It had been at least ten years since I last played the Highlands course at Deerhurst Resort, the first of the breathtaking new designs in the Muskoka region, so I was quite excited to be with the Bunker Squad on another road trip.
There’s nothing quite like golf in this part of Central Ontario. The rugged highlands offer some of the most dramatic landscapes you’ll find anywhere in the country and to carve golf courses out of all that rock and forest and wetland area truly takes a bit of genius and no doubt a lot of money. The results are stunning and make a golf trip to Muskoka something quite memorable.
The late Bob Cupp and Tom McBroom are credited with co-designing Deerhurst Highlands, which opened in 1990. Cupp was a former design associate of Jack Nicklaus from 1972-1986 and worked on Glen Abbey before hanging out his own shingle. Although he did numerous solo designs, Cupp was noteworthy for collaborating with others, mostly former players such as Jerry Pate, Tom Kite and Fred Couples in the United States. Cupp and McBroom produced two award winning Canadian designs together that will be familiar to Fairways Magazine readers: Beacon Hall Golf Club in Aurora and Deerhurst Highlands. Both have been highly ranked among the Top 100 golf courses in Canada for more than 25 years.
McBroom, of course, is well known for his numerous award winning designs such as Granite Golf Club, National Pines, Heron Point and Wildfire in Southern Ontario but it is his work in Muskoka that really brought out his creative flair. Projects such as Rocky Crest, Lake Joseph Club, Port Carling, Ridge at Manitou and Oviinbyrd demonstrated how the craggy Canadian Shield could be showcased using exposed granite, dramatic elevation changes and routing holes around and across the ubiquitous wetlands. It all started at Deerhurst, the first of the truly bold Muskoka endeavours to make the rugged landscape part of the course, instead of building around it.
Arriving at the Deerhurst Highlands bag drop doesn’t really prepare you for what’s ahead. The rustic log cabin is set on a hill and offers beautiful views from the patio of Peninsula Lake in the distance but most of the golf course is routed up and through the hills behind. We’re met by Course Superintendent and Director of Golf Andrew Nieder and Head Professional Ryan Barry who take us inside to the quaint Antler Steakhouse, which is adjacent to the pro shop.
Lunch is on the itinerary before we hit the course, which is a nice way to relax a bit after the two hour drive from Toronto. It’s also part of a package that Highlands offers to their golf patrons – green fees include lunch either before or after the round.
Soon we’re in our carts and on the way to the first tee. This is the first of many surprises that Highlands has to offer. We climb for several minutes, higher and higher through the forest, eventually emerging at the top of a hill with a spectacular vista spread out before us. The first fairway drops sharply down the hill but your eyes are really drawn to the water and coastline of Fairy Lake on beyond.
I’m paired with Andrew Nieder for the round, which is a real treat. Not only is he a superb golfer, but as the superintendent, he’s also knowledgeable about the course and how to maintain it. It hasn’t been easy for superintendents in the spring of 2017 with all the rain but Nieder seems to be coping better than most.
Deerhurst Highlands has its own set of challenges given that it’s carved out of the trees and has excessive elevation changes to deal with. However, Andrew assures me that the course has excellent drainage and he’s right. Despite some recent heavy rains, including the previous day, the course is firm and dry with only occasional damp spots. The greens are in excellent shape and running at a good clip without being silly.
The first three holes are cut through the trees and test your ability to hit a straight ball. The third is a mid length par 3 with the green hanging precipitously on the side of a hill and nowhere to bail. It’s just about that point when you start wondering if you have enough golf balls to finish the round.
Then comes another surprise. The cart path wends its way down the hill and through a tunnel under a road. Emerging on the other side, you find yourself in the Scottish Highlands or at least their Muskoka equivalent. The next three holes are spread out before you with wispy red fescue lining the fairways and pot bunkers framing the greens. There’s barely a tree in sight.
That’s not to say you can suddenly start spraying the ball everywhere. There are target bunkers which need to be avoided off the tee and sloping greens with deep bunkers that require precise approaches. And there’s fescue. But the fairways are generous and you can relax a bit and find your swing again.
Now with your game on track, it’s back up the hill and into the forest to complete the front nine with three good holes, including the reachable par 5 7th – one you’ll be kicking yourself over if you don’t at least have a birdie putt.
The 10th hole on the Highlands course is often referred to as the signature hole. A massive rock wall faces the tee deck on the right hand side and appears quite intimidating. It’s definitely in play and is really the first evidence of the granite outcroppings that are such an integral part of the landscape. There isn’t as much granite exposed on the Deerhurst property as some of McBroom’s later designs in Muskoka but just enough to make you aware that not every shot will get a soft bounce.
The tee shot on No.10 has to carry a large pond to make the fairway, which climbs slightly and bends right around the wall. Then it’s a fairly exacting approach to a long, narrow green that features multiple levels and lots of slopes. If you walk away with par here, you should be happy. Each shot has the capacity for disaster – including some short putts.
The back nine on Deerhurst Highlands has a bit of everything – tight tree-lined holes that showcase the elevation to advantage; back-to-back short par 4’s that hug the edge of a wetland area; a wonderful reachable par 5 that finishes on a wickedly contoured little green; and the par 3 17th, which traverses a pond to the back half of the double green it shares with the 8th hole. The closing hole is a delightful par 5 that provides ample room off the tee, then narrows on approach, finally crossing a creek to a shallow green with more nasty side slopes and raised tiers. It’s a very strong nine holes, with lots of variety and spectacular scenery.
In fact, that’s another surprise you find at Deerhurst. Not all of the topography is even remotely the same meaning none of the holes are alike. On some holes you can’t see much because of the trees but then you emerge to a meadow, a wetland or the edge of a cliff with stunning views beyond. Even the trees cut out of the forest offer shockingly different perspectives.
One final note on the course. As some of you may recall, I love greens that present lots of challenge. Deerhurst Highlands definitely delivers on that score. The putting surfaces have side slopes, roll-off swales, tiers, hollows, plateaus and contours – in fact, pretty much everything to make putting fun or drive you crazy. Maybe that won’t appeal to everyone but it certainly makes golf interesting.
Back at the Antler, the Bunker Squad is enjoying a few local beverages and some munchies on the patio and it’s easy to see that they’re suitably delighted with their experience. They’re arguing about the best hole and their favourite hole and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of agreement. Maybe that’s as it should be.
I’m sure Mr. Cupp and Mr. McBroom would be delighted.
For information on Deerhurst Highlands’ rates and stay and play options at Deerhurst Resort, click HERE.