The annual Telus Skins Game is a well-established summer golf event in Canada which is broadcast worldwide on television. A not very well known fact is that the skins series started in 1993 at Devil’s Pulpit, three years after the course opened. It will probably come as no surprise to learn that the well known “skins shark”, Freddie Couples, pocketed most of the pot, $210,000 by winning 14 skins. Ray Floyd picked up $50,000 for 3 skins; Jack Nicklaus collected a measly $10,000 for one skin but Nick Price walked away empty handed!
The inventors of the “Trivial Pursuit” board game, Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, created Devil’s Pulpit in 1990 and the name of the course comes from a rock formation seen from the 7th tee. Haney and Abbott constructed another 18-hole course, Devil’s Paintbrush, two years later so members of the private Devil’s Pulpit Golf Association are in the fortunate position of having two top class, contrasting, courses to play.
The golf architects, Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry fashioned a track that defines everything that is exciting in modern golf course design when they created this par 71, 7162-yard “earth sculpture”. The landscape on the Niagara escarpment, though spectacular, was deficient to such an extent that 1.7 million cubic yards of soil was shifted in the shaping of the course. It may have been costly to build by bulldozer but the payback is that everything is in clear view as the round is played.
Three hundred thousand cubic yards of the aforesaid earth movement occurred at the first hole alone and then a pond was built on the hillside to create a signature hole of epic proportions. The club describes the 478-yard, par four 1st as; “the most spectacular opening golf hole in the world. Period.” Course architect Michael Hurdzan also seems to like the 1st. “All the great courses in the world… start with pussy-cat holes. But Devil’s Pulpit starts with a lion.”
The opener is named “Tower” as the line off the elevated tee is the CN Tower in Toronto 35 miles away! A regular drive requires a carry of more than 200 yards, dropping more than 50 feet to a wide, contoured fairway. Alternatively, the tee shot can be played to another narrow fairway to the right which has a lake further to the right again. Either way, it is one of the best driving holes in Canada!
The devil was in the detail, but for some reason the Devil’s Pulpit Golf Association decided to throw the devil out with the bathwater, renaming the facility The Pulpit Club in February 2021.
I became aware of Devil's Pulpit when playing another Hurdzan / Fry layout called Eaglesticks in Zanesville, OH in 1991. The word I received was how unique the design was and how the layout included holes quite spectacular. It's interesting to point out the course turns 30 years old this July 1. I was able to play the course again more recently when Glen Abbey hosted the Canadian Open
There is a sense of euphoria when standing on the elevated tee pad for the par-4 1st hole at 478 yards. There are two ways to play the hole via a split fairway and the dangerous alleyway provided on the right is not for the feint hearted. Should one opt to go in that direction and succeed the reward will be a far shorter approach but hardly automatic. Such an opener clearly puts the onus on players to be ready to go with the first play of the day.
The holes that follow are a good mixture but far too often there 's a desire to add numerous bunkers to provide added "make-up" that's truly a bit much. Dana Fry, before partnering with Hurdzan, worked for Tom Fazio and his skills in creating a framing concept for holes is clearly present. However, the land is overly manufactured and sometimes the desire to add more works even better when tempering such overkill inclusions. Case in point, 1.7 cubic million yards of material were moved to create the course.
Nonetheless, the series of par-4's at the 4th, 5th, 6th and 9th are quality holes and each is routed so that the challenges encountered are varied.
Devil's Pulpit is anything but easy. The key starts and stops with one's wherewithal to hit tee shots properly. Failure to do that can mean an endless array of recoveries which will eventually sink even the most gifted of Houdini-like golfers.
The par-4 10th provides another "stop and gaze" moment. Playing again from an elevated tee the hole is striking. One must avoid a solitary tree that frames the hole and calls upon proper positioning.
The long par-4 11th that follows provides for different variations and it's best to play the standard one.
The split-fairway par-5 13th is a brilliant hole -- inserting an array of options for the player to sort through.
The ending series of holes is actually quite good because there's less of a desire to overly insert man's hand into the process. The long par-3 16th is demanding with water and a pesky frontal bunker to avoid. The uphill par-4 17th is a demanding driving hole and the home hole is equally challenging as a long par-4 but plays far differently in doing downhill and in a different direction.
The best way to illustrate what the Pulpit is about is when one has played the related Paintbrush course. While the former accentuates man's hand into the process -- the latter is far more impressive because the terrain there succeeds via a "less is more" approach.
As has been mentioned, the Pulpit is a challenging layout. The course came into existence when plenty of excess money was on hand putting into motion the amount of construction efforts carried out for the course and related amenities like the clubhouse. Traditionalists rightly enamored with a number of the old time classic courses in and around Toronto will have a hard time wrapping their arms around with rapture with the Pulpit. But, to be equally fair, the sum total of what one finds here is clearly an exercise in providing for plenty of visceral reactions and getting the juices flowing.
At the Pulpit the devil is in the details.
No pun intended.
