Picture it: the morning dew still glistening wet on the lush green carpet that stretches out over every inch of the ground. A slight breeze brushing against the trees, the rustling sound filling the air with a constant, albeit relaxing, sea of noise. On the ground, a solid wooden white tee rises out of the green grass; on top, the infinite dimples of a Top Flite golf ball balanced perfectly on top of it. In your hands, a 1-wood driver is held, ready to carry that ball out into all that flowing lush greenery you see before you. All around you is the gorgeous vistas of FireRock Golf Club, a golfing destination near London, Ontario. The morning unfolds before you, as open and relaxing as the wind through the trees, as the dew quivering on the grass. You take your stance, rear back, and follow through. Your eye traces the path of the ball through the air as it arcs upward, peaks, and then falls up on the fairway, safe from the carefully sculpted vegetation on either side. The day is all around you, and in the London, Ontario region spending that day golfing is an easy proposition, except for one question. Which course to choose?
Golfing Around London
Golfing is an extremely popular pastime among people of all stripes, and this is especially true of the London, Ontario region. There are a large number of well-regarded and popular golf courses in the area. East Park, a pan-sport entertainment park, has a professionally designed and well-regarded course. Sunningdale, a private course, has a well-known adherence to the principles of both environmental sustainability and great golf. West Haven, a stellar course on the north-west side of London, has that upper-crust country club feeling to it. FireRock Golf Club, however, combines all the great aspects of the other courses and combines them with an affordable price and a stellar food experience. While it’s a relative newcomer to the London region golfing scene (having first opened in 2004), FireRock Golf Club offers the full golfing experience to golfers of all skill levels and membership needs.
You can find FireRock Golf Club on the north-west side of London, just a seven minute drive from the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Hyde Park. The golf club is located on the other side of Komoka Provincial Park, just outside of the village of Komoka. Komoka Provincial Park is itself a gorgeous landscape, a near-urban park located along the Thames River. The park itself is former agricultural land that has returned to meadow; the land closer to the river is mature-growth forest. FireRock Golf Club continues the ideas embedded there, carefully sculpting reclaimed land into an environmentally sound course design that balances the primal power of nature with a modern sports sensibility.
When FireRock Golf Club is referred to as being built from reclaimed land, this is the literal truth. Before putting in a golf club there, the land that was FireRock Golf Club was a sand and gravel mine, one of many located in and around the city of London. In fact, many of the mounds that pepper the holes at FireRock Golf Club started off life as gravel mounds from the mine. FireRock was not the first such reuse of formerly spoiled public land in golf course design, of course. Kinderlou Forest Golf Club in Valdosta, Georgia was also a former sand mind, the kind known as a “borrow pit.” Wildcat Golf Course in Houston used to be a municipal dump. River Golf Club in North Augusta, South Carolina used to be an industrial rail yard. FireRock Golf Club, then, joined a burgeoning tradition of taking the wastes of the industrial era and turning them into new, carefully designed golf courses.
Award-Winning Course Design
That golf course design comes to FireRock Golf Club courtesy of award winning golf designer Tom McBroom. McBroom’s design philosophy – evident from the design of FireRock Golf Club – is simple, yet extremely profound. That philosophy can be summed up as: “Play the land as it lies.” What this means is that the point of creating a golf course is not to dig up the land and force it to bow to the whims of the designer. Instead, the designer should accede to the way the land is structured prior to the idea of a golf course ever being there. In this sense, each course designed by McBroom’s architecture firm is separate and unique from any of the others. The design of the course is dependent upon the land itself, and no two sites are ever alike. His work has spread across North America and out into the Caribbean, Europe and now China.
Twelve of McBroom’s courses are in the top 100 courses in Canada, as ranked by Score Magazine; only one designer, the legendary Stanley Thompson (who designed one of Sunningdale’s courses), has more on the list. McBroom also has two courses in Golf Digest’s 100 Best European Courses as well, both incidentally in Finland. The idea of taking a used construction material site like that near Komoka was seen as a challenge by McBroom. In an interview with Golf Canada, McBroom explained his fascination with the design opportunities this area offered him.
“FireRock is explosive by nature and stunning by design,” he said. “One of the first elements that struck me at FireRock was the nature of the disturbed land – it had a really fascinating feel to it for us to explore. It presented a unique situation for us to build on and around the sand and gravel features.” Thus, the design of FireRock follows the layout of the Oxbow River Valley and the contours of the old gravel and sand pit. The spruce and poplar trees that populate the course are the same trees that have stood in that place since time out of mind, and the small tributary creeks of the Oxbow River have not been changed since they were first formed. The best example of the “play the land as it lies” philosophy is of course the aforementioned gravel mounds, found throughout the course marked off as “environmentally sensitive” areas.
The Golfing Experience
All of the design philosophy and award-winning architecture in the world, of course, doesn’t matter if the experience of golfing on the course isn’t fun. Thankfully, FireRock Golf Club is another example of a McBroom design that delivers an amazing golfing experience.
