Redtail Golf Course
Ontario, Canada

The view from the ninth tee highlights the secluded nature of a game at Redtail.

The view from the ninth tee highlights the secluded nature of a game at Redtail.

In 1988, after months of searching, John Drake and Chris Goodwin finally located an ideal block of land one mile from Lake Erie on which to build their long time dream course. The desired solitude needed to create a true retreat was here in spades. As a testimony to that fact, over one hundred varieties of birds call the course home at one point or another through the year. More importantly, unlike the surrounding flat farmland, this property had the distinguishing feature of ravines randomly spread throughout the property.

The key for the two owners was to find a firm who would make the most of this rustic property. The Drake Goodwin partnership told perspective architects, ‘We would prefer a design that preserves the natural features of the property, bordering almost on the wild.’ Only a minimalist design would be well suited to this site. The ravines were always going to give it a certain difficulty but the land on top is gently rolling and any significant movement of earth would sorely stick out.

The question was: which architect to select?

Every architect proclaims a minimalist approach to course design: ‘We move as little earth as possible while maximising the natural features of the land.’ Yet, how can design firms from Coore & Crenshaw to Nicklaus to Renaissance to Rees Jones sound the same when the final products are so markedly different?!

Something doesn’t add up. Some self-proclaimed minimalists never have the same par hole back to back, following the example set by the front nine at Augusta National.  How can this be? I fone really follows the land, wouldn’t one end up occasionally more like Cypress Point with back-to-back one shotters as well as three shotters? Also,some claiming to be ‘minimalists’ liberally pepper their courses with bunkers, which are man made contrivances (at least now a days). Indeed, many of these bunkers serve only a decorative purpose.

While other architects talked about moving this and shaping that, Drake Goodwin ended by selecting the United Kingdom based firm of Steel & Associates. In doing so, they took a chance as this would be Steel’s first assignment in North America. Nonetheless, the gamble paid off and Drake Goodwin were rewarded with a neat low profile course.

The first chore for Steel was to determine the ideal routing. If they crossed the ravines too much, the bridges alone would sink the budget. Nonetheless, Steel and his associate Tom Mackenzie wisely incorporated the dominant feature of the ravines into no less than thirteen of the holes.

As for the design of the holes, Steel & Associates don’t believe in dotting the landscape with bunkers that are a) out of play and b) serve only to make a shot potentially easier. As a result, Redtail has less than thirty bunkers all told and six of them are on the gambling three shot thirteenth.

Perhaps the nastiest of the aforementioned six bunkers at the thirteenth.

Their minimalist approach is further indicated by the fact that they didn’t hurry to conform to any pre-set pattern of where ‘par’ should fall. For instance, the first one shotter isn’t until the seventh then three one shotters follow in the ensuing seven holes. Why? Because that was where they fell in the best routing.

Apart from the ravines, Steel, and in particular Mackenzie, who spent months on site, paid particular attention to the greens themselves. The result is some of the best interior contouring that can be found in any medium size greens in North America. Combined with the swift pace that is only achieved at a club with limited play, these greens lie at the heart of Redtail’s challenge. They aren’t overtly dramatic withfive foot falls and such. Nonetheless, they offer numerous hole locations that tax the very best golfer’s short game. By the time the golfer makes it around to the treacherously sloped fourteenth green complex (the site for which Chris Goodwin found), he will truly appreciate that this is a placement course first and foremost.

The strong right to left cant of the fourteenth green is evident from the tee.

The use of knolls that feed into the greens is a prominent feature on holes three, four, five and twelve. For instance, with the third green, one knoll left and another back right makes it imperative to come at the hole straight on; an up and down from either side of the green is both taxing and highly unlikely.

The golfer girds himself for carrying the ravine with his long iron approach at the 470-yard third.
However, merely carrying the ravine leaves the real task of getting down in two shots for par.

As a direct result of these greens, the appeal of Redtail lies in its two shot holes that measure under 400 yards. Steel & Associates, as is evidenced at The Carnegie Course at Skibo Castle, have a knack for creating interesting holes less than 400 yards. It is a lost art form to all but a few architects and more is the pity. At Redtail, with the first, fourth, sixth, eighth, tenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth, they created holes of both appeal and challenge. At the first and sixteenth, Steele and Mackenzie relied on making the green shallow (twenty-one and eighteen yards deep respectively) with tremendous back to front tilt. With holes four and six, they made longer, narrower greens with a vicious spine in the middle. With hole eight, the principle challenge shifts to the tee shot: the golfer is given the option of laying back or crossing a ravine with a drive that must carry 230 yards. At the tenth, the green location makes the hole as a ravine wraps around its back and side. Finally at the seventeenth, the fairway contours are the boldest on the course and force the golfer to hit a shot from a lie from which he may or may not be entirely comfortable.

The two to four foot contours throughout the seventeenth fairway help keep the golfer off-balance.

Golf courses often benefit from autocratic rule and Redtail is no exception. Given Chris Goodwin’s accomplished abilities as a player, Redtail has always been a precise test appreciated by better players.Some of Redtail’s features such as the exactness demanded by the narrow opening between trees shy of the fourth green would be challenged by a typical North American green committee or its members; such is not the case here.

The narrow chute between trees at the fourth speaks as to Redtail’s uncompromising test and its demand for accuracy.

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