Erroll Nicholson, who was the pro of Green Gables Golf Course for 40 years, holds a score card from 1939 — the year Prince Edward Island's second oldest golf course opened for business. Nicholson also holds his old pitching wedge that hit more than balls on the course.
©Guardian photo by Jim Day
For 75 years, the second oldest golf course on Prince Edward Island has managed to maintain a special allure for golfers.
Certainly there is plenty in the name and in the location of Green Gables Golf Course, built in 1939 in P.E.I.’s National Park, that continues to make for a strong draw.
The iconic Green Gables House that was owned by Lucy Maud Montgomery’s relatives and served as inspiration for her most famous novel can still be seen from different holes along the course.
“There’s not many golf courses you can play that you get that feeling of history when your playing past something like that,’’ says Green Gables GM Kevin Champion.
Champion describes the trek as a destination course, one that golfers specifically set out to play, rather than a place they just happen upon with their set of clubs.
The course has only about 100 members, including Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who, Champion quips, has more time to play golf this year.
Tourists paying green fees account for the large majority of play at Green Gables.
People have come from all around the world to play here, but golfers from Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada make up the bulk of tourists teeing up at the course.
Hockey legends like Gordie Howe, Yvan Cournoyer and Scotty Bowman have stick handled around Green Gables. Canadian premiers too have long fancied a round or two here while taking a break from political business in the province.
So why do so many golfers, year after year, seek out this particular scenic, ocean-side golf course?
“They’ve already heard about it before they come and their expectations are high but I truly believe once they get here and play through it, it exceeds their expectations,’’ boasts Champion.
“We would say that Green Gables is right there with Crowbush (the provincially owned and operated Links at Crowbush Cove) as being the premier two golf courses in Prince Edward Island. So when you’re leafing through courses to play, this one is on top of the list for most.’’
The course has undergone major changes over the years since legendary Canadian course architect Stanley Thompson sold the federal government on a plan to build a couple of golf courses in national parks.
Green Gables was constructed in conjunction with Highland Links, Thompson’s project on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia that has been consistently ranked among Canada’s best places to play.
Green fees were $1 per round when Green Gables first opened in 1939. Much has changed since then on a course that fetches $100 at peak time for an 18-hole outing.
Notably, four dramatic holes that ran along the Gulf of St. Lawrence were eliminated in 1982 - a sore point with former long-time pro Erroll Nicholson who feels the change resulted in a diminished product.
Nor does Nicholson celebrate the $5-million restoration under the guidance of top-drawer Canadian architect Thomas McBroom (the man that carved out Crowbush) that gave the course a brand new look when Green Gables opened for the season in 2011.
The lengthening of the links along with the considerable addition of deep fairway bunkers, in Nicholson’s estimation, makes the course “a little too difficult for the average player.’’
Nicholson, who once shot 65 at Green Gables, also laments the decision to move the green on the 11th hole that offered an attention-grabbing approach shot over a gorge to an elevated green.
The problem was the green fronted Green Gables House property and on three occasions that Nicholson was aware of wayward balls plunked tourists strolling nearby.
Champion, meanwhile, is adamant that the course continues to offer golfers as memorable an experience as it has throughout its 75 years.
“It’s not just the championship golf,’’ he explains of the allure.
“It’s in the National Park of Prince Edward Island. There’s wildlife. There’s geese. There’s foxes running. You get that feeling that you wouldn’t get maybe with what they call a parkland, in town golf course.’’
And, adds Alex MacLauchlan, manager of corporate sales and marketing, sentimentality also brings golfers back.
Many of the greenfeers, he notes, are repeat players.
“A lot of people you’re talking to, this was one of the first golf courses they’ve ever played,’’ he says.
“Their father took them here while they were camping in the campground.’’
MacLauchlan also dismisses the perception that Green Gables is a pricey place to play. He says green fees range from $40 to $100 depending on when a golfer plays.
Also, special rates are catered to the length of time visitors plan to play at the course.
“We do have a price point for everyone,’’ says MacLauchlan.
“We have twilight, we have matinee, we have early morning.’’
Champion expects greater traffic than normal on Green Gables this year and not necessarily because of the 75th anniversary, which will be marked by a number of events, including Islander Days to give an extra nudge for locals to play, a corporate expo and a charity fundraiser.
He is expecting a healthy hike in rounds played at Green Gables and courses across P.E.I. as a result of the large increase in tourists expected to flock to the Island for 2014 celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference.
Bookings at Green Gables are already up five per cent from this time last year.
“I think with good weather we are looking at a record breaking year for all P.E.I. golf courses,’’ he says.
“I truly believe that.’’
In fact, Champion is upbeat about the future of golf in P.E.I., including Green Gables, which continues to be owned by Parks Canada but has been leased for more than 30 years to Island Coastal Services which also owns and operates Andersons Creek Golf Club and Forest Hills Golf Course.
Noting P.E.I. is still Canada’s number one golf destination, Champion says the Island has the right mix of courses, including a number of nine-hole golf courses and many 18-hole courses with varying degree of difficulty and a healthy range in green fee rates.
“We’re very optimistic,’’ he says.
“We see the numbers growing on our properties. We see the rounds increasing.’’