There’s a longstanding debate amongst golfers, architects and historians as to which style of course design delivers a better product: natural or man-made.
The natural group, in their wildest fantasies, believes that it’s impossible to improve on nature and abhors the idea of pushing a lot of dirt around to create phony mounds, ponds and obscene obstacles. Their mantra is best described by “a site that is touched by the hand of God”. Apparently, in that case, all the architect has to do is figure out where to put 18 flags.
On the other hand, the man-made aficionados love the idea of controlling every aspect of the game and deciding ahead of time how and where the ball should bounce. Nothing is left to chance including detailed instructions for the care and maintenance of the course long after the design staff has left the premises.
As we all know, neither philosophy dictates course design 100%. Great golf courses result from a good site and the inspired deliberations of an architect, followed by a talented team of builders and shapers. The best talents of their time have left us with a legacy of wonderful golf courses that continue to challenge and delight, even in the face of advancing technology.
C.E. “Robbie” Robinson was one such individual. Initially, a disciple of legendary Canadian designer Stanley Thompson, Robinson made his mark both during and after Thompson’s death with exceptional courses all over the country. One of his designs that deserves far greater attention is Eagle Ridge Golf Club in Georgetown, Ontario.
To start, the land is spectacular! Deep ravines and gullies create wonderful settings for fairways and greens, not to mention amazing views. The routing that wanders from wooded slopes to open table lands and rises and falls through the river valley is magnificent. Robinson not only figured out where to put 18 flags – he crafted green sites that force you to think carefully about each approach and put enough slope into the putting surfaces to make them really challenging, bordering on treacherous occasionally.
Eagle Ridge started life as Georgetown Golf Club in 1958 and was acquired by ClubLink in 2005. The course exists today in all its original splendour, save for a few alterations driven by maintenance to improve sunlight and air flow. I first played the course in the late 60’s and while I can’t recall all the details, the 2016 version doesn’t seem much different. One thing that definitely hasn’t changed, maybe just gotten tougher as I get older, is that the course is a challenging walk. On several holes I could hear my calf muscles screaming. Or maybe that was the Bunker Squad.
Eagle Ridge starts off easily enough with a short flat par 5 on the open table lands, where the shallow green is protected on the front left by a deep gully and massive bunker. The second is a short par 4 that takes you downhill towards the trees and that’s where the fun begins.
Holes 3 through 8 are routed through the forest, up enormous hills, across ravines and down again through the river valley. If there weren’t signs up you’d have to leave bread crumbs out to know where you were. The 3rd, 4th and 5th holes all contain blind shots courtesy of the elevated terrain and the brilliance of Robbie Robinson. The 5th in particular is a brute of a par 5 that goes straight uphill – the first real episode with screaming calf muscles.
Number 6 is a sweet little par 3 over a ravine to a long skinny green perched on the other side. Then number 7 drops you down to the river valley and plays to one of the more wickedly sloped greens on the golf course. Not a long hole by any means but great views and masochistic fun with the putter.
The climb to the 8th tee will have you crying for your momma or calling the pro shop for a ride. But if you get topside, once you catch your breath, the shot is a neat little punch of 130 yards or so across a gully to a slippery green that sits in a plateau flashed into the opposite hill. It looks like a gimme on the card but when you see the hole in three dimensional colour, it has lots more challenge.
The final hole on the outward nine is a terrific par 5 that delivers you back near the clubhouse. The uphill blind tee shot needs to fade to find the fairway, then a solid fairway metal or hybrid puts you within wedge range of the two tiered green. There’s a lower bowl on the right hand side that everything feeds into, which is where the pin was the day we played.
A fabulous nine for sure but really just the warm-up act for the back. The 10th hole might be one of the hardest holes you’ll play this year. The fairway runs out about the 240 yard mark, then drops precipitously to the river valley below. There’s a decent amount of flat land short of the river where you can take a drop after hitting your approach into the water or the woods on the right or the gunk on the left. The green is back uphill (steeply uphill) and once again sits on a plateau that has been built into the hillside. It too is a two-tiered affair and slopes harshly from front to back, then up again to the second level.
There is so much trouble on this hole you may want to just mark down the max and proceed to the next tee except it’s such a great hole and making a good score will definitely be a highlight. You must hit your tee shot long enough to find a flat lie near the end of the fairway. Then your approach has to carry about 190 yards back uphill to that treacherous green. And for the third time you won’t be able to concentrate on your putt because of the wailing and crying coming from your calves and playing partners (not necessarily in that order).
Number 11 is a drivable par 4. Almost no trouble. Number 12 is a pretty straightforward par 3 of 190 yards. Again, no trouble. They are what architects like to call connector holes or golfers may refer to them as breathers.
That changes when you get to the 13th. The tee shot comes out of a chute to a ribbon of fairway that winds around a gulch. Left is dead; right is awkward – pick your poison. The green is also long and narrow and is all side slope. I doubt there’s a flat spot on the putting surface. Two putting from anywhere is an accomplishment, even two footers.
Then comes the finish. Number 14 is a 170 yard one-shotter from an elevated tee over a ravine to a green surrounded by trees and scant bail out room anywhere. The 15th continues downhill with a magnificent vista laid out in the valley below and bordered on the left by wetlands. The approach crosses the marsh to a raised green tucked into a stand of trees.
Number 16 is another one-shotter (there are three of them on the inward side) that is flanked by wetlands. The green is raised, slopes front to back and, as luck would have it on the day we played, the pin was located on a tiny back tier. A really tough tee shot indeed!
The penultimate hole is the only par 5 on the back nine and looks benign enough on the card. At just 485 yards it should be a birdie opportunity but the fairway turns 90 degrees to the left and proceeds uphill through a narrow chute to a multi-tiered green surrounded by bunkers. Maybe Jason Day or Bubba Watson could hit their tee shot high enough to get over the trees and shorten the hole but for us mortals that 485 yards plays much longer.
Eagle Ridge closes with a long straight par 4 but not before one last hill climb to get to the tee. On wobbly legs we hit our final tee shots, then surveyed our approaches to the 18th green. It’s a fairly large deep putting surface, sloped front to back, that could be 2-3 clubs different depending on pin position. Naturally we once again drew the short straw and were faced with a back pin. Excellent finishing hole!
One final note about Eagle Ridge. Like many of the courses designed during the 50’s and 60’s, it’s not long by today’s standards and measures just under 6,300 yards. However, with all of the elevation, particularly the uphill shots, it plays significantly longer than the yardage. It’s a perfect member’s club in terms of length and difficulty and has so many different looks that all golfers will be inspired.
Frankly, I loved it and have been telling everybody I see about it. I don’t plan on waiting another 40 years to play it again either.