Reinventing two top-ranked Canadian courses

Under the watchful eye of the son of the property’s original superintendent, 
The Pulpit Club has reimagined its championship courses into Canadian standouts.


Pulpit Course 16th hole
The 16th hole on the Pulpit Course at The Pulpit Club in Caledon, Ontario, where Rob Wright serves as the GCSAA Class A superintendent. Photos courtesy of The Pulpit Club

Question: Name the golf property dreamed up by a pair of ex-newspapermen from Canada who created the popular 1980s board game Trivial Pursuit?

Answer: The Pulpit Club.

The facility that originally operated as Devil’s Pulpit Golf Association featuring two courses — the Pulpit and Paintbrush (known as Devil’s Pulpit and Devil’s Paintbrush when the club first opened) — was the brainchild of friends Chris Haney and Scott Abbott. Passion fueled these inventors. That same passion drives the philosophy behind the recent revitalization and reinvention of this private-equity member club in Caledon, Ontario, which has created two courses perennially ranked among the best in Canada.

Rob Wright, 38, is the man charged with watching over these gems. His morning begins by watching the sun rise over the Niagara Escarpment. After a sip of morning coffee, he soaks in the vistas of the Toronto skyline and the CN Tower to the southeast. They are views Wright, a GCSAA Class A superintendent, never takes for granted, because this 315-acre property is his second home, where he has spent the better part of the past 33 summers. Initially, a 5-year-old Rob Wright rode in the passenger seat of his father’s golf cart; Ken Wright was the property’s original superintendent.

After learning by osmosis from his dad, Rob Wright spent his formative years working on the maintenance crew. Like many greenkeepers, his agronomy education began by filling divots and raking bunkers before moving on to mowing tees, fairways and greens during high school. Gradually, Rob Wright took on progressive leadership positions at The Pulpit Club and other area courses.

Following graduation, in 1999, Rob Wright became a full-time Devil’s Pulpit employee. And, by the time Ken Wright, a past recipient of the Canadian Golf Superintendents Association’s Superintendent of the Year Award, retired in 2015, the junior Wright was ready to take the helm thanks to the tutelage of not just his dad but also many other mentors, including legendary Canadian superintendent Gordon Witteveen. Many other superintendents he admired as a kid are now his colleagues.

Rob Wright carries on his father’s legacy at The Pulpit Club and brings to his job the same vision, innovation and desire for continuous improvement Haney and Abbott wished for this stunning property.

“What else would I do?” Rob Wright says when asked if he ever considered another career. “Since I was 5 years old, not a day has gone by where I haven’t had either a golf club or a mower in my hand.”

Paintbrush Course
The clubhouse for the Paintbrush Course at The Pulpit Club. The club’s 36 holes have undergone a series of renovations that have bolstered its standing as one of Canada’s top golf facilities.

A return to glory

The original grow-in for The Pulpit Club began in the late 1980s when Ken Wright was recruited from The National — perennially ranked as one of the top two courses in Canada — to oversee construction and remain on as the club’s superintendent. The firm known then as Hurdzan/Fry designed both the Pulpit and the Paintbrush, letting the topography of the land inspire its creation. On Devil’s Pulpit’s 25th anniversary, Dana Fry said the course was one of the most significant projects of his career and that the “one-of-a-kind” Paintbrush was a personal favorite.

In 2020, Longridge Partners, a Toronto-based real estate investment company, purchased the Devil’s Pulpit Golf Association and committed to investing in the property to make long-overdue capital improvements. One of the goals the new ownership group had was to make the club a four-season destination. It has accomplished this by adding more than 6 acres of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails in the winter, a groomed toboggan hill on one of the holes on the Pulpit and an outdoor ice rink complete with hockey boards.

“We are not incredibly busy throughout the winter, but with the natural beauty of the landscapes we have, it’s not hard to encourage members now to come up from the city in the winter months and enjoy the property,” says Wright, a 12-year GCSAA member.

Course renovation
Crews work on a driving range renovation project at The Pulpit Club, one of several that have been completed over the past several years. Among the changes were the addition of a short game area and seven new target greens.

Bunker resurrection

The previous ownership of the Devil’s Pulpit Golf Association had a lot of capital improvement planned for the pair of courses on paper, but a lack of capital prevented it from tackling many of these projects. Not long after the sale was completed, the club got to work on that lengthy to-do list.

First up, a multimillion-dollar bunker restoration that was completed in the fall of 2020 on the Pulpit Course. The idea with the bunker project was to stay true to Hurdzan/Fry’s original design and remove unnecessary hazards that especially penalized higher-handicap players. Thirty-three bunkers were removed, reducing the number of bunkers on the course from 123 to 95 and overall bunker acreage from 5 to 4. This capital improvement project also reduced the labor required to maintain these bunkers, adding significant savings year-over-year.

KCM Construction Group led the construction, and The Pulpit Club used Better Billy Bunker technology along with new Signature Tour-grade sand to refurbish and return the bunkers to the level members expect.

“The drainage, sand movement and labor savings with the new Better Billy Bunkers has been phenomenal,” Wright says. “Even after a heavy rainfall, we get very few washouts. And, over the winter, the sand does not shift as much.”

The bunker on the fourth hole of the Pulpit Course received special treatment during this revitalization. Located behind the green, the timber-walled bunker is nearly 12 feet high. Originally, the walls were reinforced and supported by railroad ties, but after 30 years, those had deteriorated and were starting to rot. Replacement was overdue.

In 2020, Wright was attending the Golf Industry Show when the EcoBunker booth caught his eye. He had found the perfect solution to repairing this sod-walled bunker. This monster bunker took nine skids’ worth of Ecobunker’s patent-pending, synthetic revetting material, making it one of the world’s tallest revetted bunkers. The finished product gives the same look as a sod-walled bunker, but it’s made up entirely of turf. The life expectancy of an EcoBunker can exceed 50 years.

“It’s truly incredible,” Wright says. “The material is made from recycled rugby pitches from the U.K. The best part is that it requires zero maintenance. If you get the odd weed, you just hit it with Roundup or let the natural look take over.”

Once the bunker project on the Pulpit Course was complete in 2020, Wright and his staff shifted gears and looked to tackle the next item on the list. Not wanting to neglect the Paintbrush Course, the cart paths there were replaced in 2021, transitioning from gravel to tar and chip, which is easier on the backs of players who walk and keeps clubs cleaner. The look also adds to the links atmosphere as it mimics what one would see at courses like St. Andrews.

Course renovation
The Pulpit Club penned a 10-year equipment agreement with The Toro Co. and its Canadian distributor, Turf Care Products Canada, last summer. The deal not only provides the club with equipment, it also created an equipment and irrigation testing center at the facility for other superintendents and the turf industry in Canada.

Pump it up

Keeping more than 300 acres of property, which includes 36 holes of golf, watered and healthy has been a perennial challenge for The Pulpit Club. It’s no surprise then that dealing with an aging and deteriorating irrigation system — which saw between 30 and 100 breaks annually — was the club’s next project. It’s one that will take some time. A new pump station was installed in the fall of 2021, and work began to replace the original mainline that had been in the ground since grow-in in 1989. As Wright says, “It had a good run.”

Phase one of the massive irrigation project was to begin this month. The new mainlines will be added to the Pulpit Course, with the plan to finish this work by the time the course opens for the 2023 golf season. Once completed, the irrigation system at the Paintbrush will be addressed. Phase two of this irrigation installation includes replacing all sprinkler heads and the rest of the lines, with the plan projected to complete this work from August 2023 to April 2024.

As if tackling an aging irrigation system were not enough, The Pulpit Club also made improvements to its driving range and practice facilities recently. A membership survey conducted in the fall of 2021 revealed this was another area the club needed to address. More members are using the practice facilities than ever, and the driving range had been neglected over the years.

The first stage of the project was completed in the spring of this year. Seven new target greens were sodded with bentgrass, using leftover grass that had been stripped when they narrowed the fifth fairway on the Pulpit Course. The target greens were also given a better aesthetic with barber pole-style markers. Finally, a family-oriented tee deck was added at the back of the range, along with a short-game area for chipping, putting and bunker shots. “Members are loving it,” Wright says.

The second phase, which has no set timeline for completion, is to take the two main range decks and combine them into one, increasing the square footage of the bentgrass, which should allow for better recovery.

Course renovation
Pulpit Club superintendent Rob Wright (in red shirt) and Jeff Cardwell, the assistant superintendent on the Pulpit Course, during the club’s driving range renovation.

