Golf Canada's Rocky Mountains
We have Canada to thank for Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman, the dollar versus the loony, Molson's and Labatt's, Dan Aykroyd and Michael J. Fox, Mike Myers and Austin...oh well, can't win Žem all.
But Canada produced a world class winner in Stanley Thompson and his two golf courses at Banff Springs and Jasper Park Lodge in the Canadian Rockies and another pair of winners at Kananaskis by a Thompson pupil who went out and did quite well on his own -- Robert Trent Jones.
How good are Thompson courses? So good that they're living memorials to the bushy-mustached Scot who died in Toronto at the age of 58. Thompson courses rank 1-2-3 in the 2002 rankings of Canada's Top 100 Courses by SCORE Magazine. The top three are St. George's in Toronto, Highlands Links in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and Capilano in West Vancouver, British Columbia.
As great as they are, however, they don't have the magnificent setting of the Canadian Rockies.
"I've been to Alaska, been to the American Rockies but there's something about the Canadian Rockies that sets them apart," a doctor friend of mine said. "You can't put your camera down."
One thing that sets the golf apart was the talent of Thompson, one of five brothers and the four others were internationally known players as professionals and amateurs. Flamboyant and nicknamed "The Toronto Terror," Thompson apparently went through money like an aquaphobe going through balls on a course with 18 water holes.
There was no denying his ability to meld courses into the landscape and the two major golf course "developers" of his time, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railways, both hired him. The Canadian National was first. It figured a golf course at its Jasper Park Lodge was the way to draw customers away from the CPR's established Banff Springs Resort, 200 miles to the south.
It worked so well that three years after the Jasper course opened in 1925, Canadian Pacific opened its Thompson course along the Bow and Spray rivers. Then, as now, Jasper Park Lodge went for the rustic, woodsy outdoor look with log cabins spread around the grounds by Lac Beauvert and the Athabasca River. Banff Springs went for the castle look and its imposing brick and stone complex, set into a backdrop of hundreds of thousands of lodgepole pines and firs growing up the mountainside, is the quintessential dream resort.
Somewhat surprisingly in these days of megacourse resorts, Jasper remains at 18 holes and Banff has 27, the third nine added in 1989 and designed by Geoffrey Cornish, an American who had worked with Thompson, and Bill Robinson, Toronto-born but educated at Penn State, and he had worked for Robert Trent Jones.
Thompson's philosophy was that a course should stand on its own merits regardless of its surroundings. Jasper and Banff stand on their own but those surroundings enrich the experience. Thompson also was a risk/reward designer. He used a lot of sand and gave players the option of playing over fairway bunker corners for a shorter shot to the green or playing safe and taking longer to get there.
My favorite Banff holes were the second, third and fourth and the 15th. The par-3 second (179, 171, 147 and 127 yards) is called ŽRundle,' as it is backdropped by Mt. Rundle. The par-5 third (536, 528, 501 and 465) is wedged into the side of the mountain and is named Gibraltar -- it looks just as imposing as that famous rock. Along the left side of the fairway is a grove of trees that Banff's elk herd -- which roams everywhere, like those sacred cattle in India -- uses to rub its horns against leaving bare patches on the trunks.
The par-3 fourth (199, 192, 165, 79) is the Devil's Cauldron, a dropshot over a glacially-formed pond to a heavily-bunkered green. I hit a 3-wood to 15 feet and was elated.
The par-4 15th (480, 475, 459 and 405) is named Spray, for the river you have to carry. You do not want to spray the ball. Originally it was the first hole, playing from a building that now is a German-themed restaurant with an English-flavored pub on the lower level. To reach the tee it seems as though you're leaving the golf course and climbing to the hotel but, suddenly, there are tee boxes and a Wow! of a view over the Spray to the fairway.
Banff probably says "Canada" more than any course, but Jasper, ranked No. 1 golf resort by SCORE Magazine, doesn't have to take a backseat. Thompson worked his magic, working in the mountain views like hand in glove. The par-5 second hole is Old Man and the mountain ridge in the distance looks like the profile of a face.
The par-4 eighth (427, 409, 395 yards), Tekarra's Cut, is a neat dogleg right with the green tucked behind a hill. The tee shot should be through a saddle straightaway from the tee. According to Alan Carter, Jasper's Director of Golf and a native of Sarnia, Ont., Thompson puckishly designed the par-3 ninth, Cleopatra, as a voluptuous woman with strategically placed mounds and bunkers. When the railroad president saw it, he demanded that Thompson alter it. But in the distance behind the hole is a mountain formation called the Pyramids so it still has the Egyptian touch.
And the par-5 10th is The Maze. Thompson scattered 10 bunkers of varying size but he didn't sprinkle sand everywhere. Lac Beauvert comes into play on the 14th and 16th holes and neither has a bunker.
Thompson's pupil and later partner, Robert Trent Jones, learned from the master. There are 76 bunkers on the Mt. Kidd course at Kananaskis and 67 on Mt. Lorette. The icy Kananaskis River is in play on the final five holes of Mt. Lorette, however, and that more than evens it up.
All three resorts are operated by the upscale Fairmont chain. The Delta Lodge at Kananaskis hosted the G-8 Conference a few days before we were there. President Bush didn't have time for golf but he did jog. A few miles up the road is the Nakiska Ski Area which hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. Kananaskis is about an hour west of Calgary and Banff is less than an hour farther west. Jasper is 200 miles north of Banff, up the incredibly scenic Icefields Parkway.
But, hey, the speed limit is 110. Of course, that's kilometers per hour, not miles.
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