Memphremagog: A Return to Canada’s Most Exclusive and Best Club

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Baby You’re a Rich Man / Baby You’re a Rich Man / Baby You’re a Rich Man, Too / You Keep All Your Money in a Big Brown Bag Inside a Zoo

I am, decidedly, not a rich man, nor anything approaching it. So to have been given the opportunity to play Memphremagog once, nevermind twice, wasn’t something I was taking for granted. Of course, the weather prognosticators were prognosticating all kinds of booming, sparkling, and soaking things that make any golfer shutter when prognosticated. 

“It had to happen today, of all days. It’s always sunny when I’m playing some dog-track munny,” I cursed each of the hundred and fifty times I checked the dreary weather forecast in the days leading up to my visit.

Photo credit: Le Reflect du Lac

Having emailed-in sick that morning, I left my place way earlier than required for my afternoon tee-time, thinking that I would stop in Montreal for medium-fat at Schwartz’s and maybe a quick run to the nearby Uniqlo, whose price-to-quality ratio was about as mouth-watering as the thought of a glorious smoke-meat on rye with a side of faintly oil-glimmering fries, a bowl of coleslaw, a pickle, and a fountain coke. That late September morning the weather in Ottawa was exemplary for a stroll around the ‘ole links, but Memphremagog is located two and a half-hours to the east, in the bucolic mountain region of the Eastern Townships, where the climate is far different. 

I shined my FJ icons (with authentic, old school polish, of course—a cultural relic from a grandfather whose life was spent toiling as a shoemaker after immigrating from Croatia), ironed my trusty slacks, hung my Peter Millar from the mantle above the back window, tossed my rain-gear and umbrella next to my clubs, and took off eastward along highway 17, cutting through the gloriously stale, languid, and beguiling heart of Prescott-Russell County. 

That much travelled stretch of two-laned highway whose long-unseen autumnal sights acted upon me much like the Madeleine cake to Proust, tracing back not to the years I spent with duchesses in Combray, but, in my case, to those I spent driving this same road every day from August to April to play junior hockey in Hawkesbury: to the ups and downs of a season, the mundane pleasures of Monday and Tuesday afternoon practices in the dead of winter, the sound of synthetic track-suit fabric rubbing against itself, the friendships, the ditching of high-school classes, the Canada-Goosed and Lululemoned girls who came to watch the games, the toxic stench emanating from topless Tim Hortons cups filled with black tobacco chew. My late teenage years, when my days were passed doing not much more than watching Netflix and listening to music and taking long walks and searching the internet for golf websites. That halcyon period, a decade ago now, when my interest for golf architecture truly morphed from a passing curiosity into something substantial. 

The music for the mood was Alex Turner’s “Yellow Submarine”, a recording with a distinctly post-Beatles Lennon feel, but delivered without the same acidic snarl and optimism cleverly packaged as despair. 

Had I told my 2013 vintage, however, that a decade later I would be driving through Hawkesbury, the per-capita drug and crime capital of Ontario as well as my mom’s birthplace, with a tee-time secured at Memphremagog, my 2013 vintage would surely have called b.s. on his older-counterpart’s claim. Folks from my social background simply don’t get invites to places like Magog; although the event is now extinct, one’s best bet—and probably the only bet—to play the course was to qualify for the Jean C. Monty Cup, an annual invitational that was reserved for a handful of pros and, if I remember correctly, the top ten players on Golf Quebec’s amateur order of merit. 

Thankfully, the dark clouds and stormy skies were still being held at bay. Montreal’s car-sized potholes and the post-American-military-invasion state of their streets welcomed me back to that beloved city, our greatest. 

Splendor erablic of your promenades / Foliates there, and there your maisonry / Of pendant balcon and escalier’d march / Unique midst English habitat / Is vivid Normandy!  

Klein. Richler. Shatner. Cohen. Richard. Roy. St-Cyr. Drapeau. The Expos. Vlad. Nos Glorieux. The Big O. Mount Royal. Wilensky’s. Joe Beef. Atwater Market. Red Lion. 

Schwartz’s was just as wonderfully busy and chaotic as always, which is every-time I find myself in Montreal. As Larry McMurty deduced about chicken fried steak and Texas, only a rank-degenerate would spend more than a few hours in town and not go to Schwartz’s. Every other smoke-meat plays an unbelievably poor second to theirs—I don’t care which option you come up with, it can’t hold a candle. 

