Every so often it's good to remind oneself of the power of understated golf. I did that on Sunday Oct. 23rd when I joined three friends to play the Heathlands course at Osprey Valley in Alton, Ont., a 45-minute drive from where I live in Toronto. If there's a more enjoyable place in Canada than Osprey Valley's three courses for fall golf, or, for that matter, golf in any season, I don't know it. The Devil's Paintbrush 10 minutes away in Caledon remains my favourite course in the country, but I'm never less than impressed by Osprey Valley's terrific triumvirate of public courses.
That Sunday morning was gorgeous. The sun was up, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the day called for golf. The courses glistened as I took the long road in. It was only a degree or two above freezing when I arrived, and frost lay across the 54 holes. But the head pro Bob McClure, a very fine golfer, by the way, informed me that the frost delay would last only about another 45 minutes. Thirty minutes later we were hitting balls to warm up on the vast practice area, and we were on the first tee within an hour of our arrival.
I've enjoyed Osprey for years, and make a point of playing a few rounds there annually. I hold my annual fund-raiser for a foundation in which I'm involved at one of the three courses. My event includes golfers from low single-digit handicaps to the maximum, and everybody has a fine time. Last July we played the Toot course. It's the parkland course. I'd not played it in a few years, and had forgotten how good it is. We've also played the Hoot, which puts one in mind of Pine Valley because of its waste bunkers. Each is a strong course.
The Heathlands is probably the most challenging of the three courses; Doug Carrick, by the way, designed the courses. The Heathlands has been open some 20 years. The course plays between a railroad line to the east—hence the names Hoot and Toot for the other two courses—and a two-lane road to the west. The holes themselves play between mounds and faux dunes, which give the course a linksy feel. It's more of a heathlands course, to be sure, and hence the name. When I play there I think of courses such as Walton Heath or Sunningdale in England. They're really good, as is the Heathlands. And I don't have to get on a plane and cross the Atlantic to play the Heathlands.
There's one top-notch hole after another at the Heathlands, although it's too bad that the course as it's now configured ends on a short par-three over a pond. That wasn't the original routing, but various planning matters led to the conclusion. The ending is my only issue with the Heathlands.
My old pal Jim Sproul was in our foursome, and he agrees—about the conclusion, but more important, the rest of the course got his golfing juices flowing. We grew up playing together at the Stanley Thompson-designed Uplands in Thornhill, Ont., and Jim is now a ClubLink member whose primary course is the superb Wyndance in Uxbridge, Ont., another rugged course that's on my list of Canadian favourites. Jim plays to a six-handicap, and, as one hole after another unfolded in front of him, he kept saying how much he enjoyed the Heathlands, and that he'd return in a minute.
"How about tomorrow?" Jim suggested at one point.
That's the thing about the Heathlands, and also the Hoot and the Toot. They make you want to come back for more golf. Ian Andrew, then a design associate of Carrick's and now on his own and doing interesting work wherever he goes (Highlands Links in Cape Breton, for one, where he's helping recreate the Thompson course to what it should be), named the holes at the Heathlands. There's one called Heich O'Fash, which means Heap of Trouble. Another doesn't have a single bunker on the hole, but so what? It's that good.
When I got home, I went to my Osprey file and found notes on a game I'd played at the Heathlands with Carrick on May 12/95. The hole without bunkers is Witch's Blaw, which means Witch's Breath. As Carrick and I played the hole, he talked about it.
"I thought it would be interesting to do a hole without any bunkers," Carrick said, "and this is a good one to do it on. It's long (451 yards) and into the wind most of the time. A hole like this gets architects talking."
The entire Heathlands course usually gets players talking. So does the whole of Osprey Valley. The sprawling golf park gets one regular, John Wilczynski, so pumped, that he plays the Heathlands, the Hoot, and the Toot, all in one day once a year. He did that when I was there this visit. John was through 27 holes when I left. He sent me an e-mail later.
"We did get in the 54 on Sunday and played the back tees as my younger friend I played with likes to do it that way," he wrote. "What a place, though, when you can show up without a tee time, have a two-hour frost delay and still get in 54 holes. If you are still in running shape next year perhaps you can join the 54-hole club. You and I could walk them all."
It's a deal.
ALSO FROM LORNE RUBENSTEIN:
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and, most recently, he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 11 books, including The Natural Golf Swing, with George Knudson (1988); Links: An Insider's Tour Through the World of Golf (1990); The Swing, with Nick Price (1997); The Fundamentals of Hogan, with David Leadbetter (2000); A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands (2001); Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); and his latest, This Round's on Me (2009). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein