A few miles southwest of the St. Benoit-du-Lac Benedictine monastery in the Eastern Townships of Quebec is a place nearly as spiritual, but without the requirement for celibacy.
Owl's Head Resort, located on Lac Memphremagog, just northwest of Newport, VT, and southeast of Magog, QC, features a golf course that received Canada's GolfRanking Magazine's highest rating in 1998. The creator is Graham Cooke, a four-time winner of the Canadian Mid-Amateur, and architect of more than 50 courses throughout Canada and the US, including the legendary "La BÊte" course at Greyrocks in Mount Tremblant.
Majestic spruce trees frame Owl's Head's fairways. Backdrops for each hole are green mountains or blue lakes. The native fieldstone clubhouse, framed with British Columbia fir timbers, features 45 foot ceilings and five fireplaces.
Canadians know a good thing when they see it, and Canadian golf devotees are making the pilgrimage to Owl's Head. Le Golfeur, Canada's French language golf site, rated it the third best course in Quebec, and the best in the Eastern Townships. In spite of its Quebecois popularity, the course hosts about 28,000 rounds per year, so Owl's Head is a long way from factory golf.
The golfers are not the only pilgrims. Creatures large and small find sanctuary there. According to Fred Korman, Owl's Head's patriarchal developer, deer, moose, bear, coyotes, foxes, beavers, muskrats, turtles, Canadian geese, wild turkeys and even cougar occasionally visit the course.
Not long ago, a fox stepped out of the undergrowth with a mouse in its jaws, dropped the mouse and departed with a member's Titleist. Unsure of the proper play, the member asked for a ruling. The verdict? "You've got to play the mouse."
Rich in wildlife and named after a mountain, you might think you will need your climbing gear, but Owl's Head is crafted through a low valley that lies west of the peak that provides its name. There are some moderate elevation changes on holes one, nine, ten, and 18, but the rest of the course is relatively flat and provides excellent walking. Holes two through eight and holes 11 through about half of 14 settle into the forest, and into a solemn and holy silence. The 14th is one of the four holes that snuggles beside, plays over and winds through a large, open pond.
With a few exceptions, the fairways at Owl's Head are wide and inviting, especially on the back side. You can usually hit your driver. But that doesn't mean you can get careless. Twenty-one traps guard the fairways, while thirty-eight more watch over the greens. Two of the fairway traps have trees growing out of them, and water comes into play on six holes. There are six greens where the greens keeper, if recovering from a sinful night, could put the pin in an especially devilish location. All these hazards mean that, while it is relatively easy to be in the fairway, its usually hard to be in the right place in the fairway.
The sixth hole is a good example. On this 420-yard, dogleg right, par-4, you need to be as far left as possible. A long bunker short and right of the green protects the entire right side. The second shot frequently plays downwind, and the green does not backstop the shot. With trouble long, you won't want to power a towering shot over the right bunker.
On the 14th , a 560-yard par-5, you need to hit towards the lake. You can't get there unless you hit your driver over 360 yards, but you need to be in the far left edge of the fairway. Your best second shot landing area is at the150 yards marker, but you still have to stay as far left as you dare, because, like the 6th, the front and the entire right side of the green is protected. This green is nearly 40 yards deep, so your third shot can vary by two to three clubs.
Seven of the driving holes encourage a fade, while the other seven favor a draw. There are four par-5s, four par-3s and 10 par-fours - everything in balance.
That balance is the real strength of Owl's Head. As Keith Bird, Owl's Head's Pro says, "There really is no one signature hole on the course. Sure, six, fourteen and eighteen have great shot values and are difficult and demanding, but it is the constant variety of shots, the challenge and balance of the course that really defines the Owl's Head experience." He has been with the club since its opening and never gets tired of playing it.
Sure, there's the obvious difficulty of the eighteenth hole-an uphill, 435 yard par-4 dogleg left-but there is also tribulation on the 375 yard par-4 5th. It's hard to keep your mind on your shot when you are gazing at the north-east face of Jay Peak, fifteen miles away.
The island green 16th measures 30 by 36 yards, so at 150 yards, it's not exactly a communion wafer, but it gets smaller if you are trying to find the snapping turtle, or the goslings, or just marveling at the mountain's reflection.
The course measures 6,671 yards from the tips and plays to 72.5 rating on a 126 slope. There are four sets of tees that cut the distance down to 5,210 yards, and make the play easier-a rating of 69.3 on a slope of 119. Tees, fairways and greens are bent grass and the sand is white silica.
There are good practice facilities at Owl's Head. There is a driving range and a pitching area that features three traps. A two-tiered putting green will get you ready for your game, or will provide an area for post-round penitence.
The resort's Apartment Hotel, located just five minutes from the course on the shores of Lac Memphremagog, allows Owl's Head to offer reasonable stay-and-play packages. And the rooms are more luxurious than the cloisters of the Benedictine monastery to the north.
Between the magnificent scenery and the meditative quiet at Owl's Head, you may have trouble concentrating on your shots, but you will probably find it easy to remember why you play golf in the first place.
As one local patron put it, "You have to pinch yourself every day to realize you're not in heaven."
Owl's Head Resort
181, chemin du Mont Owl's Head
Mansonville (Quebec) Canada JOE1X0
Tel: Golf: (450) 292 - 3666
Apt/Htl: (450) 292 - 3318
18 Hole Rates: $35 - $45 (Canadian, depending on month and day)
Par 3s: 3.4
Par 4s: 4
Par 5s: 4.2
Practice Facilities: 4
Club House: 4.6
Pro Shop: 3.2
Pace of Play: 4.5
3.8 out of 5
Jim Edwards is a reformed software developer who now writes programming books and magazine articles. His work has appeared on the pages of Sierra, Outdoors, Backpacker, Yankee Magazine, and National Fisherman. Living with his wife Ali in Beverly, Massachusetts, he reviews courses and resorts from New York to Nova Scotia. A lifelong, avid golfer, he hopes someday to play his "usual game".
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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