2020 Year in Review Part Two – The Courses

2020 Year in Review Part One – My Game: READ PART ONE HERE

Any discussion about the year 2020 has to start with the wide-ranging effects of the Coronavirus pandemic across the world. Millions have died, millions more were infected and recovered, businesses have closed and many were forced into unemployment. In my home province of Ontario alone, we have been through one long-term lockdown and almost a year later, we are in the early stages of our second.

By almost any measure, 2020 was one of the worst years I could possibly imagine.

Thankfully, golf did provide some respite during an otherwise horrific year.

I had one golf-specific trip lined up heading into the year, as I was scheduled to be in Nebraska in late June to visit my favourite place in golf, the sublime Sand Hills Golf Club, along with side visits to Dismal River Club and Wild Horse GC. Unfortunately, I had to bow out of that trip due to the fact the border between Canada and the United States has been closed for almost a year to non-essential travel.

With golf being one of the only activities that could be safely enjoyed in a COVID world, courses were packed everywhere and guest play at most private clubs was severely limited or in some cases, completely disallowed. For instance, I had early season tournament rounds scheduled at Scarboro G&CC and Summit G&CC that would end up cancelled due to the pandemic.

Thankfully, I was able to get out and explore a bunch of great courses within Ontario later in the summer when some restrictions loosened up. In all, including my home club at Lookout Point CC, I was able to play 14 different golf courses in 2020, with eight of them being first-time visits.

It’s a treat to reminisce about the special places I was lucky enough to visit over the past 12 months and as always, this is my favourite post to write every year.

The Courses

The one round of golf I was lucky enough to play outside of Canada came in early March during a family vacation in the Dominican Republic, just prior to the pandemic really hitting North America. I was able to visit the Jack Nicklaus designed Punta Espada Golf Club.

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A spectacular view awaits from the elevated tee on the par five 2nd hole at Punta Espada GC, with the contrasting colours of the Caribbean Sea adding to the allure
Photo by Now on the Tee
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A closer look at the absolutely stunning par three 13th, with the sea crashing into the rocks near the green
Photo by Now on the Tee
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It’s incredibly rare to be this close to an ocean or sea when playing a golf course. Just a spectacular panoramic on the par four 17th hole
Photo by Now on the Tee

The land that the course sits on in Cap Cana is one of the most beautiful pieces of golf real estate that I’ve seen, with excellent, rolling topography, stunning white coral outcroppings and panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea, featuring the most unbelievably clear blue water you could possibly imagine.

While the gorgeous scenery is hard to top, the architecture here more than holds its own. The course is currently rated as the 35th best course in the world (outside of the United States) by Golf Digest in their recent 2020 rankings and Golfweek ranks it as the best course in the Caribbean, ranking it ahead of Pete Dye’s Teeth of the Dog.

Punta Espada was an absolute treat to play and I won’t hesitate to return if we make it back to that part of the world again.

Golf season in Ontario usually begins around mid-April but with the province in the middle of a lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’d have to wait an extra five or six weeks for restrictions to lift. I’d finally play the first of 56 posted rounds at my home club, Lookout Point CC, on Victoria Day weekend in mid-May.

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The dramatic 1st tee at Lookout Point CC in Fonthill, Ontario, with the Niagara Falls skyline in the distance
Photo by Now on the Tee
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The par five 3rd green at Lookout Point is among the best in Canadian golf
Photo by Now on the Tee
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A great look at the wonderful land Lookout Point lays upon, as seen here on the short par four 15th hole
Photo by Now on the Tee

This Walter Travis designed gem, which perennially sits within the top 100 courses in the country, opened for play in 1922 and features stunning vistas of neighbouring Niagara Falls, excellent rolling topography and phenomenal green complexes, a Travis trademark. Lookout is a shotmaker’s delight and I feel very fortunate to be a member of this fine club.

I was fortunate to play ten rounds of golf with my son Evan in 2020. Eight of them came at Lookout, while another took place in late May at Brock Golf Course, a fun executive length course just outside of St. Catharines. I actually grew up playing at Brock back in the early 80’s so it definitely brings back a lot of memories when I tee it up there with my boy.

By the end of June, a few private clubs in the province started allowing limited guest play. My friend Andrew H. invited me to join him for a round at the historic Essex Golf & Country Club, just outside of Windsor.

