Canyata Golf Club (pronounced can-yay-tuh) was originally intended to be a 3-hole golf course, comprising a par three, four and five on part of the Forsythe family farm, but architect Michael Benkusky had other ideas. By the end of 2001, 9 holes were open for play and by the end of 2004 owner Gerald Forsythe had a full 18-hole course in operation.
“It was an exciting project from the beginning,” said Benkusky, who was the former lead architect for Bob Lohmann. “Mr. Forsythe obviously wanted the best golf course he could have. We wanted the course to complement the site,” Benkusky said. “Tight fairways and small greens would have looked out of place. We weren't going to trick up this golf course.”
The result, according to Jerry Williams, Cantaya’s former Director of Golf, “Is a hard golf course to describe. There are some holes where you feel you're on a links course; some holes which make you feel like you're in North Carolina. If you were to take someone and just drop them in there, let them play the course and not tell them where they were, nobody would guess central Illinois.”
Golf at Canyata Golf Club is restricted to those who are invited to play by the owner Gerald Forsythe.
Canyata has been ranked on Golf Digest in the top 100 in the USA. When I played it on May 6, 2019 it was #63 on Golf Digest. It has one member who is the owner. He purchased the farmland, which does not drain well, as a place for his friends and family to sometimes play. It rarely gets more than 400 rounds a year and has about 200 outside guest play each year.
Due to the heavy rains from March through April, they informed me that if the weather was bad either before or possibly during the day that my round would be cancelled and scheduled for another time. Fortunately, there was no rain the entire weekend and the day I was there was bright sunshine with some wind. The closest place to stay is Terre Haute, Indiana about 25 minutes away. My gps took me to the entrance for maintenance but it was easy to find my way towards the clubhouse. The main entrance is grander, with a arched entrance, nice signage and a lovely long road through farmland climbing up towards the clubhouse.
I parked by the owner’s log cabin very large vacation home and as I walked towards the clubhouse I noticed the large playground and tennis court he built for his extended family to enjoy.
There is a small clubhouse which houses the honor system pro shop, which is large and very well stocked, a nice locker room of what looks to be about 100 lockers, followed by a bar with both an indoor and outdoor sitting area. There is a nice putting green off of the clubhouse near the first tee. There is no head pro or golf staff. There is a paper pad to note your purchases from the pro shop or bar area. You take off your shoes when you go in. It is sublime.
To play here one has to be pre-approved, pay a fixed fee which includes unlimited golf for the day, a cart, and a lunch. I do not believe there are ever any caddies. You order your lunch before you tee off and they will bring it to you after finding you at whatever hole you are on the golf course. The additional snacks or drinks are purchased from the pro shop under an honor system to be billed later. This works quite well – simple and clear.
After meeting the head superintendent, who is very friendly, off I went in my cart exactly at 9AM. I was grateful for the cart after having driven over 2400 miles in six days, having played four rounds of golf and run a half marathon in that time. The fairways were still saturated from the previous rain and due to the lack of roll, I twice played the Blue tees at 6212 yards (71.0/136), and once the Black tees at 6797 yards (73.6/143). The Gold tees are 7287 yards (76.1/150). As one can see from the ratings, the course can play very difficult if one does not keep the ball in play. I scored 3 shots higher from the Black tees so the ratings seem to be correct. Based on what I saw, the Gold tees would present a stern test for the scratch player. I also believe there are tees longer than the Gold.
I would be the only player that day. I had the course completely to myself other than the maintenance team who had not been able to get on the course for any sustained period during the previous two months.
I played not quite three rounds in just over five hours, pausing only to eat the very large sandwich and a few of the french fries the superintendent brought to me on the fourth hole during round two. I would have played more but I kept running into the maintenance team and felt badly for them having to pause to let me go through. They had work to do! Besides, I had to get to French Lick, Indiana which is a two hour drive. I thought if I left a bit sooner than I had planned I might be able to make it there to play an evening round on the Donald Ross course or look around the town/hotel/casino.
