SPORTS

P.E.I.'s new fixed links

JAMES DEACON August 3 1998
SPORTS

P.E.I.'s new fixed links

JAMES DEACON August 3 1998

P.E.I.'s new fixed links

SPORTS

SPECIAL REPORT

On an early summer evening, standing by the 17th green at The Links at Crowbush Cove, a threesome of golfers is stopped in its tracks by the glorious view from atop that seaside dune. Looking east, the beaches alongside the Gulf of St. Lawrence have turned honey-bronze, and in the setting sun, the tiny white seaside cottages sit incandescent atop the red-earth cliffs. The wind, diminishing with the day, still rustles the sea grasses on the rumpled sand dunes and the tall fescue that lines the emerald green of Crowbush’s fairways. It is a magnificent, even spellbinding sight, and precisely what makes Prince Edward Island so unlike anywhere else.

At Crowbush Cove, however, it is best to avoid distractions. Though compelling, the raw environment can be the enemy to anyone with a club in hand. The ocean breeze, unchecked by the Island’s gentle, low-lying landscape, can redirect a well-struck shot far from its appointed destination, and any ball that lands in water or

fescue is almost certainly lost. This week, those elements are part of the challenge of the Export A’ Skins Game, a two-day competition in which four pros contest each of 18 holes for ever-larger purses. Headliner Mark O’Meara, who is bringing his family and staying a week, has captured what are arguably the two most coveted championships worldwide this season—the British Open and the Masters. Joining O’Meara are fellow Americans Fred Couples, a three-time Skins champion in Canada, and the mercurial belter, John Daly. Rounding out the foursome is PGATour player Mike Weir of Brights Grove, Ont., winner of the 1997 Order of Merit on the Canadian Tour. The star appeal got Islanders’ attention—the International Management Group, which stages the Skins, sold its full complement of 5,000 tickets in 59 minutes, and it added a second pre-tournament pro-am event to the schedule to accommodate demand from fans and corporations alike. But provincial officials have an ulterior motive for inviting the big names to play the highly regarded seaside course.

Last year’s Skins Game in Whistler, B.C., was the highest-rated TV golf broadcast in Canadian history, and the event was later rebroadcast in TV markets around the world. Local officials—including Premier Patrick Binns—campaigned to bring the Skins Game to Prince Edward Island, and the provincial department of economic development and tourism provided the course and logistical support for this year’s event in hopes of drawing attention to the Island as a destination in the booming and lucrative golf travel market.

Prince Edward Island’s north and east coasts may well be the perfect landscapes for seaside golf, in places evoking the famed linkslands of Scotland, England and Ireland. Yet the province has become a high-profile golf destination almost without trying.

Historically, golf was seen as an accessory, something visitors might do if they grew tired of the beaches, church-hall lobster suppers and walks through Green Gables. But since the opening of Crowbush in 1993, says Ron MacNeill, Prince Edward Island’s director of tourism development, golf has become a major attraction. In 1997, he says, 14 per cent of visitors came to play golf, compared with eight per cent five years before.

It is easy to see why provincially owned Crowbush, near Lakeside northeast of Charlottetown, excites golfing passions.

Several holes wind through the sand hills by the beach and the sea—a luxury compared with other resorts that usually allot shoreline property to residential development. Golf Digest, the most influential North American periodical for the sport, raved about designer Tom McBroom’s linksy layout when it first opened, proclaiming it Canada’s best new course in 1994. Then last May in its biennial Places To Play guide, the magazine gave Crowbush an even higher honor, declaring it one of the continent’s 10 best public courses.

The impact has been remarkable. Crowbush general manager, Jack Kane, whose daughter Lorie is the top Canadian on the LPGA Tour, says golf stretched the traditional July to August tourism season so much that September is now as busy as July. And a walk through the parking lot in June revealed that cars “from away”—from Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ontario and Quebec—outnumbered the local plates.

The attention paid to Crowbush has also been a windfall for nearby golf operators—there has been a dramatic increase in the number of rounds played at the lovely provincial-park layouts at Brudenell River in the east and Mill River in the west, and at the Stanley Thompson-designed Green Gables near Cavendish. “Crowbush has changed a lot of things,” says Ryan Garrett, club manager at Brudenell. “Before, we got mostly locals, but

now we are seeing more and more tourists from the United States.” Crowbush alone could not satisfy all the demand for high-end golf, so over the past two years, the province spent $1 million to upgrade Brudenell River and Mill River. (King City, Ont.-based ClubLink Corp. has recently made an offer to the province to buy the three provincial layouts.) Local investors, meanwhile, got provincial help to build a new 18-holer next to Brudenell that is expected to be ready late next summer, and at least two other groups

are looking to finance new courses. “Golf has been so successful here that a lot of people want to get in on it,” says MacNeill. “They want to create a Crowbush for their communities, too.”

The international attention is flattering, but daunting, too. Discerning golfers are notoriously critical of any failings in course grooming and service. After a recent round at Crowbush, for instance, a couple from Texas complained they were unable to get a meal because the clubhouse kitchen had, without notice, closed an hour early. Another pair from New England griped about the condition of the greens, which had not been properly mowed. Kane says the best-new-course award was “a great honor but also a tremendous challenge because we have to fulfil tremendous expectations. It’s one thing to win a magazine award, but it’s another to keep earning it every year.” Even when conditions are less than perfect, visitors say, the courses’ sub-$50 greens fees— inexpensive by resort standards—and the scenic settings, inland and by the sea, are ample reward for making the trip. Patti Cashion, visiting the area with her husband, Larry, said they had heard about Crowbush even before leaving their home in Peekskill, N.Y. “It’s a gorgeous course,” she says. “The views from some of the holes were spectacular.” And Chip Vigne, a prep-school administrator from Boston, said golf on the Island was “ridiculously cheap” for Americans. “I loved Mill River,” he said. “It’s every bit as much of a test as Crowbush.”

That says a lot. McBroom’s design presents a stern challenge, particularly around the well-bunkered and steeply sloping greens. Even the 17th, a tiny, 113-yard par 3 over thick brush to a raised green, is no cinch. Players cannot see the pin when it is located on the front of the small, severely sloping green, and all shots are fully exposed to the wind. A tee shot hit short of the green falls into a cavern of scrub from which no ball will ever return. Any ball hit long or left will bound down into trees and thick rough. No matter what happens, though, golfers can console themselves with the view.

Golfers discover the Island's scenic charms

JAMES DEACON