Course of the Week: The Briars Golf Club
For most of us, golf is an escape from the hectic pace of everyday life. It’s all about enjoying a game we love in a beautiful setting and having a few laughs with friends. Sure there are corporate golf outings and tournaments and even the obligatory annual round with your cousin Eddie, who can’t hit the ball out of his own shadow but still wants to give you advice on every shot. But apart from that, golf is fun.
A recent outing to The Briars Golf Club in Jackson’s Point, on the shores of Lake Simcoe, was all the proof we needed to remember why we play the game and how large a role it plays in our social lives.
The day started off drizzly with a persistent wind – not exactly a Chamber of Commerce forecast. However, by mid-morning the sun came out, the wind died and everything was looking positive for our early afternoon tee time.
A visit to The Briars is a bit like stepping back in time. The modest wooden clubhouse is comfortable and functional but not the least bit pretentious. It serves the members well and on this day a large group of them are having lunch on the covered porch that overlooks the 10th tee and 18th green, kibitzing with friends about to tee off and others finishing their rounds.
Over near the first tee about two dozen golfers are involved in a new member orientation, which was surprising to see as many clubs in the GTA have been struggling to fill vacancies in their ranks caused by all manner of health and financial reasons as well as normal annual attrition.
Brian Allen, the Membership Sales & Marketing Coordinator at The Briars Golf Club, says they have attracted over 75 new members in the past 18 months, which is astounding in the current economic environment.
Asked how that was possible, Allen said, “It’s been a combination of a lot of factors. The 404 extension from Newmarket to Keswick opened up markets south of the Club as people in Aurora, Newmarket and Markham began to realize that we’re not that far away. We have a pretty competitive fee structure and reciprocal privileges with 14 other clubs in the GTA. But maybe most important, we have a happy group of members here already and that translates into referrals, which are still our most important source of new people.”
One of the reasons, The Briars has a happy group of people is the golf course. Like the clubhouse, it’s modest and unassuming and has great character. It began life back in 1922 when legendary Canadian designer Stanley Thompson fashioned a nine hole layout across the street from Lake Simcoe. The original routing was tweaked in 1971 by Thompson disciple Robbie Robinson, who added a second nine and integrated the two halves.
The Thompson nine is the outward half and is like a walk in the park. Featuring towering pines, dark ponds and gentle slopes, it’s an easy stroll but slightly more formidable when it comes to scoring. The fairways are tight and tree-lined while the small greens are sloped in the Thompson tradition with flanking bunkers flashed into the hillsides. The holes bend in both directions and although not long, they do require accuracy.
The Robinson nine starts in the same fashion but then a bridge takes you over the Black River to the 11th tee and you discover a routing that traverses a more rolling landscape with woodlots and valleys and former pasture land. There’s even an old silo that has been preserved on the 14th hole that was from the original farm. Robinson’s design is still very much in his mentor’s style but he integrates the small sloped greens and deep bunkers into a more challenging layout.
Another aspect of The Briars that harkens back to an earlier era is the time it takes to play. With greens and tees close together and the course topping out a shade under 6,300 yards, most weekend groups get around in less than four hours and on quieter days, a three hour round is pretty normal. That means more time for après golf socializing!
It’s been pretty clear since our arrival, that being with friends is a key ingredient of the Club. Members are drawn from a wide swath of the GTA but also include cottagers on nearby Lake Simcoe. The golf club is the focal point for most and some have been there a long time.
Integrating a large group of members into any club is never easy but Allen says it has gone quite smoothly. “All of our members understand how important it is to the financial well being of the Club to attract and keep new members so they work hard at making everybody feel welcome and comfortable. We also have a lot of functions – both golf and social – to help new members meet each other as well as existing members. They join men’s and ladies leagues and seem to get acclimatized very quickly.”
That’s not something you find at every club you see. Some seem to attract a lot of business people who only use the club to play with clients but rarely hang around to mingle with the other members. And some are in locations where travel is an issue so members dash off as soon as their round is complete. Allen indicates that a lot of Briars members are retirees so their days of dashing are over and many live locally in the Lake Simcoe area so the club is a natural gathering point for them and their friends.
“It all translates to a relaxed atmosphere and a very nice place to hang out.”
After watching all the activity, it was our turn to play. Since the new members were playing the front nine, we went off the 10th tee with a crowd of diners watching intently from the porch. As happened with every group that teed off, a hush fell over the crowd as we played our opening shots. We had noticed that when others hit poor tee shots there was much hooting and laughter from their friends. Thankfully, we gave them nothing to hoot about.