The growth of London has taken place steadily over the course of time after the Second World War: sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always inexorable. There was a time, not even that long ago, when the outskirts of what was thought of as the core City of London was composed of quiet farm fields stretching out into the horizon and beyond, broken here and there by thickets of brush that served as boundary markers and held dappled forest mysteries close and secret. This is still the case, of course; Southwestern Ontario is still in the 21st Century more wide-spread agriculture than it is manufacturing hub or sun-and-sand tourism, although it is all of those things and more. Still, it can be said that when my father was a child he lived in the village of Byron as an actual village, separate from the city and requiring a “walk down to the village” as my grandmother often put it. She would call it that to the end of her life, even after Byron was swallowed whole to become a suburban satellite around the city centre.
There are many parts of London that have a similar story: they began the post-war timeline in the 1950s as agrarian communities but by the end of the second decade of the 21st Century they have slowly become integral parts of the urban landscape, with cutting-edge housing developments, high-tech retail complexes, and the infrastructure that befits progress and growth in population and the local economy. When I was a kid, Hyde Park was still a small town surrounded by fields; now it’s home to a huge commercial complex and is a growing, vital neighbourhood of the City of London. The same can be said for the Sunningdale neighbourhood. Sunningdale is a neighbourhood bounded by Wonderland Road on the west, Richmond Street on the east, Hyde Park Road on the south, and the Sunningdale Road on the north. It is a neighbourhood that has seen some considerable growth in the last twenty years. The balance between nature and high-end modern development is one that marks Sunningdale out as being among the leading edge of neighbourhood development. In terms of human habitation, the neighbourhood runs the gamut among detached single homes, townhouses, and high-density apartment buildings. Interspersed among these are the greenery on offer in Sunningdale: the Medway Valley Heritage Forest runs through the area, offering nature lovers a chance to bask in its wild collection of floodplains, forests, swamps, and marshes.
The central feature of the neighbourhood is, of course, Sunningdale Golf and Country Club, located on the north half of Sunningdale Road and spanning most of the distance between Richmond and Wonderland. Sunningdale is unique in the area in that it is really two separate golf courses under the auspices of a single country club. Each course has a different feel and is designed by a different renowned golf course architect; the total area occupied by both takes up 400 acres of land, a massive presence as far as golf courses go.
Course Design: Stanley Thompson
The Thompson Course is named for its architect, the legendary Stanley Thompson. Stanley Thompson is rated by many as Canada’s best all-time golf course architect and the greatest contributor to the sport produced by the country. Thompson began his career designing golf courses in 1912; by the time he went into business for himself, in 1923, the sport of golf was picking up new adherents all over North America and Thompson’s skills as a golfer and a course architect kept him constantly busy until his sudden death in Toronto in 1953. Courses that Thompson designed include such luminous courses as the Banff Springs Hotel Golf Course in Banff, Alberta; the Jasper Park Lodge in Jasper, Alberta; Fundy National Golf Course in New Brunswick; Green Gables Golf Course in Prince Edward Island National Park; as well as private courses including Capilano in Vancouver, the Royal Mayfair in Edmonton, and St. George’s in Toronto. Near the end of his career, he co-founded the American Society of Golf Course Architects, a body whose future presidents would include four of his students and associates.
In 1933 Stanley Thompson was asked to design what is now known as the East Course (or, among older members, the Old Course) at Sunningdale Golf and Country Club. The East Course at Sunningdale shows off many of the key features of design aesthetic that Thompson was known for in his career. Thompson was a great believer in letting the natural state of the environment dictate the flow of the hole, and in striking a balance between providing a challenge for the veteran and the professional while still providing a worthwhile experience for the amateur. His 1923 treatise on design, About Golf Courses, Their Construction and Up-Keep, outlined this philosophy. The goal in designing a course, he wrote, was to create one that would “test the skill of the most advanced player, without discouraging the “duffer”, while adding to the enjoyment of both.” One of the measurable indicators of this philosophy is the total yardage of the course. Thompson’s design philosophy calls for a course not much in excess of 6500 yards; anything beyond that will often prove to be too much for the average golfer to tackle in the course of the game. Sunningdale’s total yardage from the black is 6669 yards, making it a challenging, strenuous course by Thompson’s standards. The starting holes were to be easier, so that golfers don’t get bottlenecked at the beginning of a course; the ending holes, however, were to be more difficult than the rest, largely because (as Thompson put it), “they are often the deciding ones in a match and no one should win a game on an easy hole.”
