Grand-Mére: Recapturing a Travis and Alison gem

  • Grand Mere
    Beyond The Contour

    The eighteenth (left) and ninth holes at Club de Golf Grand-Mére, in rural Quebec

  • Grand Mere
    Beyond The Contour

    The 320-yard fourth plays over a ridge to a saddle-shaped green perched above its surroundings

  • Grand Mere
    Beyond The Contour

    The par-three eighth is one of 11 holes designed by Hugh Alison

  • Grand Mere
    Beyond The Contour

    The ninth features staggered bunkering along the left side of the fairway, with golfers playing to a Biarritz green

  • Grand Mere
    Beyond The Contour

    Andy Staples has created a masterplan and is overseeing tree removal, green expansion and bunker restoration work

Andrew Harvie and Zachary Car
By Andrew Harvie and Zachary Car

In this oversaturated age of social media, online forums, websites and books, finding historically important golf courses that have flown under the radar feels like an increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible, task. Surely, you’d think that anything worth mentioning has already been discovered – and if it has, you have seen a photo, a course tour or a golf ‘influencer’ talking about it, right?

Thankfully, though, such courses do still exist – you just have to look a little harder and further for them. Our search took us to the middle of Quebec, where the Club de Golf Grand-Mére has remained out of the national spotlight for the better part of the last hundred years.

Over at Beyond The Contour, our love for this semi-private club has been steadily chronicled: from course tours to quickfire reviews, modern drone shots and videos, but it remains unnoticed by most of the wider golfing world. And understandably so, since Grand-Mére is located an hour and forty minutes west of Quebec City, or roughly two hours northeast of downtown Montreal, or, further, aalmost six hours directly north of Boston, Massachusetts, that veritable hub of Golden Age architecture and the closest major American metropolis.

Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves, though. Why should anyone care about a rural golf course in the middle of Quebec, hours removed from a major city, in the small town of Shawinigan? Mainly because the Club de Golf Grand-Mére has the distinct privilege of architectural royalty: first, Quebec’s Albert Murray, who can comfortably lay claim to being one of Canada’s best architects in our nation’s long golfing history; second, Walter Travis, whose tidy resume puts him among the best to ever do it; and finally, Hugh Alison, partner of the great Harry Colt and a formative architect in his own right.

As evidenced by the impressive list of architects who have plied their trade upon it, Grand-Mére was once among the most acclaimed and prestigious clubs not only in Quebec, but in all of Canada. The club was the vision of George Cahoon, an American executive of the nearby Laurentien Pulp Mill. Originally, at the behest of the company, Frederik de Peyster, a local landscaper with a Scottish origin, laid out three holes, which opened in 1912. In his book that focussed on the early figures that shaped Shawinigan’s history, Michel Cloutier notes that, because of his American heritage, Cahoon was typically at odds with the local French-Catholic clergy and the political leaders of the town. As a result, he and a number of his English contemporaries began curating a distinct, private sphere of its society, which included a men’s club, where the Anglo-elite congregated to drink and smoke while watching the town’s first television, a hockey club, a park, a gym, and, of course, a golf club. Cloutier also notes that in 1912, seemingly with an eye towards expansion, Grand-Mére imported grass from St Andrews.

Around this time, Albert Murray, then Quebec’s leading architect responsible for Kanawaki, Boule Rock, Country Club of Montreal, Fraser Edmundson and more, added six holes to bring the total to nine. At three holes, employees and the Anglo-elite of Shawinigan could play a handful of holes; with nine, however, they had a golf course. Murray’s golf course was apparently quite the sight to behold at the time. An article published in June 1915 in the Montreal Star provides a glowing testament from Willie Dunn, the famed golf professional from Scotland responsible for the original Shinnecock Hills (on the same property, but further renovated by Charles Blair Macdonald and then William Flynn, to make for the golf course we see today), and Royal Montreal’s second location in Dorval. It states that “after careful inspection, Willie Dunn gave his opinion that [Grand-Mére] could not be improved upon, that Murray had utilised every piece of possible ground, and placed the holes in very picturesque places.”

Furthermore, the article suggests that Dunn proposed another nine holes, which would be added “without any alteration to the present nine”. Given Dunn’s reputation as one of the foremost pioneers of golf in North America, his stamp of approval on Grand-Mére not only vouched for the quality of the raw property, but also Murray’s ability to lay out a first-rate golf course on ground that rumpled, rises, and falls. Murray capitalised on what he was provided. Given his status as not only a player, but a teacher, writer, innovator, and of course an architect, it is not too big of an exaggeration to claim that Albert was very much Canada’s version of Old Tom Morris.

In 1917, A Red Cross match brought Walter Travis – winner of the 1900, 1901 and 1903 US Amateurs, as well as the 1904 British Amateur – to Shawinigan. Such exhibition matches were not uncommon around the turn of the century and were a suitable way to show off a golf course. For example, Ted Ray and Harry Vardon undertook a strenuous 91-date circuit in 1920, capped off by Ray’s victory and Vardon’s joint-runner-up finish at the US Open at Inverness.

