Review: Bigwin Island Golf Club

9th hole at Bigwin Island

Bigwin Island 18th hole

Bigwin Island 18th hole

It was a quiet summer morning as we veered onto Muskoka’s Old Highway 117. There just seemed to be an aura of tranquility in the air as we arrived in the little hamlet of Norway Point, Ontario. A smiling face was there to greet us as we pulled up to the docks just outside of town. As we looked out unto the Lake of Bays it seemed stunningly still. We promptly unloaded our clubs and boarded a water taxi that would take us over to the island. As we sped away we couldn’t help thinking we were in for a day of golf that was going to be something really special.

We arrived at Bigwin Island to visit the newly revitalized Bigwin Island Golf Club. It’s a stunning new Doug Carrick-designed championship golf course that has received much critical acclaim since it re-launched in 2002. The club was borne out of the ruins of the old Bigwin Inn resort. Bigwin was the big swinging place to spend the summer back in the 1920s and 30s. Built on a grand scale, Bigwin was very much a symbol of the elegance and excess of this era in history. It had also boasted a wonderfully designed Stanley Thompson golf course. Originally laid out in 1922 as a 9-hole course – it was expanded to 18 holes within a few years. Unfortunately things just weren’t the same for Bigwin after the coming of the Great Depression. The original owners sold and the resort changed hands a number of times over the years, to the point where it was finally abandoned in 1970 after a number years of mismanagement and neglect.

In its time, the Bigwin Inn was the grandest resort in all of Eastern Canada and attracted an unbelievable clientele. Names like Eaton, Rockefeller, Weston and Sifton were commonplace at the Inn during its heyday. Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard visited Bigwin, as well as noted literary giants Ernest Hemingway and H.G. Wells as well as Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Guests would arrive by Muskoka steamship to spend the summer in style and elegance. Tennis, shuffleboard, croquet and badminton (and of course golf) were popular activities by day, while Bigwin’s enormous 12,000 square foot maple dance floor played host to scores of waltzing ladies and gentlemen by night.

Developer Alan Peters purchased the land the land from the local Lake of Bays Township in 1986. Originally intending to subdivide and sell off the land to create an island cottage paradise, his plans changed when he met financier Jack Wadsworth. They decided to include in their plans a high-end golf course on the island, built right over top of the old layout. They soon contracted noted golf course architect Doug Carrick (Angus Glen, Greystone, King Valley) to layout the new course and decided to resurrect the old Tudor-style dining hall to serve as the new clubhouse.

9th hole at Bigwin Island

9th hole at Bigwin Island

A rising star in Canadian golf course architecture, Carrick relished the opportunity to revive this classic Stanley Thompson design. “Doug Carrick’s passion for this project right from the beginning was unbelievable,” noted Francine Peters of Bigwin Island “he really appreciated the history of the site and the immense opportunities that lay in rebuilding a course designed by his mentor – Stanley Thompson.” He certainly has done a nice job of incorporating his trademark flashed fairway bunkers while also using much of the original routing from the original course. All in all, the result was a fresh new course design that not only accentuated the natural beauty of the island but also incorporated much of the look and feel of the old Thompson design.

Our visit to Bigwin Island was on a placid Monday morning in early summer. We were told that there were 4 or 5 other groups of golfers out on the course, but you would have never known it. The solitude of the day was broken only by the occasional worker or course marshall driving by. We felt like we had the entire island (and golf course) to ourselves.

After hitting some practice balls at the impressive new range we set out on course.

The first hole is a strong par 4 that doglegs right to an elevated green that is protected by a series of deep, steeply sloped bunkers. The fairways seemed quite firm, but unfortunately the greens still had not fully recovered from a recent aeration session.

We were quite taken by the third hole as well. It is a sweeping S-shaped double dogleg par 5, that boasts a massive network of strategically placed fairway bunkers. The hole gradually winds its way uphill to an elevated green that has a deceiving false front. Be sure to try and hit the ball at least hole high on this one.

Another impressive hole was the par 4 – 9th. From an elevated tee you encounter a challenging risk-reward tee shot. There are a series of deep fairway bunkers that cut across the left side of the fairway, however a well-struck tee shot should carry these bunkers and position you for a short iron to the uphill green. The view from the tee on this hole is great one.

Before teeing off at the par 4 – 11th hole we encountered a small herd of deer. Amazingly they seemed very unconcerned with our presence. According to the pro shop staff, seeing wild animals on the course is quite common, with deer, moose and even the occasional bear swimming across the lake (or walking across the in the winter season) to feed on the island.

The award for the best hole on the course might be a toss-up, between the par 4 – 6th hole and the finishing par 5 – 18th. Both these holes are world class.

The 6th hole provides a wonderful panoramic view of the Lake of Bays as you tee off from a set of elevated tees down to a manicured fairway more than a hundred feet below. You would certainly be hard-pressed to find a more picturesque golf hole anywhere in this province.

The beautiful 18th hole provides yet another wonderful vista that overlooks the magnificently rebuilt clubhouse from the tee decks above. The hole wraps itself around the natural contours of the land as it hugs the bay that separates Bigwin Island from the island they call Little Bigwin. The hole has a wide, well-manicured fairway that doglegs right to a 2-tiered green, that sits neatly adjacent the newly remodeled resort. With this great a view and its sweeping layout, it is certainly a wonderful finishing hole.

The Bigwin Island Golf Club has no doubt done a wonderful job of putting together a first-class golf experience. One that most golfers will not soon forget. But, be sure to visit this course soon, as it may be converted into a private facility in the next few years once all its memberships have been purchased. Or at least be sure to take the water taxi across for a spot of lunch in their posh new dining room.

Bigwin Island Golf Club is about 3 hours from Toronto on Old Highway 117 in Norway Point, Ontario. Take Hwy 11 to Hwy 117 East and turn onto Old Hwy 117 after Baysville. Green fees range from $135-195. Bigwin can be reached at 800-840-4036 or visit www.bigwinisland.com.

On the tee at Bigwin's par-4 6th

On the tee at Bigwin's par-4 6th

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