Cobble Beach Golf Links

Sean Dudley

David McPherson

On an unseasonably warm Monday in October, I drive to Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada – a scenic seaside town two and a half hours north of Toronto. At one time, Owen Sound’s bustling seaport made it a rowdy locale, known to sailors as ‘Little Liverpool’. Located 10 minutes north of this picturesque village, along the shores of Georgian Bay, is Cobble Beach Golf Links – the latest Doug Carrick creation. As my car winds down the rural gravel road, the first thing I notice is the lighthouse.

“That was John Anderson’s idea,” reveals Carrick, referring to the vice-president of the housing development, responsible for all construction activities at Cobble Beach (including the golf course), who has worked in the golf industry since 1975. “We needed a pumphouse to draw water and also to serve the future residential development, so John suggested we develop the pumphouse as a lighthouse. He got the idea from driving around the Bruce Peninsula where there are many historic lighthouses dotting the coast. It added a real signature to the whole development and it also became the course logo.”

Carrick credits Anderson for many of the early design ideas. “He did a great job growing in the golf course and Evans Golf was terrific and very creative with the shaping of the fairways and greens. Not a lot of earth was moved to create Cobble Beach, except for certain ponds that were constructed primarily as storage for irrigation water and storm water administration.”

Cobble Beach Golf Links pays homage to the region’s native and Euro-Canadian heritage. Soon after the project was initiated in 1999, a significant cultural and archaeological study was undertaken and endorsed by the government’s Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation. The study identified Native culture and Euro-Canadian archaeological sites within the property. To permanently safeguard the most culturally sensitive sites which included homestead ruins, artifact scatters, and cultural rock formations, a series of heritage zones were established before construction of the golf course began in the summer of 2004.

Following the successful opening of The Carrick at Loch Lomond in Scotland in 2006, the Canadian craftsman Carrick has added to his impressive resume with this world-class course, which opened in the summer of 2007. The architect was given prime land to route this course, but it’s what he did to maximise the 574-acre property that stands out, sculpting a challenging links-style course where golfers get a breathtaking view of Georgian Bay on every hole. Georgian Bay is a large bay of Lake Huron, located in Ontario, Canada. The body of water is about 320 kilometres long by 80 kilometres wide and it covers more than 15,000 square kilometres.

Carrick says it wasn’t until they started construction that his team discovered just how special the property was. “As we started to route the course, due to some of the elevation changes, it became evident we were going to see water on every hole.”

With rugged rough and nasty fescue if your ball strays too far from the fairways, Cobble Beach is a great test requiring accuracy and strategic club selection off each tee. Pot bunkers add to the course’s difficulty. Every hole has a name (carefully chosen to describe its characteristics): from the 13th, Rob’s Gulch to Calamity (number 12) to the appropriately dubbed Lighthouse (number 17).

Lighthouse refers to the unobstructed view you get of this beacon as you step to hit from an elevated tee on this par three, which is 156 yards from the tips. Hitting to a tight, tiered green, surrounded by pot bunkers, this is one of many spectacular vistas to which I am treated throughout my round. Insider tip: all greens are fast and slope towards the bay, so keep this in mind as you line up your putts.

The project is more than a golf course. The Cobble Beach development will also include a mix of approximately 500 single-family detached homes and approximately 500 units that will consist of multi-family units and condos. The development will also include a village centre area that will have a mix of higher density residential units and commercial space.

Cobble Beach also features luxury inn and spa with ten suites located in the Nantucket-inspired clubhouse, designed by Richard Wengle. In addition to the best new course award, the clubhouse also received the nod by Fairways magazine in its 2007 end-of-the-year poll. After a round this inviting room, filled with leather chairs and a floor-toceiling granite rock fireplace, is the type of place where you want to linger.

Cobble Beach Golf Links is the culmination of a vision held by the father and son development team of Willis and Robert McLeese. The McLeese family owns a small but thriving network of niche renewable-energy plants and other investments that span the continent, from southern California to central Pennsylvania to northern Ontario.

“Willis’ first instructions to me was to use the shoreline as much as possible, which was unique from a developer’s standpoint because I think most developers would look at that waterfront and want to put lots there for houses,” says Carrick. “Willis had a completely different vision and I think he made a wise choice. He understood that the golf course was going to be a very important attraction for the development and that it would add value to the development.”

During one of Carrick’s first meetings with the businessman, who is now in his early 90s, the award-winning architect was told by Willis that he wanted to create a world-class golf course and facility that would have a similar feel and flavour to Pebble Beach.

“Willis isn’t a golfer, but that was a course he was familiar with,” Carrick says. “He thought with the amount of shoreline available on the property, he wanted to capture some of that shoreline drama with his golf course.”

Carrick understood what the worldly Willis meant. “He was referring to the bluffs along the shoreline and wanted to get the holes situated adjacent to those bluffs like
you do at Pebble Beach with holes seven, eight and nine. I knew we wouldn’t be able to create some of the shots like the second shot on the eighth at Pebble Beach because the shoreline is relatively straight and there weren’t any dramatic indentations in the shoreline that we could take advantage of to have those shots cross the lake, but holes like nine and ten at Pebble Beach are similar to nine and eighteen at Cobble Beach.”

While taking inspiration from the revered California course in terms of the routing, Carrick also felt the property was well suited to create a links-style course. That’s why the fairways at Cobble Beach are undulating and the bunkers are reminiscent of the pot bunkers you see on traditional links courses.

One of the most memorable holes is the par five seventh, named Chi-Cheemaun – an Ojibwe word meaning ‘big canoe.’ An appropriate name as you need a large vessel to steer you to success on this challenging 553-yard hole where you hit from the highest point on the course to a downhill, undulating fairway. The tee shot is a trompe l’oeil; even though the bay is far below, the illusion is that you are going to hit your ball straight in the water. Two strong shots can get big hitters home in two, but some strategicallyplaced pot bunkers on the left-side of the fairway, just in front of the green, await if your approach is not on target.

What makes Cobble Beach truly unique is that both nines return along the water. Be sure to enjoy a gourmet lunch at the Sweetwater restaurant after your round; while you sip a cold beer and enjoy a burger on the wraparound terrace you can watch players putting out on both holes, all the while enjoying an expansive view of the Bay far below. It’s a scene worthy of a Tom Thompson painting, the famous Group of Seven artist, who is buried in Owen Sound and a perfect way to end your visit to this reverie by the water’s edge.

David McPherson is a Canadian golf journalist.

This article first appeared in issue 11 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2008.