By 1917, Travis already had a notable career as a golf architect as well as a player, laying out Garden City and Hollywood, as well as Ekwanok and a consulting trip to Pine Valley. On his Red Cross journey, Travis laid out plans for a 3,100-yard golf course that a 17 November edition of The Canadian Golfer described as a “permanent course”. In that same magazine three years later in their June edition, Grand-Mére was referred to as “one of the best courses in Quebec” following Travis’s work.

In a short amount of time, Grand-Mére had become a hub for golf news: in 1912, the first golf course opened; in 1915, Albert Murray expanded the layout; and in 1917, Walter Travis further renovated the layout, keeping three of Albert Murray’s holes. No year would be as big for the club as 1921, however. As early as April, The Canadian Golfer began advertising a multi-stop exhibition tour featuring George Duncan and Abe Mitchell which was scheduled for late summer. The tour was set up by a Mr Hollander from New York and five matches were planned: at Scarboro, Brantford, Lambton, the Country Club of Montreal, and lastly Grand-Mére on 28 August. The price charged per match was $500, and the article mentions that Mitchell and Duncan had no desire to play in Western Canada, despite a number of clubs expressing interest in hosting them. Given both golfers’ status at the time, this was to be quite the draw for a rural, isolated community such as Shawinigan. George Duncan of Methlick, Scotland, had recently won the 1920 Open Championship at Royal Cinque Ports, and Abe Mitchell, who is now probably best known for being the model golfer on top of the Ryder Cup trophy, was widely considered to be the best golfer not to have won it in this period.

The pair would eventually make a clean sweep of Canada, a feat announced in bold lettering by The Canadian Golfer. At Grand-Mére, Duncan finished with a 36-hole total of 141, while Mitchell shot an afternoon 69 to redeem a lacklustre morning round of 75. The pair vanquished C.R. Murray, Albert’s brother and Royal Montreal’s pro, and his partner David Cuthbert, Grand-Mére’s professional, rather easily. Afterwards, Duncan laid tremendous praise upon the course: “I can’t really express how much I liked your course here, but it was a joy to play over it. It compares favourably with any course I’ve seen on this continent, including some of the so-called ‘millionaire courses’ in the United States. What I liked particularly were your greens: they are real greens, not excelled, in my opinion, on this side”.

Prior to Grand-Mére’s reputation skyrocketing, Harry Colt visited Canada on three occasions: 1911, 1913, and 1914, which he used to layout Toronto, Hamilton, renovate Royal Montreal’s South course, consult at Royal Ottawa, and provide a plan for Bowness in Calgary, which Colt never actually visited, but opened in 1918, nonetheless. On those same visits, Colt ventured south of the border, notably to Pine Valley, which he co-designed with founder George Crump.

Unfortunately, Colt never returned to North America after 1914, and in 1918, George Crump passed away before he could see Pine Valley completed. In the absence of both, Colt’s partner Hugh Alison, who came to North America to establish an office for the firm, joined the committee to oversee the completion of the golf course. Arriving in 1920 by boat via Montreal from Southampton, England, Alison would see the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth at Pine Valley open in 1922.

Following his first visit to Pine Valley, Alison then found himself in Shawinigan, Quebec, dropping off a set of blueprints in 1921 to expand the golf course to eighteen holes, providing further excitement to the small francophone town in 1921. Thankfully, his blueprints and notes are readily available on site, as is Walter Travis’s individual hole plans, which were found by Jim Buki, a long-time member. Buki found the Travis blueprints for the course while cleaning his father’s bookshelves, who served as the club’s greenskeeper from 1947 to 1983. In fact, prior to Buki’s discovery, Travis’s involvement at the club had been essentially forgotten.

The current golf course is a masterful amalgamation of the unique architectural elements that define the works of Albert Murray, Walter Travis, and Hugh Alison. Although Murray’s exact routing is unknown, we know that he utilised the canyon, over which Travis’s first and tenth currently play, and the meadowed portion of the property, where Alison’s sixth, seventh and eighth are now located. In total, the current iteration of the course includes seven holes that belong to Travis – one to five, nine and ten – while Alison’s work is found on the sixth, seventh, eighth and eleven through to eighteen. Even though the architects crossed paths on multiple occasions, including Milwaukee (currently Alison), and Sea Island (hidden under Fazio and David Love III’s modern work), this is the only golf course in the world to utilise both architects’ work in harmony and cohesively to create a wonderful eighteen-hole golf course.

While the town itself is slightly tired, depressed, and forgotten, Grand-Mére nevertheless continues to showcase Travis and Alison’s unblemished vision for the golf course, with only some minor alterations and the general wear and tear that a century naturally takes on a golf course. Largely, the golf course remains as it was left by the trio of Golden Age greats who found themselves in the area, unlike so many other historical golf courses that have been vandalised by architects and committees with self-serving goals and a cruel eye towards defending par.