Innovation station

Ken Wright was always an innovator, well respected in the golf course maintenance industry. Back in 2009, he led an “extreme greens makeover” following a harsh winter, transitioning all 18 greens on what was then known as Devil’s Paintbrush — 51⁄2 acres in all — in just 21 days. Rather than strip the old greens and resod them, which would have meant closing the course for an extended period, Wright chose to fumigate the greens using Basamid, a granular product that, at the time, was the only registered fumigant superintendents could use in Canada. The process sterilized the root zone and killed off any traces of annual bluegrass seed.

Rob Wright picked up his father’s penchant for trying new technology and agronomic techniques, preferring to follow the road less traveled. Case in point: a 10-year agreement he helped negotiate in the summer of 2021 with Turf Care Products Canada and The Toro Co., a first-of-its kind partnership in Canada. The agreement includes The Pulpit Club’s exclusive use of Toro equipment and irrigation systems on both courses, as well as the club becoming a Toro equipment and irrigation training center for other superintendents and the broader turf and maintenance industry in Canada.

“This lets my team see new innovations coming through the pipeline first,” explains Wright. “It also allows Toro to bring other superintendents out to our club and showcase their latest and greatest products, such as GPS sprayers and autonomous mowers.”

Course renovation
The bunker project on the Pulpit Course paid special attention to this greenside bunker on the fourth hole, which features a 12-foot high bunker face that used to be supported by railroad ties. Wright and his team turned to Ecobunker for new synthetic revetting material that now holds the face in place.

Coming attractions

So, what’s next? That is the question members keep asking Wright and his assistants — Jeff Cardwell on the Pulpit Course and Michael Allen on the Paintbrush — whenever they see them on the property. Once the irrigation is completed on both courses, the bunkers on the Paintbrush are another top priority.

And, like the irrigation system, with 130 bunkers, it’s not a project that is expected to be done overnight, but rather in phases over several years by tackling a set amount each season. Originally built as sod-wall bunkers, they’re barely recognizable as links-style bunkers anymore; because of high and nearly constant winds, these hazards lose significant sand each season, and the staff is constantly topping them off.

Another item on the radar are the cart paths on the Pulpit, which are overdue for an upgrade.

No matter what comes next, one thing is certain — with Longridge Partners continually investing in the property and with Wright and his talented turf team leading the changes with passion and innovation, The Pulpit Club, which already holds a special place in the pantheon of Canadian golf, is sure to see its reputation continue to rise. And that’s no trivial matter.

A dedicated team of sheep help tame the weeds at The Pulpit Club.

The baaaa-ckstory at The Pulpit Club

The Paintbrush Course at The Pulpit Club features a herd of unique crew members: sheep.

Ken Wright, the property’s original superintendent, and his assistant, Jayson Griffiths, who is now the director of agronomy and grounds at the London Hunt Club, always thought that grazing sheep would be a great fit at the Paintbrush to make it feel even more like a traditional Scottish links.

“We pitched the idea to the old ownership 10 years ago, and everyone thought we were crazy,” recalls Rob Wright, the current superintendent at The Pulpit Club. “When the new ownership group arrived, I proposed the idea again and planted the seed at one of their first board meetings. I didn’t win over everyone initially, but I kept coming back to the idea and did not give up.”

One day, John Clark, the chairman of Longridge Partners, spotted Rob on the course, turned to the superintendent and said, “When are the sheep coming?”

Wright wasted no time in making the preparations needed to bring these animals to the property. Initially, the club’s membership did not know what was going on. Mystery surrounded the project. Golfers saw fence posts going in on the Paintbrush to anchor the electric fence in the fescue, and rumors swirled. By the time the 15 Suffolk black-faced sheep arrived, everyone at the club was on board, and members are thrilled with this unique addition to their home away from home. “The Paintbrush is now a true links with these sheep grazing off to the side in the fescue,” Wright says. “I knew it would work.”

In the fall of 2021, after the first season of grazing, a 2-acre paddock was constructed on the back nine of the course since Wright and his staff learned that 15 sheep grazing in 2 acres can’t be sustained for a full season. So, they’ve cut one area in half, and after two months they move the sheep to another area so the fescue has time to recuperate and regenerate. A self-filling trough of water was also constructed to keep the sheep hydrated.

While the original reason the club added the sheep was to enhance to the links feel, the added benefit is that it reduces labor since these animals naturally keep the fescue under control, saving Wright’s staff from cutting it back each fall.

David McPherson is a freelance writer based in Waterloo, Ontario, and a frequent GCM contributor.