When Stanley Thompson designed the first nine holes for The Briars Golf Club on the shores of Lake Simcoe back in 1922, it was for local cottagers that wanted a place to play. Toronto was hours away and for many people at that time, train travel was the only way they could get from the City to their cottage. The idea of commuting from downtown Toronto to The Briars Golf Club wouldn’t have even entered anyone’s mind.
Fast forward nearly 100 years and how things have changed. Modern cars and expressways allow people to travel faster and farther than ever before and a trip to Lake Simcoe for a City dweller isn’t crazy at all. In fact, it’s pretty common.
But it’s not just cars and expressways that have changed. The City of Toronto underwent massive expansion after the Second World War and a more recent boom has pushed all the boundaries in every possible direction. Small suburban towns like Aurora, Newmarket and Markham are cities themselves now and their ever-expanding populations also need escapes.
The Briars has changed a bit since Stanley Thompson laid out those first nine holes but it hasn’t lost the character and pastoral elements that made it such a relaxing spot for cottagers almost a century ago. 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.
Back in early June, I took several members of the Bunker Squad to visit The Briars and they were blown away by the setting and the course.
“It really is like a walk in the park,” remarked one, while another commented, “This is like being at the cottage.”
We didn’t have anybody pushing us on the day we played but still managed to complete 18 holes in 3 ½ hours walking.
“That’s pretty typical”, say Brian Allen, Membership Sales and Marketing Coordinator. “The members like to keep a good pace and the course is laid out to let them do that.”
Our group can certainly attest to that. There aren’t any tricked up greens or obstacles to slow play or add unnecessary strokes. It’s pure golf, all laid out in front of you – all you have to do is hit the shots.
But don’t let the yardage fool you into thinking that the course is a pushover either. In 2013, the course hosted the Canadian Men’s Senior Championship and although the course tops out at 6,300 yards, just five players finished under par. Those are some of the best senior amateurs in both Canada and the United States.
That’s the beauty of a Stanley Thompson design, and one that can be found at similar designs such as Westmount, Brantford or Cutten Fields. The courses don’t overwhelm you with wide. sweeping fairways, gaping, deep bunkers and massive greens in the modern style. Rather, it’s all about the subtleties – a gently turning tree-lined fairway, a benign looking trap or a hard to read break on a small sloping green that all look innocent until a wayward shot makes recovery difficult or a missed putt leaves you thinking you need to get your eyes checked. Nobody overpowers a Thompson course; they have to be played like a finely tuned instrument.
And don’t forget about the trees. Soaring white pines characterize the front nine at The Briars while majestic maples and oaks frame greens on the back.
When the round is over, the quaint clubhouse beckons for a beverage, especially the balcony overlooking the 18th green. It’s a friendly spot and one where you could easily see yourself hanging out and watching play on a Saturday afternoon instead of heading home to cut the lawn. The staff and the members are exceedingly friendly.
Probably much the way Stanley Thompson and the original cottagers envisioned it.
One of the perks of membership at The Briars is a reciprocal deal with 14 other clubs in Southern Ontario including Barrie Country Club, Carrying Place, Cedar Brae, Meadowbrook, Midland, Oshawa, Peterborough, Sleepy Hollow, Toronto Hunt, Toronto Ladies, Trafalgar, Whitevale, Mad River and Summit. Having one great place to play is terrific but the opportunity to tee it up at more than a dozen clubs is awesome!
The list of benefits to joining The Briars doesn’t stop there but I’ll leave you with this: it’s unbelievably affordable to join and the annual dues are a fraction of what you pay at courses in the city – any city. There’s even a trial membership program if you want a test drive before you buy.