Being generous, I feel like the article’s title is a once-a-month debate in the Beyond The Contour Slack channel, which, for my biased money, is perhaps the most eclectic, and interesting, golf chat in the country. Someone affiliated with this site will go play somewhere, and we dive into an absolute flurry of messages; it makes social media feel slow. As I am typing this, we are discussing Jason’s recent expedition to the Links at Dover Coast, before jumping to Edmonton Country Club’s renovation, Wolf Creek vs Paintbrush, and so forth. We cover a lot of ground, and never without a hot take or two.
However, this article’s inspiration comes from Tarandowah, a common course worthy of the discourse and debate it causes amongst the crew here (which is to say, we frequently dive into Martin Hawtree’s only Canadian course).
Zac just played in the Golf Journalists Association of Canada event at the course that seems to garner a similar cult following similarly to that of Sweetens Cove, Goat Hill Park, Landmand, Winter Park, or any of the United States examples. As usual, he stands on his own two feet extremely strong, claiming SCOREGolf ranks Tarandowah closer to where he thinks it should be than Beyond The Contour (75th to 58th, for what it is worth). I would be the opposite, thinking we still might have it slightly underrated and deserving of Top 50 (sneaks in), and Alex would maybe be higher on it than even I would be. We have a wide variety of opinions, perspectives, and hot takes, but Tarandowah seems to elect spirited debate on its merits. It produces a wide variety of opinions and perspectives, which makes it worthy of special praise (or criticism) in its own regard.
To Zac’s credit, he makes some strong points worthy of expanding on its premise (perhaps for another day if he feels like taking on the cult): For him, the greens are good, with some so-so tee shots and an average routing, which does not add up to top 50 in Canada in his mind. In my eyes, the genius is not necessarily the green surfaces themselves—though they are more than adequate—but the surrounds and how they relate to approach shots, specifically the run-up shots and recovery options in the chance that someone misses a green. I think the routing is good, too, using the hillside the 3rd, 5th, 14, 16th plays into and the 4th, 6th, 15th, 17th plays off of rather well, and the use of the creek is varied, though controversial and truthfully terrible on at least one instance (17th).
My point, though, becomes convoluted when considering what I am actually arguing for. Would Tarandowah’s surrounds be as noteworthy if it wasn’t, quite literally, the firmest golf course in the country? I took three golfers out to the Hawtree design in April after a downpour; it played as soft as I’ve ever seen a golf course play, and they still loved it, so maybe… maybe not. What I do know, though, is the bunkering short of the green on the 1st, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th becomes a lot less interesting with less-than conditioning. Take the firmness out of Tarandowah is essentially mutilating the features Hawtree intended to play.
This brings us back to a very spirited debate: how much should conditioning affect golf course ratings, if at all? I have played Tarandowah no less than eight times, and only once has it been soft to the point where the design does not matter. Had that been my only round, with conditioning as a major component in my mind, I might not ever return, but that would be a disservice to a golf course worth seeing.
Over the years, Cape Breton Highlands Links, a Stanley Thompson design on the edge of the continent, has been the discussion of much debate related to conditioning, largely because it has been (apparently) rather poor. Comparing it to other golf courses—even for Canadian standards—it is fighting an uphill battle. For one, it rests in a National Park, so they have more limitations on tree removal, pesticide and herbicide use, water, and more related issues. Not to mention that Highlands Links is in rural eastern Nova Scotia, about 5 hours north of Highlands Links. A common comparison for conditioning is Cabot, though Cabot has fewer trees and does not sit in a national park. Also, Cabot has the benefit of being directly on the ocean, and the perks of sand are obvious.
I played Cape Breton Highlands in August 2022 and there were no issues, other than some low-lying signs of a flood on the 6th hole. Aside than that, the conditioning seemed fine: the ball rolled on fairways when it mattered and the greens were a speed to showcase the severity of the slopes. It will never be National Golf Club of Canada or Capilano conditioning, but the golf stacks up among the best in the country. I can understand how people might be turned off by the conditioning as it doesn’t have that big-city private club shine to it, but it could never possibly get there. Plus, I might argue that a golf course like Highlands Links, where the slopes are so aggressive that a firm, US-style conditioned golf course might actually negatively influence the experience, needs to be a bit hairier and slower in order for side, up, and downhill lies to be in play. If the fairways were cut at the length of some of the swanky private clubs in the country or down south, balls would just funnel to the low points of the holes where water runs. In that instance, you are finding the wettest and most divots on golf courses, and the cycle of complaining continues.