I loved the golf course at Canyata. I do think it deserves to be ranked in the top 100. Everyone knows I am uncertain whether Aronimink, one of my clubs, belongs in the top 100. For me, there is no debate when it came to Canyata. It is possible to walk the course, although the front nine is fairly hilly. It is routed around those hills early in the round, with the back nine relatively flat. There are some long walks or rides between several holes.
The green complexes are really good and there is an exceptionally good mixture of long and short par fours. I counted eight exceptional golf holes - #2, 4, 9, 10, 11, with 13-16 being the best stretch. 15 was the highlight hole. I say this knowing that some people would include the 9th hole as well, a slight dogleg left with the tee shot over water where a big hitter decides how much he wants to cut off. But for the big hitter if you don't carry the water you are in trouble as well if you pull your tee shot a bit left you are in a bunker with a blind look at a green that is relatively close to the water. I liken the course to Pine Valley in that each hole is somewhat unique as rarely does one see another golf hole. The playing corridors are well-defined. It is also somewhat surprising how often water comes into play from the five larger ponds and a couple of smaller ones.
The first hole is the only weak hole on the golf course. However, I find it acceptable to have a “gentle” beginning hole when what follows is a series of tests from difficult to strategic. It is a sharp dogleg left par 4 (354/344/322) where the green sits semi-blind if you don’t hit it far enough into the middle or find the right side of the fairway at the turn. The green sits below you but a ball hit short or to the left should find the green. As the ground was soft from the previous week’s heavy rain, on all three rounds my ball plugged on the green but normally it would release. It is a nicely contoured green sloping more left to right with some nice mounds in it. There are five large fairway bunkers for hitters of various lengths and one on the front left of the green before a mound that kicks balls onto the green.
I never figured out the second hole, a par 5 of 583/565/554 where the tee shot has to carry a long and deep ravine to a fairway on the other side lined with thick trees. On the first round I did not know the direction of the hole, but on the second round I knew the better drive needs to stay as far right as one dares while avoiding the bunker on the right. I found the fairway with my tee shot on all three tries. On the first round, not knowing the hole, I drove up and took a look yet left my second shot in the deep, wet left rough (not normally the case in drier conditions). On the second round I pushed my approach shot into the brush on the right. On the third try, I found the third of three large bunkers on the fall-off on the right side of the fairway. There is another long bunker close to the long green. On all three tries to save par by getting a shot close to the pin, I could not navigate the heavier/wet grass, on the third try blading my wedge over the green. As I said, normally the condition here is pristine. Despite my score, I loved the golf hole. It is more than fair but it does require good execution of all three shots to the green. As I made long putts to save bogey the first two tries, I felt the green to be the simplest part of this hole but in normal conditions I would expect it to be speedy. The Gold tee has a completely different angle to the fairway which amps up the challenge for the scratch player.
The third hole is a downhill par 3 of 221/191/176. The wind was in my face for all three rounds so it played the yardage. The green has water to the right that continues behind. Behind the green are two bunkers. The miss on this hole is to the left of the green but a chip from there has the green running away from you towards the water. Visually, due to the large pond this sits on, it is a visually attractive hole looking across the pond to the fourth fairway. There are six tee boxes on this hole.
Hole four is the number one index as a longish par 4 of 485/457/383 where the tee shot asks the golfer how much of the water he wants to cut out. Reducing the yardage for the second shot is key since the hole plays substantially uphill for the second shot to a large, steep, three-tiered green. I parred it twice with good wedges after I failed to carry the false front. There are six large bunkers on the right side of the fairway so the best tee shot has to either stay short of them or hit a longish fade. One simply has to make a good decision here. Miss it into those bunkers and you are both a long way away to a very difficult uphill semi-blind pin or risk hitting a fade into the water. There is a large chipping area fronting this green which is why I was able to chip it close twice. Some might say this hole is overly difficult but I found it appealing to one’s decision and commitment to that decision. It takes full advantage of the natural change in terrain. There are five tee boxes on this hole. I dropped balls on the upper tier (pin was in the middle tier) to see if I could get close to the pin and the answer was 1 out of 5.
