Thursday, February 15, 2007

As pertains to golf, Canada is today where the Big Island of Hawaii was 15 years ago: in the midst of a building boom that shows no sign of slowing down. In Canada, new courses are popping up from New Brunswick to Victoria.

Established designers such as Canadian natives Gary Browning and Les Furber have their plates full, and American designers such as Rees Jones, Jack Nicklaus and others are well represented. There are currently some 2,000 courses open for play in Canada.

Unlike the United States, however, demand is increasing. In 1998 there were 4.8 million people who identified themselves as golfers in Canada, and that number has increased at a rate of four percent per year. And that number does not account for any increase in tourism.

All of the new course development activity throughout the country should mix in nicely with a handful of classic golf resorts, particularly those that can be found in the province of Alberta, amidst the Canadian Rockies.

The golf season here lasts from May to mid-October, although die-hard Albertan golfers have been known to brush the snow off their ball far later into the year. While they are doing so, however, most of the tourists have retreated indoors, preferably near a large fireplace or warming up in the sumptuous dining rooms of the resort lodges here.

In fact, the Edith Cavell dining room at the Jasper Park Lodge offers quite possibly the best soup on earth. It's called Chowder of Wild Alberta Mushrooms with Wild Rice, Beans and Fireweed Honey, a creation of Chef David Garcelon. It is at once sinful and delicious, a temptation and a blessing.

In a sense, it reflects the best elements the Canadian Rockies have to offer: This soup is wild and local, bred in the high elevations of this magnificent region. Yet it is refined, friendly, and as beautiful as the reflection in a deep mountain lake.

The golf course is like this at Jasper, too: very friendly, resort-style golf. And there can be no more appropriate use of the term "parkland setting," as Jasper Park Lodge and Golf Course is within the borders of Canada's 4,200-square-mile Jasper National Park.

Resort literature states that Jasper Park Lodge is within "easy access by car from Calgary International Airport," but the truth is, it's in the middle of nowhere,

Yet that's part of the charm. A nice, big Canadian Rocky Mountain nowhere. Not that being so far from a large city (275 miles from Calgary and 225 miles from Edmonton) hurts business.

Plenty of folks find their way to this tranquil turn off the highway each year, summer and winter, for fly fishing, hiking, biking, horseback riding and relaxing in the summer; or for skiing, snowboarding and enjoying the delights of the holiday season in the snow country each winter.

Owned by Canadian Pacific Hotels and Resorts, which also owns Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise, the Lodge at Kanananskis and a host of other properties, Jasper Park Lodge opened its doors in 1922.

Close to 450 rooms are available here in a rustic setting. If you're traveling with family, the Viewpoint cabin is worth checking out. Three bedrooms, full kitchen, living room, dining room and a downstairs pool table/recreation room make this a special choice.

The golf course, which opened in 1925, was designed by Stanley Thompson, Canada's most renowned and colorful golf course architect. The Jasper Park Lodge and Banff Springs Hotel courses were the designs that really launched Thompson's career.

Born in Scotland, Thompson moved to Canada as a child and was 31-years old when Jasper opened. He would go on to forge a distinguished career that saw more than 100 courses designed or remodeled.

His work stretches across Canada, the northern United States, and also includes several courses in Jamaica, Brazil and Columbia. But there's no doubt that Jasper and Banff remain his two most praised designs.

Indeed, the land with which he was given to work on both courses is pristine and awesome. The views here encompass grand vistas of the Canadian Rockies, glorious in their craggy sharpness and standing tall against the deep blue sky.

You can still see bald eagles soaring the skies, black bears stalking the riverbanks for fish, elk all over the place, the occasional grizzly bear coming down from the mountain heights and of course, the ubiquitous Canada Goose.

Canadian Aces
  Jasper Park
(780) 852-3301 $65-$125*

  Banff Springs
(403) 762-2211 $60-$120*

  Mt. Kidd/Mt. Lorette
(877) 591-2525 $55

  Silver Tip
(800) 877-5444 $50-$90

  Stewart Creek
(877) 993-4653 $45-$85

*Discounted rates are available to Canadian residents and hotel guests. All rates are quoted in U.S. dollars and are subject to changes in the exchange rate and Canadian tax. Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

Amidst all this grandeur, as if it weren't enough all by itself, are the golf courses. They are definitely "feel-good" courses.

Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course has an openness that makes it receptive to all types of shots. Thompson's bunkering is genius, coming into play for those who wish to take some chances, especially in the corner of doglegs. But there are also plenty of options for the golfer who wishes to take a safer route.

A par-71 layout that can stretch to 6,663 yards, the Jasper course is very playable from the 6,368-yard white tees. For those who want a shorter course, the 5,935-yard red tees offer many of the same challenges and options.

Where Jasper can jump up and bite you is on the front nine's par threes. The fourth plays 220 yards, with yawning bunkers surrounding the putting surface and a hillside to the left. The bailout area on the right creates a shot over a bunker to a shortish green.

The ninth plays downhill, but it's 214 yards with a false front and a deceptive bunker. The elevated green is surrounded by sand, and off-line tee shots are slapped away like goalie Grant Fuhr did to opponents during the Edmonton Oilers' Stanley Cup dynasty of the 1980s.

There are few more beautiful holes in golf than the 14th at Jasper. A mountain lake guards the hole on the left from tee to green, with the blue and white tee boxes extending out on a shoulder of land in the lake.

Most decent tee balls will hit the fairway, and the flag opens up from there. But what will easily distract you is the jaw-dropping, panoramic view of the lake and surrounding mountains.

A four-hour drive south of Jasper is where you'll find the quaint town of Banff Springs and the elegant Banff Springs Hotel, now owned by Canadian Pacific Hotels.

Built in 1888, the Hotel is part Gothic house of mystery, and part Old World charm. Fashioned after old Scottish castles, this 770-room lodging set in the mountains took tradesmen, including Italian stonecutters and Scottish stonemasons, more than 18 years to build.

Like Jasper Park Lodge, the hotel is located in a national park. Outdoor activities and adventure abound here, as does the chance to duck into a world-class spa for a thorough soaking, rubdown and coifing before dinner.

Golfers have their choice of 27 holes at Banff, the best being the original 18 holes Stanley Thompson built in several stages and completed in 1929. Those historic holes recently received a $4.5 million facelift, restoring many of the course's original characteristics. Another nine holes, geared more for beginners, are also available.

Overseeing the project was Canadian golf course architect Les Furber, who, along with executive professional Doug Wood and superintendent Kevin Pattison, painstakingly researched the original shot values, tee box positions and green shapes by studying old photographs, blueprints, and historic materials.

Part of this layout's rich historical heritage took place in 1961, when it hosted a match featured on "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf." The program host that day, the late Gene Sarazen, had played here in a 1936 exhibition match against Helen Hicks, who at the time was one of the better women golfers in the United States.

The Shell match pitted renowned Canadian professional Stan Leonard against the young Texan Jackie Burke Jr. In what was reported as bitterly cold September weather, Leonard bested Burke Jr. by five strokes.

Then there's the story that appeared in the October 1917 issue of Canadian Golfer. Seems a young lady hit a drive two miles long at the Banff Springs Golf Course. The tale is told like this:

"A Miss Pattison of Summit, New Jersey, was a visitor to the Banff Springs golf course, that delightful 'links on top of the world.' On a wager she undertook to climb up the steep slopes of Mount Rundle, which towers 9,798 feet above the course, and drive a golf ball onto the eighth 'fair-green' below. And Miss Pattison won the wager."

"There are records of men golfers driving balls from the peaks of the Himalayas, from the top of Mt. Blanc and other dizzying heights, but no records in standard golf books to any member of the fairer sex tackling such a feat."

The course golfers play today is a tough resort layout, measuring 6,938 from the back tees, 6,390 from the middle markers, and 5,607 from the front. Its difficulty lies in the carries and many natural areas fronting tee boxes, particularly on the home nine.

Many of these natural areas are due in part to Banff's involvement in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, which certifies golf courses as "good environmental stewards" after they meet a series of guidelines geared to protect wildlife habitat, utilize integrated pest management, and conserve and protect water resources.