M. James Ward
The Devil’s Pulpit, along with its sister course, the Devil's Paintbrush, is part of the Devil's Pulpit Golf Association, surely one of the finest 36-hole private clubs in North America.
The club was founded by Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, the two masterminds behind Trivial Pursuit. Both courses were designed by Dr. Mike Hurdzan and Dana Fry, with the Pulpit opening first in 1990 and the Paintbrush opening two years later.
The Pulpit sits on 315 acres of land to the Northwest of Toronto, right on the dramatic Niagara Escarpment. I can't imagine how much land was moved here but it's quite a stunning achievement and decidedly a different experience than the linksy Paintbrush, where very little earth was moved.
The first hole is a doozy. It’s a par four measuring 478 yards and plays steeply downhill to a double fairway. Going right allows the player a few more yards but trouble lurks everywhere and the approach shot is much more difficult from that angle.
The fourth is a hefty par four measuring 445 yards. It's a dogleg right and plays uphill so a big fade off the tee works best. You have no visual of the green from the tee but once you get to the top of the hill, you'll see you must avoid a cavernous bunker behind the green and a large drop-off area short left.
The fifth is a cool par four with a blind tee shot. The fairway slopes severely downhill about 200 yards from the tee, leaving a short approach over a creek to a very shallow, very wide and incredibly undulating green that is multi-tiered. Long is dead. Short is dead. Missing your proper tier is a certain three putt. One of my playing partners missed the left pin position by about 20 feet and the ball rolled off the slope and ended up near the right fringe, over 100 feet away! A really solid, short two shotter.
The sixth is another mid-length two shotter that doglegs sharply left with a gravesite on the corner of the dogleg. Green is very long but narrow and sits above the fairway.
The seventh is a very picturesque short par three, measuring 132 yards, with trouble everywhere. It has a plateau-type green with a lot of undulation.
The par five eighth is tremendous fun! A short, 485 yarder with a centerline bunker in the fairway that separates the more elevated right side, giving the gambling player a better view of the greensite that is tucked left behind larger bunkers up the fairway.
The 413 yard par four tenth features a stunning view from the elevated tee. The drive must be placed between the tall tree that sits on the left side of the fairway and some large-scale, fescue lined mounding on the right. The green sits lower than the fairway and drops off quite a bit to the left.
The long par four 11th is actually three holes in one, as there are East and South variations of the hole that play from different decks and dramatically change the complexion of the hole when in play. We played the standard hole that day and it's a brute at 459 yards. You have a downhill tee shot into the wind with a long second that must miss the reservoir left of the green and bunkers right. Huge, multi-tiered green.
The 512 yard 13th is a neat par five, containing another split fairway and once again, the right side is elevated to give the golfer a better view of the approach. Water runs down the left side of the fairway and the green is tucked in between some immense, man-made mounding.
There's a semi-blind tee shot on the dogleg left, downhill 438 yard par four 15th, with trees and fescue left and a large target bunker right. Nice little green that slopes sharply front to back and right to left and accepts the ground game, one of the few holes out here that do. This is one of the prettier and tougher holes on the course.
The 456 yard 17th is a lovely uphill par four that drops off quite a bit to the left of the fairway. Fescue lines the whole right side and the hole has an elevated green with a couple of tiers.
At 503 yards, the 18th is a tremendously long, downhill par four off an elevated tee. It doglegs to the left and thankfully, plays much shorter than its yardage. The green is relatively large and you can run it in.
This golf course tests your shotmaking, without doubt, and there are some intriguing options available, especially from the tee, on many holes. The Pulpit has a reputation for being as tough as nails and while I do agree you need to be on your game to score, this course is eminently playable, even for higher handicappers. An aerial game is needed but there aren't any tough forced carries and the course remains fun if played from the proper tee deck.
Design variety is also strong, with a great mixture of short and long holes, doglegs and terrain movement. There aren't really any bad golf holes and the course flows quite nicely. That said, other than perhaps the 1st and 10th holes, you aren't going to have many jaw-dropping moments.
The pink fescue that's in abundance at the Pulpit provides a stark contrast to the well-conditioned fairways and greens. The land is pretty remarkable and there are many lovely vistas throughout the round. The Pulpit is also in tremendous condition - the fairways roll very fast and the greens are quick yet receptive. Almost as good as it gets. There are a few long green-to-tee transfers at the Pulpit and with the relatively severe topography, this would be a very difficult walk.
The Devil's Pulpit has a hard-earned reputation for being one of the tougher golf courses in the country and I'd certainly agree with that assessment. However, the course offers much more than just difficulty, as there are interesting options from the tee, excellent green complexes and tremendous conditioning.
The Pulpit is approaching its 30th anniversary and continues to hold its own as one of Canada’s top 25 golf courses, a well-deserved honour.
My full Devil’s Pulpit course profile and pictorial can be found here at Now on the Tee: http://nowonthetee.blogspot.com/2009/12/devils-pul...