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Looking back down the 8th fairway from behind the green at Essex G&CC
Photo by Now on the Tee
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The beautiful Tudor clubhouse provides a lovely backdrop on your approach shot on the 9th
Photo by Now on the Tee
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A picturesque look down the 16th fairway, as seen by the 18th tee
Photo by Now on the Tee

Known for their stately trees and large, undulating putting surfaces, Essex has long been considered one of the finest representations of the genius of architect Donald Ross here in Canada.

The land on which Essex G&CC sits is anything but remarkable, with little in the way of elevation change throughout the round. However, Ross routed the course brilliantly, utilizing drainage swales to add some visual flair and adding movement through clever use of doglegs and strategic bunker placement. With the flat terrain and modest green-to-tee transfers, Essex may be one of the easiest walking courses in the country, another major plus.

I had been hoping to play Essex for years and I can’t thank Andrew enough for having me join him that day. What a special place.

My biggest pleasant surprise of the year came four days later, when I teed it up with my son at the delightful Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club.

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Evan swings away on the gorgeous par three 4th at Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club
Photo by Now on the Tee
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Lake Ontario looms in the background throughout, as seen here on the par four 6th
Photo by Now on the Tee
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Looking back down the crazy par four 7th at Niagara-on-the-Lake GC from the 8th tee
Photo by Now on the Tee

Billed as the oldest club in North America, Niagara-on-the-Lake GC was established in 1875 and sits in the middle of its namesake town and right off the shore of Lake Ontario. The course is no more than 20 minutes away from where I live but I’m embarrassed to say that I had never played it until this day in late June.

What an absolute GEM. Gorgeous lakefront scenery, some very interesting holes and just one of the most charming little nine holers you can imagine. It’s a par 36 but measures just under 3000 yards from the back tees so it’s certainly manageable for players of all levels. We will be back in 2021, without question.

In early August, I stepped out of my comfort zone and played in my first ever GTA Amateur Tour event, teeing it up at the sporty Dundas Valley Golf & Curling Club.

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A very picturesque approach awaits once you crest the hill on the par four 7th at Dundas Valley
Photo by Now on the Tee
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Look at this land! Incredible heaving topography abounds, as seen here on the par five 10th
Photo by Now on the Tee
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The par five 12th hole is a challenge for first-timers. A blind layup into a very narrow landing area is not for the weak of heart!
Photo by Now on the Tee

Stanley Thompson, Canada’s most esteemed golden age architect, designed Dundas Valley and the course opened for play in 1930. The defining characteristic of Dundas Valley is the incredible property the course sits on – this is a rollicking piece of land that cleverly disguises the fact that the par 71 design measures less than 6500 yards from the back tees.

Laser-like precision is an absolute requirement and you can see how the course can develop wonderful ball strikers, including its most noteworthy member, Mackenzie Hughes, currently riding high on the PGA Tour and ranked within the top 50 players in the world at the moment.

Dundas Valley is an incredibly fun and sporty place to play and I enjoyed my day immensely.

The next day, I headed to Kitchener with my friend Brett for a round at the superb Deer Ridge Golf Club.

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The par five 1st hole at Deer Ridge GC, as seen from the clubhouse patio
Photo by Now on the Tee
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The lovely and challenging tee shot on the par three 16th hole
Photo by Now on the Tee
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A gorgeous view from high above the par five finishing hole at sunset
Photo by Now on the Tee

Deer Ridge is one of the more modern courses that currently sits within the top 100 in Canada but it’s crazy to think that it’s now 30 years old. Time certainly does fly. This is one of Tom McBroom’s earliest designs and like many of the places I visited this year, Deer Ridge sits on a wonderful piece of land.

This was my second time visiting Deer Ridge and my first in well over a decade so I was surprised by how walkable the routing is. I took a cart when I visited the first time but we all walked on this occasion and it was a pleasure. This is a great test of golf and I believe this is one of McBroom’s best designs – it ranks up there with Oviinbyrd and Beacon Hall as one of his best, in my opinion.

As always, Deer Ridge was in great condition and I can’t thank my host Drew W and his friend Ian enough for hosting Brett and I that day. We finished the night off with a wonderful dinner on the outdoor patio and I look forward to returning the favour to Drew and Ian in 2021 at Lookout Point.

The next day was one I had been waiting a long, long time for…at least ten years, in fact.

