For those in Ontario, the Stanley Thompson name is synonymous with some of the more well-regarded private clubs in the province like St. George’s, Westmount, Summit and Cataraqui. You would have to go out of your way to find a public Stanley Thompson golf course in Ontario, unlike out west, which is home to the likes of Banff Springs, Jasper Park and Waskesui or to the east where you can find Highlands Links, Green Gables and Digby Pines.
Even in Niagara, the landscape seems to be dominated by newer, modern designs, or classic, old school country clubs inaccessible to most.
Thankfully, Whirlpool is a classic municipal golf course with an affordable green fee.
Whirlpool opens with a flat, 400-yard par 4 that doglegs to the left around a single bunker on the inside corner.
A staple of Thompson designs, there isn’t an architect in history that framed green sites as good as Staney.
After the relatively benign opening hole, the 411-yard par 4, 2nd kicks it up a gear. Cresting a hill, the landing area is blind from the tee.
With a green site cut at the bottom of a hill, a bunker left, mounding in the back and a bunker/water hazard combo short right, it’s the first “wow” moment at Whirlpool.
Continuing the good stretch of golf, Thompson introduces a typical archetype in his catalog with a long par 3. At 234 yards on the card and slightly uphill, it looks relatively simple (yet hard) from the tee…
But as you approach the green, you realize it’s perched behind a swale short. This is brilliant use of topography. Back in the day, the play was likely to run a long club or driver through the swale, but with modern technology allowing for more spin, it’s an interesting shot. Choosing to fly it over the swale or run it through in 2020 is something you rarely see anymore.
The 509-yard dogleg left par 4, 5th is another good hole. Working slightly up the hill, the landing area is blind, but there’s more of a visual compared to the 2nd. A bunker complex on the outside corner is best to avoid.
This two-hole combination of a long 3 immediately followed by a shot par 5 is one of my favourite things Thompson did throughout his career. At Jasper Park, for example, he did it twice with the 4th/5th and 9th/10th, and at St. George’s with the 16th/17th (when 17 was still a par 5). It’s a relatively simple hole, giving golfers a chance to get score after a difficult hole preceding it.
There’s some brilliant bunkering around this green. You can see the vision Thompson had for this place.
Interestingly, the 5th is also a par 5. 536-yards, we now dogleg to the right.
The layup is pretty mundane and simple, but the green complex, cut into the hillside, is a brilliant choice from Thompson. Three bunkers short right and one massive one short left guard this green.
After climbing uphill slightly from the 5th green complex, the 6th is a par 3 falling back down the hill. Downtown Niagara peeks through in the background, making this one of the more picturesque holes on the golf course. At 216 yards, it’s not easy, but it sure is nice to look at.
Following the 6th, we have a fairly difficult 431-yard par 4. This tee shot reminded me of the 7th at Cataraqui — another Stanley Thompson design.
Unlike Cataraqui’s 7th, however, there are bunkers on this hole. They wrap around the back of the green in tandem with mounding to create a lovely visual.
The 8th is another good par 4 and introduces us to a hillier part of the property. At 440 yards from the gold tees, the hole plays downhill the entire way.
Approaching the green the hole tightens up. A bunker pressed up against the front left and another short right sits a ways back for mishits guarding this green.
After two longer holes, the 9th is a brilliant 352-yard par 4, and dare I say one of Stanley Thompson’s better short par 4’s. With two bunkers on the right and a staircase set of two on the left, the tee shot presents the options of hitting it over the right side to an upper tier or at the left set for the lower tier.
Like the 2nd at St. George’s, Thompson routed the ridge directly into play. In fact, the same strategies—just flipped—are employed on the 9th at Whirlpool as the 2nd at St. George’s.
For those who do not want to take the aggressive carry up the hill, they are greeted with a blind second shot in.
But for those who do take on the more aggressive tee shot, they are welcomed with a much more open approach shot to a well-framed green.
Making the turn, we have another world-class golf hole at Whirlpool. At 457 yards, it’s a long, difficult par 4 to a rumpled, rolling fairway.
A staple in Thompson’s work is a bunker-less hole where the land does all the talking. These holes have turned out quite well at places like Jasper Park, Capilano, Highlands Links and many others.
The 10th at Whirlpool is bunker-less with a green site tucked behind an undulating fairway. The green is blind (aside from the flag) and provides an exhilarating approach shot that is one of my favourites from Thompson.
The 11th continues the good stretch of golf with a 405-yard par 4.
The green site is tucked into a hill with two grass bunkers short right that
were almost certainly sand bunkers at one time. Now, it’s yet another great bunker-less golf hole.
As you make your way through the round, you’re waiting and waiting for the Thompson trademark long par 3. You finally come upon it at the 241-yard 12th. A bunker short right and left guard this big green, so beware.
I really liked the 518-yard par 5, 13th. Moving up a hill and swinging to the left, a bunker on the outside corner of this fairway makes a draw the favourable shot.
For the player who overcooks a draw a bunker on the inside corner awaits.
The green complex is truly ‘authentic Thompson.’ It’s not tricked up, nor is it overly difficult, yet there’s flair, beauty and challenge encompassing playability for all.
The 14th is likely the weakest hole at Whirlpool. At 160 yards over a pond, it’s fairly nondescript.
Making our way back towards the clubhouse, the 566-yard par 5, 15th is over fairly flat land. Two bunkers—one left, one right—pinch the landing area.
From there, the layup is also sandwiched between a bunker left and some hummocks right.
Thankfully, the green complex is another good one. Thompson’s use of multiple green sites here, such as low-profile sites (1st, 4th, 9th, 10th) and cut back into hillsides (5th, 11th, 15th) is excellent. It’s a nice variety.
It’s also worth noting that a ridge running through the property acts as the foundation for the routing. The 5th, 11th and 15th greens are all cut into the same hillside, while the 6th, 12th, and 16th come off the same hill. Brilliant routing work to utilize such a small feature in many ways.
The 403-yard par 4, 16th is another good golf hole. Doglegging to the left around a bunker eating into the fairway, it’s a lovely tee ball.
I stood on this tee and was reminded of the 16th at Banff Springs, which has a similar hole shape and bunkering arrangement. Banff has a bigger budget and has maintained Thompson’s legacy a bit more given the financial backing, but with a bit of TLC, the two holes would be very similar in style and look.
Ever-so-slightly, the approach plays up a hill. Short left and short right feature bunkers.
The 17th is another beast of a par 3 at 230 yards. Again, the green is beautifully framed, but a wide opening in the front allows for a variety of shots.
Closing out the round at Whirlpool is a 506-yard par 5. This combination of long par 3 immediately followed by a short par 5 has been utilized by Stanley Thompson on various occasions, notably at Jasper Park where it’s done twice and at Montebello. Slightly doglegging to the right, this is an inviting tee shot.
Bunkering from the right bleeds back into the fairway, but there’s enough room left. I imagine the centreline bunker is a good aiming point for most.
Gently moving to the right, we’re greeted with the final green cut into a hillside. Perhaps the best of them all at Whirlpool, it’s wonderfully framed by classic Thompson bunkering at the base of the clubhouse.
Another view of this beauty:
For those who layup, they’ll be greeted with this view.
The great thing about Whirlpool is that it’s affordable and a wonderful example of Stanley Thompson’s work. In Ontario, where the best Thompson’s provide limited access, Whirlpool is well worth the hour journey from Toronto. It’s certainly among the country’s best municipal golf courses, and one of the best public golf courses in Ontario.