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Florida-based architect Ron Garl did a superlative job with the Taboo golf course.
Florida-based architect Ron Garl did a superlative job with the Taboo golf course. (Courtesy of Taboo Resort)

Great golf in Muskoka is 'Taboo'

John GordonBy John Gordon,

GRAVENHURST, Ontario -- At what used to be known as the Muskoka Sands Resort, everything is Taboo. Everything, that is, but change.

To clarify, Taboo is the name of the Ron Garl-designed golf course a couple of hours north of Toronto that opened last summer to rave reviews. It is built upon the Canadian Shield, the enormous granite geological formation that, when viewed from the air, must look like God's rock garden. Garl created a straight-forward design in the traditional mode, one which should contend for the honor of best new course in the country this year.

But the owners, brothers Norman and Elly Reisman, were not content to rest upon their laurels. Four new tee decks have been added for the second season, and the 489-yard par-5 16th hole has been changed to apar-4, making the layout a 7,173-yard, par-71 challenge.

"They [the Reismans] are passionate golfers and passionate that the game of golf retains its integrity," says Nigel Hollidge, Taboo's director of golf operations/marketing. "They didn't want a golf course that's tricked up. It had to be part of nature."

That theme led, in an indirect way, to the unusual name which might, to some, have a negative connotation. And they would be right, in a manner of speaking, says Hollidge.

"Taboo? The name is one of the things I really like about this golf course. When you're out there, you really do see quite clearly the areas you don't want to be in, the areas that are taboo." He is referring to the rocky outcroppings, centuries-old oaks, maples, hemlocks and pines, and wetlands of varying severity. However, generous landing areas make those gut-wrenching instances relatively infrequent.

If "taboo" also means breaking with convention or tradition, then the course's touring PGA Tour professional did that with extreme prejudice in April when Mike Weir became the first Canadian to win a major at The Masters.

Hollidge was in Augusta, home of The Masters, for most of the week,staying with Weir's family before returning Saturday night. "It was surreal! Come Sunday night, I could hardly watch [the TV]. I was so excited for Mike, just pure joy because he is such a good guy and so deserving of this. The [winning] putt hadn't hit the bottom of the hole when my phone started ringing."

The phones rang incessantly for the next few days. "International press, well wishers, people trying to get hold of Mike, and people who wanted to play Mike's home course. It was literally insane."

The hubbub surrounding the renaming of the resort, its exciting future and Weir's win threatens to overshadow the fact that the course has been the catalyst, and justifiably so.

"From every tee deck, Taboo becomes a totally different golf course," Hollidge notes. "That is the mark of a great design. There are no gimmicks, everything's right there in front of you, but it rewards only really good shots and severely penalizes bad ones. You have to earn a good score at Taboo."

Garl, a Florida-based architect, did a superlative job with the expansive setting, especially in selecting green sites. When Weir attended a media day last summer, he chose the par-3 seventh hole to demonstrate his skill with a 6-iron. The hole plays more than 200 yards slightly uphill to a relatively accessible green, although any shot to the right will find native undergrowth. The controversial design of thepar-5 18th hole means that it will never play the same way twice. "After your tee shot, you crest a hill, and there before you are rocks,fairway, big trees, and the hole sweeps back up to the green. It's a feast for the eyes," says Hollidge.

That phrase could be used to describe the entire layout which had the luxury of wending its way over and through a couple of hundred acres of rugged topography. As a result, each hole stands on its own with a sense of happy isolation from its neighbors.

So enthralled were the owners with the positive reaction to the label "Taboo," that they renamed the entire 1,200-acre resort, formerly known as Muskoka Sands.

"As soon as the golf course opened, it was recognized as a great layout," Hollidge says. "We had done the deal with Mike before that and having him at the media day was a coup that focused a lot of attention on not only the course, but the whole resort. So we decided to build on that momentum.

"Our goal is to make Taboo the best resort not only in Muskoka, but in Canada, and the name change is a symbol of that."

The former Muskoka Sands had a lot to offer, but was starting to show its age. Its rejuvenation has already begun with renovation of the existing hotel, construction of cottage chalets, and expansion of the marina facilities to accommodate up to 60 boats. Preparations for a24-suite boutique-style spa-hotel adjacent to the golf course are underway, as are the initial steps towards a Weir-endorsed teaching academy and even a charitable foundation similar to the Francis Ouimet Society in the United States. The latter scholarship program would subsidize the education costs of young people who are seasonal employees at Taboo and lack the funds to attend post-secondary institutions.

The crowning development could come when and if Weir collaborates with an architect to design a second course. The association with the 2003Masters champion is something of which Taboo's owners and staff are very proud, says Hollidge, because of his well earned reputation for integrity and refusal to accept anything than a best effort.

"When we did the deal with Mike, when he put his name beside Taboo's,then we knew that this place was as good as we thought it was."

They were right.

John Gordon has been involved fulltime with golf since he became managing editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, in 1985. In 1991, he was recruited by the Royal Canadian Golf Association to create their Member Services and Communications departments, and to revive Golf Canada magazine, their national membersmagazine which had been defunct for a decade. After successfully relaunching Golf Canada and serving as its inaugural editor, he was named executive director of the Ontario Golf Association. He returned to fulltime writing in 1995.

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