2005: The Whistler Way

Whistler, British Columbia

As you sit reading in your winter home, the self-proclaimed “lifestylers” in Canada’s Northwest are doing what they do best: skiing the slopes of the Coast Mountains, giving lessons to pay the rent and shushing through powder to feed their passion.

In this mountain resort village two hours north of Vancouver on the Sea to Sky Highway, skiing used to be the main draw, and long before that – at the turn of the century – it was fish. In fact, after the gold rush of 1849 ran dry, the rainbow trout fishing in Alta Lake was perhaps the only reason to make a trek this far north. In 1906, Mahogany John Miller, a cow-camp cook who had journeyed from Texas, wrote letters back home about an isolated spot up north with “a startling thick run of trout.” He called Whistler “a place to bed and have a good meal for 50 cents a night.”

It wasn’t until more than a half-century later that Mahogany John’s little secret became a globally known ski destination. Prices, as you might expect, have risen just a touch. Golf came later, arriving at Whistler in 1982 when Arnold Palmer created his first Canadian design – Whistler Golf Club.

Now the rugged lifestylers, not to mention scores of recreation-seekers who may have never strapped on a pair of skis in their lives, find Whistler to be a passion-feeder even when sunshine and rainbows replace snowflakes and moguls. The lifestylers’ stereotype includes two or three days’ worth of stubble, athletic build, mid-20s, hair a couple of weeks past cutting time, and a congenial eagerness to keep visitors intrigued with stories of their mountainous livelihoods. When the lifestylers put their skis away for the summer, some stay busy giving guided ATV tours that reach literally to the clouds. Some turn to mountain biking. Others head to glacier-fed rivers and escort summertime visitors on white-knuckle whitewater rafting excursions.

Golf typically is not a lifestyler option – even a hole-out from 150 yards might not provide the adrenaline necessary to keep the rough-and-tumble lot interested. But golf increasingly has become a serious reason for tourists to visit this mountain resort town that now is a year-round rush. Golf in Whistler is a challenge, a picture in variety, and offers a connection to nature unavailable in most regions of the world.

It also is a bit different, particularly if you are traversing the fairways in an early-morning mist

at either end of the shortish season. The beverage cart offers steamy java to stem the chill, but if

that’s not enough, other warm-ups are available. You see, an offer of cream in your coffee might

just as often mean Bailey’s Irish rather than Borden’s Half & Half.

It’s the Whistler way.

“There’s definitely a laid-back atmosphere up here,” says Andrew Smart, head pro at Nicklaus North Golf Club. “We are up here pretty far north, and we have our own way of going about things.”

Whistlerites who make golf their vocation want the world to know that it doesn’t snow year-round, and the summers are pleasant. The golf season runs from late April to early October, and warmth is plentiful – particularly in the summer. In fact, a weeklong spell last August saw the mercury reach 100 degrees.

Perhaps because of the misconception that golf couldn’t be played this far north, not so long ago the game didn’t exist in Whistler. But after Palmer broke ground in 1982, Chateau Whistler Golf Club followed in 1993, Big Sky Golf and Country Club in ’94 and Nicklaus North in ’96. In a few short years, four outstanding golf courses had been built in Whistler, and the results have been startling.

In 1999, for the first time, summer visitors outnumbered winter tourists. That may have shocked the lifestylers, but the trend has continued and has turned this village into a legitimate golf resort. Four divinely different courses are confined conveniently within easy distance of several resort hotels, excellent cuisine, nightlife galore and plenty of mountain activities to enjoy.

And, for the record, the trout still run thick.

A simple formula

“I’m not sure why it took so long for us to discover how important golf could be up here,” said Alan Kristmanson, director of golf at Whistler Golf Club. “But once people started looking around and realizing the perfect natural setting we had for golf courses, it really has taken off.

“Golf in Whistler has become far more than a way to pass the time between ski seasons.”

It may have taken the folks of Whistler a long time to discover the boost golf could provide their tourist-driven economy, but once they pulled the trigger they got it right. Here, the golf formula is simple – Whistler Golf Club is at the south end of the village, with Chateau Whistler at the northeast tip, Nicklaus North about a 5-minute drive north and Big Sky about 15 minutes farther north in Pemberton.

The four courses are pocketed closely together geographically and market themselves as one in the Golf Whistler consortium, a group led by Dean Larsen, director of sales at Big Sky.

“All of the courses are independently owned, and as such, we’re competitors,” Larsen said. “But we also understand that if we pool our resources to get the word out on Whistler as a whole, then once people get up here, they’re more than likely going to play at least two courses, and the serious golfers will play all four.”

Those serious golfers will not be disappointed in their trek north – neither in the challenge and beauty of each course, nor in the variety of the foursome as a whole.

There are plenty of places to stay in Whistler – the entire village is a resort, after all – but for the sake of argument, let’s say you choose the Four Seasons as your headquarters. It’s a great choice, being the newest and most luxurious resort in Whistler. It opened in 2004 and it’s across the street from the Chateau Whistler Golf Club.

The tempatation might be to play Chateau Whistler on your first day in the village, because of its proximity to your hotel room. But, the Chateau is the truest mountain golf test in Whistler. It is by far the most challenging course in town, and you might want to save it for last. It is built right into Blackcomb Mountain, as opposed to the others situated at the base of either Blackcomb, Mount Whistler or Mount Currie.

Big Sky, the farthest away, is a good place to start your tour. The drive to Pemberton is painless for an early-morning tee time.

Big Sky is 600 feet above sea level, nearly 1,600 feet below the village of Whistler, and the course is the longest of the four at more than 7,000 yards from the tips. The lower elevation stunts some of the extra flight you’ll enjoy at the other three Whistler courses, but it only adds to the most stunning visual of any course in the area. Several holes play right into the face of Mount Currie, and on a clear day you can see all the way to the snow-covered summit, some 8,300 feet above sea level. Witnessing a far-away avalanche is not uncommon.

