Golf Life: Five years after the flood, Kananaskis Country reopens

Kananaskis Country/Steve Baylin

Golf Life: Five years after the flood, Kananaskis Country reopens

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Golf Life: Five years after the flood, Kananaskis Country reopens

At 5:30 a.m. on June 20, 2013, Darren Robinson was preparing to take a “mini-moon” to Santa Barbara, Calif., with his bride of five days when Calvin McNeely knocked on his door.

“We’ve got a problem,” said McNeely, the superintendent of Kananaskis Country Golf Course about 60 miles west of Alberta, Calgary. Robinson, the course’s general manager, immediately jumped into McNeely’s truck and rode to a spot near the 14th hole of the Mt. Kidd course, one of two Robert Trent Jones Sr. designs at the 36-hole public facility.

What they witnessed was an historic flood that was tearing Mt. Kidd and its sister course, Mt. Lorette, to pieces. Fairways, service roads and cart paths were being stripped away by raging waters that breached the banks of the Evan Thomas and Kananaskis rivers. The municipal water line was ripped out and irrigation pipes were hanging loose.

At the time, the Alberta flooding was the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. (It was eclipsed in 2016 by the wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta.) Thirty-two holes were destroyed at Kananaskis Country, and the other four were impacted by loss of irrigation or other devastation.

Gary Browning, an Alberta-based golf course architect who visited the site a few days after the flood, recalled seeing “thousands of large dead trees scattered like pick-up sticks throughout the golf course. It was devastation on a massive scale. It was eerie.”

Browning toured the property with Robinson. Standing on elevated ground near the clubhouse, looking down on the devastation, Robinson asked Browning, “Can we fix this?”

“I said, ‘Of course you can. It’s not that bad,’” Browning recalled.
Truth was, Browning knew otherwise. But he also knew Robinson couldn’t handle any more bad news at that moment.

“I was just trying to give him some kind of positive reassurance that something good could happen out of all this bad,” Browning said. “I wasn’t certain whether it was feasible or possible to fix it. The damage was so visibly disturbing. It was shocking. It was worse than I expected. I did try to reassure Darren, because he needed something. He absolutely did.”


Flash forward nearly five years, to May 10, and the scene at Kananaskis Country is one of pure joy. On a lovely, sun-splashed morning in the Canadian Rockies, Browning struck the opening tee shot on Mt. Lorette, signaling that Kananaskis Country finally was back in business. The front nine of the Mt. Kidd course will reopen June 1, and all 36 holes will be open by Aug. 1.

For Robinson, who has been at Kananaskis for 20 years, and Browning, the architect who oversaw the restoration of both courses, this has been a long time coming.

“It’s a fun and exciting time for us, and also a bit terrifying,” Robinson said.

After the flooding, there were no guarantees the courses would be rebuilt.

Kananaskis Country, located in one of Canada’s most popular vacation destinations, averaged about 60,000 rounds annually, Robinson said. He estimated about 20 percent of business came from outside the province.

The facility is owned by the Alberta government and has been operated by Kan-Alta Golf Management Ltd. since the facility opened in 1983. Because the flooding was a natural disaster, Kananaskis Country qualified for federal relief funds to begin reconstruction.

Robinson said Kananaskis Country has been consistently profitable but faced opposition from fiscal hawks and environmentalists.

“A course like Kananaskis Country would never get built today if it had not been grandfathered and already in place,” Browning said.

The Alberta government finally committed $14 million to restore the courses, according to Robinson. The money came with strings attached. Browning knew there was “no going back to the well”; he had to meet his budget. Two architects were assigned to keep tabs on him. “That was a little awkward,” Browning said, though he added that they got along well as the restoration played out. And he wanted to honor Jones’ work and not disappoint Kananaskis Country’s customers.

“The pressure to perform at a high level was huge,” Browning said.


Lorette 6 Green3 edit

(Kananaskis Country/Steve Baylin)

Browning wanted to restore Jones’ original designs, not refashion them. But some changes were made to accommodate all skill levels.
Playing corridors are wider, though that’s largely because of trees washed away in the flooding. Browning added some back tees, but also two new sets of forward tees. Mt. Lorette ranges from 7,200 yards down to about 3,600 yards. The previous forward tees were around 5,500 yards, Robinson said.

Some bunkers were eliminated, reduced in size or moved to help high-handicappers. Green complexes now do a better job of accommodating ground approaches. And Browning softened some of the greens’ “crazy, wild undulations” to create more pin positions.

“RTJ’s (philosophy) was ‘tough par, easy bogey,’” Browning said. “Yeah, well there were some tough bogeys out there, too.’”

Kananaskis Country used to employ about 150 people, including 20 year-round. After the flooding, only four people remained on staff. So Robinson has had to rebuild the staff and install a new point-of-sale system. While Browning was busy on the courses, Robinson also oversaw renovations to the clubhouse and pro shop, and the relocation of two snack shacks.

On March 12, when Kananaskis Country began accepting online bookings, more than 2,000 people were waiting to reserve tee times – so many that the demand briefly crashed the website. More than 19,000 rounds were booked in the first five days.

“It was humbling,” Robinson said. Gwk

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