West Hills G.C.- Fredericton’s Great New Layout
Prior to the pandemic, many people seemed to think that golf was a sport on the decline with a number of clubs in Canada struggling to maintain a viable membership. All that changed in the summer of 2020 as people realized that golf was one sport that you could play without many Covid restrictions. The number of rounds at many courses soared to record levels with the biggest beneficiaries being championship quality courses that drew upon a regional population, rather than as stand alone resort destinations which rely upon golfers not only from across Canada, but the USA and elsewhere as well. The latter have not done well during the pandemic and as I wrote in an updated post on Cabot Cliffs the #1 course in Canada, this summer it was like playing your own private course. A great example of the type of courses that have boomed in 2020 is the relatively new West Hills Golf Club in Fredericton which Alison and I played in late September. Here’s why you will want to play it in 2021.
History of West Hills
Despite only being open as an 18 hole layout since the summer of 2018, the idea for West Hills has been around since the 1980s. Hill Bros. is a third generation Fredericton land development company which wanted to undertake a long term real estate development on the north side of the Saint John River across from Fredericton proper that would have a championship golf course as major component. This, “If you build it, they will come” strategy has been successful for decades across Canada. Two great examples from the Maritimes are Glen Arbour just outside Halifax and New Brunswick’s own Fox Creek in Dieppe. Fredericton already had a championship course at Kingswood which Alison and I played the day before, but it is a resort course so West Hills would not be a direct competitor, but rather a compliment to the Fredericton golfing scene.
One of the principal architects for Kingswood was Darrell Huxham, then working with Graham Cooke, perhaps Canada’s most well known golf architect since Stanley Thompson. That course was named Canada’s Best New Course in 2003 by Golf Digest. They also collaborated on a number of other award winning courses in eastern Canada including La Tempête outside Quebec City and a course I play every year at least once, the great Fox Harb’r, Canada’s Best New Course for 2001. Darrell subsequently struck out on his own to team up with his brother Warren to create Huxham Golf Design which Hill Bros. assigned to design West Hills after the initial start on the course faltered. Working slowly but surely from 2012 onward, the first nine was opened in 2015 and the complete 18 holes in 2018. After having played the course, I can tell you that the wait was worth it.
Alison and I were scheduled to have the first tee time of the day, but I knew driving through the tony houses leading to the clubhouse that there would be a significant frost delay. It was a beautiful, calm morning, but very chilly and there was heavy frost on the fairways. That did give us a chance to have a great talk with the Course Superintendent Adam Fletcher who had previous experience at a number of Halifax area clubs including Oakfield, Grandview and Lost Creek. He said he was very excited about the rapid progress the course was making in reaching full maturity. It can take at least two years for the turf on a new course to reach the point it can withstand both overwintering and heavy cart and foot traffic. We also had a chat with one of the Hill Brothers who was on site overseeing the construction of the clubhouse which will replace the small temporary one that is there now. I definitely got the impression that everyone connected with West Hills was very enthusiastic about the finished course that had been so long in the making.
We also had the opportunity to drive around the front nine on the cart paths to get some early morning shots and for us to get enthusiastic about playing it.
The frost delay was almost two hours and by then there was quite a line up of players waiting to go out. I must admit to feeling a bit sheepish as Alison and I detoured around them to the first tee, but many knew I was a golf writer and had approached us during the delay to talk about their course. Overall it was a very friendly bunch of people who clearly were proud to be members of West Hills.
West Hills #1 – 350 Yard Par Four
Most of the people who will be playing behind us are taking carts and I know from scouting the front nine that there are some considerable distances between holes, although there are also some walkers. One of the reasons to take a cart is the state of the art GPS systems they are equipped with that allow precise distance measuring from any one point on the course to another. It also eliminates surprises, such a water you can’t see from the tee or other hazards that a first time player is unaware of. In my opinion a good GPS system can save up to five strokes a round.
West Hills is not an obscenely long course, topping out at 6765 yards from the tips and a very comfortable 6,000 on the nose from the whites from which I will play. The first thing you will notice from this photo is that the frost that delayed play had an upside – beautiful fall colours. It’s already considerably warmer than two hours ago and I know this is going to a be a great day to golf. The second thing you might notice is the absolute excellent condition of the fairways, by far the best Alison and I found on our New Brunswick tour and perhaps second only to Dundarave of any we played in the Maritimes this year.
This first hole is a great starter because provides a generous fairway if you want to go right after which you need to clear the green side bunker on your approach shot or you can challenge the fairway bunker on the left and try to take the green side bunker out of play. While it is listed as the #7 handicap hole, it is not a ball breaker like say #1 at Highlands Links. You never want to start a round of golf with a double and that shouldn’t happen here.
Adam Fletcher had advised that the front nine was the older of the two and in his opinion not as dramatic as the back where he said that ‘Darrell had really let loose’. In retrospect, that was a very apt description with holes such as #1 offering a good test, but not any great elevation changes or overly difficult greens. Speaking of which, the greens at West Hills were also in immaculate condition and it was hard to believe that this was a relatively new golf course.