Aside from game mechanics as a design consideration, the natural world is the other key factor in how courses like Sunningdale were laid out. Courses were to be at minimum 130 acres in size; the larger they were beyond that minimum, the more an architect like Thompson could use the landscape as both a complement to and an active participant in the game of golf. “The fascination of golf,” he wrote, “is not due solely to the science of the shots, but rather to the aesthetic effect of the environment.” Thompson’s love of integrating nature into the design of a golf course would be most fully realized in his mountain resort courses at Banff and Jasper, but his love for the lines of the natural world is evident in the design of Sunningdale as well. It was his philosophy that bunkers and greens should seem as though they were naturally occurring – rather than placing artificial and obvious hazards, it should appear more streamlined and effortless. In addition, the fringes of fairways should be trimmed back a bit so as to frame the woods on either side in an effort to give a sense of contemplation and awe to playing the hole. Water was another important feature in Thompson’s design aesthetic; the use of streams and ponds, through their placement and the sense that they are permanent, give golfers a feeling of “restful calm.” The combination of this landscape aesthetic and the fair challenge of hole design leads to what is often the key feature in any Thompson course design: the forced carry par 3 hole, where the green is located across a body of water or is perched atop a plateau. Getting the ball over the hazard presents a worthwhile challenge for golfers of all skill levels, and the starkness of the green in the midst of the natural environment adds to the view during play on the hole. At Sunningdale, this need to combine water environments into course design can be best seen on the third, fifth, ninth, and twelfth holes – par 3’s that rise up to bring a challenge even to the professional player.
That fifth hole, incidentally, is the whole reason as to why Sunningdale Golf and Country Club exists in the first place. The creator, local gasoline pump magnate and avid golfer J. Gordon Thompson, bought 100 acres north of the city of London in 1932; while looking out over the Medway Valley one morning he had a vision of the perfect par 3 curving along the banks of the Medway River. This vision is now the fifth hole of the Thompson Course.
Course Design: Clinton Robinson
The Robinson Course is also named for its architect, Clinton Robinson. Clinton Robinson, born in Quebec near the beginning of the 20th Century, was an avid lover of the game of golf and was best known for his affiliation with St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto. The Robinson Course is known by some of the older members of the club as “the new course”, even though it’s been around for decades. Clinton Robinson was a student of Stanley Thompson and incorporated much of Thompson’s design philosophy into his own work. Robinson’s own design incorporated the natural elements of the ravine and the large pond that lay south of Sunningdale Road, using them to complement the game in the same fashion that his teacher would have. Robinson’s own work would lead him into a heavy study of turfgrass, and it is that contribution to the sport of golf that he is most famous for. His series of Canadian Turfgrass shows as well as his stint as Green Section director for the Royal Canadian Golf Association introduced many course owners and architects to the value and advantage of turfgrass in growing greenery where you might not otherwise be able to get it to grow. The Robinson Course is actually somewhat more strenuous than Thompson’s original course, measuring a grand total of 7001 yards from the black. It also features a perfect “Thompson Moment” with the sixth hole; the water hazard is real and present and requires an open carry over the water to hit the green. It’s a hole that Robinson’s teacher would have been quite proud of.
As befitting a course that was designed and built with the beauty and power of nature in mind, environmentalism is a major concern for Sunningdale Golf and Country Club. To this end, the course superintendent works with the Audubon Society to implement recommendations on environmental stewardship with regard to golf courses. There is a list of features and practices that make Sunningdale a cut above in terms of environmental sustainability. The grass is allowed to grow longer in areas unused by golfers; while this allows for the natural, untamed beauty of the landscape to frame the fairways better, as per Thompson’s design philosophy, it also cuts down on fuel and fertilizer used to keep it short and unnaturally green. Dead trees are allowed to lie where they fall unless they impact golfing or golfer safety. Fertilizer use on the fairway is engineered in a specific fashion so as to use as little as possible and is also not used near water or delivered through the irrigation system. Water is delivered to the needed areas on a smart basis, and the natural water areas of the course are carefully cultivated and maintained. Long grasses are allowed to grow without interruption on the banks of water bodies, and trees are left alone as well, to promote growth in fish populations. The holding pond, due to it’s blossoming population of largemouth bass, has become a favourite nesting spot for blue herons. The environmental stewardship program at Sunningdale has been such a success that the Audubon Society has declared the club a fully certified Sanctuary For Wildlife, having achieved implementation of required recommendations in environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management, chemical use reduction and safety, water conservation, outreach, education, and water quality management.
The Sunningdale Golf and Country Club is a beautiful, environmentally sensitive pair of golf courses on the northern edge of the city of London. When it was first designed and built, it was a monument to the natural world sculpted into a golf course that had seemingly always been there. Now it is the central feature in a rapidly growing neighbourhood of the city itself, a place where the cutting-edge trappings of modernity and the smooth, ancient lines of the Medway River Valley come together to create something beautiful and diverse.