That in itself is another debate for another day: the point is, conditioning does not necessarily need to be perfect in order to be playable or enjoyable, and expecting anything else will hurt golf in the long run as the world pushes towards sustainability, water usage, chemical/pesticide use, and more (all stereotypes and assumptions plaguing golf at the city hall podiums across North America and beyond). Further, conditioning is not a topic that is able to be correctly judged across the nation on a level playing field, with so many microclimates, soils, grasses, and more contributing to so many factors. What might be good conditioning in one region might differ from another, and what is poor conditioning in one might not be somewhere else or to someone else. Without considering outside factors, judging conditioning on a level playing field in a country with such dramatic weather as Canada undermines the work of everyone involved: from architects, to superintendents, to golfers and everyone in between.
Where I stand on conditioning is a rather simple perspective: if the ball doesn’t plug off the tee and the greens roll, then it is fine for me. In my mind, it becomes impossible to measure up a golf course equally in April and August, and especially in this country, you could only really judge golf courses coast-to-coast in July or August. Jasper Park Lodge, for example, can have difficult winters given its remote location in the north Rocky Mountains and conditioning will be a slower start in the spring, but that doesn’t make it any less of a golf course than Victoria Golf Club, which benefits from being in the most mild climate in the country.
I do, however, see merit in judging the macro conditioning: the details superintendents can control with little outside involvement, like mowing lines, tree removal, bunker shapes, and more. Granted, this still benefits the big clubs in Toronto, Calgary, Montreal, or Vancouver that can afford to renovate or rip out trees, but that begins to affect the architecture and how a golf course showcases what Stanley Thompson, Donald Ross, Willie Park, or anyone else wanted you to see. If you go to northern Saskatchewan or even Cabot expecting the conditioning you would get in Niagara, Ontario, or Victoria, British Columbia you are simply just an idiot, and judging both on the same scale seems counterproductive to the nature of rating anything where you try to put them on an even keel.
Granted, there is merit in understanding how the golf course is designed, and the conditioning it asks. Smarter people than me have argued that a golf course that strays from its original concept should be punished in some way or form, no different from a renovated bunker scheme or new greens at the hands of a modern architect on a classic course. Who am I to argue? If the trees creep in and the mowing lines no longer touch bunkers, it is a valid argument. If all of a sudden stripes of rough stop balls from going into bunkers and trees block the preferred route of play, I see no reason to judge them for that mistake, no different than Rees Jones building over a Donald Ross or Graham Cooke chopping up a Stanley Thompson.Likewise, If Tarandowah’s firmness was on Muskoka Bay, the golf course would be even more impossible than it already seems to be thought of, and it would be difficult to even convince people to play there (imagine seeing a ball slam off the rock outcroppings of Carrick’s golf course, only to take a hop to head height off the green once it lands off the first bounce). Ditto if Tarandowah played as soft as your local city country club wrapped in trees; the features Hawtree wanted you to see and experience would essentially be obsolete.
The short of it: context matters. Conditioning is worthy of being judged, but only as it relates to the location. Likewise, conditioning is important as it relates to what the golf course is trying to accomplish, but it stops there for me. If a golf course is too firm or too soft, it might not present the architect’s vision well, no different than those crazy country club’s obsessed with having 12+ green speeds when they maybe shouldn’t, or a golf course that overwaters when it might play better if the ball can be played on the ground. Understanding what “good conditioning” is for the region, the style of course, and the time of the year is a better way to look at conditioning, as opposed to the ways of yesterday, where we judged conditioning on the arbitrary number on the stimpmeter and how close the super can get the course to highlighter, green. Good conditioning comes in all shapes, sizes, and locations, and thinking they all play on a level playing field is a disservice to everyone involved in getting a golf course geared up for play each day.