The fifth is a downhill par 4 of 440/413/377 with six different tee boxes. The green sits below you set amongst the line of the hills with a small stream running in front of the green and a bunker right and left. A third smaller bunker eats into the middle of this somewhat peanut shaped green which tilts back to front/right to left and has several spines running through it. This is another visually attractive hole requiring a well executed second shot from a likely downhill lie.
It is a long walk or ride to the sixth tee, a shorter par 5 of 517/494/475 which plays as a slight dogleg right off the tee needing to avoid the two fairway bunkers on the left and the single one on the right. The green has flanking bunkers left and right and is thin. While the architect, Michael Benkusky, could have moved more dirt to lengthen the hole, I felt it to be the right length after the challenges of holes two through five.
The seventh hole is one of the “fun” holes on the course, a short par 4 of 360/322/266 with two flanking bunkers and a very long bunker on the right side much like one would find on a course in Florida. Near the green there is a small, not quite pot bunker. The green is wonderfully contoured to ensure a three putt is a possibility. One might think this is a great birdie chance, but the large green offers so many interesting pin placements that a ball hit within 25 feet is no guarantee of a two putt.
Eight is a long, flat par 3 of 234/207/173 with two small bunkers on the right and a long bunker on the left with two islands. The green is angled away from you and the depth of it is visually uncertain. I felt I hit three excellent tee shots here of which I was certain two of them were close, but they were not. The third was over the green. One other person I know who has played Canyata did not care for this hole but it reminded me a bit of the eighth at Okamont.
Nine is a risk:reward par 4 of 422/401/385 playing as a dogleg right over the second pond on the course. The longer hitter has to carry the water yet thread their ball to avoid the bunker in the middle of the fairway. There are three other bunkers on the left to catch a ball from those with less courage. The green sits next to two smaller ponds with two bunkers on the left. It has a tier in the middle and a nice gentle slope towards the pond. I did not list it as the best hole, but it would be the featured hole on most golf courses.
After stopping at the clubhouse and removing the shoes to get some water, the tenth tee and hole is near the ninth but going the opposite way. Another pond is on the left, more in play for the longer hitter off the tee but definitely in play for the second shot on this long par 5 of 607/579/492. You have to carry about 100 yards of wetlands to reach the fairway. The pond bites into the fairway for the second shot so a decision has to be made to either leave a longer third or play out to the right side where a rougher area of taller grass pinches in from the right. The pond is on the left side of the green with a single small bunker front right. It is a very fine par 5 as the green has multiple levels to it.
Eleven is a long par 4 of 480/441/397 with room to lengthen this hole. There is a long snake-like bunker on the left side and a slight fall-off on the right. The green sits at an angle to the right and is narrow again with good undulations in it. I thought this to be one of the very clever greens on the course.
Twelve is long par 3 of 247/213/183 with a single bunker left and three to the right. It seems to play even longer than the yardage. There is a large waste area fronting the green as well as higher, rougher ground to either side. It has a green with a nice tilt left to right and back to front.
Thirteen is a short driveable par 4 of 348/322/302 with six tee boxes. On the right there is a large cross bunker. The safer line is to the left but the temptation is to go at the green which sits about 50 yards after the bunker. There are two bunkers left for a longer hitter trying to fade a ball in. The green is shaped to hide nearly half of it behind those two bunkers on the left and has another fair amount of tilt to it. I had two makeable birdie chances and did not figure out the line either time. It is the second truly fun hole on the course.
It is a long cart ride to get to the fourteenth tee, a par 4 of 438/413/380 playing as a dogleg left with another pond down the left side forcing the tee shot out to the right where two bunkers await. For the longer hitter there is a bunker on the left where the pond ends so there is not much reward for trying for the longer shot. I don’t think that bunker on the left is necessary as I felt it should either be removed or be slightly farther up the fairway. There should be some reward for taking on the lake rather than requiring a perfect tee shot.