The very first hole – the very first shot – starts off with a challenge. It’s a par 5 with a double dogleg that requires the golfer to first carry the ball over a water hazard and then avoid the bunkers that line the approach to the green. The second hole ramps up the challenge factor by putting a gigantic water hazard over most of the left side of the fairway. The choice is clear: take an extra shot by hitting to the right or go for broke by lofting the ball over and somehow avoiding the bunkers that lie in wait just over the water line. Another interesting feature of the second hole is the fact that the hole is raised up on a plateau, a design feature borrowed from Stanley Thompson’s philosophy.
The fourth hole is a perfect example of letting the land set the narrative of the course. From overhead, the approach to the hole seems dimpled; playing the hole, however, reveals those dimples as serious traps for the unwary golfer. They are, of course, the old gravel mounds, covered over with lush fairway grass and ready to keep you from getting par on the hole. It’s on the fourth hole that you really get the full experience of what it means to let the land dictate the design of the course.
The sixth hole is a straight shot right to the green, as long as you can make it over the amazingly complex system of bunkers that lies between you and the pin. If you’re not hard up for breathing room, you can play it as a traditional dogleg, but the chance for a birdie is right there if you want it. You may want to bring a shovel, though. The seventh is extremely similar, except it replaces the maddening series of sand traps with a wide water hazard. It’s another hole where you can score an easy birdie – something even the designer notes – but it has the added bonus of swallowing your ball forever if you make the shot wrong. In golfing circles we call that “a good time.” Eight and nine are a little easier, although they don’t particularly let up on the amount of sand for you to suddenly find yourself in after a wayward shot.
The tenth hole is an interesting design oddity, more than any other spot at FireRock Golf Club. Dogleg twists are a common feature in golf course design but the tenth hole at FireRock takes it to extremes. This is actually due to a quirk in using the land to dictate the design of the course. During the surveying and excavation phase of building the course, the planners discovered a field full of indigenous artifacts. Rather than disturbing the resting place of these items, McBroom and his associate designers decided to make the tenth hole have that gigantic jag to the right. It means that a shot from the tee will likely land blind on or off the fairway before the golfer has to reorient themselves toward the hole. It’s a serious challenge, and one that really hammers home McBroom’s design philosophy.
The thirteenth hole also shows off this design concept; the tee shot must carry over an out-of-bounds area composed of savannah grasses that are designated for environmental protection. The golfer must then follow a dogleg right and get the tee shot just right or end up out-of-bounds again, this time because of the rail line that runs alongside the left side of the green.
The last four holes follow similar paths: carry-over areas of protected grasses, narrow landing areas, and a return of the complicated series of bunkers. The eighteenth hole combines all of these and adds one final water hazard, albeit a smaller one than found elsewhere.
It’s a challenging, demanding course that strikes a great balance between difficulty and a great playthrough, and it provides a stellar examination of the concept of using what you have on hand to make a great golf course. The water hazards and former gravel mounds add a new level of challenge for the jaded golfer, but none of the glory offered by the course is out of range for the inexperienced up-and-coming golfer.
Unlike some of the other upper-crust courses in the London region, FireRock has both yearly membership rates and the ability for the public to pay one-time green fees to play a full 18 holes. The rates are quite reasonable and are adjusted based on the time of year; it’s cheaper in the spring and fall than it is in the summer.
In addition to the usual membership options and one-time green fees, there is also a league option for men and women at FireRock. League play focuses more on the social features of golf; although scores are kept, the competition aspects of golfing are less important. Men’s league starts in April and runs for 20 weeks, while women’s league play starts in May and runs for 16 weeks.
Another feature that sets FireRock Golf Club apart from other courses in the region is the presence of a full-service pub in the clubhouse. Most clubhouses sell a limited amount of food and drink, enough to keep golfers happy without shelling out additional expenditure on making something truly memorable. FireRock went in the opposite direction, however. The Pub at FireRock is a full, separate bar and grill experience open to the public. They keep twelve beers on tap, keep a full, impressive stock of wine and liquor, and (like all good sports-oriented pubs) have seven TVs mounted to keep you up to date on the score. The food menu is stuffed full as well, offering something for everyone with a few interesting twists, including Korean BBQ lettuce wraps and a stuffed Yorkshire pudding. It makes a great clubhouse for relaxing after a round, while at the same time it’s also another reason to visit FireRock Golf Club without needing to actually go golfing in the first place.
There are a number of great golf destinations in the London region, and it can sometimes feel hard for a particular club to stand out from the others. FireRock Golf Club manages to do it though, through the virtue of having an interesting, challenging, intricately designed course that offers a solid environmental message, and also through having a separate restaurant that is worthy of visiting all on it’s own. Regardless of whether your golfing skills are professional-level, intermediate, beginner, or non-existent, FireRock Golf Club has something to draw you in and show you a good time.