Travelling south along highway 10, admiring the strange solitary mountains (or large hills) that bulge here and there like pimples on a teenage face out of the mostly flat farmland to the Southside of the St-Lawrence beneath Montreal, I wondered if I had retrospectively fabricated Memphremagog into something greater than it was in actually, allowing my impression of the actual course to be adulterated in hindsight by the circumambient and superficial elements of the club, by the awestruck haze in which I quasi-narcotically floated throughout my whole initial round upon Mr. McBroom’s creation. Magog was the first of the ultra-private haunts I’d visited. And we’d played, my host and I, on one of those odd, dog-summer days, when there is a thin cloud cover through which the sun-light is filtered washed-out and the humidity is so thick and oppressive that it feels as if nothing is moving in the environment, an impression that is rendered especially forceful when in a setting as naturally mute and isolated as Memphremagog’s. 

My lunch, to which was added a piece of cheesecake afterwards, certainly hadn’t filled me with energy for the rest of the ride, and my eye-lids were beginning to sink involuntarily as the surrounding scenery grew increasingly mountainous around Bromont, home to one decent-enough course (Royal Bromont) and one utterly despicable one (Château Bromont). In appearance, Bromont is a spiritual cousin to Mont-Tremblant, with its architecture being “chalet-esque” in ethos. Wood and stone materials. Peaked roofs. Solid colours. Tree lined streets. Folks in pastel Patagonia and NorthFace. Subarus and Teslas. 

Needing a boost, I stopped at the Tim Horton just off the highway and parked at the far end of the lot, safely away from the other trucks and SUVs, the door of which I presumed bored vacationing children were liable to swing open without the slightest worry of impaling mine. The air was noticeably drier and cooler in the mountains than in Montreal. 

I eyed two preschool-aged brats mainlining pure cane-sugar from clear Tim Hortons cups outside the main entrance, mentally chastising their nearby parents for allowing their preschool-aged brats to mainline pure cane-sugar from Tim Hortons. A regular with one cream later, I was ready to tackle all 7600 yards of Mr. McBroom’s magnus opus, his piece-de-resistance.

The par 4, 18th at Memphremagog, with the excellent clubhouse in the back. Photo credit: HD Golf

My first visit to Memphremagog was the only time I’d been truly nervous upon approaching a club; considering its status and prestige, I presumed I’d be walking on eggs-shells under the scrutinizing and piercing gaze of a chaperone attached to my hip; that it’d be eminently clear that I was visiting place where I don’t belong and was lucky to be visiting once, and only once, in my life. 

Of course, that impression couldn’t have been further from the truth. My host was nothing short of the kindest and most welcoming of gentlemen, who made me feel as if I belonged at the club. Or, at least, he did his best to make it seem that way. In fact, he’d made a point of relating to me that “there’s nothing uncomfortable and pretentious about it,” which is, in part, true. 

Certainly the club is comfortable, if you are comfortable in settings akin to late 19th century country estates for British lords—those shown on Downton Abbey, basically. Which, of course, I am not. As a huge fan of the show, walking through the white colonial style clubhouse feels like visiting the old world, the set of the show: stately, opulent, calmly flamboyant. As I wrote in my article, 5 Peculiar Things I love in Canadian Golf (which, in truth, I took from a draft for this article), baronial is how I can best describe its atmosphere and décor: from the pale yellow wall-paper, to the green hardwood floors which so sharply echo every footstep you take upon them, to the brown leather furniture, to the dozen of oil-paintings showing Victorian era golfers upon the links of the old-world, to the fifteen-foot wide chandelier that is probably 3 times more valuable than my house, to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stacked with golf’s greatest written words against the interior wall of the main dining room, to the view of the final four holes and the far-off mountain range out of the back windows. 

In a strange, and admittedly paradoxical way, I’d say that the club is pretentious to the point that it’s unpretentious. The membership of 50 or so consists quite literally of the province’s elite powerbrokers, along with a few others of their close friends and business acquaintances. Thus, such an elite social status, one that traces back generations and generations, renders an air of assurance, of aplomb, even an almost quasi-aristocratic sense, to the environment of the club and the demeanours of the few members with whom I briefly interacted. This sense stems foremost, I think, from the fact that they know they have nothing to prove, or nothing loftier to attain, since there is no higher echelon of society in Canada, a sense of solidarity that is echoed by the employees’ attitudes as well. Although Memphremagog is rather new, dating back to 2007, the ethos and atmosphere very much echoes that of a place such as Piping Rock, for example. 

