Whenever the topic of TPC Toronto’s Heathlands course comes up, it inevitably takes me a few moments to orient myself. Not because it isn’t a fine golf course (it certainly is), or because I can’t immediately recall all of the holes (I definitely can), but because, over the course of my handful of times around the golf course, either as a player or as a caddy for Andrew during the Mackenzie Tour event a few years back, I’ve played or seen 4 or 5 different iterations of the routing.
Let me preface my thoughts, however, by saying that Heathlands is, undoubtedly, a quite good golf course, among Canada’s best 50, with some real standout holes and excellent green complexes, in particular. In fact, in my eyes, they’re probably the 2nd best set in Doug Carrick’s catalog, behind only Muskoka Bay’s. In terms of Canadian “faux-linkses”, a genre I strongly dislike on the whole, it’s my favourite of the lot.
However, I do think that the shaping, especially on the periphery of many of the holes, is too heavy-handed, looks outdated (i.e. a harbinger back to early 1990s, when such sort of over-shaping was in vogue), and, therefore, should be softened in a renovation so that it blends a little more naturally with the land. I also agree that the holes around the central pond, which in and of themselves are fine, do distress the overall flow and go against the general ethos of the course.
Yet, my primary concern, or perhaps primary musing, in this piece revolves around the routing, more specifically its mutability. Originally, from what I understand, the difficult 3rd (in the current routing) was supposed to be the opener, mainly because the clubhouse was supposed to be built out that way, near the entrance. In this iteration, the golfer had to come out swinging immediately. Following the strong opener, the short 2nd (that is now the 4th), which nevertheless requires a deft wedge to hit the miniscule and sharply surrounded green, the long iron par 3, 3rd, the 450 yard par 4, 4th, and the 421 par 4, 5th, formed quite the gauntlet to start the day; in most cases, the golfer would spend the rest of the round trying to recover the damage inflicted by these first few.
Then, for whatever reason, infrastructural plans changed and the clubhouse got built in its current location, towards the middle of the property, so that the trio of courses could, more or less, convene around it. In turn, the current 11th, a mundane par 5 that plays through a junk-covered halfpipe, became the opener (or at least it was, when I first played the golf course about a decade-ago now). Thus, a good chance at birdie, to start the day off right, was instantly afforded. Then the 2nd and 3rd (the current 12th and 13th) extended the gentle start. From there, my memory evades me, but I believe that you proceeded to, what is currently, the 14th, another short par 5 and a good birdie chance. If I’m not mistaken, the current 3rd played as the 9th in that iteration of the routing, and the drop shot par 3, over the infamous pound, was the finisher.
The next time that I returned to Heathlands, a decade later, under the covid-cloud of 2021, the current routing was in play—two easier holes to start, then a tough middle stretch, and lastly a chance to recuperate lost ground.
In short, the question I’m pondering, one for which I don’t yet have a set-in-stone answer, is whether such mutability makes the routing a good or a bad one—i.e. is it a strength or a weakness.
Recently, both Andrew and Alex visited Thompson’s two mountain courses, Banff and Jasper. In both cases, the strength of the golf course lies very much in Thompson’s ingenious routing, the journey over which he takes you from the 1st tee to the 18th green. Symphonic, I believe, is the word used to describe Jasper’s routing, replete with build-ups, crescendos, climaxes, and calmer moments.
However, as everyone knows, Thompson’s original routing at Banff was sacrificed for infrastructural reasons, meaning that the original 1st, which played from the foot of the world-famous hotel, now plays as the 15th. Years ago, when we first met, Andrew told me that playing Banff is now akin to starting a book at its midway point. In the same way that you can, in fact, start a novel halfway through and still appreciate its prose, its individual scenes, its ending, something, a part of the magic, is nevertheless extricated from the experience when done this way.
