Two hours north of Toronto is Muskoka, southern Ontario’s “cottage country,” an area dominated by an element not often associated with top-shelf golf: ROCK. Lots of it.
Underlying a thickly wooded region sprinkled with 1,600 lakes is the Canadian Shield, its outcrops of ancient granite dominating the landscape. While soft rocks like volcanic lava can be pulverized to make way for golf holes, granite is more obdurate. It can be blasted with dynamite, but most designers are reluctant to obliterate a landscape. Also, the cost is prohibitive.
Enter Tom McBroom and Doug Carrick, a pair of Ontario-based architects who have willingly, daringly put themselves between Precambrian rock and a hard place. McBroom, who has built several courses in Muskoka, says “using rock to provide definition or as a hazard just doesn’t compute for most golfers. The game is difficult enough without getting wild bounces off rock.” But selectively power-washed and intelligently incorporated into a golf hole, the Shield, the main block of the earth’s crust underlying North America, adds drama, character and an imperishable quality to the game.
McBroom exchanged a pick axe for an artist’s brush at Rocky Crest in MacTier, which set a new standard for Muskoka golf when it opened in 2000. After smearing 500,000 metric tons of sand on the site to create a growing medium for turfgrass, the designer peeled back earth from the rock to expose it. He then carved holes through a dense forest of hemlock, pine and birch, weaving a few of the fairways around wetlands favored by moose. Granite outcrops—some rounded, others sharply angled—frame nearly every hole. Subtly grafted onto the sparkling rock, the 6,950-yard course appears to have been extruded by the Shield.
The penultimate moment at Rocky Crest comes at the par-five sixth. Even duffers should march back to the gold tee to survey the prospect for the drive, where a rockbound gorge–actually three acres of pink-and-blue streaked granite–must be carried to a reach a rolling, elevated fairway some 180 yards away. Not a big carry, but a daunting one. Once clear of the granite chasm, the hole bends slightly to the left, a beaver pond and its withered trees sited far below the fairway on the left. A missed approach into the green, flanked by rock and a steep drop-off, usually results in a bogey or worse. A great par five by any estimation, this hole is made all the more memorable by the rocky ravine that stands between tee and fairway.
While the front nine is relatively short and sporty, Rocky Crest’s back nine will rock your world from any set of tees. The fabulous par-five 18th is a classic. The tee shot here is played over wetlands to the left of a rock-studded hill, the rising fairway hiding a full view of the green. Upon cresting the hill, players are treated to a delightful sight: A well-proportioned green set below a mammoth rock ledge, behind it the outdoor terrace of a lodge-style clubhouse crafted from giant pine logs harvested nearby.
Inside, the post-and-beam construction and cathedral ceiling rise to three stories. Out front is a pair of large hand-carved doors with a loon and maple leaf motif. Beyond the terrace out back is a golf course that partakes of the Shield like no other, a course that at first glance appears to have more rock than grass in play. The place to stay is Delta Rocky Crest Resort, which offers a variety of stay-and-play packages.
McBroom’s latest effort in Muskoka is The Ridge at Manitou, a superb layout debuted in 2005 and located a short drive east of Parry Sound. While relatively petite at 6,815 yards, The Ridge, which transitions from high, rocky ridges to lowland areas, strikes a perfect balance between challenge and playability. The holes, seamlessly woven around black ash wetlands, a 40-acre bog and a deer sanctuary, wraps around rock outcrops as it wanders through the forest. The standout holes are the five par threes, four of which play downhill from elevated tee boxes, though the majestic par-five 18th, which bends to the left, hops a creek and leads to a green perched on the shores of Manitouwabing Lake, is one the prettiest finishing holes in Ontario.
The pristine beauty of the golf course is matched by the rustic, timber-framed clubhouse. While the central bar and adjoining lounge are anchored by a three-story stone fireplace, the dining room, featuring a sophisticated bistro menu, has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lake. The Ridge at Manitou’s Redwood Cabin accommodates up to two foursomes in style. In addition, the Parry Sound area offers a wide array of resort lodgings.
