By: John Gordon
“Muskoka,” that storied vacation destination a couple of hours north of Toronto, is said to have been named after a First Nations chief of the mid-1800s.
It has come to be synonymous with some clichéd catchphrases: “Towering pines, granite outcroppings, crystal-clear lakes,” and so on.
Another cliché is that it is only for the rich and famous. (A mindset continually reinforced when media and real-estate brokers call the region “the Hamptons of the North” and “Malibu of the North.”)
And while that may be true for those who aspire to own waterfront property on Muskoka’s many lakes, it is grossly misleading for those who want to enjoy a very special golf experience on a budget. Especially in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall.
Fall, particularly, is a glorious season in Muskoka. Those towering trees are not all pines. In autumn, millions of oaks and maples come ablaze, framing fairways and greens. The courses are less busy and, generally, in the best shape of the year.
Finding the right course at the right price is easy since the region’s course operators partnered with the regional tourism organization on what turned out to be a pretty good web site, www.golfmuskoka.com.
In all, 27 courses are featured on the site, ranging from some of the glitziest in the country, such as Bigwin Island, Taboo, Deerhurst, The Lake Joseph Club, Rocky Crest, Grandview and Muskoka Bay, to historic layouts like the Stanley Thompson-designed Muskoka Lakes and Windermere (Thompson with George Cumming), to elegant nine-holers like Diamond in the Ruff.
In the interest of space, and in keeping with the “Muskoka” theme, let’s single out just those courses with that word in their name.
Muskoka Bay Club (Gravenhurst): Pricey but worth it. “Spectacular” doesn’t quite cover the experience that kicks off with the view from the 17,000 square-foot clubhouse perched on a cliff overlooking one of Doug Carrick’s most inspired designs. Play and stay on site in a luxurious villa or loft.
Muskoka Highlands Golf Links (Bracebridge): “A wee touch of Scotland” is how this super-friendly family-owned course bills itself. The linksy 6,000-yard layout, which can be played easily in about three hours, is also home to a 3,000-yard beginners’ course.
Muskoka Lakes Golf and Country Club (Port Carling): This sporty and, as mentioned, historic course opened for play in 1922. The timeless aura of its 6,000-yard par-70 layout is reinforced by the traditional atmosphere of the club (no cell phones, jackets preferred for dining on certain nights). A glimpse of golf’s past well worth taking.
Muskoka Woodlands Golf Course and Driving Range (Foots Bay): Cottage-country golf, perfect for families, beginners and seniors, is typified by this 2,400-yard nine-holer. But bentgrass greens and bluegrass fairways upgrade the overall experience.
South Muskoka Curling and Golf Club (Bracebridge): This 40-year-old 18-holer was designed by Robbie Robinson, who apprenticed under Thompson and eventually joined him in the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Perennially ranked as one of the best golf values in the country.
This select and very limited sampling reflects a cross-section of the variety of golf in Muskoka. If you think you can’t afford to spend a few days there, think again.
(Let me preface the next segment with a personal anecdote. Some years back, I played Pebble Beach and the following day, the nearby Pacific Grove municipal course. Pacific Grove offered 90 per cent of the Pebble Beach experience for 10 per cent of the cost. It illustrated to me how to evaluate a golf “experience.”)
“You can get the true Muskoka golf experience at our course, for example, in the heart of Muskoka for far less than you expect,” says Don MacKay, co-owner of Muskoka Highlands. “We are focussed on customer service and hospitality and our course conditioning rivals any course in Ontario.”
MacKay understands that most golfers will want to test their games at one or more of the higher-profile courses but emphasizes that any of the others are well worth trying as well. “We see a lot of groups who will play a few rounds at less expensive courses like ours so they can splurge for one or two of the big-name courses. It makes sense. Muskoka has something for every golfer.”
Check out www.golfmuskoka.com for special autumn golf rates and stay-and-play packages.
Veteran golf writer John Gordon has played every course in Muskoka…almost.