The golf course, itself, is blessed with a beautiful property, dominated by rock outcroppings akin to New England, heathland-style natural grasses and landforms, rolling terrain dotted with micromovement, and a canyon, which is utilised on the first, tenth and eighteenth. Comparisons to Pine Valley are apt and justified: from the dramatic par-five first, over the steep ravine; to the tenth which mirrors the nature of the sixth at the world’s greatest golf course; to the par-three thirteenth, which seems to call forth similar concepts to Pine Valley’s demanding and dramatic nature; and the separated fairways on the sixteenth that are a direct homage.

In the flatter portions of the property, the feel of an English heathland is prevalent. First, at the par-four ninth, with its staggered bunkering that eats into the fairway at multiple points and its Biarritz green. Then, after emerging from the trees upon leaving the thirteenth green, at the fourteenth and fifteenth which play across an open meadow and feature a sophisticated bunker scheme separating the two in a similar manner to what you might find at Sunningdale or Toronto Golf Club. And, lastly, at the approach to the eighteenth, which plays to an on-grade, untouched Travis green overlooked by the slightly weathered clubhouse in the background.

Even with such comparisons to the heathland layouts of England, Pine Valley, or even Brookline (the sixth, eighth, ninth, eleventh are very obviously New England-esque, with scattered limestone rock outcroppings), Grand-Mére still has its own unique identity. Some may cite the 90-degree dogleg second hole, as being a particularly weak hole, and such a statement would be hard to disagree with; however, the second shot, which is played across beautiful grounds for golf – rolling, rumpled terrain unlike anything else found in the province of Quebec – combines with an incredible green complex perched high above its surroundings and Travis’s notable internal contouring to redeem what the tee shot may lack in quality. The momentum continues at the par-four third, which features a putting surface that compares against the most aggressively sloped ones in the country. And the momentum never ceases, culminating in the brilliant, quasi-reverse Redan seventeenth, which, for the better, is Grand-Mére through and through. But perhaps no hole at Grand-Mére, or even in all of Canada, can compare to the fourth, a sporty 320-odd par four playing over a topographic ridge to a saddle-shaped green perched above its surroundings. The ridge complicates the decision: hit your tee shot over the ridge and face a delicate pitch or lay back and have a blind approach shot.

Even after all these years, a sense of gentility still lingers to the club’s atmosphere and its grounds: from the winding drive near which a few turn-of-the-century stone mansions are visible, to the sophisticated clubhouse and detached dining-room with their tasteful white panelling and green trimming and elegant masonry that very much bring to mind Pine Valley, to the old-world locker room and lounge. A club that is very much frozen in time, both architecturally and how it is enjoyed to this day. In fact, upon our first visit, we remarked if we had potentially unearthed Canada’s response to Crystal Downs, a low-key Alister MacKenzie design tucked into its lonesome corner of Michigan. Virtually unknown until Tom Doak began meticulously restoring the golf course and writing about it in the mid-1980s, Crystal Downs now ranks comfortably in the USA’s top 20 courses; given Grand-Mére’s architectural prestige, and its virtually untouched state, the same fate could be upon the Shawinigan club. Although Grand-Mére is not as good as MacKenzie & Maxwell’s effort in Frankfort, Grand-Mére’s architecture has the ability to be on the very cusp of the elite in this country.

A key part of Crystal Downs revitalisation was an architect’s love for the property, and a membership/ownership group keen to dig its history out of the dirt. At Grand-Mére, both of these are also true. The Rousseau family’s dedication to the property includes a bold vision for a golf course forgotten in Canada’s landscape – minus its one inadvertently return to the national spotlight during Jean Chrétien’s Shawinigate scandal in the mid-1990s.

As part of that bold vision, architect Andy Staples has been asked to build a historical document plan, which will not only comprise the changes over the last hundred years but look to the future in a masterplan capacity. With minimal change over time, Staples will look to preserve the architecture whilst cleaning up some of its weathered features, including green expansion, bunker restoration, and more.

“What an incredible piece of architecture,” says Staples. “With a little polishing, many of us feel this course could rival some of the finest links in North America.”

Walter Travis’s lost par-three ninth, played over the canyon near the current eleventh green to the current eighteenth green, will be restored, allowing for golfers to enjoy Travis’ original nine holes, while also playing the current eighteen-hole configuration. Travis’s lost hole will serve as the nineteenth hole on a property with eighteen dramatic ones.

As part of the facility upgrades, The Rousseau family is eyeing upgrades to not just the golf course but also to the general facilities, including the clubhouse, golf shop, locker rooms, and more. In total, the entire property will be overhauled and brought into the twenty-first century, with visions of stay-and-play options and experiences available sometime down the road.

Work has already begun, with tree removal and minor upgrades being visible now, following the start of the work in 2022. Work is expected to take place over five years, with completion set for 2028.

For those interested in learning more about Grand-Mére, read a review of the course on the Beyond The Contour website. Additionally, Beyond The Contour will host a one-day, two-person event at Grand- Mére on 23 September 2023.

Andrew Harvie and Zachary Car are writers at Beyond The Contour