Thompson was an irascible, hard-living character and an accomplished golfer who made and lost multiple fortunes while designing 144 courses in Canada and 178 worldwide. Like MacKenzie, he used the land and natural environments to dictate designs and flow. His bunkering was original, sculpted, and often whimsical. When playing many of his courses, it's like a Canadian version of Masterpiece Theater.
Two of his designs, Alberta's Jasper National Park and Banff National Park rank in Canada's Top 5. They provided the lures for my recent trip through the Canadian Rockies, which included some other excellent courses, as well.
THE FAIRMONT JASPER PARK LODGE GOLF COURSE
Jasper National Park
"I'm not worried about whether you will like the course." Those were confident words for a Director of Golf to say to a writer, but Alan Carter knows he runs a special place.
The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge Golf Club is in the middle of a national park, surrounded by mountains, glaciers, rivers, streams, and wildlife that seems perfectly content to appear anywhere, anytime, including directly in front of you before executing a tee shot. Aside from the sounds of clubs hitting golf balls, or conversation among your friends, it is utterly silent unless, as Alan Carter noted, "Some loon calls out while it's flying through the forest, and you step away from your backswing."
Wouldn't that be a nice problem with which to contend?
They just don't make golf courses like this, anymore. Bing Crosby and his Hollywood set used to escape for games, here. This is a classic course, commissioned by the Canadian railroad barons, designed by Thompson, and opened in 1924. The routing blends so naturally into the landscape that it evokes comparisons with Cypress Point in Monterey, California, and Desert Forest in Carefree, Arizona. All shun gimmickry in favor of taking what the terrain gives them. Those three courses complete a personal playing triumvirate of ocean, desert, and mountain forest.
The Fairmont Jasper Park Golf Course has eighteen wonderful, memorable holes filled with subtle delights in the forms of mounds, water, and complex greens. On the par-3, 9th, called Cleopatra, one bunker loosely resembles a reclining, unclothed woman (or so they say). No two holes are the same. You will hit into valleys, over ridges, around blind corners, up to greens, and down to them.
The dogleg right, par-4, 399-454, 3rd, named Signal Dip, packs risk, reward, fun, blindness, and spectacular beauty into four demanding shots. Good players cut their drives around a corner or over a long row of aspen trees, leaving a relatively easy shot into an elevated green at the end of a fairway that seems to just materialize from a mountain meadow. Make certain to ring the old railroad bell after hitting your approach. It notifies the group behind that the fairway is clear, and explains the name of this sublime, sensational hole.
Your most memorable shot will come at the dogleg left, 311-361 yard, par-4, 14th. It requires players to tee across pristine, ancient, and crystalline Lac Beauvert, and into a left-moving fairway. Lac Beauvert, as they named it, is the hole Thompson throws at you after you think you've already seen everything, but haven't.
The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course is sublime. If you haven't put this on your bucket list next to Pebble Beach or Augusta, you will miss one of golf's richest experiences, and not the only one in this region, because Alberta has another Stanley Thompson course, as well.
The Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Club
Banff, Alberta, Canada
At any other course, golf professionals always tell you to, "Keep your head down." At The Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course, it's impossible. Nature provided the inspiration, and Stanley Thompson the adaptation.
If someone made drawings of these holes instead of taking pictures, you would swear they were cartoon caricatures. Where the Jasper Park course is subtle, intellectual, and understatedly spectacular, Banff adds the element of overt visual steroids. One doesn't merely see the sheer cliffs around Banff. A golfer practically interacts with them. Those rocky faces frame the course, dominate it, decorate, and embrace it. Closer contact with them might actually feel illicit. Now, add the wild, winding Bow river and the castle-like The Fairmont Banff Springs Resort Hotel posing above in the distance to create one of the world's premier golf destinations.
Hard to believe, but The Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Club is a 1928 Thompson course built on top of a Donald Ross course that preceded it. Its roots trace, yet again, to railroad expansion and golf as a lure to draw vacationers into the previously unreachable wilderness.