On the other hand, at many of the less-vaunted private clubs I have visited (some of them very good ones), or been a member at, there seems to always linger a sense of showmanship, of one-upmanship, especially between the younger, new-moneyed members, whose status is still unprocessed, fraught, and timorous. A need to constantly prove and re-prove it. Whereas at Magog, merely to be admitted (heck, merely to be invited in most cases) signifies some sort of hyper-rare social status, one which does not need to be corroborated by overt acts of exaggerated masculinity, monetary-based theatrical production, or denigrating looks. 

Seeing that the club was in the process of winding down its operation for the year, rather than have a corral of white-jump-suit clad attendants waiting for me under the front canopy of the clubhouse at the end of the winding entrance drive, which is unmarked and from the street appears to be nothing more than a random road cutting across a farm field, I piloted myself to the parking lot, shook hands with my host, strapped my bags to a cart, and we headed towards the range. 

Although the club has seemingly eased its policy of privacy in recent years, I am nevertheless a little hesitant to really dig deep and expose the course, so I’ll only pinpoint a few highlights – it’s also why I posted pics taken from other sources readily found on the internet.

The front nine, which winds its way back and forth across a high plain at the eastern end of the property, and then cascades down to a swampier area at the 6th until it returns to the clubhouse at the turn, is rock solid, chock-full of meaty par 4s. The 520 yard par 4, 6th, whose fairway contouring mirrors that of the mountain peaks in the background as an ode to Stanley Thompson’s work at Jasper I would presume, is the standout. The entire scale of the course is massive, from the fairways, to the sculpted bunkers, to the tumbling and meandering greens, to the vistas. Matching the scale of the architecture to that of the property is one of the key, yet underappreciated, elements of architecture, and Mr. McBroom did so brilliantly here. 

The par 3, 4th at Memphremagog. Photo credit: Top 100 Golf Courses

Since my last visit, the club had removed a ton of trees, opening up long views across the property that were previously choked out by the dense forest through which the layout was cut – for example, those behind the green in the picture above are now gone. The only hole I didn’t really like on the front was the 7th, but upon playing it a second time, I grew fonder of it. The strategy from the tee is a little awkward, sure. In theory, the holding pond should make it a cape-ish tee shot, but because of the bunker short and left of the green, you don’t really gain much from trying to take on the hazard, rather than just hitting it way right. Luckily, the green, which sits obscured from the fairway and whose back portion falls away from the fairway, is perfect for this type of hole. 

The back nine is where the course really kicks into full gear. Aside from the 12th, which in and of itself is fine, but perhaps too closely resembles the 1st, there’s not a weak hole among the nine. And there are a few really, really good ones, such as the tumbling 10th with an insanely sloped green, the Augusta-National-esque sidehill 11th which plays through a corridor of eighty-foot tall pine trees, the redan-ish 15th, and, especially, the final 3 holes, all of which are excellent and form one of the best closing stretches in Canada. 

The start to the inward nine. Photo credit: Top 100 Golf Courses

Mr. Mcbroom built Memphremagog a few years after The Ridge at Manitou, his explicit ode to Stanley Thompson. Although virtually every subsequent Canadian architect has, more or less, suffered a kind of “anxiety of influence” (as Harold Bloom diagnosed it) in regard to Thompson, whose shadow across Canadian golf is as looming as, say, Faulkner’s across Southern American literature, Memphremagog is the closest I’ve yet experienced to a modern course that captures the essence of “The Toronto Terror”. Although their settings are far different, Memphremagog’s closest comparison would be St George’s, my choice as Canada’s best. Both are big, brutish, and unapologetically difficult. Magog’s greens are a little more aggressive, in terms of featuring internal waves and rolls and dips, but they are similar in scope and character. Both courses rely more on twisting and turning and cleverly placed bunkering, rather than sheer width, to provide strategic interest. And, of course, the fingered and sculpted bunkering is right from Stanley’s playbook.

Upon second examination, I realized it was as good as I thought it was, if not better, even. So where does it stand in the pantheon of Canadian golf courses? In my mind, it’s solidly in the mix for the best “non big 8” course in the country, neck and neck with Hamilton (I haven’t yet seen Sagebrush, but my gut tells me that Sagebrush would be ahead of it). Perhaps Memphremagog is not everyone’s preferred cup of tea—ultra private, ultra-posh, ultra-manicured, ultra-difficult though never unfair -, nor should it be the model for every club, but there’s a place for a variety of art-forms and models in golf, and Magog is defiantly its own.


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