Friday, September 14, 2007

St. George's Golf and Country Club

Canada is a great and under-appreciated country, often overshadowed by its big, loud, boisterous and crazy cousin to the south. However, it is only right to give Canada the respect it deserves in the world. It is clean, has stunning beauty, welcomes immigrants, is tolerant of people of all races and religions and of great importance to a cigar smoker, has normal relations with Cuba. I will always remember that the Canadians helped America immensely during the debacle of a hostage crisis under Jimmy Carter. The Canadian embassy in Tehran rescued and evacuated six American hostages at great risk to themselves. It was appreciated then as now. Thank you, our friends. Canadians also played a major role in liberating Europe, taking Juno beach in the D-Day invasions along the Normandy coast. Canadian troops are also fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Like an unappreciated friend, it is a reliable comrade and one that we shouldn't take for granted, although they do need to rein in those Québécois, in my view.

Much like Canada in general, the golf courses of this great nation are underrated as well. Canada has some spectacular golf courses that consistently rank among the world's best. If there were more balance among the golf course raters (read less Americans), no doubt more Canadian courses would make the ranks. However, let's not get too far off on a tangent here and focus on the course at hand, which is St. George's Golf and Country Club (ranked #95 in the world), located in Toronto.

St. George's Golf and Country Club

Not to be confused with Royal St. George's in England, St. George's Golf and Country Club is located in Etobicoke, Ontario, part of greater Toronto. The course was originally known as the Royal York Golf Club and opened for play in 1929. The golf course was designed by the famous Canadian golf course architect Stanley Thompson. Thompson built or remodeled almost ninety courses over a ten year period in the 1920s, including Highlands Links, ranked #64 on the top 100 list, located in Nova Scotia. Thompson also designed the Canadian courses Capilano, Banff and Jasper. Royal York always had a great reputation as being one of the best in the world. It was ranked #62 in the world in 1939.

After reading Thompson's biography, I think I would have liked him very much. "The Toronto Terror", as he was called, liked cigars, 15-ounce steaks and whiskey. My kind of guy. He also liked to wear fedoras and three-piece suits with a watch chain hooked into his vest pockets.

Canadian architect Stanley Thompson

The golf course was built as a public golf course owned by Canadian Pacific Railways Hotel and was converted into a private club in 1934. The course played host to the Canadian Open in 1933, 1949, 1960 and 1968, and someday, hopefully, will serve as host again.

You immediately know that St. George's is going to be a great golf course when you stand on the tee and see the beautiful first hole winding its way through the rolling terrain. Thompson used the rolling terrain here very well when he routed the course. His par five holes in particular are very good, demanding holes.

Why is the course on the top 100 list? For a variety of reasons, including the meandering fairways, the great use of terrain, the difficult greens and the imaginative elevated bunkers. The course is built on terrain containing a cornucopia of hills, valleys, ridges, nobs, inclines, hollows and hillocks. As Tom Doak mentions in his Confidential Guide to Golf, Thompson routed many holes alongside or through valleys rather than over them. This lead to a world-class golf course. Doak picked St. George's as one of his thirty-one Connoisseur's Choices, and I can see why.

Par three #3

The par three third hole, seen above, is indicative of the style of Thompson's work. It is a long par three that is well bunkered. The general feel on this hole standing on the tee is one of hitting your ball two hundred yards down into an amphitheatre. On many holes at St. George's, including this one, there are bunkers located above the greens. He uses all the available terrain on every hole and has an attention to detail that results in the course having a real uniqueness.

The par three 6th hole

Many Thompson routings contain five par three holes, and St. George's is no exception. The par three 6th, seen above, plays over a ravine to a well-bunkered, two-tiered green. This hole shows to great affect how many of your shots at St. George's are framed by the use of the terrain and hills.

Approach to the 4th green

The fourth hole, a par five with the approach to the elevated green seen above, is the #1 handicap hole at St. George's. Thompson made his par fives here very difficult. Unlike most courses, the par fives are the #1 and #2 most difficult handicap holes on the course.

The 14th green

The greatest stretch of holes on the course are numbers twelve through fifteen, which are routed through the hilliest part of the course. The 12th hole has a green greatly elevated from the fairway off on the left side of the hole. The 14th, above, is a picturesque hole. Again, notice the elevated bunkers above the 14th green. True to his name, The Toronto Terror left us with many downhill sand shots above greens that slope away from you.

