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At The Turn: After 25 years, timeless, top-shelf Osprey Valley looks to future


ALTON, Ont. — Glen Abbey may be the focus of the golf world this week, but a rough-hewn diamond in the heart of the Credit River Valley is quietly charting a course towards becoming Ontario's ultimate golf destination, a vision that's been 25 years in the making — and counting.

On a day when none other than Jack Nicklaus was in Oakville, Ont., to celebrate this week's RBC Canadian Open at the course he designed, the lesser-known but no less formative Heathlands course at Osprey Valley Resort, an hour's drive north, was celebrating a quarter-century in business.

Devotees know the place simply as Osprey: a 220-hectare expanse of 54 top-shelf golf holes that began life with the Heathlands, a fescue-snarled, hillock-dotted brute that introduced linksland golf to Ontario and helped cement Doug Carrick's reputation as one of Canada's premier designers.

In those early days in 1992, there was no practice range or even a clubhouse. Golfers who knew of the place — there was no social media or marketing plan to speak of, either, only word of mouth — would change their shoes in a pitted gravel parking lot and pay their green fees in the cart barn.

And they did so happily because, well, what a golf course.

Generous fairways framed by towering berms invited aggressive play, especially on tantalizingly short par 5s, but wayward tee shots — often buffeted by strong prevailing winds — were claimed forever by thick meadow grasses or snared by deep, shaggy greenside bunkers.

Dogleg par 4s demanded, and rewarded, precision off the tee. Gorgeous par 3s over water made conservative play impossible. Firm, subtle greens scolded the overconfident. On windy days, the only birdies to be had were the resort's namesake raptors circling overhead.

"I'd have to say that of all the courses I've designed, I probably get the most compliments about the Heathlands course," said Carrick, who was on hand Tuesday to hit the ceremonial opening tee shot as the resort celebrated its 25th anniversary.

"It just shows me the golf purists really appreciate the origins of the game as it developed in Scotland and Ireland on those links courses."

Carrick's inspiration came during a trip to the breathtaking Portmarnock Golf Club in Dublin, where he fell in love with the windswept, hop-and-skip style of golf on the ground, emblematic of the game's origins on the shores of the British Isles.

"I was really intrigued by the creativity required to play a links golf course — the different shots you have to play in the wind, and especially around the greens, the ground game, hitting little bump-and-run shots, putting from off the green — those sorts of things.

"That really inspired me to try something different."

On Tuesday, the Heathlands hosted players for the princely sum of $25, a fraction of Osprey's regular $79 weekday rate. Tee times sold out in no time and the waiting list numbered in the hundreds, prompting a tweet early Wednesday proclaiming that the promotional rate would be extended through Friday.

Like so many rounds it has hosted in the last 25 years, the Heathlands itself got off to a rough start, as golf course developments often do.

The original owner ran into money trouble before the property changed hands. A derelict foundation, a remnant of the aborted clubhouse build, is still there today, just steps from the original first tee, which was rechristened as such on Tuesday by the skirl of a lone bagpiper.

Jerry Humeniuk and his brother Roman, first-generation Canadians whose parents emigrated from Ukraine, were partners as real estate developers who soon found their golf venture blossoming — albeit very slowly, it seemed — into a fun-loving family business.

For nearly a decade, Osprey Valley seemed to run on a shoestring, with no facilities or amenities beyond the fairways. But when construction did resume near the end of the 1990s, it wasn't just on a modest new A-frame clubhouse: two more golf courses and an expansive practice range were born on the other side of the railroad tracks.

Both were Carrick originals that provide the perfect foil to the golf-ball-gobbling Heathlands. The Hoot, a rollicking wastelands-style layout that evokes New Jersey classic Pine Valley in look, if not in difficulty, was bookended by the gorgeous and often-overlooked Toot course, a highly playable parkland gem.

Wait, what? Hoot and Toot?

"That was Jerry," smiles Andrew Humeniuk, Roman's son and Osprey's director of marketing.

"It's a play on the railway that runs through the property, and you know, Jerry, he's a bit irreverent. I think for him it was a bit of taking the starch out of golf industry a little bit. It was his way of saying, 'Look, guys, it's not really that serious; it's a fun game. Let's enjoy it.'" 

That sensibility — golf for the sake of the game, not as a status symbol — has long motivated and informed the family's counter-intuitive approach to slowly building a golf resort, one that to this day still has no place to even take a shower, let alone host a fancy dinner or formal wedding reception.

"Jerry's a very salt-of-the-earth, self-made man, and he said, 'Why can't we, the regular people, play at a world-class course?' We've really tried to be true to that.

"The bottom line is it's nice to have a $25-million clubhouse, but you build it, and then that's got to go on your green fee."

That said, construction is far from over at Osprey. Plans are afoot for a proper clubhouse, which would allow the resort to host large tournaments, as well as onsite accommodations and some sort of an additional event venue for large weddings, receptions and the like.

Osprey wants to raise its game, but it won't do it at the expense of the folksy charm that has made it such a refreshing place to play for an entire generation of golfers, says Chris Humeniuk, Andrew's brother and chief executive of Osprey Valley Golf.

"We cherish those customers who are here for that reason, and we don't want to change that," he says.

"We love the property, we love being here, it's a wonderful part of the family portfolio — but it's time to take it to the next level, and the way we do that will be very respectful and mindful of Jerry and Roman's vision."

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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