This hole has one of the best greens on it with two bunkers on the right but a really good slope back to front with a shelf. I admired this hole both times I played it.
Fifteen is the last par 5 and another long one at 586/556/513. It is a dogleg left with bunkers on either side of the turn, two bunkers continuing up the right side and a large bunker on the front left of the green. The fairway has several levels to it with various rolling humps and valleys. The green is elevated above the bunker with gentle spines and ridges. I loved everything about the hole.
Sixteen is the last of the three “fun” holes, a short par 4 of 325/297/277. The green sits off to the right with two trees acting as goal posts. Down most of the left side is a long continuous bunker with several islands. The temptation is to go at the green but those trees are more of an obstacle than they might appear. Even a shot down the left side of the fairway will have to contemplate those trees. The safer line is to lay back and hit a lofted club over the tree. It is a well disguised hole. I liked both the visual of the hole and the strategy of it even though I normally critique holes with trees in the fairway.
Seventeen is the final par 3 and one a bit shorter than the previous ones at 194/174/162. It is either another long walk or cart ride to the tee. The hole is surrounded by bunkers as you hit out from a forest of trees. There is a dip in front of the green so even though there is a chipping area one is not too likely to be able to roll their ball onto this long green which narrows at the back. This hole completes a good set of par 3’s that have good variation to them from a visual perspective.
The final hole is the number two index which perhaps I would disagree as I felt ten to be more difficult. There is a fairway bunker on the right as well as a swell to the left that can make the approach shot to the green become blind or semi-blind. There is a large and steep valley before the green which makes it a “target” green. There are two smallish bunkers fronting the green to provide a chance of recovery for those who come up short of the green. For whatever reason, I played the hole well both times (I ended my third round on twelve), and while the green has a nice sidehill tilt to it, I found it easier to read and putt, but perhaps that is not the case when the greens are drier and quicker.
Canyata came is at #151 on my ranking at 91.25 points. On my scale, anything over 90 is worth making a trip to play, even if the closet hotel is in Terre Haute rather than nearer the course.
I have talked with a few that have played Canyata. For the ones that do not rank it as highly it is because they prefer links-like golf courses with views across the holes as well as more natural courses. They also think the course is too difficult. They critique the several long walks/rides from green to tee. I could not disagree more with them. Other than hitting a poor shot into the water, I felt every hole offered a good chance at recovery if one hit a poor approach shot. The bunkering is located in the proper spots, there are the right number of bunkers per hole, and they vary in shape, size and depth. The greens are all different. There is more terrain change on the front nine and the holes are routed beautifully to maximize the variations. Every hole feels unique and one never feels there is much similarity to what one has played before which is a common problem on many links courses or even a parkland course such as Lancaster or Aronimink. I think it is not in the league of more highly ranked courses simply because the trees do not offer the views that are available at more highly ranked courses. The ponds are brought into the routing expertly as they sparkle in the sunlight. Where there is a pond it has to be considered and not just for the tee shot.
The owner, Mr. Gerald Forsythe had a vision, chose Michael Benkusky to build his vision, and they achieved his vision. It is wonderful.
Canyata is owned by a very successful man, who basically created a golf course for his family in his back yard and allows a very select number of individuals to play if he authorises the visit. A professional golfer is drafted in to host the guest for the round. If the owner or his family isn’t there, then the property can go weeks without play. Outside of family play, Canyata gets around 150 rounds per year (yes, I said 150). Besides the daily maintenance crew, nobody had walked on the fairways for 3 weeks prior to my game. I’ve never walked on grass that is so untouched and felt so different under my feet. The owner originally created 3 holes for his kids next to their playground, which expanded to 9 holes and then ultimately to the 18 holes which exist today. Never in my life have I been on a property where I’ve felt so privileged, and yet I kept looking around for anything that resembled a “normal” golf club. After my game, there was nobody scheduled to visit for the rest of the month. The golf course itself was a true test with wonderful design variety. Canyata is almost as mythical and fabled as the Native American Indian statues around the grounds. You have to see it to believe it.