As I’ve noted often in these pages, I like to enjoy my golf experiences – a fine course in the company of good friends, followed by a nice meal and a beverage or two. To me, that’s the best way to play golf.
Unfortunately, not every round can be like that but when I get the opportunity, I’m prepared to pay a bit more or drive a little further for the right course or to discover something new or unique. Such was the case when The Ridge at Manitou offered an invitation for the Bunker Squad and me to visit in mid June and join General Manager and Superintendent Drew Rachar and Director of Golf Travis Spiess for a round of golf.
I’ve probably played The Ridge over twenty times since it opened in 2004. The course was featured in the pages of Fairways Magazine and it’s always been one of my favourite spots to go – partly for the golf course, which is spectacular, but also for the pure joy of being there and spending a day in a remote setting where you can’t hear a car and don’t see any buildings, where the pace is laid back and relaxing, yet it has all the accoutrements and amenities of a first class resort.
So, with the Bunker Squad in tow, we ventured north on Highway 400 to Parry Sound, then made a right turn on 124 to McKellar, arriving at The Ridge a few minutes later. From World HQ in King City, it’s a 2 ½ hour trip.
Some of my friends think I’m crazy to drive that far for a game of golf. I’ve tried to explain that I don’t do it every day and it’s all about the experience and absolutely worth the drive a couple or few times a year. Sometimes I think they don’t hear me but in case you’re wondering, here’s what it’s all about:
Before we can even see the clubhouse, we pull into a parking lot and are met by a friendly gentleman who asks for our tee time, gets us set up on carts, then points us down the road towards a stone bridge. Emerging from the trees, we get our first glimpse of the clubhouse – a magnificent cedar and glass chalet with floor to ceiling windows in the back looking out at Manitouwabing Lake. There’s a pro shop of course, a glassed in dining area, a comfortable little bar and a delightful screened porch where we decide to enjoy a coffee and relax for a few minutes after the drive.
Golf should never be rushed. And a great golf experience has to allow plenty of time to fully savour the experience at every stage of the visit. At The Ridge, we found all kinds of places where you could linger for quite while and just soak it all in. However, we weren’t there to lounge around – there was serious golf to be played and we needed to warm up on the range.
A cart path stretches out behind the 18th green, then takes a hard left up the hill and winds deeper and deeper into the woods. After several minutes, with all hints of civilization left far behind, the path crests a small rise and there below is the most perfect practice range you’ll ever see.
A glistening row of range balls is set out in the usual pyramid shapes, perhaps a dozen hitting stations in all. A series of target greens with coloured flags stretches away in the distance, while a pair of Muskoka chairs sits invitingly nearby.
The entire area is surrounded by thick green forest, dotted with magnificent Northern pines and as we get out of our carts, a couple of deer scamper across the end of the range. If this were a Disney location, you’d know that sighting was staged for our benefit, but this is the middle of the north woods, where deer and foxes and the occasional bear wander at will.
I’m not much of a range rat. For one thing I don’t have a lot of time to practice and even if I did, the idea of beating balls next to dozens of others, all grunting and sighing, just isn’t very appealing. But in the tranquility of a sunny morning, where the only distractions are the chirp of an occasional bird or the faint rustle of some small forest creature nearby, I’m torn between some Zen-like contemplation in one of those Muskoka chairs or trying to find a little magic in a swing that is only fleetingly co-operative.
The chairs will have to wait. The Squad is busy beating balls, basking in the sunshine and rarely saying a word. We’re the sole occupants of the range and only the intermittent thwack of a well-struck driver breaks the silence. And some not so well struck.
Soon it’s time to leave our sanctuary and head for the first tee – a winding trek back through the woods until we see the lake and clubhouse and make the turn behind the 18th green, then up another path to the putting green where we’re met by Drew Rachar and Travis Spiess. After introductions and some chit-chat, we all troop onto the putting green for a little warm-up.
It’s a decent sized practice green and generally slopes towards the lake but has all the side-slopes and humps you’re likely to find on the real greens. The surface is as smooth as a billiard table and balls run fast and true. You could definitely spend some time here, making up little challenges, having a putting competition or generally just enjoying the view of the clubhouse and the lake beyond.
But rather than waste our good putts where they don’t count, after a few circuits of the practice holes, we make a bee-line for the starter.
The Ridge was designed by Tom McBroom and, chronologically, came after he had designed several other high profile Muskoka area courses. While each is unique in its own way, all of them feature rugged, rocky terrain, wetlands and acres and acres of dense dark forest. By the time McBroom plotted a routing for The Ridge, he had become an expert at dealing with the magnificent granite outcroppings of the Canadian Shield and using the rock in such a way that it was visually arresting but rarely an impediment to play.
At The Ridge, exposed rock is prevalent and serves to frame fairways or present a challenge on the inward side of a dogleg. On some holes, rock faces are better viewed by looking backwards as the fairway trundles downhill or drops off a ledge. It’s a stunning part of the scenery.