The stars finally aligned, as I was given the great privilege of visiting one of Canada’s most exclusive clubs, Redtail Golf Course just outside St. Thomas, Ontario.

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Looking back down the fairway from behind the 3rd green at the captivating Redtail GC
Photo by Now on the Tee
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The gorgeous but supremely difficult downhill par three 9th hole
Photo by Now on the Tee
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The par five closing hole at Redtail, with the absolutely perfect clubhouse framing the right side
Photo by Now on the Tee

Redtail opened in 1992, with design credit going to Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie. Co-founder Chris Goodwin also contributed to the design, as he and his partner John Drake looked to build a private getaway for themselves and a small group of friends, who would ultimately make up the “Round Table” of members at the club. One of the most famous Round Table members was recently deceased actor Sean Connery, James Bond himself.

Redtail is conceived in the same manner as some of the great, exclusive clubs in the USA and around the world, like Sand Hills. The golf is excellent and the culture and vibe of the club is off the charts. Many who play the course think that it’s understated but I wouldn’t necessarily agree. This is a great piece of land and the architects use the features of the property, whether it’s the landforms or the ravines, to brilliant effect.

I think it’s an exquisite golf course and it has a clubhouse to match, certainly one of the most lovely and appropriate buildings I’ve ever seen in my travels.

A day at Redtail is one to be cherished and one not soon forgotten.

Later that afternoon, I joined my friend Ted for a quick round at Tarandowah Golfers Club, a public gem in nearby Avon, Ontario.

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The dogleg left par four 8th hole at Tarandowah Golfers Club
Photo by Now on the Tee
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Challenging centre-line bunkering dots the landing area on the par four 13th hole at Tarandowah
Photo by Now on the Tee
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A decent forced carry awaits on the long par four finisher
Photo by Now on the Tee

Tarandowah is a Martin Hawtree design that opened for play in 2008. It’s a heathlands style course, with lots of pot bunkers and firm and fast playing surfaces. Now, to be completely frank, the course was in pretty rough shape on the day we played – bunkers were in need of major repair and turf conditions were…sparse. But the greens were in good shape and the course still played like it’s meant to play. The bones out here are really good and I understand a new ownership group has come in recently, which bodes well for its future prospects.

This is one of the best “bang for your buck” courses in Ontario public golf and I hope to return in 2021.

In late August, I joined my wife’s uncle Henry (and my normal member/guest partner) for a charity scramble tournament at Georgetown Golf Club.

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The approach shot to the par four 3rd hole at Georgetown GC
Photo by Now on the Tee
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More great land, as seen on the tee shot on the uphill par four 4th hole
Photo by Now on the Tee
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A lovely late day look from the 15th tee at Georgetown GC
Photo by Now on the Tee

Formerly known as Eagle Ridge Golf Club, this ClubLink course originally opened in 1958 and was designed by Stanley Thompson’s protege, Robbie Robinson. The course sits on one of the most rollicking pieces of land I’ve ever seen for golf. It’s a very challenging walk and there are some weird routing choices but overall, there are some fun and very quirky holes out here and I enjoyed the day. The par four 10th hole has to be seen to be believed! I wish I had taken pictures of it but I think I was in disbelief at the audacity it took to slot a hole into that piece of the property.

It’s a worthwhile visit and I’m glad I got the chance to see it.

During Labour Day weekend, I visited Grand Niagara Golf Club just outside of Niagara Falls for a little 8-man tournament with some friends.

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The participants in the first annual LOPCC Labour Day Championship, held at Grand Niagara Golf Club
Photo by Now on the Tee

Grand Niagara is a Rees Jones design and is a favourite of the “retail golfer” here in the Niagara Region. Big name designer, championship length, above average conditioning, “everything in front of you” type of design…it checks all those boxes. I’ve never been a fan, to be honest, but public golf isn’t super strong in Niagara so you take what you can get.

We had a wonderful day on the course and that night, we gathered at Jamie’s house for a virtual feast with our wives, socially distanced in his backyard. I hope this becomes an annual tradition for this great group of friends.

In mid-September, I’d play in my second GTA Amateur Tour event, with this one held at the supremely challenging Mad River Golf Club in Creemore, Ontario.