View from the seventh tee box

In the picture above you can see some of the contours that make this great terrain for a golf course.

The fifteen hole, a 558 yard par five, is my favorite hole on the course. The fairway winds its way through the hills like a luge run, bobbing and weaving along until it reaches a highly elevated green at the summit of a hill. Thompson follows the natural contour of the land, and the fairway sweeps around the mounds, hummocks, knolls and hills as if you were riding on a roller coaster.

The meandering 15th fairway

Ian Andrew, a Canadian golf course architect, was brought in to restore the bunkers in 2002. While I have no perspective to judge on since I didn't see the course prior to the changes, to me the bunkering seems brilliant. Since Ian is a fellow Blogger, you can read about his restoration in more detail if you'd like by clicking his name above.

As you might expect for a course located in this climate, the club has a large curling facility attached to the clubhouse that serves as a cart storage building during golf season. Although the course is in an urban setting, you really don't get that sense at all while playing the course. You can hear road traffic near the 13th green, but aside from that, similar to playing courses like San Francisco Golf Club and Los Angeles Country Club, St. George's is an oasis in the city.

I found St. George's to be a very fair course, but difficult if you do not hit good shots. It is a good walking course. We played St. George's at my favorite time of day, dusk, and played at a brisk pace with a delightful host. Our host has also played many of the world's great courses, and I knew we were kindred spirits when he expressed a love of Sunningdale, which I heartily share. We finished the evening having drinks and food out on the deck with a view of the Toronto Skyline as our backdrop, as a purple-hued full moon began to rise over the CN Tower. Certainly, a more pleasant way to end the day, than say, sitting on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

St. George's can hold its own against any course on the list, and the Canucks should be rightfully proud of this gem. I can't wait to make the trek out to Nova Scotia to play Thompson's Highlands Links.

Along with the Rocky Mountains, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Molson and Ice Hockey, great golf should also be added to the short list of things we associate with Canada.

Post Script - Toronto

I have traveled several times to British Columbia and Quebec, but this was my first time to Toronto and I was surprised to find it reminded me more of Los Angeles, but with more trees. Surprised, since I was expecting a smaller, cleaner version of New York, given all you read about Toronto standing in for New York in so many movies. The city is spread out over a large geographic area with many traffic-clogged freeways. As in L.A., there is a distinct lack of hustle and bustle downtown. The Forest Hills neighborhood reminded me of Beverly Hills. Actually, it seems nicer than Beverly Hills. I don't see any of the influence of the activist/urban planner Jane Jacobs on the city, although she lived there for many years. The ghastly cement/brick residential towers surrounding the city center would be right at home in The Bronx or Glasgow.


Anonymous said...

If you're ever in Toronto again... head about an hour and a half north of the city to the Muskoka area for some incredible golf.

Known as "cottage country" Muskoka is a scenic blend of lakes, trees and rock and there has been an explosion of premium golf courses built up there in the last decade.

Number one priority should be Bigwin Island (originally a Stanley Thompson course, but Doug Carrick did some masterful work to make it a classic). Muskoka Bay has one of the most memorable front nines you'll ever experience. The Lake Joseph Club and Rocky Crest are wonderful tracks and a real gem is Seguin Valley.

A great place to visit in June or September... July and August are a little too busy in that area.

Anonymous said...

I just played St. Georges a couple of days ago for the first time. It is about the 10th Stanley Thompson course I have played. I have never had a course make such an impact on me. I don't think I have ever played a course where afterwords I could close my eyes and go through the course hole by hole shot for shot. Just stunning. Walking through a tunnel to the 1st tee, reminded me of the Wizard of OZ movie. You know the part were the movie goes form B/W to Colour? Oh well.... back to the public courses, hoping that my ball stays out of unraked traps, divots and what ever else.

Steven L.
Whitby, ON

Unknown said...

Where can I go to get the results of the 1960 Canadian Open at St Georges Golf and Country Club.

Anonymous said...

The 3rd hole is not a Thompson original. Along with the 4th and 15th it was altered for the Canadian Open in 1968. #4 and #15 were lengthened considerably and changed the character of the holes. The club will be looking into restoring the 3rd hole to its original Thompson layout in the future.