Beauty and the best of golf

A boulder-filled glacial pond sparkles like a turquoise jewel on the valley floor. Magpies flit noisily among the branches of Douglas firs guarding a distant green dramatically set beneath the sheer rise of Mount Rundle. Seeping through the forest cover, the northern twilight casts a bronze glow over the most unforgettable shots of a perfect day of golf.

Every arrival at the elevated back tees of the Banff Springs Golf Course’s fabled par three Devil’s Cauldron renews my conviction that this must surely be one of the most gorgeous vistas in the world – and that there can be no greater satisfaction for any Canadian golfer than to play the mountain courses of Alberta and British Columbia.

Built in the shadows of mighty peaks from Calgary to Victoria, Canada’s mountain courses aren’t just stunningly beautiful places to play, they’re a vital part of our golfing heritage, living proof for all to see that nobody builds them better.

Inspiring golf course architect
Since the 1920s, every high elevation course built anywhere in the world has followed the template established by legendary Canadian golf architect Stanley Thomson at his groundbreaking layouts in Alberta, at Banff and Jasper, the crown jewels of courses owned by the Fairmont hotel chain. With the passing years, it has become clear Thompson ranks alongside A.W. Tillinghast, Alister Mackenzie and Donald Ross as one of the premier designers of golf’s so-called golden age.

Born in Toronto in 1893, Thompson dominated the Canadian golf landscape from the 1920s until his death in 1953. He designed with the subtle strokes of a painter, bringing elements of balance, harmony and proportion to his work. Most impressive was his ability to make each hole linger in a golfer’s memory.

Several years ago, a $4.5-million restoration of Thompson’s original 18 holes at Banff Springs saw the Bow River valley layout, which had become worn with age, returned to the architect’s original vision. (An additional nine holes built in the Thompson “style” opened in 1989.) Fairways contoured to match the mountain ranges beyond were lengthened and re-sodded. Thompson had made them extra wide by to accommodate his philosophy of providing golfers with alternative routes to the green.

The 770-room Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel looms like a fairy-tale castle on the cliffs overlooking the course. A new lobby and a museum detailing the hotel’s history have recently been added to a property that has come to symbolize Canada as surely as the beaver, Wayne Gretzky and Niagara Falls.

A major restoration has also been completed at Thompson’s classic layout at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, a woodsy retreat opened in 1922. It offers accommodation in 446 rooms, in chalets, cabins and cottages, a short stroll from the restaurants, lounges and shopping arcades in the central lodge. In Jasper, Thompson startled the golf world by clearing gaps through the forest to point golfers toward greens aligned with distant mountains, with bunkers whimsically patterned after snow formations on their peaks.

Hard par, easy bogey
Robert Trent Jones, the American-born architect of the two exceptional layouts at Kananaskis Country Golf Course, about an hour west of Calgary, honed his craft as Thompson’s junior partner in the 1930s. He then went on to become perhaps the most influential course designer in history, famous for his oft-quoted philosophy that every golf hole should be a hard par but an easy bogey.

Trent Jones’s 18-hole courses unfold alongside the Kananaskis River and feature more than 165 hectares of rivers, streams and ponds and 142 strategically placed bunkers. The nearby Delta Lodge at Kananaskis, which memorably hosted the 2002 G8 Summit, has 321 guest rooms, including 80 luxury suites deemed fit for the leaders of the free world and their entourages.

Like Thompson, Trent Jones in turn became a mentor, guiding Canadian architect Les Furber, who roamed the world as a project manager for the Trent Jones organization before starting his own golf design company in Canmore, Alta.

Protegé to pro designer
Furber has designed more than two dozen Canadian mountain courses but possibly his best is Predator Ridge Golf Resort in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. The popular resort’s 1,200 acres of lakes, streams and wheatgrass meadows feature a central lodge, 50 two-and-three-bedroom luxury cottages, as well as 27 artfully designed golf holes – 21 holes by Furber and six by Jack Nicklaus’s company. Viewed at sunset from the clubhouse’s outdoor deck, the contrast of the emerald fairways against the valley’s crimson hills is surreally lovely — a giant stage set painted by the golfing gods.

Without exception, Furber and Canada’s other leading contemporary golf architects cite Thompson as a personal hero and a major influence on their own work. Torontonian Doug Carrick, an especially devoted disciple, designed the magnificently scenic Greywolf Golf Course, which opened near the British Columbia mountain town of Invermere in 1999.

Observant golfers have noted the similarities between Greywolf and Thompson’s courses in Banff and Jasper. Carrick’s uneven fairways, subtle greens and fondness for elevated tees are all in keeping with Thompson’s design philosophy.

Part of the Panorama Mountain Village ski and golf resort, Greywolf boasts one of the most sensational par threes in the land, Cliffhanger, the aptly named sixth hole.

Cliffhanger demands a long, gut-churning carry over the drop of Hopeful Canyon to a green perched along the edges of rock cliffs. Rugged peaks tower in every direction, evergreens strain toward the sky and, from the green, golfers can see for kilometres down a mountain valley. The only thing missing from this picture-postcard Canadian setting is a Mountie standing on guard at the tee.

Not since the unveiling of Banff’s Devil’s Cauldron in the 1920s has a Canadian golf hole generated so much excitement. Thompson himself could not have improved on Carrick’s work – or been more proud.