#2 – 335 Yard Par Four
This is a hole where the GPS was a necessity for a first time player and the shot of the GPS screen is from this hole. I was able to determine that a three wood would be preferable to a driver on this short par four to avoid the water off the tee and still have a wedge into the green. Again, the fall colours add significantly to the look of this hole.
West Hills #3 – 185 Yard Par Three
The foreshortening makes this hole look a lot shorter than it actually is. It is the longest of the five par threes at West Hills and in my opinion, probably the weakest of the lot with a relatively straightforward tee shot to a generous circular green. Having said that, I did manage to find the trap on the left. West Hills is one of the few clubs that are maintaining the sand traps during the pandemic and I congratulate them for it. Many others have simply given up on the traps and by late summer some were so full of weeds as to be unrecognizable. The sand here was raked and quite soft with no dramatic lips to clear. No I didn’t have a sand save, but only because I missed an easy putt. It was actually enjoyable to once again get a chance for a real sand shot.
#4 – 465 Yard Par Five
We now come to the #1 stroke hole at West Hills and from the tee it looks relatively benign, especially at a very moderate 465 yards from the whites. For some bizarre reason this summer I have had considerable success on the most difficult holes which I attribute to just trying to play safe, knowing the hole is difficult. Playing two woods gives this approach to a very sloped green. Because the greens were still wet from the evaporating frost they were nowhere near as fast as they could be and throughout the morning they got progressively faster and faster. I certainly could see how these greens could become so fast that if you were above the hole with this pin placement you might not be able to keep it on the green. The teeth of this hole is definitely the green and I was fortunate enough to be playing it when the fangs were not out so to speak.
This is a great par five for a bogey golfer like myself.
West Hills #5 – 115 Yard Par Three
Whatever I said about #4 green, triple it for this deceptive par three. Yes, it’s very short, but with the pin near the front and a severely sloped front to back green it spells trouble with a capital T. Psychologically this hole almost forces you to take too much club – you know you need to clear the water and that little pot bunker and long doesn’t seem like the worst choice. However, once you are above this hole three putt is very much in play as it was for me. Technically this may be the easiest hole on the front nine, but depending on where the pin is, it can be tricky.
BTW it’s a much better looking hole than #3.
#6 – 290 Yard Par Four
This photo is from the morning scout around taken an hour or so before we actually played it. It’s not quite a blind tee shot as you can just see the top of the pin. If there is a birdie hole on the front nine this has to be it, especially if you manage to clear the mound your ball will roll almost to the green. Even if you don’t, as long as you avoid the traps on the left you will have a downhill shot to an admittedly tricky little green. Despite having the #1 handicap hole in the first six, it really is a relatively easy start to West Hills which I am never going to criticize, but that means there must be some tough holes coming up, so buckle up.
West Hills # 7 – 370 Yard Par Four
If you just ignore that tree smack dab in the middle of the fairway this hole might not be so bad. It’s 80 yards longer than the last par four and much, much more difficult. The proper play here is to keep the drive well to the right and you’ll have this look for the approach shot. Do that and this hole becomes a lot less severe.
#8 – 340 Yard Par Four
Although it’s shorter than #7, I believe this hole presents more challenges with water in play as well a very strategic bunkers and an elevated green. The choice is whether to cross the water off the tee with the shortest route being on the left side where fairway bunkers await or hit a hybrid out toward the 150 marker which you can see on the extreme right of the photo. If you do the latter then you need to clear the front bunker, making the shot longer than a usual 150 yarder. This was my favourite par four on the front.
West Hills #9 – 460 Yard Par Five
I’m not a believer in handicap systems that automatically rate the par fives as the toughest and par threes the easiest with the par fours in between which is how they are rated at West Hills. As we all know the pros find the par fives to be the easiest birdie holes and at the greatly reduced distances mere mortals play from, that should also be the case for us. #9 is rated the third hardest at West Hills and yet I would rate it as one of the easiest. In fact, with its short distance and playing slightly downhill it is the best chance for birdie on the front nine, despite what I said about #6. I didn’t make that, but it was a tap in par for a nice feeling to end the front nine.
I am willing to bet that at some point the hole ratings at West Hills will be adjusted to reflect the actual difficulty of the holes.
OK, that finishes the older front nine, now let’s see what Mr. Huxham has in stall for us on the back.
#10 – 375 Yard Par Four
Here’s a prime example of what I was complaining about on the last hole. This is rated the #12 hole and yet it’s probably tougher than any par four or five on the front. The fairway is narrower with a distinct right to left slope, something we saw little of on the front nine. It also plays slightly uphill so its more like a 390 yard hole. The green is probably the smallest on the course. I would consider this a strong par four which tells me the back might be a bit tougher than the front.
Hopefully at some point they’ll plant some trees to block out the view of those bungalows across the street.
