The modern day Bigwin Island golf course may only have opened for play in 2002 but its location has a history going back 80 years to 1922 when an initial nine hole course was designed by the legendary Canadian golf course architect Stanley Thompson who added a further 9 holes in 1930.
This course was part of the old Bigwin Inn resort on the island which attracted a very select clientele in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The ownership of the resort changed hands a number of times over the years but nobody could halt the gradual decline of the place.
In 1986, it was taken over by developer Alan Peters who, along with financier Jack Wadsworth, enlisted the architect Doug Carrick to revive the old, abandoned course, using a little of the original routing, and in so doing, retaining the look and feel of the old Thompson design.
Doug Carrick kindly provided us with the following comments: “The original Thompson course at Bigwin Island was a very short (less than 5,000 yards) 18-hole course. It started out as a 9-hole course in 1922, expanded to 12 holes in 1926, to 14 holes in 1928 and finally to 18 holes in 1930. The resort and the golf course closed in 1968. The fairways were all overgrown with trees and shrubs but we could still see where the original play corridors were. I used portions of approximately 9 holes, but the routing of the new course really bears no resemblance to the original layout.”
In order to access this hilly, island course which is situated a three-hour drive north of Toronto, a five-minute water-taxi must be taken from the little town of Norway Point across the Lake of Bays in the Muskokas. The golfer will then be treated to a round on a signature Carrick design which allows one to “flirt with danger in order to fight for position, or play safer and face longer, more difficult approach shots” – definitive risk/reward modern design strategy.
Every hole is played through woodland of a maturity and character that is typical of the great classic courses constructed in the early part of the 20th century in Canada. Course routing varies in a number of directions over the undulating island landscape which provides constantly changing challenges to the golfer, especially in the wind. Greens are generous in size with gentle contouring to make subtle yet pleasurable demands of the putter.
Two holes are worthy of being highlighted – the 6th hole, called “Look Out”, begins from a set of elevated tees that drop down more than a hundred feet to the fairway with a wonderful backdrop of the Lake of Bays, and the 18th hole, where the wide fairway hugs the bay as it doglegs right to a double tiered green, providing a wonderful finish to the round.
A comprehensive bunker remodelling project was carried out by Doug Carrick during the winter of 2016, designed to improve the overall playability and level of enjoyment for golfers. Green side bunkers were reduced in size and repositioned closer to the putting surfaces to eliminate long, difficult bunker shots. The floors of all the green side bunkers were raised in elevation to provide clearer visibility of the green surface. All bunkers were improved with new drainage, liners and bunker sand.
I had the opportunity to play Bigwin Island GC shortly after it opened for play in 2001 and have since been back a couple more times over the years.
It’s unquestionably one of the more unique experiences in Canadian golf, with the course literally set on an island on the Lake of Bays in the Muskoka region of Ontario, a few hours north of Toronto. You park your car near Norway Point then hop on a boat for a five-minute ride across the lake to get to the golf course.
The club is private but does allow limited access to the public at certain times of the year. Due to its remote location, it’s rarely busy and on all my visits, we’ve essentially had the run of the place.
Bigwin was designed by Doug Carrick, likely the most prolific Canadian architect over the past 20 years and the course contains all his usual trademarks, including wide playing corridors, artful bunkering with capes and plenty of elevated tee shots, along with elevated approaches.
Highlights include the par three 2nd hole, 181 yarder that offers your first on-course glimpse of the Lake of Bays through the trees in the background.
The 523 yard par five third, named "Serpent" for the way it snakes from right to left and back to the right again at the green complex, is another visually impressive hole. It features a very wide fairway, with a bailout area on the right but carry bunkers on the left side - attempt to clear those bunkers and you're left with a much shorter second shot and one that can get home in two.
The par four fifth hole is called "Tower" for the old observation tower located near the greensite. This is another strong hole, a 404 yarder that climbs well uphill to the highest point of the property.
The view off the 6th tee, as seen in the photo provided, will literally take your breath away. It's a stunning par four, measuring 462 yards that falls over 100 feet from tee to fairway. I can't properly describe the feeling of hitting a tee ball that seemingly stays in the air for 20 seconds - pure joy about sums it up. I think we all reloaded about three times before finally making our descent to the fairway. This is one of the most exciting par fours in Canada.
The intriguing ninth hole is a 408 yard par four from an elevated tee with a double fairway. The easy play off the tee is to the wide-open right fairway but that leaves a very difficult second shot uphill and over two gaping bunkers. The heroic play off the tee is to the left, which is a much longer carry over the cross bunkers. However, a successful strike will leave an open shot to the green. Really good risk/reward hole here.
The 403 yard 14th hole at Bigwin is one of my favourites. It's called "Twister" and for good reason - the hole doglegs close to 90 degrees right to left and is a tremendous risk/reward hole off the tee. You can play safe out to the right of the gaping fairway bunkers but leave a semi-blind approach shot that plays well downhill or try the alternative and blow your shot over the bunkers. If you succeed, you'll be left with a much shorter approach from the lower portion of the fairway to the green set up in the hillside. A real treat to play.
The finishing hole is just beautiful, a 574 yard downhill par five that bends around the Lake of Bays. I've heard reports that this hole alone cost well over a million dollars to build - I'm not sure if anyone here can substantiate that but it certainly makes for an interesting tale either way. The hole is lovely and tantalizing and the approach shot is no bargain, especially if you're trying to challenge it in two shots with the lake beckoning on the right. It's a worthy finisher on a top-notch track.
This course was a victim of the hype machine out of the gates and was quite overrated upon its opening, sitting within the top 10 on many Canadian lists. It’s not that good but it definitely should be considered as one of the top 20-30 courses in the entire country.
Bigwin was a huge success for Doug Carrick - the architecture, like a lot of Carrick's work, is very solid but not superlative. For instance, I think the par threes are extremely average but the course can get away with it because of the few visually spectacular holes like the par four sixth and the par five closer.
The conditioning can be hit or miss due to its northern location in Canadian cottage country but the service is usually excellent and the course is rarely busy.
The views are spectacular and the overall ambiance is among the best Canada has to offer, starting with the boat ride in to the facility from the dock in Baysville. That ride across the lake is always a thrill and truly never gets old.
I feel that Bigwin Island is among the strongest courses in all of Muskoka and I'd rate it right up there with the Muskoka Bay Club and Oviinbyrd as far as quality goes, with Deerhurst Highlands and Taboo slotting in right behind. In my opinion, any trip into the area would be incomplete without at least one round at Bigwin.
My full Bigwin Island GC course profile and pictorial can be found here: http://nowonthetee.blogspot.com/2010/03/bigwin-isl...