Mountain golf trek: The Canadian Rockies
BANFF, Alberta – Steven Young, the director of golf at Banff Springs, sometimes likes to greet playing partners wearing a sportcoat, plus-fours and spiffy purple-and-black saddle shoes. His weapons of choice on such occasions are hickory clubs and gutta percha balls. He’s a gregarious and gracious host – that is, if you don’t mind getting waxed by a guy playing equipment that Ben Hogan would have considered primitive.
Young’s attire might seem like an anachronism at some of the newer courses here in the Canadian Rockies. But it works at Banff, a classic Stanley Thompson design.
OK, let’s stop for a moment to acknowledge the redundancy in the preceding sentence. Canadians regard every Thompson design as a classic.
If you go...
• Delta Lodge at Kananaskis:
• Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel:
• Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge:
Note: For more information on courses, visit canadianrockiesgolf.ca
I wish I had a sleeve of Titleists for every time I’ve heard a Canadian start a conversation by asking, “Are you familiar with Stanley Thompson?” What then follows is a recitation of his genius, as manifested on courses ranging from Highlands Links in Nova Scotia, on to St. George’s in Ontario, to Banff and Jasper Park here in Alberta and Capilano in British Columbia. They’ll also remind their American guests that Thompson mentored Robert Trent Jones Sr., not vice versa. And don’t you forget it!
There’s no denying that Thompson dominated the Golden Age of Canadian design. His courses occupy the top five spots among Golfweek’s Best Classic Courses (pre-1960) in Canada.
The Banff Springs Golf Club complements the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, where the Victorian era construction houses modern, Four Diamond lodging. The course was built in 1928, the same year reconstruction of the hotel began following a fire. Each is a celebration of a more elegant era of design and conduct. It’s easy to imagine guests 80 years ago, attired much like the throwback Young, walking out of the hotel and down to the first tee, which is now the 15th, and launching their opening drives over the Spray River.
The course, like the hotel and indeed the town, sits beneath Mount Rundle, which is shaped roughly in the form of a scalene triangle and lends its name and backdrop to the par-3 second hole. It’s another short hole, the fourth, for whichBanff Springs probably is best known, in part because it carries the colorful name, Devil’s Cauldron. But having witnessed a fellow golfer execute perhaps the greatest up-and-down I’ve ever seen there, I’m left to conclude that one can escape from hell. Between the mountains, the hotel sitting castle-like on the hill and the presence of the Spray and Bow rivers – which accent much of the course but don’t really come into play – it’s anything but a hellish walk.
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Banff, located about 80 miles west of Calgary, has been luring travelers since natural hot springs were discovered there in the late 19th century. On a warm summer day in the tiny village, business is brisk in the shops and cafés along Banff Avenue.
Canmore, a short drive down the Trans-Canada Highway, always has been the working-class counterweight to the leisurely pace of Banff. For nearly a century, it was a coal-mining town, and later was rejuvenated when it hosted the 1988 Olympic Nordic events.
For nearly 50 years, the Canmore Golf and Curling Club has been a year-round gathering place for residents.
“It’s kind of like going to Cheers,” said Gord Schultz, a local tour operator who runs Golf Canada’s West.
At some point, developers had an epiphany: Canmore is located near a major international resort destination and has a ready-made, affluent clientele in this energy-rich province. So they unleashed the bulldozers, to good effect.
Stewart Creek Golf Club, just south of Canmore, and Silvertip, on the east side of town, check off all the boxes for golfers and resort guests. The architecture is flashy, as are the amenities. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better 19th-hole experience than Silvertip’s Rustica restaurant, where guests can cut the beef with a butter knife and sip on a locally brewed Powder Hound Pilsner while gazing up the 18th fairway at the sheer rock face of Mount Lady MacDonald.
Both courses are defined by elevation changes and navigated along switchbacks that rise and fall on otherwise unpassable terrain.
At Silvertip, there’s a long downhill drive just to get to the first tee, and by the par-5 second green, more than 80 feet below the tee, you’ve reached the lowest point on a course that has 600 feet in elevation change. Brace yourself for a wild, scenic ride back up the mountain. The cart GPS brazenly alerts guests to “Get your camera ready” as they approach the 13th tee – where the Three Sisters mountains frame the 125-foot drop from tee to green – though by that time the greater concern might be whether your camera batteries still have life.
By the 18th tee, you’ve reached the highest point on the course; in the distance, the Nordic Training Center is visible in the foothills of the Rundle Range, though in the winter, slalom skis probably would be required to get down to the level of the green.
Stewart Creek is a similarly dramatic tour through the mountains. Like Silvertip, it places huge demands on accuracy, particularly on the front nine. It’s recommended, for example, that the par-4 ninth be thought of as two par 3s, so precise must the tee ball and downhill approach be.
The targets become slightly more generous early in the back nine as the course moves away from the mountain, into more of a parkland setting. But that’s merely a respite, as the routing soon moves back up the ridgeline on No. 15 to begin a rousing finish.
From Stewart Creek, it’s only a 30-mile drive to the Delta Lodge and Kananaskis Country Golf Course. It’s not necessarily much faster via helicopter, but it’s certainly a lot more fascinating to be peak-high to the Three Sisters, the most prominent land form in the region.
There’s a sense of discovery upon touching down in Kananaskis Country, perhaps because the golf club and hotel are set back from the Trans-Canada Highway.
Kananaskis Country is home to two Robert Trent Jones Sr. designs, Mount Lorette and Mount Kidd. Strategically, there is more elevation on Mount Kidd, and more water in play on Mount Lorette, including the Kananaskis River, which snakes through the back nine.
The vagaries of Rockies weather were evident while playing Mount Lorette. We teed off on a warm summer morning. By the ninth green, we were seeking shelter from a brief hailstorm, which cleared for a pleasant back nine.
Throughout, there was the sense that we had discovered a wonderful treasure in the mountains. But that’s not quite true; Kananaskis Country, which opened 25 years ago, long ago built a strong following. The two courses do a combined 60,000 rounds annually, a big number for a short-season operation.