Like McBroom, Doug Carrick has proven adept at crafting distinctive holes from difficult terrain. His rockbound, topsy-turvy stage set at Muskoka Bay Club, a semi-private facility located in Gravenhurst, the region’s southern gateway, was arguably the finest new course to open in Canada in 2006. Nearly impregnable from the tips at 7,367 yards, it’s one of the most demanding and memorable layouts in the province. The forward tees are somewhat forgiving, but this is not a course for the faint at heart. Holes are not only threaded through a classic Muskoka palette of granite knobs, dense forest and dammed beaver ponds that double as water hazards, there’s a 100-foot elevation change to crank up the challenge.
Wisely, Carrick located many of the tee boxes atop prominent rock ridges, allowing players to survey the battlefield ahead. The hole names are a tip-off to their character—Alcatraz and Gibraltar, Alps and Himalayas. Because the natural framework is so compelling, bunkers were used sparingly. A strategic tour de force, Muskoka Bay’s most notorious hole is the par-four ninth, called The Narrows. After carrying a patch of wetlands off the tee, players fly their approach shots to a blind hilltop green over opposing fields of rock. The rock pinches the fairway to a bottleneck the width of two golf carts near the green. That’s nearly single file for a walking foursome!
In addition to luxurious fairway villas available at the club, the Gravenhurst area offers a variety of stay-and-play options, from lakeside hotels and resorts to small inns and charming bed-and-breakfast establishments.
Entirely different in conception is Bigwin Island, which is a bit of departure from Muskoka’s other venues. Following a five-minute boat ride from Norway Point, players reach a hilly island in the center of Lake of Bays, where a wealthy American industrialist built a posh retreat for like-minded guests in 1920. This was the heyday of the big bands–Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians as well as jazz greats like Duke Ellington performed here. The cream of North American society descended upon the island—the Rockefellers, the Mellon banking family–and then Hollywood beat a path to Bigwin, culminating with the visit of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard shortly after the release of Gone With the Wind in 1940.
Stanley Thompson, the great Canadian designer, was hired to build a golf course, but the resort fell on hard times in later years and closed its doors in 1970. In the late 1990s, a pair of developers hired Doug Carrick to design a new course on Bigwin, a lovely island favored by the Ojibway Indians for its “healing air.”
After arriving at the “golf dock” and checking in at the white-and-red clubhouse, the restored lakeside portion of the former Bigwin Inn, players head for the first tee of a surprisingly rock-free layout. In an age when far too many courses are designed to seek out a golfer’s weaknesses and exploit them, Bigwin was designed purely for pleasure. It offers plenty of challenge from the back tees (there are four sets ranging from 7,166 to 5,346 yards), but the course is never overbearing.
Experts need to flirt with danger to gain an advantage from the tips, but wide fairways and moderate challenges greet average players from the forward markers. The holes are signposted throughout by large, flashed-face bunkers filled with local golden silica, creating a unique and distinctive look.
As a postcard hole, the Bigwin’s par-four sixth serves up one of the prettiest views in Canadian golf. From a tee perched nearly 150 feet above the fairway, players aim their drives to verdant pin-cushion islands in Lake of Bays far below. The hang time of a well-launched drive can last several seconds.
Unlike McBroom, Carrick prefers not to send his charges home without a tussle. Bigwin Island’s 18th, a massive 574-yard par five, drops from a skybox tee to a broad fairway that skirts the shore of the lake and brings 12 bunkers into play. It’s a tremendous climax to a truly memorable course.
Weekends in July and August are reserved for members-only, but the golf course is worth swimming to on a weekday—it’s that good.
