Thursday, February 15, 2007

Two hours north of Toronto, Ontario, is the "cottage country" known as Muskoka. It is said that the last person who was disappointed by the region was surely a farmer. Peeking through the area's thin layer of topsoil is the Canadian Shield, the main block of the earth's crust underlying North America. The Shield, more than three billion years old, has for decades put designers and developers alike between a rock and a hard place. But enterprising architects, notably Toronto-based Tom McBroom, believe rock can provide beauty, character and strategic nuance in golf design. No longer must bedrock be treated like a bad family secret, best covered up and forgotten. In capable hands, the Shield, selectively power-washed and used to create harmony between a course and its surroundings, can be a compelling design element. Case in point: the six venues on the newly formed Muskoka Golf Trail.

Where to Play

Rocky Crest Golf Club

Taboo Golf Course. Set on Lake Muskoka in Gravenhurst, Taboo, debuted last summer, is paved through rock. Played from an incorrect set of tees, this stunning Ron Garl layout can be as troublesome as its name. Garl, a scratch golfer with a flair for showmanship, built a brawny track stretching to 7,174 yards (par 71). Carved from a thick forest of conifers and birch, Taboo skirts streams and ponds and offers a postcard view of the lake, but mostly it showcases the Shield. Garl had little choice: No amount of dynamite could have rearranged the rock. To his credit, there isn't a forced or indifferent hole on the course. Masters champion Mike Weir, an Ontario native, represents the resort. 705-646-5800;

Deerhurst Highlands at least

Grandview Golf Club (Mark O'Meara Course). Grandview, located in Huntsville, is where Mark O'Meara chose to launch his design career. Working on a spectacular site marked by steep hills, tall trees and plenty of rock, O'Meara fashioned a rugged but refined American-style design with wide fairways, big bunkers and slick greens. The 7,065-yard course presents itself as a roller-coaster ride through a boreal forest, around rock outcrops that resemble whale backs and past large wetlands. Holes are dramatic, demanding and well strategized. The layout is fair -- good shots find their reward -- but requires a second round to learn its nuances. 705-788-9978;

Lake Joseph Club. A 1997 McBroom creation in Port Carling, "Lake Joe" is a visually intimidating track worth getting to know. Better players would be wise to bag the driver in favor of the club they hit straightest on this narrow, hilly layout that spells doom for wayward shots. Nearly every hole is hemmed in by "Muskoka rough" -- loose rock, brambles, steep slopes and granite outcrops. The 6,985-yard course pitches and tosses through dense woods and skirts numerous wetlands, with a premium throughout on shot placement. 705-765-2020;

The Rock. Slated to open this summer, this Nick Faldo layout at Minett Landing on Lake Rosseau is a compact (6,730 yards, par 71) course marked by narrow corridors and more than 75 flashed-face bunkers. Granite outcrops -- ample portions of the Shield -- come into play at more than half the holes. Small, undulating greens and the chipping areas that embrace them compensate for the relative lack of space. 705-765-7625.

Where to Stay

Muskoka Golf Trail

Delta Rocky Crest Resort. Reopened in 1999 after a major facelift, this all-suite property has 65 units. Two-night packages from $460, five nights from $1,012.

Taboo Resort. New or renovated lodge rooms, suites, condos and 18 cottage chalets are available. Two-night packages from $431, five nights from $893.

Deerhurst Resort. Deerhurst, an 800-acre resort complex, has a wide array of accommodations. Two-night packages from $371, five nights from $842.

Delta Grandview Resort. Set on 850 acres overlooking Fairy Lake, Grandview dates to 1911. Two-night packages from $335, five nights from $754.

Roaring '20s Time Warp

An exclusive high-society getaway in the 1920s, Bigwin Island sank into ruin more than 30 years ago but has.been revived by new owners. They've hired Canadian designer Doug Carrick to superimpose a new course on the site of an overgrown Stanley Thompson layout. Carrick utilized some of the original corridors, but Bigwin Island Golf Club, unveiled in 2001, is entirely his own creation.

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