So, here’s the thing. Stanley Thompson is the man. If you aren’t familiar with the work of this renowned golf course architect, I highly recommend becoming familiar as soon as you can, because you will discover some of the most fun, interesting and beautiful golf courses you’ll ever play. St. George’s Golf and Country Club, a private club located near the core of Toronto, Ontario, was no exception.
We had the chance to play St. George’s on a recent trip to Toronto for a family wedding, which was my third visit to a Stanley Thompson layout. The first two being a pair of stunners in the Canadian Rockies — Banff Springs Golf Club and Jasper Park Lodge Golf Club.
Somehow, St. George’s still exceeded my expectations.
The par-71, 7014 yard layout and host of the 2010 RBC Canadian Open was built in 1929, and is consistently ranked among one of the best courses in Canada by mainstream publications, and within the Top 100 in the world. While all rankings are subjective, playing St. George’s definitely validated for me the many accolades they’ve received.
My favorite start to a golf course is typically a par 5, but I got the next best thing at St. Georges — a very approachable par 4 to ease into the round. It is the only tee shot without bunkers staring you down, and I’m mostly using this paragraph as a segue to let you know that, yes, I did birdie the first hole.
While feeling pretty chuffed with myself headed to the 2nd tee, I quickly realized things weren’t going to come that easy the rest of the round. I didn’t realize it while standing on the 2nd tee, but looking back, it became one of my favorite long par 4 holes, which measures 473 yards from the tips.
The fairway is generous and requires a drive over a diagonal valley, in which the further right you go, the longer the shot required to carry your ball up top. Ideally, the play is down the left, which is the shortest carry and leaves the best angle into the green. However, the bunker on the left, which can be easily carried, visually nudges you down the right towards a treacherous fairway bunker.
The almost uncanny Stanley Thompson mind games continue. The 208 yard par 3- 3rd hole looked to me like it should play nearly a club downhill, but it actually plays the exact yardage. And what if I told you those front bunkers were 40 yards short of the green, would you believe me? Believe it.
When thinking of ways to describe Thompson’s bunker design at St. George’s, I settled on a description of perfectly elegant with hints of defiance and terror.
His ability to perfectly place and shape bunkers into slopes and knolls in a way that captures both admiration and fear is brilliant. Each one has a strategic purpose, even if it is nothing but a visual ploy to cast a shadow of doubt over you and steer balls to less desirable angles.
One thing you learn rather quickly at St. George’s is that you never want to be above the hole. Even when you have a short iron in your hand, you still must think and strategize your way around if you want to score well. When you find yourself above the hole, you better be packing some courageously soft touch.
The 7th hole is another great example of Thompson’s tendency to visually steer you. The ideal play is down the right to gain the best angle into the green, but the bunkers on the right, which can be carried, make it much more challenging to commit to that line.
Three of the par-3’s play in the vicinity of 200 yards, but a couple play a little shorter and are surprisingly inviting given their length, such as the 8th hole below.
The members we were playing with referred to the left fairway bunkers on the par-5 11th hole as “aiming bunkers”, since they are not practically reachable for most players. However, their presence is enough to get your attention and make you feel like you should keep your tee shot right of them, encouraging you to bring the bunker down the right into play that you really don’t want to be in.
My brother-in-law, Matt, was out to prove that the right fairway bunker isn’t such a bad place to hit your tee shot. His pose looks pretty convincing, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy as to where his ball ended up.
The 2nd hole wasn’t the only long par 4 that I really liked. The par-4 14th is arguably the toughest hole on the course measuring at 475 yards from the tips, but you can gain a little extra yardage off the tee by catching a downslope on the fairway, which will leave you with an approach looking like this:
Maybe the greatest illusion at St. George’s is the view heading up the 18th fairway. It looks like you could walk off the back of the green and straight into the clubhouse, but the clubhouse is actually on the other side of a major city street (Islington Avenue), which separates the clubhouse and the golf course. A tunnel under the road is the only way to get across.
When I play a golf course for the first time, I always know at the time whether I like it or not. However, it usually takes a bit of reflection to let the experience sink in and truly appreciate all the reasons I like it, and just where it ranks on my scale of greatness.
In the case of St. George’s, absence has certainly made the heart grow fonder. The more I think about the options and strategy and look at my photographs, the more I yearn for every golf experience to be this fun and stimulating.
Not only is St. George’s a perfectly manicured oasis in the middle of a major city, but it possesses all the qualities which make a golf course great — strategy, diversity, interesting terrain, playability, and pleasing aesthetics. It is a course that requires skill and course management to score well yet remains playable for all. It’s not a course you’d expect anyone to lose many golf balls on.
My impression from the members is that the club is a very well run and forward-thinking club. They have made many improvements to the course and clubhouse over the years and seem open to change, realizing that things that seemed like a good idea 20 or 50 years ago (say, planting a bunch of trees somewhere) may need to be revisited as the course matures.
I can’t thank our member “chaperones” enough — Mart, Wynn, and Rick — for showing us a great time and being extremely gracious hosts. Lunch on the upper veranda was a nice touch and a beautiful spot to reflect on the round and enjoy a drink and fantastic food with even better people. A big thanks as well to our Auntie Gail and Uncle Ken, who unfortunately couldn’t join us for the round, but put us all up for the week in Toronto and went out of their way to ensure our stay was memorable.
So to summarize, St. George’s Golf and Country Club is pure and one of my all-time favorite layouts, Stanley Thompson is the man, I birdied the first hole (and the 11th), and if you ever get an invite to play St. George’s and pass it up, we can’t be friends.
p.s. Beth wanted me to let you know she birdied the 8th (!)