But what of the golf?

“We’re fairly generous off the tee,” Larsen says of Big Sky. “We make up for that by requiring a little more length than the others. And, like a lot of Bob Cupp designs, we’ve got those gentle, rolling greens and collection areas. So, while it appears to be wide open in spots, it definitely behooves the good player to be playing shots into the green from the right part of the fairway.”

An early start

Early-morning golf is the best way to go in Whistler, because it allows for the quickest trip to the course, the most tranquil round and – just as importantly – leaves plenty of time for the countless other activities. Mountain biking, white-water rafting, horseback riding, gondola rides, ATV tours or a good massage are some of the ways to spend your post-round hours.

Bear tours also are available, but aren’t always necessary to get an up-close-and-personal look. It is possible, in the early hours, to brush your teeth while on the balcony of the Four Seasons and spy a black bear or two in the park across the way. When the Four Seasons was being built, a construction worker went home at the end of the day and left his lunch open on the ninth floor of the hotel. An ambitious black bear walked up nine flights of stairs during the night and was found munching away when workers arrived the next morning. He was tranquilized and carted away without incident, but the hard hats were a bit more careful after that.

There are signs warning of bears on all four Whistler courses. The massive creatures generally keep their distance, but if you run into one, it is wise to invoke avoidance – not panic.

Speaking of bears, Nicklaus North might be a good spot to pick up the second leg of our four-legged Whistler tour.

On this course, it is wise to score early. There are birdies to be had as you start the round, but the course gets progressively tougher. The fairways are tight and lined with homes. Real estate is bothersome on many courses, but the multimillion-dollar, rustic-style homes on Nicklaus North

actually are a highlight. Far enough off the fairway so as to never come into play, they blend beautifully with the mountain background. Imagine 5,000-square-foot log cabins, glistening with a lacquered sheen that bounces sunshine. These are the homes at Nicklaus North.

The course has played host to Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf matches, as well as skins games that have drawn Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Fred Couples, Ernie Els and others to the Great North.

The finishing three holes are the highlight of Nicklaus North, and include a 425-yard par 4, a 226-yard par 3 and a 438-yard par 4. The distances, even from the tips, are not altogether daunting, but Green Lake, wind and some well-placed hazards make them, excuse the expression, a bear.

After surviving the finish at Nicklaus North, the day awaits. If you choose something less active than tackling the mountains on bike or horse, shopping in the quaint village is an option. And don’t worry about automobile traffic. Cars are prohibited in the village; you drive to the outskirts of the shopping district, park and then hoof the cobblestone walks to the town square.

An afternoon of strolling the streets can kick

up an appetite, and there are plenty of cures.

Quality restaurants seemingly are at every turn, offering everything from native fish to more exotic seafood and Canadian favorites such as venison and caribou.

Plenty of nightlife also is available in Whistler, although it is advisable not to overdo because morning golf awaits.

Whistler Golf Club, nestled at the southern side of town, is the Whistler “original.” Though not quite as challenging as the other three courses, from the tips it can be a decent test.

The varying tee boxes not only add distance to the holes, but the views and angles also are different from each spot. You learn at the first green that these are the most slope-filled putting surfaces in Whistler, and the signature 16th is a pond-guarded par 5 with a tee that is built up beautifully with natural rock and forces a carry over a massive flower bed midway down.

The final test

We have yet to touch on the stiffest challenge in Whistler: Chateau Whistler Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Until now, our journey has been tranquil. Now it gets tough. Chateau Whistler is blasted into the sides of mountains; there are waterfalls, gulches and elevation changes that make your stomach drop.

“People hear about how tough it is here, and we don’t necessarily want to discourage that reputation,” says director of golf Rod Cochrane. “But we don’t think they should be scared away.

“Come here, experience this course, and you will be experiencing something you’ve never felt before.”

The first four holes at Chateau Whistler climb 400 feet up Mount Blackcomb. No. 1 crosses a rushing creek, No. 2 features a glacier-filled lake, No. 3 is considered by many to be Whistler’s most challenging hole and No. 4 is the highest point at 2,650 feet above sea level. At the fourth tee box, you can look down 450 feet and see the entire village. You have completed a magnificent climb to the top of the mountain, so to speak, and you spend the other 14 holes working your way down to the clubhouse. Remember this, particularly if you card a double bogey or two.

Cochrane is reluctant to name a signature hole, but when pushed he points to No. 8, a 212-yard par 3 with a mind-numbing drop in elevation and granite outcroppings to the right side. Like the rest of Chateau Whistler, No. 8 is daunting.

It seems fitting that there is a David Leadbetter Academy here. If you are feeling particularly humbled after tackling Chateau Whistler, there is a fix: complete with video technology, instructors, indoor facilities and a finely manicured practice area in the midst of the mountains.

If a lifestyler found himself in the mood to play golf, Chateau Whistler most certainly would be his choice. Shooting 120 wouldn’t matter, of course. Staring down the mountain would take precedent.

For the rest of us, Chateau Whistler represents the pinnacle – quite literally – of a wonderful golf tour in this peak-filled village. It’s hard to imagine that first-class golf didn’t exist in Whistler just 23 years ago, yet now beckons to players from all parts of the globe. Golf purists flock here in droves.

Even those not schooled in the game understand the beauty of mountain golf.

Joel, a soaked-to-the-bone lifestyler, was sitting in a van packed with drenched tourists he had just led on a white-water rafting adventure. He summed up Whistler golf in a testimonial that will never make a promotional brochure.

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