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Whistle Bear has 103 sand traps and water on 10 holes.
Whistle Bear has 103 sand traps and water on 10 holes. (GolfPublisher.com)

Ontario's Whistle Bear Golf Club is big and beastly, especially when it gets windy

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

CAMBRIDGE, Ontario - When you get your first good look at Whistle Bear Golf Club, one word may come to mind: "cake." As in, "Yeah, this will be ..." Nary a tree. And look at the width of those fairways.

But, as with a lot of links-style golf courses, there's trouble slithering around the edges and waiting in the corners, just out of sight, ready to pounce at the slightest error.

"I bring my sons out here and they say, 'Oh, it's going to be easy,'" regular Pat Cardello said during a round with her son, Matt, on a recent June day. "But if it's not the sand that gets you, it's the water or fescue."

Pick your poison. This course has 103 sand bunkers and water on 10 holes, and pretty much everywhere that isn't fairway or green is fescue - wiry, nasty stuff that takes some muscle to get a club through.

The bunkers are "strategically placed," which usually means the architect - John Robinson, in this case - calculates where most golfers will hit their drives (if they're not down the middle) and sticks some sand there. They come in all sizes and shapes, protecting the fairways and doglegs and guarding the greens. If you play this course, you will need a sand wedge. The rental set I had lacked one, and I paid dearly.

Much of the water is so crystal-clear you can gaze down and see the final resting place of many a Titleist. Still, there are few forced carries and most of them are lateral, albeit often sneaky-lateral, behind humps in the fairways or the few trees in the interior.

The front nine is particularly watery, with six of the ponds coming into play, the largest of them stretching over 10 acres.

Then there is the length. The golf course is a whopping 7,717 yards from the back, or black, tees, a more manageable 7,061 from the gold. You'll face a slope rating of 136 or 129, depending on where you play from.

The verdict

Whistle Bear opened in 2001, joining a growing list of links-style courses in southern Ontario. The only real trees you'll run into are on Nos. 16 and 17, on the far periphery of the course, which is in immaculate shape.

There is continuous mounding and some modest elevation changes, though some of the fairways dip and roll so as to create some blind shots both off the tee and into the greens.

Wait, I haven't mentioned the wind yet.

"The big thing here is the wind," Cardello said. "People don't realize how high up we are."

High enough to catch almost any breeze (and to see the rolling farmland that surrounds the course on the outskirts of Cambridge). The wind dries out the greens fast; their relative quickness, combined with some subtle slopes, can easily send your ball rolling well by the hole.

There is a good 12-acre practice range. Green fees range from $60 for twilight rates to $110 weekends, but that includes cart, bottled water, practice balls and fresh fruit. If you play after 2 p.m., they'll throw in dinner.

Stay and play

The Lamplighter Inn in London is a Best Western, but it's a step or two above your Best Western. With a huge atrium with a swimming pool and water slide, plus a network of fish ponds, streams and waterfalls and 80 new balcony (or "walkout") rooms, it definitely doesn't have the feel of a chain hotel off the interstate.

It's one of the more popular places in London, Canada's 10th largest city, and handy for meetings and conferences, with rooms that can handle 600 people seated and 800 for receptions.

Dining out

The Lamplighter has room service and a restaurant, Smittys, serving family-style food. Elsewhere, Marienbad is a good choice for continental cuisine, Dragon Court for Chinese. For fine dining, try Blackfriar's, Copperfield's Bistro and Wine Bar, the Phoenician or Horse and Hound.

Fast fact

Whistle Bear's holes are named after the 18 previous owners of the property dating back to 1829, and the clubhouse is an expanded version of the original log home on the land, built between 1829 and 1832.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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