SAULT SAINT MARIE, Ontario -- It must be difficult for residents of Sault Ste. Marie to watch Canadian golfers stream south across the bridge to the U.S. on their way to play, stay, and pay big bucks at the vaunted northern Michigan golf resorts. And it must be harder still for Saultites -- due to a local scarcity of championship courses on their side of the border -- to have to sigh, shrug, load up their sticks and follow suit.
Enter John Vanbiesbrouck. The Beezer -- New Jersey Devil goaltender, former Soo Greyhound, avid golfer, and Sault resident -- longed for a decent track in his adopted hometown. You see, Vanbiesbrouck, like so many other NHL players who've spent time on the ice for the Greyhounds, resides in The Soo. It seems that the local women have a knack for attracting hockey-playing husbands, and when players retire, they migrate back to this underrated yet cozy corner of northern Ontario.
With the Beezer at the core of an investment partnership, 335 acres were soon procured, and Kevin Holmes of MBTW Golf Design was hired to route and build a 27-hole facility that would rival the fabled destinations in northern Michigan. Thus was born Crimson Ridge, the first -- and as of yet only -- championship course in Sault Ste. Marie. The first 18 of the 27 holes opened in mid-season 2002, greeting golfers with rugged rock outcroppings, sweeping vistas, and over 300 feet of elevations changes.
The 6,827-yard, par-72 Holmes design is an outstanding example of how careful routing can, with minimal contrivance, incorporate diverse and dramatic natural features into a playable golf course. Mother Nature provided Holmes with the speckled granite of the Canadian Shield, two waterfalls, a meandering creek, and a hardwood forest. Holmes, to his credit, stayed true to the landscape without challenging golfers to the breaking point.
"We have preserved some magnificent 100-year-old oak and maple trees," says Holmes. "You sort of have to work your ball around a few of the majestic old trees, but they only add to the exceptional northern golf experience."
Indeed, with a rating of 72.4 and slope of 138 from the tips, the course plays tough, but not unduly so. Interestingly, from the blue tees (6,449 yards), the slope rating is still a formidable 136. In fact, certain holes play easier from the tips than from the more forward tees because the landing areas are easier to hit from farther back.
Golf in northern Ontario presents other challenges to golf course operators as well as golfers. The conditions at Crimson Ridge are still rough. According to Jeff Books, retail manager and assistant pro, a cold, icy winter was tough on the turf, and a late snow cover and wet spring haven't helped. The 16th fairway has been seeded three times, after the first two attempts were washed away by storms. In addition, a mowing mistake resulted in the scalping of the first cut around many greens. While the greens and fairways affected by wild weather and mower mishaps are on the mend, first-time visitors might find some of the conditions distracting.
Grooming aside, Crimson Ridge plays like a dream for all levels of golfers. There's a pleasant mix of easy and more challenging driving holes, large, true greens with prominent tiers and quadrants, and so much gorgeous scenery that even if you're having a bad round, you cannot help but enjoy yourself.
The 388-yard first hole is at the same time one of the high points and low points of the routing. As the No. 1 handicap hole, it presents a severe test so early in the round. On the other hand, the tee shot off elevated tees over a rocky streambed and scrub brush to a fairway set at an oblique angle from the tees makes an immediate impression. From the get-go, you get a feel for what awaits, and if you play the first well, you might just be in for a career day.
The 515-yard 8th is a great par-5. The hole doglegs right around thick trees. Players who cut the corner from the tees will have a chance to go for the green in two; however, with a shallow green fronted by a craggy berm and guarded on the backside by a shaggy hill, precision is absolutely key. This hole was originally slated as a par-4, but Vanbiesbrouck was actually responsible for pushing to make it a par-5. The man has a flair for golf course design!
The 153-yard 17th and 577-yard 18th have already been called two of the best holes in Canada by the Globe and Mail, a remarkable recognition for such a new course. The 17th, with its tee shot over a deep ravine to a deceptive green surrounded by evil rock formations, has to be one of the prettiest short par-3s anywhere. The par-5 18th offers a 30-mile vista from the elevated tee. Local knowledge is critical here, as the fairway is blind from the tee, and it doglegs hard to the left (aim at the two birch trees).
The Beezer and company have come a long way toward their stated goal of "keeping people on this side of the border and trying to convince people to come across the border, too." By all accounts, the third nine holes will feature even more dramatic views of the countryside and even more memorable holes.
The 5,000 square-foot clubhouse is home to a fully stocked pro shop, locker rooms, banquet facilities, and one of the best restaurants in town (try the warm duck salad). The 350-yard deep practice range, 8,000 square-foot putting green, and complete chipping and sand practice areas are ideal for lessons and practice.
Stay and play packages are available in connection with several local hotels (the Holiday Inn is centrally located and offers great views of the waterfront). Off-course activities are plentiful. Along with hunting, fishing, and all other manner of outdoor adventures, boat tours of the Soo Locks, the Agawam Canyon Tour Train, and the 450 slot-machines and numerous table games of the Casino Sault Ste. Marie are all favorites with both residents and visitors to The Soo.
It seems that you don't have to be a hockey player to fall for this northern outpost (although you might have to be one to get the local girls to fall for you). With the addition of Crimson Ridge, it looks like Vanbiesbrouck has made yet another nice save, keeping golfers and their money on this side of the boarder.
418 Fourth Line West
Sault Ste. Marie, ON P6A 5K8
Head Pro: Dan Missere
Yardage/Rating/Slope: 6827/72.4/138; 6449/70.4/136; 5950/67.8/130; 5274/65.1/118
Peak Season Rates: $60 (incl. cart), twilight $45, sunset $25
Misc.: Walking allowed anytime for same rate; seasonal rates vary; part of Northern Ontario Golf Trail; memberships available; fall colors are spectacular.
June 29, 2003
Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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