It's tough having famous neighbors.
For Canada's Kootenays region, forced anonymity from its proximity to such other great northern golf destinations like Whistler Resort has left the towns and golf courses here on the western edge of the Rocky Mountain chain well-priced and not overly crowded. Lonely, even. Yet the Kootenays still proffer equally stunning mountain views, outdoor adventures aplenty, and some wild old-west history in a friendly and peaceful destination. The place is silly with natural hot springs which may be best enjoyed after a hike in one of several national parks including Yoho-which itself might be best enjoyed with a bottle of rum. You can also work in a side trip to Craigenllachie (just because it's fun to say), where the final spike of the trans-Canadian railway was driven, haunt ghost towns such as Sandon, or sternly examine the oldest surviving sternwheeler-the S.S. Moyie. And how 'bout that always-popular Canadian exchange rate for Godsakes? So why not cheer the Kootenays up with a visit?
While you're there, play as many as five fine golf layouts luxuriating across valleys, beside roaring rivers, carved into mountains, and routing along steep bluffs that appear to float between mountains and valleys. If you're breathless during your stay it may be more than the scenery: these courses nestle at as high as four thousand feet of altitude.
Start your Kootenays golf adventure at the St. Eugene Mission Resort, close by to the Cranbrook Airport just outside this old railway town. Your own mission at St. Eugene involves taking on a links-style venue that plays through flatlands beside the St. Mary River and generously doles out views of high, distant peaks. Occasional forays into pine forests help to establish a nice rhythm. This classic Les Furber design stretches to 7,007 yards.
The opening holes are darned good all the way to number seven, an outstanding 212-yard downhill par three with a green that falls away like a drunk toward a deep collection bowl in the back. The ninth hole, a par five stretching to 556 yards, calls for a draw hit over the fast-moving river at a pair of directional bunkers, followed shortly by an approach lasered between riverside moundings and a pond. On the final hole, bust a drive over a mid-fairway bunker to earn a chance at carrying wide Joseph's Creek on your second shot to a green set in the shadow of the stone 1912 mission building (see sidebar).
Twenty minutes north of Cranbrook lies Bootleg Gap Golf, which has cryptically dropped the word "Course" from the end of its name-perhaps as an austerity measure. Newest among Kootenay Rockies golf venues, this young muni upstart designed by the ubiquitous Les Furber stretches to 7,157 yards along bluffs and hoodoos high above the St. Mary River. While Bootleg could still benefit from further grow-in time, it promises to deliver a fine lower-priced alternative to other area tracks. The course forces you to work with the terrain to shoot a low score. A number of holes play right at Bootleg Mountain and the gap between it and neighboring peaks.
The par-three twelfth, with a 70-foot drop, begins a three-hole stretch along the river. Thirteen, a slight dogleg right over another ravine, drops sharply; the river runs in the distance far left and a big pine near the tee box narrows the available real estate for faders. My droll British playing partner, upon observing my prodigious slice here, remarked that the 90-degree rule was meant to apply to carts, not tee shots.
Forty-five minutes north of Cranbrook, the Bavarian-themed town of Kimberley is perfectly situated to serve as a home base for playing another handful of the Kootenays best golf venues. Founded in the 1890s following the discovery of lead, silver and zinc, Kimberley's optimistic fathers named the town after famous diamond mines in Kimberley, South Africa. Eighty years later, Canada's highest resort hit pay dirt as a tourist destination by attracting visitors with it's yodel-ay-ee-hoo vibe. Nearby, check out Eagle Ranch Golf Course in Invermere, where architect Bill Robinson's design encompasses rolling canyons and high hillside bluffs overlooking the Columbia River. The 6,637-yard track proffers views of Lake Windermere and the Rocky and Purcell Mountains. The drama here occurs mostly on the back side, where ravine carries ratchet up the tingle factor on four separate occasions. The 173-yard sixteenth hole plays to a sandstone-guarded green 80 feet below the tee.
Just outside of Kimberley lies the Trickle Creek Golf Resort, associated with a fine slopeside Marriott Residence Inn featuring stone pillars and wood beams. This 6,896-yard Les Furber design shussing across the slopes of North Star Mountain is like an invigorating ski run in steep moguls: stay alert and prepare for a rollicking ride with a few bumps along the way. Long hitters may be disappointed not to have more opportunities to swing the big stick as accuracy is at a premium here, especially off the tee. The back side opens with an entertaining 333 yarder requiring a tee shot drop-zoned onto a platform wedged between a ravine carry and a long dip to the green. Number eleven is the signature hole here-174 downhill yards with epic views from the elevated tee. Trickle Creek may elicit an occasional eye roll but like a good date it always remains fun.
A side trip to the resort area of Panorama (and its fine Village accommodations) should elicit a few howls because it's home to Greywolf Golf Course, clearly the leader of the pack of Kootenays tracks. Greywolf's 7,140-yard Doug Carrick design combines the best of mountain golf with subtle strategic elements that allow you to play some holes in half a dozen different ways (although not all on the same day). Fairways plummet along fall lines and greens hug cliff tops on the edges of unbroken forestland. Clear, bubbling creeks provide a calming soundtrack of white noise. The strong par fives here are among the most cerebral you'll see anywhere-like a good mystery.
The opening stretch of holes lopes happily and gently uphill before prancing steeply back down. Number three, a 513-yard enigma leaves you with a tougher decision the farther you hit your drive (and based on whether you have a flat lie): carry pods of bunkers with an assault on the green or lay up in one of several different places? The sixth hole, called "Cliffhanger," only calls for one decision: what club to hit to the green around which the entire course was built. You'll bark at the moon as your 200-yard tee shot ascends above Hopeful Canyon and-hopefully-lands on a putting platform balanced atop vertical cliffs.
Number eleven presents a 339-yard temptress with a stripe of fairway laid between a lake and a steep hill. Some may consider going for the green off the tee, but then some may lose five balls trying. Fourteen is a 527-yard puzzler with nearly as many optional ways of playing it. With Bentgrass carpeting unfurling from tees to greens Greywolf may appear soft and furry at times but it's capable of delivering a sharp bite.
The Kootenays are waiting expectantly. Please- don't let them down.