Places to Play: Bigwin Island, Dorset, ON
When you think of the best golf experiences you’ve ever had, they almost always start off with a great first impression.
Sometimes it’s a beautiful stone wall with ornate wrought iron gates leading to a long winding driveway through the trees where an occasional glimpse of sparkling ponds and lush emerald fairways will tease you a bit before you arrive.
Or it could be a magnificent clubhouse perched high up on a rock cliff, offering stunning views to the course and countryside beyond that stirs the imagination, long before you hit your first shot.
It could even be something as simple as a smiling face offering a friendly welcome.
There’s no doubt that first impressions are crucial. And when it comes to creating great first impressions, Bigwin Island Golf Club has to rank right up there with the best of them.
Part of it, of course, is the anticipation. You know that the golf course is on an island and you’re going to have to take a boat ride to get there. That alone raises all sorts of possibilities.
The golf club dock is at Norway Point on the eastern shore of Lake of Bays and features a gated entrance with a short stone driveway down to the water where a few boats are parked. You’re met by a friendly chap who will take your clubs, much like any other bag drop, but in this case he’ll load them on to a small ferry boat while you’re parking your car.
From the dock, you can see Bigwin Island across the water and pick out the clubhouse on the far shore. The island is mostly tree covered but rises to considerable elevation, highlighted by an old stone lookout tower at its highest point. As the ferry gets closer, you begin to see parts of the course through the trees and the beautiful gardens and patios that surround the clubhouse.
The welcome committee on the dock consists of two young ladies, smiling naturally, who escort you to the pro shop and bid you a great day.
Now that’s quite a first impression!
Bigwin Island has a long and storied history that dates back to the Roaring Twenties, when Bigwin Inn was a popular resort for vacationing families. It offered water sports, fine dining and entertainment and the dance pavilion often featured big bands such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Guy Lombardo. Golf was certainly one of the main attractions. Stanley Thompson designed the first nine holes at Bigwin in 1922 and a second nine was added eight years later.
The resort remained a popular destination for many years but after owner C.O. Shaw died in 1942, it began to go downhill and a succession of new owners was unable to reverse the decline. In the 60’s an airstrip was added to the 520 acre property and part of the resort was converted to condos but even that didn’t work. The resort closed its doors in 1970.
By the late 80’s a new group of investors began to resurrect the resort property with a plan to create an intimate luxurious island escape for cottagers, club members and their guests. Jack Wadsworth, who owns Port Cunnington Lodge on the mainland north of Bigwin Island, had joined the investment group and urged his colleagues to include a first class golf course as part of their new development.
They engaged Toronto’s Doug Carrick to design a new routing over the remains of the Stanley Thompson original and Bigwin Island Golf Club re-launched in 2001 to rave reviews, including being named Canada’s Best New Course.
As I stated, first impressions are crucial but they’re especially memorable if the rest of the experience is at least as good or even better. On that score, Bigwin Island doesn’t disappoint.
Carrick has carved a wonderful roller coaster routing through the trees that features holes with broad sweeping fairways, often turning one way or another towards raised greens protected by dazzling white bunkers and sharp drop offs or close cut chipping areas.
The greens are all sloped and slick as can be.
The views of the lake are stunning and every hole could be a post card.
It truly is one of the prettiest golf courses anywhere but it’s also a challenging layout with dramatic elevation changes to throw off your yardage calculations and enough twists to give you pause on every shot.
Each hole is unique and it would be easy to give you a full description of all of them but best if I don’t spoil the surprise and leave that for you to discover firsthand. However, there are a few highlights that I can’t hold back:
The sixth tee is on the highest point on the island and offers spectacular views of Lake of Bays. Take a few minutes here to soak it all in and take some pictures. After you hit your tee shot, have a nap. The fairway is miles below and it seems to take forever for the ball to land.
After you leave the seventh green you have to cross the old runway on your way to the eighth tee. I remember flying in there with some friends when I was a kid. Some of the trees have certainly grown up since then but even still, it appears impossibly narrow.
Real halfway houses, unfortunately, are becoming a thing of the past. When you find a good one, like the welcoming oasis at Bigwin, it’s worth a stop for a BBQ sausage and a pint.
The back nine has some wickedly deceptive holes. I’ve known Doug Carrick a long time and always thought he was a nice guy but the par-4 fourteenth hole is diabolical. If you have a guide with you, be sure to get him to show you the correct line off the tee. Even with that bit of info, it’s still one of the toughest short holes you’ll find anywhere.
Number eighteen (pictured at top of page) is another post card. With the clubhouse and restaurant framed by the lake in the distance, the tee shot drops forever to a wide fairway that hugs the shoreline, closing on a tight little spit of land with a narrow green bracketed by deep bunkers. A remarkable finish!
The golf course is a hard act to follow but this experience has lots more to offer and more choices await. I’m travelling with the Bunker Squad so we huddle to make a decision. Should we have a refreshment on the dock or eat in the historic octagonal restaurant above? The Squad figures there’s no reason we can’t do both.
The patio wraps around the base of the clubhouse building, scant inches above the water, with colourful umbrellas to shade you from the late afternoon sun. Enjoying a drink and rehashing the highlights of your round with boats anchored nearby and waves splashing against the dock is one of the best ways to relax anytime. This could easily become my favourite spot.
But one has to remember we’re on an island and we’ll need fortification for that long (10 minute) boat ride back to civilization. So it’s off to the dining room.
The historic octagon is one of the few buildings remaining from the glory years of the Bigwin Inn. With spectacular views in every direction, the restaurant also features large panel displays of old photos of the resort from the 20’s and 30’s and descriptions of its colourful history.
The menu is varied with both fine dining and casual options and the wine list is impressive. Each food selection is designed “to incorporate the basic concepts of fresh, local Muskoka ingredients and seasonal influences” and that includes a catch of the day. The chef spends a few minutes chatting with us and describing some of his delicious entrees but after our halfway house snack, nobody is quite ready to tackle a full course meal so we opt for more casual fare. (For the Bunker Squad, that usually means anything on a bun with fries. I’m sure the chef is not impressed.)
Following dinner, it would be easy to linger for a while, enjoy another glass of wine and watch the boats go by. Unfortunately for us, it’s time to leave this idyllic place and get back to reality. The early evening sun is casting long shadows on the water and the ferry boat captain is standing patiently on the dock. Our clubs are already stowed aboard.
The boat ride back is almost as good as the trip over. Instead of anticipation, we now have memories of a wonderful experience to savour with plans for a return visit foremost on our minds.
It was a great first impression and never let up the entire day.
By the way, I spoke with a member who has played the course hundreds of times and he says you never get tired of the boat ride!
Bigwin Island Golf Club is a private club for members and guests during July and August but is open for public play in the spring and fall. For more information on the course, green fee rates, driving directions and membership options, click HERE.
During the spring and summer months, the club undertook a complete renovation of its bunkers under the direction of Doug Carrick. The results are impressive. For a detailed description of the bunker program, click HERE.