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Fairway value in Festival Country

By Jeff Powers,
Contributor

WATERLOO, Ontario - Ontario's Festival Country boasts a schedule of yearly events and attractions that run the gamut from high culture to country kitsch.

Every year, the famous Stratford Festival in the charming town of the same name attracts Shakespeare lovers from across Canada, the U.S. and Europe with its annual homage to the Bard. The old Mennonite district of nearby St. Jacobs hosts throngs of shoppers and quilting enthusiasts mingling amiably with antique hunters and crafters.

If, however, thou needst free thyself from the rhyming couplets and horse-drawn carriages, you could do no better than treating yourself to a round or two of golf at one of the many fine courses in the region.

Just over an hour's drive from Niagara Falls and 20 minutes east of Stratford is the city of Waterloo. Here you'll find what is inarguably the finest municipal course in the region: Grey Silo. Built along the banks of the Grand River by Steve Young Design and officially opened in 2002, Grey Silo provides a links-style golf experience unique to the area.

Part of a much larger park and within a protected green space, wildlife abounds throughout the course. Egrets, white-tailed deer, mink, and even the occasional wild turkey are seen on a regular basis. Water comes into play on 11 holes and 50 or so well-placed bunkers give the course considerable bite.

Far and above the occasionally scruffy conditions found on your average muni, Grey Silo looks and plays like a course designed to host a tournament and has, in fact, already attracted confirmations from the regional Great Lakes and KIWI tours for 2004.

"The immaculate condition of the course is what keeps people coming back," says Mike Robertson, organizational leader of golf operations, "and considering we had over 33,000 rounds played here in 2003, it's a testament to our course superintendent, Tom Margetts, his greens crew and their relentless attention to detail."

A par-71 layout with four tee decks, you can test your game from the tips which measure 6,532 yards or choose a less arduous trek of only 5,197 yards from the forward tees. Power carts are available but the chance to appreciate the setting on foot should not be overlooked.

"Once you are on the course", says Robertson, "you are truly exposed to a natural environment. The only traffic you'll see is an occasional jogger on the trail system of the park or a canoe on the Grand River."

The above-average facilities include a well-marked driving range, a short-game area, a putting green large enough for a game of touch football and a formidable practice bunker. You'll be glad you spent some time warming up before heading for the first tee where you come face to face with one of the most challenging opening holes in the region.

Grey Silo even has it's own version of Amen Corner, holes 12 through 15. Emerging from this four-hole golfing gauntlet with your confidence intact is reason enough to give thanks for the subtle greens at Grey Silo can turn your run-of-the-mill two-putt into a fox trot in the wink of an eye.

When the wind blows, you'll find yourself muttering over club selection and piloting your ball over rolling fairways that would be right at home on any of the older courses in the United Kingdom.

If you're in the mood for a serene round of golf in a secluded valley setting, a short drive north of Grey Silo to the town of Elmira and the semi-private Elmira Golf Club will provide the necessary environment.

Elmira Golf Club was recently voted into the top 20 public courses in all of Ontario and for very good reason. A new, full-facility club house offers panoramic views of the course and an on-going commitment by the small membership to improving the amenities makes Elmira Golf Club one of the best golfing values in the region.

A departure from the low-slung, open design of Grey Silo, the Elmira Golf Club guides you through the beautiful Eldale Valley. A par-70 layout of 6,253 yards, Elmira plays to its rating of 127 from the blue tees. Never boring, the rolling layout follows the natural terrain and crisscrosses the Canagagigue creek. Elevated greens and close-fitting fairways are the norm here. The front nine offers the shotmaker a challenge off every tee and the course fights back on the back nine, particularly on the signature 17th, a 299-yard dogleg left where you can challenge the hazards and attempt to drive the green.

Elmira Golf Club will not disappoint the golfer who cherishes a tranquil, wooded setting and thoughtful club selection. The 19th at Elmira is one of the friendliest around and the sunset views are memorable even if your score isn't.

Another "must play" course in the area is Savannah Golf Links in Cambridge, a 20-minute drive south of Grey Silo and the city of Waterloo.

Scenic to the point of hyperbole and challenging from start to finish, Savannah Golf Links is the first course in Ontario to be affiliated with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Habitats and wildlife are protected and provide a string of soothing, natural distractions as your round unfolds.

From the tee of the driveable 15th hole, the entire course can be seen and appreciated. The tract is a modest 6,213 yards but the premium here is on accuracy and errant tee shots can make the course seem much longer. According to head pro Chris Miranda, "It's the type of course where you must be in the fairway in order to score well, but that doesn't mean you can hit your driver all day."

Savannah Golf Links offers an excellent blend of narrow and receptive fairways, at least one if not two driveable par 4s for the straight and narrow among us and a collection of par 3s that are models of course architecture.

The Sunset Banquet Hall is aptly named and a separate lounge overlooks the ninth and 18th greens. A large, full-service pro shop stocks the latest in clubs and apparel and the friendly, knowledgeable staff are trained to perform expert fittings and repairs.

Play of A Different Sort

Within a short drive of Waterloo you will find the village of St. Jacobs. Originally a Mennonite community, the town combines historical preservation with an array of markets and crafters that never fail to delight. You can opt for a tour of the area via horse-drawn trolleys and carriages or, if you prefer to stroll, the many shops and restaurants that line the main street offer an array of antiques, locally made crafts and many a fine meal for the weary and the curious. Several small theatres in and around St. Jacobs present plays nightly and conform to the local standards that insist on preserving the essence of country living.

While nearby Stratford continues to forge its reputation with award-winning theater, you can enjoy everything there from chamber music and outdoor choirs to a pumpkin toss or a rodeo. There are, in Stratford alone, more than 100 annual events that seem to have very little to do with Shakespeare. Celtic and Scottish games vie with quilting exhibitions, coin shows and boat races throughout the calendar year. It is virtually impossible to spend a day in the area and not have something unique to do or see.

Ontario's Festival Country has long been a destination for travelers who prefer their attractions to be diverse and their golf to be affordable, scenic and friendly. Many of the courses in the region remain undiscovered amidst the buffet of antique outlets, live theatre, historical trails and small-town fairs but finding a golfing jewel among the bric-a-brac of courses in the area is an everyday occurrence.

Stay and Play

In the Waterloo and St. Jacobs area, bed and breakfast operators offer some of the best values in the region. For accommodations, theater schedules, carriage rides and up-to-date event listings, go to stjacobs.com/html/stay.html.

Stratford offers similar accommodations. Package information and a full calendar are available at stratfordfestival.ca/visitor/.

The Verdict

Conditions

Grey Silo is kept in immaculate condition throughout the season. Lush fairways, slick dance floors and pristine surroundings are the norm. Elmira Golf Club and Savannah Links are also pruned to unusually high standards for public courses and rival the area's private courses in terms of playability and greens keeping.

Service

Setting themselves apart from the pack with professional and friendly service, all three of the courses reviewed offer a level of apres-golf comfort above and beyond what you would expect from a public course.

Value

You could easily pay twice as much in green fees and not get the features and playability found at the courses reviewed.

Design

Grey Silo, Elmira and Savannah are all designed to enhance and preserve the beauty of their natural surroundings. The blending of wildlife, wetlands and deep woods provides an aura of tranquillity that gently permeates your senses as you complete your round.

 
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