Golf is the most unpredictable of games. Even within a single foursome, the golf course is experienced in very different ways: Bill hits it 220 yards down the middle all day; John, who’s primarily here to drink beer, smashes it all over the yard; Larry drives it fine but has the shanks after that; and Kip misses every green but gets up and down from everywhere. You know the deal.
Yet the one time (or eighteen times, if you will) that every golfer is in the exact same place over the course of a round, when the hole is approached from the same angle, is from the tee. This is why I value tee shots extremely highly in my evaluations, for the architect is fully in control of this aspect of the golf course. The natural extension of this is, of course, the routing, another aspect that the architect should, technically, dictate.
As with Jasper, there should be a kind of symphony to a routing, to a golf course. Pine Valley may, in the words of my wonderful host at Rolling Green, be four-hours of sensory overload, but it is the oh-so-rare exception to the rule. Take Augusta National’s back 9, for example. After Amen’s Corner, the middle climax of the golf course, comes the bunkerless 14th which gives the golfer’s eye a brief respite (at least until the green) and the uneventful tee shot on 15, before his senses are again assaulted once he crests the hill in the fairway and sees the slender green perched between the two startlingly blue water-hazards way below. Or, here in Canada, we can study Highland Links, which is widely considered to be the country’s best routed golf course, where the 6th acts (at least before Graham Cooke added the cape-tees way to the right) as a similar respite, or lull, after the intense opening 5 holes. Then on the inward nine, the low-running 11th and 12th holes, which are sandwiched between the mountaineering stretch from 7 to 10, and the ocean-backdropped, pyrotechnical final hurrah.
My favorite novel is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, an encyclopedic, globe-spawning, 775 page work that is widely considered to be the most difficult read in the English language (though it’s never a slog and is entirely graspable with the help of a guide), because, among other reasons, Pynchon introduces so many characters (that often appear and disappear with no real reason or explanation) and includes so many scenes, many of which could have been, upon first reading it would seem, edited out.
Along this line of thinking, the more I’ve begun to truly consider what goes into successfully routing a golf course, the less I’ve viewed seemingly “mundane” or “nothing” holes as weaknesses, just as I view the “cuttable” bits of Gravity’s Rainbow to be anything but cut-able after a handful of reads. In fact, in my mind, they are integral to what makes such works of art great: if you were to remove them, or remodel them, something about the intangible, or spiritual, or psychological effect upon which great works titillate would be disrupted. That ability to completely immerse the reader, or golfer, into the experience, the world created by the author or architect.
A golf course is not a collection of 18 holes, which can be taken or evaluated individually, in a vacuum; rather a golf course is a collective whole, with interacting parts that play off of each-other. The very mutability, then, of Heathlands’ routing seems to counteract this: in effect it feels like a collection of 18 holes placed around the property more-so than a collective whole. I don’t think that this is the architect’s fault, necessarily. Yet, I struggle to recognize a sort of progression when I ponder back upon my few rounds at Heathlands; my thoughts about it are jumbled, like its routing too often feels and has been treated.
Yet, on the other hand, the routing did provide the possibility of such flexibility thanks to its criss-crossing, tightly interwoven nature. Counter to my feelings, this could be viewed as a strength, its very adaptability. After years of playing the same golf course, such a change of routing is a one way to insert new life back into a golf course.
Moreover, for tournament play, the interwoven routing produces gathering points, wherein spectators, golfers, and officials are all tightly bunched, adding an element of drama and a buzz that makes tournament golf best, especially later on.
All in all, despite my musing upon the symphonic qualities that are inherent to great routings, pretentious as I undoubtedly came across in this piece, I really do like Heathlands. Every kid, of course, dreams of playing under the lights, on television, on the grandest stage with millions of dollars in the bank, but the harsh truth is that this, the PGA Tour Canada, is the reality of most professional athletes. Sparse crowds, little fanfare, meagre purses, but stakes beyond anything at the highest level: livelihoods on the line, the next paycheck dependent on this next three foot putt.