It’s also part of the foundation. Every hole is carved out of the forest and according to Drew Rachar, they didn’t have to dig too far before they hit rock on almost every hole. Consequently, the entire course had to be sand-capped, which requires laying down 4-6” of compacting sand on all of the maintained areas. Apart from being a mandatory requirement to growing grass, the sand-capping delivers two additional benefits: firm, fast fairways and excellent drainage. In the Spring of 2017, with more rain than anyone can remember, good drainage is a blessing and on the day we played it, the course was firm and dry, with only rare soggy patches.
Ask any golf course architect what the signature hole is on any of his creations and he’ll likely tell you that there are 18 signature holes. Not always true but at The Ridge, it’s pretty accurate. At least every hole could be a post card.
The par 3’s are stunning. There are five in total and four of them feature elevated tee shots. 15 and 17 in particular drop 60-80 feet, making club selection difficult. And both greens are significantly sloped so hitting the green in regulation is no guarantee of par.
The 11th hole is a bit of an outlier amongst the par 3’s and for the course in general. Every other hole on the course is framed by trees and rock but the 11th sits in a vast clearing, hard on the edge of a large wetland area. The green is perched above the surrounding landscape, a peninsula jutting into the marsh, with nothing behind to provide perspective. The wind is almost always stronger on the 11th and usually hurting, making it a tough green to hit.
Every time I come to the 11th hole, I expect to see a moose. The green offers a magnificent view across the entire breadth of the marsh and it’s exactly the kind of scenery featured in every moose picture you ever saw. But in over a dozen years visiting The Ridge, I’ve yet to see one. Maybe they don’t like golf.
The par 4’s rise and fall considerably and vary in length from the drivable 2nd hole to the formidable uphill 14th with it’s tiered green sliding back to the edge of the bush and a vast display of sand to carry on approach.
Perhaps the most memorable is the 8th – a medium length 2-shotter with a narrow landing area containing huge contours that will kick a mis-played shot into the adjacent stream on the right or trees to the left. There’s exposed rock visible in some of the landing area too. The large, sloping green is raised and can be treacherous. It’s the #1 handicap hole on the course for good reason.
After surviving the 8th, it’s time to stop at the halfway house. The log cabin sits behind the 8th green and faces the fabulous downhill par 3 15th. There’s usually a BBQ going and the aroma of burgers and sausages wafting out to greet you. In the early days at The Ridge, when it was mostly private, it wasn’t uncommon to find a couple of groups enjoying lunch and a beverage on the screen porch, watching players hit their tee shots on the 15th. They would happily wave you through and order another beverage. It’s a great place to relax.
On the day we played, we definitely took advantage of the BBQ but didn’t linger longer than necessary. A delightful break but we still had some golf to play.
My favourite hole at The Ridge is the 13th – a shortish par 5 that trundles downhill before making a sharp left turn across a creek to a sloping green set in a glade of trees. Based on the yardage from the White tees (458), it’s a green I expect to hit in two but the second shot is all or nothing. There’s scant room anywhere to miss the green and for me, I usually have a hybrid or even a 3-metal in my hand. Laying up is no bargain either as the landing area is quite contoured and will leave a wedge or short iron from an uneven lie. It’s a fun hole and seems to play differently every time I see it.
None of the par 5’s at The Ridge will beat you up in terms of length. Where they get you is with elevation changes, forced carries and twists and turns. A little local knowledge is vital so it was nice to have Drew along to spell out the disasters before we discovered them ourselves.
There’s nothing that can prepare you for the 18th hole. You’ve likely seen it on other stories about The Ridge, in some of their advertising or on some list or other featuring spectacular scenery. I’ve played the course over 20 times and it still makes me stop and stare every time as I turn the corner after hitting my drive and look down the long expanse of fairway to the 18th green with Manitouwabing Lake glistening in the background and that magnificent clubhouse nestled on the shores of the lake. If there’s a prettier finishing hole in Canada, I’m not aware of it.
The final hole has another bonus in store too. A well hit drive will leave no more than a hybrid or long iron to the narrow green, setting up a possible eagle. What a great finish!
Afterwards, there’s no better place to be than enjoying a cold beer on the patio with the waves lapping a few feet away against the stone jetty and the afternoon sun sparkling on the water. The food at The Ridge is an experience by itself and is complemented by an exquisite selection of wines.
The Bunker Squad is more of a fish and chips crowd than a fine dining group but nonetheless, it’s hard to beat the atmosphere. Nobody wants to leave.
So, when some people ask me why I want to “go all the way up there to play golf”, that’s why. Playing golf at The Ridge is more than just golf – it’s an exceptional experience that every golfer should try.
Of course, once you’ve tried it once, you can’t wait to go back.
Click HERE for green fee rates, directions and more information about The Ridge at Manitou.