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The very challenging second shot on the par four 9th hole at Mad River Golf Club
Photo by Now on the Tee
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A beautiful vista here at the par five 13th hole at Mad River
Photo by Now on the Tee
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The par fives at Mad River are all incredibly difficult, none more than the 17th, which requires the most accurate of approaches
Photo by Now on the Tee

Robert Cupp is the architect behind Mad River, which opened for play in 1991. This is an interesting place – it’s off the beaten path, sitting south of Collingwood and west of Barrie and with it sitting in more of a tourist area, you might be surprised to know that it’s a private club.

I get the feeling that the membership here is quite loyal and devoted – there’s a neat vibe at Mad River and I think the membership and staff really relish the fact that their golf course is supremely difficult. I’d go as far as to say that it’s one of the hardest golf courses I’ve played in Canada – it’s long, it’s extremely tight in places, the greens are super fast and undulating and there are enough hazards to keep you on your toes throughout the day.

Mad River absolutely kicked my teeth in on this day but strangely enough, I enjoyed the punishment. It’s an aesthetic marvel – it is beautiful, it’s in pristine condition and it is truly a “golfer’s club”. I really enjoyed my day out here – I’m not sure if I could play it every day due to its difficulty but I have to imagine this is a pretty damn cool place to be a member.

One week later, I was back at it again on the GTA Am Tour, this time visiting Maple Downs Golf & Country Club for the first time.

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An early morning look at the par three 2nd hole at Maple Downs G&CC
Photo by Now on the Tee
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Major restorative and tree clearing work has been conducted at Maple Downs, opening up great vistas like this one on the par four 4th hole
Photo by Now on the Tee
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The tumbling downhill par four 10th hole showcases the dramatic property at Maple Downs
Photo by Now on the Tee

Maple Downs opened in 1954 and is a William Mitchell design. Continuing the theme of courses I was lucky enough to visit in 2020, Maple Downs is a parkland design on a wonderful piece of land about a half hour north of Toronto.

I’ve long wanted to play here, especially since my friend, architect Ian Andrew, did some major renovations in recent years. The results are stunning, to say the least and I’d go as far as to say that the course is a tad underrated despite sitting in the middle to backend of most Canadian top 100 lists.

The distinctive bunkering is a true highlight and the wide open vistas throughout must help the growing environment while also improving playability. This would be a wonderful place to be a member – the course is sporty but challenging and is in fantastic condition. I only wish my game was in better shape – I was in the middle of a significant slump at this point and I was slashing the ball all over the place. In fact, I’d finish in dead last in the GTA Am Tour championship flight on this day. Thankfully, I was fortunate to play with two great guys who were rooting me on while I struggled.

What a fun and interesting golf course. I hope to get back someday soon.

In late October, I was finally able to join my good buddy Jason L. for a round at the truly wonderful St. Thomas Golf & Country Club

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A gorgeous look at the challenging par four 3rd hole at St. Thomas G&CC from up above
Photo by Now on the Tee
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A massive tree clearing project has opened up vistas that weren’t even imaginable, like this one from the 5th tee, with the par three 4th in the foreground and the 3rd green in the background
Photo by Now on the Tee
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The wonderful greensite at the par five 14th at St. Thomas
Photo by Now on the Tee

St. Thomas is another Stanley Thompson gem located just outside London, Ontario. I had visited St. Thomas on three occasions in the past, with two of them being complete washouts due to heavy rains.

So you can imagine how I felt making the two plus hour drive out to St. Thomas on October 28th with temperatures around 5 degrees Celsius and rain once again in the forecast!

Lets just say I’m thrilled I took Jason up on the invitation. The club, through the direction and support of architect Ian Andrew, is going through a massive tree clearing program in order to improve growing conditions and open up vistas throughout the wonderful property.

While things are still ongoing from what I understand, I can tell you that the results thus far are absolutely stunning. The course was practically unrecognizable from my last appearance – drainage seems to have improved, the conditions were outstanding and the incredible land that St. Thomas lays upon is now exposed to wonderful effect.

This is an outstanding representation of Stanley Thompson’s genius and I feel that this course is worthy of a spot inside the top 20 courses in the country. I hope I can get back there in some warmer summer weather in 2021 but first, I’ll have to have Jason out to Lookout as thanks for a memorable day at St. Thomas.

All things considered, I feel very fortunate to have visited so many amazing courses in 2020.

COMING SOON:

2020 Year in Review Part Three – Looking Ahead

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