While other courses aspire to or pretend greatness, Thompson's eighteen holes at Banff define it. And yet, it remains friendly to golfers at any level. Despite the visual verticality, players hit from mostly level lies into fair greens guarded by what may be some of the more illusive and playful bunkers in golf. Where else, after losing an errant shot right, must a player hit over a sand trap shaped like a horseshoe? They do at on the 274-414 yard 16th, called Goat. It's Thompson saying, "Good luck."
You will never forget playing the 79-192 yard Devil's Cauldron. This not-so-little, all-or-nothing, catch-your-breath-and-swing par-3 is world famous. Golf Digest rates it as one of the top eighteen holes in the world, and rightfully so. When asked about his creation, Stanley Thompson once said, "I was commissioned to build the last word on golf."
Next to the 16th at Cypress Point, he may have accomplished just that.
If you were to erase the scenery, Devil's Cauldron is just another elevated par-3. It's only the 13th rated handicap, which hardly matters as you steel yourself to swing.
The hole is all about visuals, beginning a lofty tee shot to a tiny green fronted by a clear alpine lake, with sheer granite cliffs behind. From 165 yards, I hit two less clubs than usual, an 8-iron. Forget all the other embarrassing and errant shots on this trip, that one was pure. My little white ball arced high against the deep blue sky, streaked down, down, down in front of those cliffs, cleared the water, and stopped eight feet in front of the cup. That's a wonderful lifetime golf memory.
After Devil's Cauldron, the course takes four holes to reverse directions into the wind, up the valley along the Bow river. By the 8th, a seemingly simple 91-150 yard par-3 named Papoose, a golfer is dealing that wind as the course becomes harder. From the par-3, 10th, a water hole named Little Bow, through the par-4, 354-411 yard 14th, named Wampum, a decent player from even the white tees will not have less than 185 or 190 into a green and that breeze.
Until the 15th, that is, when Thompson reverses directions, turning that nemesis wind into an ally. The 405-475 yard, par-4, 15th, named Spray, plays from a very high teeing ground. Hit your tee shot past the old 1927 clubhouse, over the Spray river, and into a wide, bountiful fairway far, far below. From impact to landing, my ball flew for almost eleven seconds. I counted them.
You might wonder whether I like the Banff course better than the test in Jasper Park. There is no clear answer. Better, more educated and experienced golf course architecture aficionados have spent entire evenings or even decades debating the point.
"Jasper is quieter and feels more isolated."
"Banff is more naturally spectacular, but has a road running along part of the course."
"Jasper is more subtle, with an even flow of holes."
"Banff is a sterner test, and has the most memorable hole."
"At Jasper, golf is the centerpiece."
"At Banff, you can play hickories and old-style balls."
And, because both courses are managed by Fairmont, accommodations come into play. "At The Fairmont Resort in Jasper Park, golfers can sleep in luxury cabins right next to the course."
"In Banff, they sleep in a grand old hotel that looks more like a castle overlooking a river."
Suffice it to say that the two courses represent both sides of a remarkably talented and innovative designer who adapted stunningly beautiful pieces of land into playing grounds for the game we love. Ideally, a good golf course allows a golfer to interact with and play in an environment. In Alberta, Canada, Mr. Thompson succeeded masterfully, to the delight of us all.
Stewart Creek Golf and Country Club
Canmore, Alberta, Canada
Have you heard about the deluge in Alberta's Canadian Rockies on June, 20, 2013? Ten inches of rain fell in twenty-four hours. The torrent bounced off the sheer, steep, nine-thousand foot cliffs, funneling trees, rocks, and water into and around Canmore, Alberta, Canada. The storm rerouted streams, closed highways, flooded the lowlands, and reclaimed golf courses.