Want to delve more deeply into the Muskoka golf scene? The region’s supporting cast of courses is excellent. There’s Taboo Resort in Gravenhurst, its extremely rugged course paved through towering pines and irregular sheets of exposed rock. At 7,340 yards from the black tees (75.6 course rating, 153 slope), this is one of eastern Canada’s toughest tests of golf. The well-groomed layout finishes in dramatic fashion high above Lake Muskoka at the sturdy par-five 18th. For players of lesser attainment, the resort offers a sporty 9-holer called The Sands. A full-service property, Taboo offers a range of deluxe rooms, suites and cottage chalets as well as an enticing Spa & Golf getaway package. For fine dining, Elements, recipient of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, is one of Muskoka’s best restaurants.
At the venerable Deerhurst Resort on the shores of Peninsula Lake outside Huntsville can be found Deerhurst Highlands. Co-designed by Tom McBroom and Bob Cupp 20 years ago, this was the first course in Muskoka to fully embrace the Canadian Shield. The layout’s large, slick multi-tiered greens can be genuinely confounding. The most memorable hole on this epic wilderness spread is the par-four 10th, which swings around a 50-foot-high rock cliff. The resort’s Deerhurst Lakeside course, a short par-65 charmer, is ideal for casual play. In addition to a solarium-enclosed swimming pool, the resort produces delightful musical stage shows throughout the summer. (Shania Twain got her start here).
On the outskirts of Huntsville near the tiny hamlet of Port Carling is the Lake Joseph Club, a McBroom-designed gem pinched by wetlands, ponds and scree slopes. The premium here is on accuracy—the narrow fairways pitch and toss through dense woods. The signature hole is the par-three eighth, where the tee is elevated 40 feet above a granite-encased green. A semi-private club, “Lake Joe” is one of Muskoka’s best-conditioned courses. On-site lodging is available in well-appointed villas with private decks and screened porches.
Be sure to bring your A-game to the Mark O’Meara Course at Grandview Resort, a hilly behemoth routed around wetlands, ponds and fortress-like granite outcrops. Stretching to over 7,000 yards from the gold tees, this course was designed to separate the men from the boys. Something less taxing? Grandview’s 9-hole Academy Course is a delight. The resort itself, set on the shores of Fairy Lake, is a vintage 1911 property that was completely renovated several years ago. A highlight of a stay at Grandview is a pontoon boat cruise to historic downtown Huntsville. The Sunday brunch in the clubhouse dining room deserves its reputation as Muskoka’s finest.
Finally, there’s The Rock, an appropriately-named course laid out in 2003 by Nick Faldo in Minett Landing on Lake Rousseau. A rolling, compact design staked out by numerous flashed-face bunkers, The Rock compensates for its relative shortness (6,649 yards, par 70) with slim fairways and tiny, sloping greens. Dramatic rock outcrops—the Shield in all its 3 billion-year-old glory!—comes into play at half the holes. Stay & Play packages are available through The Rousseau, a JW Marriott Resort & Spa adjacent to the golf course. Set on a hill high above the lake, this top-class resort offers superb Italian fare at Teca, named one of Canada’s top new restaurants in 2009.
As good as the golf is in Muskoka, and it’s some of the finest in Canada, it’s just a warm-up for what lies beyond the rockbound fairways.
Algonquin Provincial Park, which covers 2,910 square miles and protects the headwaters of five major rivers, offers world-class canoeing and kayaking on pristine lakes and rivers. The park is an hour’s drive from the region’s northern tier courses. Algonquin Outfitters, with four locations throughout the region, offers guided or self-guided one-day trips as well as overnight excursions.
Georgian Bay Airways features float plane charters to remote wilderness lakes where the angling for lake trout, brook trout, walleye, northern pike and smallmouth bass is exceptional. Craft include the Dehavilland Beaver, the legendary Canadian bushplane, and Cessna float planes.
Hollywood actors seeking privacy own lakeside cottages throughout Muskoka, and the region is a magnet for retired hockey legends, but otherwise the best stargazing is found at Echo Valley Astronomical Observatory, where the cloud belts of Jupiter and the moons of Saturn can be viewed in the typically pitch-black sky through a very powerful telescope. There is very little light pollution this far north of Toronto—the Milky Way in these parts is really milky.
Algonquin Provincial Park invites exploration