Islington restores the Stanley Thompson flavour

One of the great ironies about private clubs is that people join for the golf course but stay for the culture, the friends and the lifestyle.

Countless studies about why golfers choose one club over another show that the top three considerations are:

  1. Location
  2. Golf course
  3. Friends and family that are already members.

The order sometimes varies but the quality of the golf course is always a top priority.

There likely weren’t a lot of member studies done back in the 1920’s when Stanley Thompson started designing golf courses. Part of his brilliance was that he created courses that people enjoy playing over and over and that enjoyment has endured for decades, virtually without much alteration to the original design.

It’s not that Thompson didn’t build some courses with a significant WOW factor – think of Banff, Jasper, Capilano or Cape Breton Highlands – but the majority of his designs were accomplished without benefit of mountains or oceans. They were built near cities and small towns where the land wasn’t quite as spectacular.

That’s not to imply that Thompson courses are flat or mundane. In fact, the people that employed Stanley as an architect generally had their choice of the best land around – property that featured creeks and woodlots and plenty of elevation changes. Thompson fashioned his routings accordingly and as everybody knows, the results were terrific.

Islington Golf Club is a good example. Built in 1923, the course follows the land, especially the valleys and contours of Mimico Creek, which meanders through the property and comes into play on eight holes. Moving up and down from the table lands above to the valley below offered some inspired holes that really stand out today.

The par 3 10th is certainly one of Islington’s signature holes – a 212 yard shot from an elevated tee adjacent to the clubhouse to a significantly sloped green carved out of the hillside on the other side of the river valley. Mimico Creek gurgles alongside the green. It’s a tough 2-putt from almost anywhere and par here is a great score and a very good start to the back nine.

Islington Golf Club, Hole No 10, Par 3, 212 yards
Islington Golf Club, Hole No 10, Par 3, 212 yards

Another standout hole on the inward side is the shortish 16th. At just 345 yards, it’s all about the second shot. The fairway slopes downhill from the tee towards the creek but the green is up on the table lands some 50-60 feet above. If the tee shot is too close to the creek, the second shot is blind so laying back is preferred. However, the green has two tiers and putting from one to the other is treacherous. The approach is critical.

Elevation always makes club selection difficult and nobody used it better than Thompson. Islington’s natural contours provided him ample raw material to fashion a course that isn’t long by today’s standards (6,500 yards) but has enough movement to always make it challenging without being intimidating. That’s always a recipe for a course you want to play every day.

In his day, Thompson, like most designers, considered putting a critical aspect of the game. It wasn’t so much resistance to scoring but more a case of providing a complete test of golf. Match play was still very much in vogue during the 1920’s – the Golden Age of Architecture – and great putters could still prevail at a club, even if they couldn’t keep up with longer hitters. Challenging greens often revealed the best all round player.

Moving a lot of dirt wasn’t feasible at the time Islington was built and drainage technology wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is today. Hence, Thompson greens tended to be sloped from front to back to allow water to run off. The fact that they also created a more challenging putting environment was an unintended consequence, although Thompson did use it to his advantage, often tweaking his greens with side slopes, humps and false fronts.

In typical Thompson fashion, the Islington greens were built on hillsides with bunkers flashed into the slopes, while others were sited closer to the creek or elevated on raised plateaus to make approaches difficult to judge and chipping more onerous.

No 6 features a raised green with signature Thompson style bunkers flashed into the surrounding slopes.

John Tyers has been a member at Islington most of his life and started caddying at the Club in 1948. He recalls the greens being among the fastest in the City of Toronto.

“Islington was always known for its greens,” he says. “Not much had changed from the original design when I started caddying there and our greens were tough to putt. Islington hosted a lot of important amateur and pro events at the time and everybody struggled with them.”

Over the ensuing years (decades actually), Islington’s greens lost some of their punch. That’s not unusual with older greens as repeated additions of sand from top dressing and explosive bunker shots tend to flatten out some of the slopes and soften the contours. A series of consulting architects also removed some of the original greens or changed them substantially. Ironically, a flood in the summer of 2013 and the ice storm that did so much damage to local courses in the winter of 2014 provided Islington with the impetus to restore its greens to their former glory.

Golf course architect Ian Andrew was asked to handle the restoration job but his mandate wasn’t just to build replicas of Stanley Thompson greens. He was asked to make the greens challenging to putt again – in other words to restore the “spirit” of what Islington greens used to be.

Andrew has long been considered the go to guy when it comes to Thompson designs. A former associate at Carrick Design, he has been involved in numerous projects to re-build green and bunker complexes, restore tees and re-visit the grass lines that are all signature Thompson trademarks.

At Islington, Andrew suggested using more slope and contour than usual so that the greens themselves would dictate speed, rather than the height of the blades on the lawnmowers.

“It’s better for the health of the greens,” says Andrew. “You can’t keep scalping greens to get the speed up. The grass can’t sustain that.”

The 8th hole has plenty of contours and slope.
The 8th hole has plenty of contours and will test everyone’s putting.

Islington’s new greens opened for play last summer and they’re very intriguing. They’re definitely fast with lots of contours and side slopes and in keeping with Thompson character, approach shots have to be spot on to have any chance of scoring.

John Tyers says that another thing that has always distinguished Islington from its neighbours was it has always been a family club.

“Other clubs in the area attracted people with lots of money or the business guys but Islington was known as more of a family spot,” he says. “We were definitely less expensive to join than the other clubs but I think we had more fun here than any of them.”

That sentiment ties in perfectly with the mandate Ian Andrew worked under when he set about re-building the greens. They are more challenging for sure but they’re fun to play too. No doubt Stanley Thompson would approve.

For further information on Islington Golf Club or to inquire about memberships, please click HERE.

The patio is close to the action on the 18th hole..
The patio and the creek are close to the action on the 18th hole.
Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

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