Canmore is a working class town with a history rooted in the railroads and coal mining. Nowadays, it is also a vacation attraction. Having a major climate event at the beginning of the summer season proved debilitating at best, and could have been a disaster, at worst.
"The water from that creek was up over this bridge," described head golf professional Chris Schatzmann. "See that cracked rail? A rock rolled through and broke it." Restoring that bridge was one of the smaller projects for Chris and the staff at Stewart Creek Golf and Country Club, where water and debris rendered portions of the back nine unrecognizable. Fairways looked like riverbeds. The staff rolled up their sleeves, brought in heavy equipment, unloaded truckloads of sod, and restored their once-pristine golf course to playing condition. It was an enormous and heroic effort.
In July, 2013, I played nine holes of the front plus the last three on the back, and Stewart Creek's challenges enamored me. From the tips, this is a 'put up or shut up' test of golf, but also fair and very playable from the more forward tees. One of our partners, a female, plays to a 26 handicap, and still enjoyed the place. By the time I posted this article, all of the course had reopened.
Stewart Creek allows golfers to make decisions. The 426-553 yard, par-5, 6th, has a traditional split fairway approaching the green.
The dogleg left, 277-405 yard, par-4, 7th begins with a blind shot through an opening in the trees from the blues and blacks, unless you tee it forward. From there, the fairway is visible and expansive. For most golfers, the approach is aso semi-blind, over a rock outcropping roughly fifty yards in front of the green. The 7th has drama from beginning to end.
Stewart Creek finishes with two tempting birdie holes that can just as easily wreck a good round.
The 96-150 yard, par-3, 17th is simple but potentially treacherous, with difficult saves for players who miss. It features a deep bunker in the back and to the left.
The 410-530 yard, par-5, 18th sweeps downhill to the right, with a lake protecting the left side. You may be playing that second shot from a somewhat uneven lie, but it does favor the shape of the hole.
While playing Stewart Creek, take a moment to inspect the abandoned coal mines on both the front and back nine. Their shafts penetrate more than a mile into the mountain. Retired miners say that the temperature never changes inside. It's 39 degrees, warm enough to generate clouds of steam in the coldest winter months.
Locals tell tales of black bears and grizzlies in the Canadian Rockies wilderness surrounding Silvertip Resort. If the thought of them intimidates you, so will views from some of the tees on this Les Furber design. That said, your shots will be more forgiving than they look.
Silvertip Resort plays with the six inches between your ears. It's target mountain golf with narrow appearing chutes, steep elevation changes, blind shots, and uneven lies for errant ones. It can play as tough as you want to make it, or as easy. In reality, Silvertip Resort is quite fair, assuming a player keeps his driver in the bag, breaks the holes into segments, and keeps the ball in play. If you like courses with options, Silvertip can give you a fun, challenging game. If you are oblivious of those options and try to overpower the course, then you may have a frustrating day.
More than scoring and terrain, your most lasting memories at Silvertip will be of the views. Three massive peaks known as Three Sisters dominate all local scenery. They're 9633 feet at their highest point, a magnificent contrast to the course and also the Canmore Valley with the Bow River flowing below.
Many players say Silvertip Resort saved its best hole for last. The dogleg left, 297-404 yard, par-4, 18th drops 125 feet from tee to green, and that may be a conservative estimate. From appearances, that cascading slope could double as a ski run. Conservative players tee to a landing area atop the slope, and then hit downhill 180 yards, or so, to the green. Bolder golfers cut the corner with a draw, land their shots on the slope, and let gravity bound the balls into one of several flat areas. It is not uncommon for a strong player to hit a wedge into the green.
For beginners, Silvertip Resort has added a sixth set of tees they call The Short Course. It's available at a discounted rate later in the day. Rather than the full 7813 yards, The Short Course is roughly 4500 yards and allows shorter hitters to play without pressure. Silvertip wants to bring more players into the game. The Short Course is a good idea.
