Taking Stock of Rivermead’s Renovation Following a Walk With Jeff Mingay

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Undoubtedly, for many Ottawa-areas golfers including myself, the completion of Rivermead’s long-needed renovation by the firm of Jeff Mingay is the most anticipated local golf-architecture-related happening of 2022 (not that there is a whole lot for it to compete with). I’ve always been quite fond of the ‘Mead, as evidenced by my ranking of it as the 3rd best course in town earlier this year. Although it just missed the centennial cut on my ballot for our top 100 list, I could just as easily have had it inside—as I’ve written previously, there are, more or less, 25 golf courses in Canada that could be ranked anywhere from about 90th to 115th, and the ‘Mead is among this group. 

Originally a nine-hole course designed by Charles Murray in 1910, which George Cumming then expanded to eighteen holes in 1912, the ‘Mead is one of Canada’s most historic and important clubs, having hosted the Canadian Open in 1920, the CPGA championship in 1932 and 1959, and a host of other notable events, both amateur and professional. In fact, the low Canadian each year at the Men’s National Open is awarded the “Rivermead Cup”, which currently sits in Corey Conners’ trophy room. Yet the ‘Mead has always lingered in the shadow of its more prestigious, more expensive, more known, wealthier, glitzier, and (according to most but not me) better neighbour up the block, The Royal Ottawa. A rather fierce and long-standing rivalry between the pair of Aylmer clubs that’s manifested itself on the golf course and esoterically.  

So I don’t think that it is a huge coincidence that they both undertook renovations at nearly the same time—whose project was proposed first, though, that I do not know for sure. What I do know, however, is that, based on the plans and what I’ve seen so far, the work done by Jeff Mingay at the ‘Mead is and will be superior, albeit slightly, to that of Neil Haworth’s at the Royal. In all fairness to Mr. Haworth, I think there was more to do at ‘Mead than at the Royal, which sometimes skews the reaction. And unless you are privileged to the planning meetings, to the budgetary considerations, and to the negotiations between the architect and the board of the club, which I obviously wasn’t, then it’s hard to know exactly who decided what, who wanted to do what, who vetoed what. 

Mr. Mingay’s work at the ‘Mead has been ongoing for about five years now, and I’ve played it a handful of times during that span, always coming away impressed with the portions he’s completed and those in progress. Doing the job in such a segmented, bit-by-bit manner is certainly a tad annoying, and I get that in an ideal world you would shut the entire course for a whole summer, finish everything in one swipe, and then re-open it the following spring or summer. Ultimately, though, that’s a tough sell to many members, nevermind the stressful financial implications to the club. Our golfing season is already short-enough as it is, and our winter long enough, so to essentially lose your golf course for eighteen consecutive months isn’t something many are willing to stomach.

The first evidence of his work came at the 9th and 10th, two formerly mundane holes which he spiced up. At the 9th, he reshaped the fairway bunkers, so as to make them smaller yet more strategic and troublesome from the tee; then he expanded the green and added some chocolate drop mounding to its right, which, according to gossip, many members dislike but I immediately loved and still love. This is a textbook example of visually-pleasing, cost-efficient, and thoughtful renovative practice, done without completely blowing up or re-imagining what was formerly a mundane hole, yet still turning it into a standout. Nevermind that a controversial feature usually means a good and interesting and unique feature.

Sure, we’d all love Moraine, Sleepy Hollow, or even Old Town-esques total blow-up jobs, but merely adjusting the mowing lines, pruning and removing the overgrown trees, and relocating and reshaping the bunkers so as to make them more visually appealing and strategically involved really is, as architect & Beyond The Contour contributor Ben Malach says, “the secret sauce” to effective, economic renovations, even if you can’t afford to touch the greens, which is costly. And the Mead’s greens have always been among the better and, as most can attest, the most perplexing sets in the region, with the pull of the nearby Ottawa River routinely causing eye-widening, head-shaking, and arm-elevating things to happen to the ball on them. “The darn thing broke up the hill,” is something I’ve heard, and said, a few times when playing them.

At the 10th, he similarly reduced the footprint of the bunker short and left of the green, added short grass to its right, and took away some odd, 1980s style mounding behind it, opening a quasi infinity view, albeit a limited one. In fact, this weird mounding was omnipresent throughout the golf course, surrounding most of the green complexes and flanking a number of the fairways. It wasn’t until Mr. Mingay informed us that the late Ken Venturi had done some work for the club, while he was in town designing Eagle Creek in Dunrobin, that the similarities between their aesthetics became apparent. The same weird mounding everywhere; the same unsightly, wasteful bunkering! I had never recognized the similarities, but they became clear as day afterwards. And any architectural connection to Eagle Creek is something you want to eliminate as fast and as thoroughly as possible. The 10th is probably the biggest transformation of any hole and it’s really well done. 

Other than that, I really like what Mr. Mingay did to the short, clever drivable 4th, where he again reshaped and repositioned the bunkers and added a nasty fall-off to the right of the slight green, where those who attempt to drive it are likely to bail out.

I’m also fond of the centerline bunker he added on the par 5, 5th, which, like most centerline features, works brilliantly, as well as the shaved bank to the right of the green, which, I presume, can be used almost as a kicker of sorts.

One illuminating aspect of touring a course with its architect is the chance to ask why he didn’t do certain things, the answers to which are usually far more complicated and, in layman’s terms, taken out of their hands than you’d likely presume. The obvious question I had for Mr. Mingay, who couldn’t have been nicer and more generous with his time, was whether he wanted, or could, remove the out of place, awkward holding ponds fronting the 7th and 18th greens, neither of which are original and hinder otherwise excellent long par 4s. Mr. Mingay informed us that, in addition to the environmental concerns, the scope of work required to fill them, with imported material, would create a lot of collateral damage that would need to be addressed at a cost beyond that of the approved budget. As much as Mr. Mingay wishes he could eliminate them, the unfortunately reality is that they have to remain: fair enough, that’s the business of the practice. 

As for the ridiculous tree short of the green on long and otherwise excellent par 4, 5th, I have no comment. To be clear, I do not condone vigilante architecture; however, any less tree-fetish-inclined member who opted to sneak out one night and chop down the tree on his own accord wouldn’t be judged negatively on my part or this site’s (I sincerely hope the humour in this line comes through… don’t actually do this).

All in all, in my estimation, the work done by Mr. Mingay will elevate an already very solid golf course into a top 100 lock, probably a top 75-ish one. Would I love to see virtually every tree razored from the property, to the way it was in the historic aerials: sure. Would I want to see a triple fairway between 5, 6, 7: sure. Would I want the parking lot to be paved over, returning the 15th to its downhill, sweeping dogleg-right version: sure. But that’s not the reality for the Rivermead and, in truth, for most golf courses where a similar dream-vision could be implemented, taking money, desire, and other restrictions into account. However, the simple yet highly effective kind of work Mr. Mingay has done here, and really everywhere I’ve seen his work, should be noted by every historical club in Canada that hasn’t already done so. We would be a lot better off as a golfing nation if this was the case.


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