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St. Thomas' parkland course plays up, down and through valleys. The fairways are lined with thick spruce and pine.
St. Thomas' parkland course plays up, down and through valleys. The fairways are lined with thick spruce and pine. (GolfPublisher.com)

Nature and quirks take center stage at Ontario's St. Thomas Golf and Country Club

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

UNION, Ontario - The St. Thomas Golf and Country Club is the only golf course I've ever visited - possibly the only one anywhere - that gives preferred tee times to caterpillars.

The environmentally conscious private club built a butterfly house behind the eighth green. Constructed of loose-fitting logs, it gives caterpillars a place to build their cocoons and spend the winter. In the spring, St. Thomas members are rewarded with the spectacle of beautiful butterflies.

The club itself, pardon the analogy, has undergone quite a few metamorphoses itself. It's one of the oldest golf clubs in southern Ontario, opening 1899 as a crude nine-hole layout. It wasn't until 1927 that St. Thomas gained a full 18 (designed by well-known Canadian architect Stanley Thompson); since then the course has undergone regular improvements and is now perennially rated among Canada's 100 best. Score Golf Magazine, the definitive ranker in all things having to do with Canadian golf, places St. Thomas 59th on its latest list.

It's a deserved ranking. This parkland course that plays up, down and through valleys bordered by hills rising sharply up the sides of undulating fairways lined with thick spruce and pine. Kettle Creek and its tributaries wander randomly through the layout, crossing fairways and tickling several greens.

Along with the butterflies, the club is home to myriad critters. Foxes can be seen (there used to be a den on the course), as can nesting turtles. Woodpeckers, bluebirds and mallards are among the resident birds. The course is set in old Ontario farmlands, about a half-hour drive from London, and is certified by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

The length is 6,795 yards with a slope rating of 128 from the back tees. That may not sound too evil, and it isn't - if you keep the ball in play. You've heard that before, but it is especially true here.

"If you don't keep it in play here, you'll shoot a million," said General Manager Randy Moncrieff. "The trees are like walls."

It's a course that always holds your attention, one reason the members like it so much.

"The great thing about this course is you never get tired of playing it," member Jim Waite said.

St. Thomas sports some good elevation changes - some fairways rise up, blocking your view of the green; others disappear abruptly and you don't see land again 'til you spot the pin - and the land has good movement. There are doglegs to be negotiated and a number of blind shots and risk/reward holes.

If that weren't enough, the course, as befits terrain that has undergone so many changes, has a number of interesting quirks, like back-to-back par 3s and par 5s and an eight-hole stretch that includes only one par-4. You won't get lulled into a routine here.

Add to that a road that cuts straight across a couple of fairways, with cars serving as moving carnival-game targets. Do they ever get hit?

"Oh yeah," Moncrieff said.

The verdict

The front nine has its share of good holes, like No. 3 with its two water carries, but the back nine is more interesting.

"I'm not trying to brag, but these last five holes are the best around," member Bruce Babcock said.

True enough. The final five elevate the course, especially the par-5 14th with its multi-tiered fairway, the difficult par-5 15th ("Even the pros don't go for it in two," Waite said) and the 16th with its disappearing fairway.

St. Thomas is a private club that has reciprocal arrangements with seven other Thompson-designed courses in southwest Ontario.

Stay and play

The Lamplighter Inn in London is a Best Western, but it's a step or two above your average 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 family-style restaurant, Smittys. 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 the Horse and Hound.

Fast facts

Canadian architect Robbie Robinson, who is frequently called in when club owners need a Stanley Thompson track tweaked, redesigned St. Thomas in the early 1970s, adding 800 yards and raising par from 70 to 72.

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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