This is as good a time as any to point out that even though West Hills Golf Course is in the middle of a major housing development, unlike most of these type of courses, there are no houses backing onto the fairways. Up until this hole, it has been a pure parkland experience and if you look at a map of the final design you will see that it will always remain that way. Rather than try to maximize the number of houses with ‘golf course access’ and effectively diminish the actual golf experience, Hills Bros. have done the right thing in my opinion and made the course the top priority
West Hills #11 – 155 Yard Par Three
So for a very brief period you do return to the real world of apartment buildings, transmission towers etc., but Huxham has done a great job of easing the eyes by making this absolutely gorgeous par three, easily my favourite on the course. I thought of photoshopping out the towers and cropping out the building on the right, but that would give a false sense of this hole. Trust me, although walking to the tee box after walking off #10 green is a bit jolting, you will love this hole.
Although it’s all carry to pin, the right side of the green is severely banked so that in order to lessen the likelihood of disaster you can safely hit toward that and it will kick the ball leftwards onto the green.
#12 – 400 yard Par Four
This is, in my opinion, the toughest par four at West Hills and also one one of the most enjoyable to play, especially if you are happy to settle for bogey as I was. It appears to be a blind tee shot as you can’t really tell where the green is from the tee (although a peek at the GPS will fix that).
West Hills #13 – 465 Yard Par Five
This is the signature hole at West Hills and starts off with one of the nicest views from a tee box that you’ll find anywhere in the Maritimes, especially in the fall. From the tee the fairway is almost perpendicular to the tee box. This is a perfect driving hole for most mid-level righties with a natural left to right ball flight, but that huge trap narrows the fairway considerably. For a lefty like myself the smart thing is again to just play within yourself and don’t even think of getting home in two. It’s an easy drive out to the edge of the farthest trap on the left followed by a hybrid layup short of a brook which must be crossed to get to this very well protected green with sand and water on one side and woods on the other.
I predict that this will rapidly become one of the top ranked golf holes in Atlantic Canada.
#14 – 160 Yard Par Three
Here’s a sucker pin placement if I ever saw one. Even from a slightly elevated tee this par three requires more club than the yardage would indicate because it plays more uphill than it looks. I think the smart play is to aim for the trap on the left making sure to come up short and hope for a two putt on one of the trickier greens at West Hills. Another nice par three on the back.
West Hills #15 – 500 Yard Par Five
The longest par five at West Hills is also perhaps its toughest with a narrow fairway and a creek that crosses about two thirds of the way to the green. You have to decide to layup to it on your second which leaves a long approach shot or try to go over. No problem for big hitters, but very much so for a lot of us.
#16 – 390 Yard Par Four
The final par four at West Hills is one of the few true doglegs on the course and one that favours right handers.
There is just a heap of trouble down the right side which will challenge those trying to take the shortest route to the hole. Trust me, you really don’t want to be in the spot where I took this photo from unless you can play a controlled fade and good luck with that. Another strong par four that has a very nice look to it as well.
West Hills #17 – 165 Yard Par Three
This hole had a strange effect on me. I recall at the time of playing it that I wasn’t impressed, but looking at this photo as I write this post I can’t recall why because it looks pretty nice. Oh, wait a minute – looking at the scorecard I see I had one of two doubles at West Hills on this hole. That explains it. Really it’s a straight away uphill par three that should not be doubled, period.
#18 480 Yard Par Five
The finishing hole at West Hills is another manageable par five that requires two decent, not great, shots to the brook that once again crosses the fairway short of the green. From there it’s an easy wedge shot to the green. Heroes may attempt to get there in two. Actually, Huxham has made good use of the little waterway on the back nine where it comes into play on a number of holes.
There is a nice finishing touch here with a covered bridge that crosses the brook and reminds you that you are playing in New Brunswick, home of many covered bridges including the longest in the world at Hartland.
Alison and I were both very impressed with West Hills which, up until recently, has kept a very low profile. In fact, I had never heard of it until I started planning for this New Brunswick mini golf trip. It now deserves to be on everyone’s golfing radar as another top golf destination in the Maritimes.
The combination of playing here and at Kingswood makes for a good reason to spend some time in Fredericton. We stayed at the recently opened Hilton Garden Inn which is very convenient to the many restaurants and bars that have sprung up in the capitol city in recent years and breathed new life into what was once an overgrown staid provincial town. Southside Shake is a bar inside the Hilton that specializes in gin based drinks of which I am a great fan. I confess to trying a few while Alison shopped for handicrafts in the nearby stores on Queen Street.
We also had two great evening meals during our stay in Fredericton, the first at 540 Kitchen and Gastro Pub which has a great selection of New Brunswick craft beers on tap. There really is an explosion of beer making genius going on today all across North America and Fredericton has become one of Canada’s top micro-brewery centres. Reason enough to visit.
What to have with a nice glass of Picaroon’s Harvest Ale? How about crispy maple pork belly? Makes my mouth water just thinking back on it.
The next night we chose Italian at Moco Downtown where they were having a prosecco party.
Their prosciutto bruschetta was the perfect accompaniment to the prosecco.
And the veal saltimbocca was the hearty fall entree that I craved after a day of golf and exploring Fredericton.
The bottom line is that Fredericton is the perfect small city for a Maritime getaway and God knows we need them in this time of Covid. Once the snow falls we hope to return and trade our golf clubs for cross country skis. See you then