the lake. A standout among several unforgettable holes is the par-three eighth, where golfers hit from an elevated tee to a valley green dwarfed by a giant wall of granite. At Rocky Crest, which is part of the Delta Rocky Crest Resort at the north end of Lake Joseph, McBroom featured even more granite in a design that offers rolling fairways cut through a thrilling mix of forest and wetlands.
McBroom first put his stamp on Muskoka golf at Huntsville’s Deerhurst Highlands Golf Course, a superb layout that ignited the local high-end golf market when it opened in 1990. This impeccably groomed 7,011-yard track on the grounds of Deerhurst Resort rambles through forest and wetlands and past immense Canadian Shield outcroppings, which come into play on several holes. Almost as scenic is Deerhurst Lakeside, Highlands’ sister course. Ideal for older players and those new to the game, Lakeside, which measures just 4,712 yards from the tips, is named for its lovely views of Peninsula Lake.
Muskoka’s marquee courses charge green fees that reflect their lofty stature in Canadian golf. Fortunately, the district is also filled with quality courses ideal for golfers on tighter budgets.
One longtime favourite is Huntsville Downs Golf and Country Club, a classic track dating from 1925 that expanded from nine to 18 holes a few seasons ago. Though not particularly long at 6,270 yards, the course, with its narrow fairways and water hazards that come into play on half the holes, tests even low handicappers.Another golden oldie is South Muskoka Curling and Golf Club, a lush and winding Bracebridge layout designed by Canadian Robbie Robinson. Distance off the tee is secondary to pinpoint accuracy at this tricky 6,399-yard course, where particularly nasty sand bunkers guard the undulating greens.
Considerably more forgiving for long hitters is nearby Muskoka Highlands Golf Course, an appealing Scottish links-style layout. The course meanders over 150 rocky and rolling acres on a routing that constantly forces golfers to whack tee shots into the wind. Heavy hitters will also enjoy Windermere Golf and Country Club, an attractive and highly playable course where the first tee is set in the shadow of Windermere House, a historic Muskoka resort that was devastated by fire in 1996 and subsequently rebuilt to its Victorian design.
Since its expansion from nine to 18 holes last summer, North Granite Ridge has become another course favoured by discerning golfers. Rolling fairways are tightly squeezed by thick stands of evergreens at this constantly challenging 6,252-yard layout midway between Huntsville and Bracebridge.
With so many leisure time activities available to Muskoka visitors, it’s no surprise that the district is dotted with nine-hole courses catering to golfers who don’t want to spend all day on the links. North of Bracebridege is The Diamond ‘in the Ruff’, a meticulously groomed jewel where high-backed Muskoka chairs are picturesquely set at most tees. Just beyond the shore of Lake Muskoka between Port Carling and Bracebridge is The Fairways at Kirrie Glen, an enjoyable 2,830-yard design. Perfect for novice players and anyone wanting a relaxed outing are Bracebridge Golf Club and Beaver Run Golf Club, just outside the town of Bala.As if Muskoka didn’t already offer enough choice, a new 18-hole layout will be unveiled this July. Designed by three-time British Open and Masters champion Nick Faldo, The Rock is a much-anticipated championship course that dramatically wends its way through a hardwood forest overlooking Lake Rosseau near Port Carling. The Rock is Faldo’s first design project in Canada.
A final option for golfing visitors is to sign on for a stay-and-play package offered by the Muskoka Golf Trail (905-755-0999 or 1-800-465-3034). Launched this spring, the trail consists of six outstanding 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 six courses, or mix and match accommodations and courses to create their own customized itinerary.
With two jackpots won already, Muskoka golf gets hotter every year.—Brian Kendall is the author of Northern Links: Canada From Tee to Tee (Anchor Canada)