Canmore Golf and Curling Club
Canmore, Alberta, Canada
For more leisurely golfers visiting Canmore, Alberta, Canada, this is a must play, if only for the hometown experience. The Canmore Golf and Curling Club has a most congenial tone, with families and local kids walking or pulling bags. These are the pleasant people of Canmore at play, or the lucky ones, at least. There is a waiting list to join this private club, but visitors may make tee times and play for $80 during weekdays, which is roughly half the price at some of the area's other courses.
The course is eminently playable and challenging for players of all levels. It's flat, open in some places, and tightly treed in others. If you appreciate trains, watch for passing freights along the 3rd fairway.
Canmore Golf and Curling Club dates back to the 1920's. As superintendent Reid Solodan explained, "Les Furber has been involved with design for the past several years, but much of this architecture and routing comes from the members." They're constantly tinkering to make it better while maintaining an understated tone. For example, the cart paths are dirt, an old-school touch that more golf courses should adopt. Dirt paths look more natural. They're more traditional. And, if your ball lands on one, it will be much less likely to bounce high into danger.
Beware the deceptively simple par-4, 300-349 yard, par-4, 8th. Large bunkers accompany golfers along a narrowing fairway from 150 yards and in. Those bunkers line the right side. Hit it straight off the tee, or lay back for a simple short iron approach through the thin mountain air. It's your choice.
On the back nine, the 340-444 yard, par-4, 16th, might almost remind a person of the English countryside, if not for its alpine setting. It features a sweet little green fronted by water on the right, with a forest on the left. It's an intimate setting for such a demanding hole.
Before or after your round, make a point to eat in the restaurant. Sample the regional meats, which range from bison, to duck pate, to special sausages and beef from local purveyor Val Bella. It's good stuff.
The Rose and Crown Pub; Canmore, Alberta
You may have been to pubs before, but this is a special place. Begin with a glance at the menu, which features many of the typical pub classics. Start ordering, however, and you will discover some of the best pub food on the planet.
Owner and chef Rob Anderson knows a little about what golfers like to eat. He's also more-than-a-little OCD about imbuing subtle quality into his cooking. The staff makes every sauce and every dish from scratch. Try the sumptuous calamari, crispy chicken fingers, chicken pot pie, French onion soup, special pastas, and insanely succulent lamb shanks. Like Buffalo burgers? The Rose and Crown offers them, too.
Better yet, the prices are more than reasonable. The meal is a steal. And, views from the deck are exceptional in more ways than one.
Alberta Canada has much in common with Montana. In addition to the fine golf and nature watching, there is hiking, biking, rafting, and even helicopter rides. In Canmore, the same outfit that rescues people from mountains, Alpine Helicopters, operates a fleet of Bell Jet Rangers for aerial tours.
And, when entering or exiting Jasper National Park, make a point to forget sand traps for an hour by touring the Athabasca Glacier. This is ancient ice, open to the public from April through October. Like every other glacier on the planet, Athabasca is shrinking, shifting, and receding, but it remains 300 meters thick in places, with ice piled as high as the Eiffel Tower.
Visitors can walk in, or else pay $49.95 for a bus ride experience that is strictly G-Rated---the G standing for, "Gee Wiz."
The custom-built Ice Explorer busses are the only ones in the world, with massive, cushiony, five foot tall tires. Travel through mounds of glacial moraines onto the ice itself. Fill your canteen with fresh, cold, six-thousand year-old water, and take a swig. It may be the most expensive ice water you ever drink.
Planning your trip will be easier with some help. For this one, I utilized a web site, http://www.canadianrockiesgolf.ca/, which helped guide me from San Francisco, to Calgary, to Canmore, to Jasper National Park, back to Canmore, and on to Banff. It includes everything I mentioned, including links for reservations at The Fairmont resorts in Banff or Jasper Park, or the Grand Rockies Resort in Canmore, plus much more, at your fingertips.