Canada’s Influence in Golf Course Architecture

Editor’s Note: The following was written by Doug Carrick, a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, whose office is located in Don Mills, Ontario, just outside of Toronto. The story first appeared in The Wire.

To many of those interested in the field of golf course architecture, stating that Canada has influenced the profession may seem rather odd, considering that the country is not the first you think of when thinking of golf.

The cold winter climate experienced throughout most of the country between late November and early April makes one think more about hockey, rather than golf. However, golf has a huge following among Canadians despite the short season, and many of Canada’s golf architects are still busy despite a slowdown in the economy.

Some interesting little tidbits on the game of golf in Canada include the following facts: almost 20 percent of the population plays golf, almost double the participation rate of the U.S.; one of the oldest (possibly the oldest) organized golf clubs in North America, still in existence today, is the Royal Montreal Golf Club, which was established in 1873; and, finally, the only defending gold medal champion in Olympic golf is a Canadian – George S. Lyon, who won the medal in 1904.

I offer one more little known fact: Charles Blair McDonald, long regarded as one of North America’s pioneering golf course architects around the turn of the last century, is Canadian. C.B. McDonald was born in Niagara Falls, Canada, in 1856.

While McDonald’s influence on golf course architecture in North America is well-known and documented, there is another Canadian golf course architect who was as equally influential, but perhaps not as well known in the United States. Stanley Thompson, known to his peers as the “Toronto Terror,” was the Tillinghast of Canada.

Thompson was a flamboyant and very gifted golf course architect who also helped to shape the careers of many prominent, modern-day designers. Among the apprentices who worked with Thompson during his 30-year career were Geoffrey Cornish, Howard Watson, Robbie Robinson, Norman Wood, Bob Moote and Robert Trent Jones, Sr.

Thompson had a tremendous flair for revealing the unique natural characteristics of a site in his designs. As a result, his courses have great variety and each hole is easily remembered long after the round is completed. Thompson’s courses at Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies are likely his most famous designs and great examples of his outstanding artistic skill in sculpting bunkers. The combination of undulating knolls, grassy hollows, high sand flashes and swooping grass capes create artistic compositions unlike any I have seen anywhere else. Dr. Alister Mackenzie visited Jasper Park Lodge in 1928 and proclaimed Jasper to be the best golf course he had ever seen.

In Score magazine’s biennial ranking of the best golf courses in Canada, three Thompson designs – St. George’s Golf Club in Toronto, Highland Links in Cape Breton and Capilano Golf Country Club in Vancouver – currently rank Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively. Considering they all were built between 1928 and 1939, each has stood the test of time very well, like so many of his designs. Of the top 100 courses in Canada, Thompson has an unprecedented 17 courses on the list, double the number of his nearest rival.

While modern-day architects have updated many Thompson courses over the years, his principles of design still stand up to the requirements of the game today. Many architects familiar with his work no doubt continue to try and emulate the artistic styling of Thompson’s bunkers and undulating greens.

Thompson’s work has a tremendous influence on my design philosophies. A current project our firm is collaborating on with Bob Cupp from Atlanta, we were discussing the design styling to employ for each of the courses. We discussed the merits of C.B. McDonald, Seth Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross, Alister Mackenie and all the other usual suspects.

We finally decided on a combination of Bob Cupp and Stanley Thompson. That would give us a Holy Grail in Canada, The Stanley Cupp. Lord knows it will be the only Stanley Cup we see in Toronto for a long time to come. It’s been 36 years since the last one.