The Details: Stratford Golf and Country Club, Stratford, Ont. (semi-private)
Weather: Overcast, 24 degrees with very little breeze
Green fees: $55
Tees used: White – 6038 yards
Score Shot: 4 over par – through 16 holes (long story)
Walked on shortly after noon, with great help from the pro shop staff to find me some members with an open spot. I don’t think I could have been paired with a friendlier set of playing partners. There was no hint of “anti-outsider” sentiment at all. Food and drink service at the turn was very quick and the course also features a fully stocked parked cart that you pass four times during the round. There were no marshalls to be found (not surprising considering most golfers were members) but it did become an issue when we ran into five groups on the 6th hole. A quick cell phone call into the pro-shop by concerned members seemed to solve that problem after a fairly lengthy delay.
Goat Track or Weekend in Paradise?: Stratford features many mature trees from start to finish that accounts for much of the challenge. Fairways aren’t particularly tight on most holes like the par 4 opener but a drive too far to the left will leave you overhanging leaves to deal with on your approach. The second hole features an elevated tee shot that again demands you keep it fairly close to the middle of the fairway to avoid the trees that pinch the opening to the elevated green site from spoiling your approach.
Starting on the par 5 third the course opens up a bit and offers more room for error as the fourth and fifth also afford the golfer more open spaces which can lull you into a false sense of security. If you’re feeling secure walking off the fifth green it can quickly dissipate at the tees of the aptly named “Double Cross” sixth. The long par 4 (442 yards from the back tees) features a creek that runs from the right of the tee decks to the left of the landing area and then returns to guard the right and front of the green site on the second shot. Be too aggressive with the line for your drive and you can easily find the creek, bail out too far right and you have a much longer second into a sprawling undulating green. After a short but tight par 4 seventh, you find the tricky uphill 170 yard par 3 eighth where the green is mostly a rumour for the first time golfer. Where ever the flag resides a shot that seems short and right of the target will be your best option.
The 367 yard par 4 11th again brings the mature Willows into play as they narrow the opening into the heavily guarded green with trees all along the right and hidden water catching anything left. The 12th (below) is another tester that seems short in length (436 yards) for a par 5 but requires great shot making ability to have a chance to realistically get home in two. The tee shot requires a long draw from a right hander, to find the fairway between the thick bush on the right of the fairway and large overhanging Willows on the left where you’re then faced with a long shot that needs to carry over a creek that fronts the strongly back to front sloped green.
If you are able to reach it in two if you’re above the hole a three putt is easy to find. The par 3 thirteenth and par 4 14th (named “Tunnel Vision” for good reason — see photo below) continue to call on your ability to “hit’em straight”.
Again the course opens up for the long par 5 15th with a dog leg left that runs uphill for the last 175 yards and ends with a huge green with many slippery slopes to make your putter earn it’s keep. The par 4 16th plays back down the hill as a dog leg right into another tricky green site that will undoubtedly be easier the second time around. That brings you to the quirky 335 yard par 4 17th, a short dog leg right that can easily smash the daylights out of a good round. Off the tees it’s pretty straight forward, hit a ball about 200 yards without messing with the trees on the right. Then all that remains is a short iron into the elevated green. However much to many golfers dismay the green seems plucked from the Hilarious House of Frightenstein’s mini golf course. It is so severely sloped from back to front that depending on the speed of the green on a particular day it is impossible to keep the ball from rolling off the front…..again and again. Just tweaking the green’s slope a bit would greatly enhance the playability, but I think perhaps the members have an affinity to the hole the way it is.
How the Rock Rolls: Stratford does not have trademark small greens of a mature semi-private golf course. There are some small greens, but there is great variety in the sizes and undulations. On the day I played the speed was very playable. Downhill putts ran but not excessively and uphill putts needed to be struck with authourity to reach their target. I was also quite impressed with how receptive they were despite indications that much of the course was in need of water. As I have seen in many instances of semi-private clubs lately, the members are doing a great job of making sure that ball marks are repaired properly.
Conditioning: Tees, fairways and greens were nice and green if not lush. However the rough, especially on hilled areas, showed signs of burning out in many instances. Some spots seemed so far gone that I wondered if they would recover even with a thorough and consistant drenching. There were many signs on this day of some aggressive pruning of the mature trees on numerous holes. Most of the trimming seemed more for asthetics than to effect playability although it could be argued that any removal of foliage would make a course more playable.
Making the Cut: Stratford offers a beautiful setting for golf while being quite playable for high handicappers and offering a fine test of golf for the lower end players as well. There is a very good mix of holes without many that could be thought of as weak or boring. It is very walkable despite a few longer strolls past the beverage cart, as there isn’t really any terrain that would be considered steep. In amongst some of the tree-lined holes it can get quite steamy on humid days as the breezes are held at bay. I will say again though that the 17th can leave a sour taste in your mouth depending on your luck and the mood of the pin setter for the day.
Hacker’s Highlights: If you’re planning a weekend at the Stratford Festival, I highly recommend you pack the clubs and get a time at the club. It’s a beautiful course within a beautiful city and at a price that should suit any budget. Hint: there is a fairly large membership so don’t expect much in the way of weekend morning tee times, but I have heard that afternoon times are not too overly difficult to find.
Overall Value: At $55 for a prime rate I give Stratford a 110% rating without hesitation.