Although they were in abundance long before the Audubon program came to Banff, the elk that roam the course (and the town for that matter) have their way whenever they encounters humans. They may look big and furry, but these guys aren't interested in being part of a petting zoo. Think of them as Bambi with an attitude.

The elk will graze and lie down right in front of tee boxes, on greens, wherever they please. Don't mess with them because you'll come out on the short end of the bargain. Local rules state that "Any shot striking an elk may be replayed with no penalty."

Local knowledge dictates that if your ball comes to rest near an elk, don't even think of retrieving it. More than one golfer has been chased behind a tree for protection.

But it's all part of the fun. If you stay your distance, they'll stay theirs. And in the end analysis, this land was theirs long before we showed up.

The hotel consists of 770 guestrooms in several wings. It's easy to get lost and found in this rambling castle. There are hidden stairways, grand halls and maybe even some secret passageways. Kids love this kind of place. There are special programs and even a bowling center to occupy their indoor time.

Many of the guest rooms have recently been remodeled, and now elegantly befit an historic property such as the Banff Springs Hotel.

The tee box at the 15th hole here is halfway up a mountain, overlooking much of the golf course. It's a long par four from the tips, made longer by the pressure of hitting in front of a gallery of hotel guests and park visitors that are invariably watching.

The ball you have to hit from here needs to go a long way down, cross a fork of the Upper Bow River, pass over a herd of elk grazing riverside, avoid the knee-high gorse on the right, avoid the tree line on the left, and travel far enough to give you a decent shot on the approach.

But it's easy, really. Just take a deep breath of the fresh mountain air and you'll be fine

Forty minutes east toward Calgary, in the Kananaskis River Valley, are two more excellent golf courses, Mt. Kidd and Mt. Lorette.

Designed in the early 1980s by Robert Trent Jones Sr., both are traditionally voted as being among the best courses in Canada. In fact, Jones called the Kananaskis development "the finest location I have ever seen for a golf course."

Mt. Lorette opened first, in 1983. A par 72, the back tees measure more than 7,100 yards.

Water hazards come into play on 13 of the 18 holes, and the glacier-fed Kananaskis River weaves through the back nine, feeding the creeks and ponds on the front. Dramatic mountain views are prevalent throughout the course.

The opening hole gives clues to the course's challenges. It's a 412-yard par four, with two ponds to the left of the fairway and a creek on the right artfully creating a narrow landing area for the tee shot. The creek continues up the right side of the hole, ready to claim errant approach shots.

The 14th on Mt. Lorette is a dogleg-left, 523-yard par five. The wide landing area protects against golfers cutting the corner of the dogleg, which is guarded by two sand bunkers.

An accurate tee shot here allows longer hitters to think about going for the green in two. But the fact that it's extremely narrow and flanked by sand usually causes most players to lay up, leaving a shorter third shot that can come in much higher and softer. Adding to the degree of difficulty is the presence of the Kananaskis River running up the right side of this classic risk/reward hole.

The finishing hole is a 463-yard par four that requires a carry over a hidden creek to reach the green. This contoured double green (shared by the ninth hole of the Mt.Kidd Course) is nicely situated in front of a natural amphitheater.

Neighboring Mt. Kidd opened for play in 1984. Like Mt. Lorette, this course ranges almost 7,100 yards from the tips.

Large sand traps, water, elevation change and undulating greens define the character of this layout. Played from the back tees, Mt. Kidd will give better golfers all they can handle.

Perhaps the most beautiful hole on the course -- certainly the most photographed according to course officials -- is the par three fourth.

Elevated tees on this hole play reveal a large island green. Depending on wind direction and which tees you are playing, club selection here can vary from a 9-iron to a 3-iron, and everything in between. The scenery features panoramic views of the golf course, river valley and nearby mountains.

Mt. Kidd's 17th hole is relatively short at 378 yards. But it requires accuracy off the tee to a narrow landing area. The approach shot needs to carry all the way onto the small green to avoid a pot bunker in front.

A ball coming to rest against the bunker wall is almost impossible to advance, and more than one scorecard has had a high number written on it after tackling this innocent-looking hole.

The home hole is a monster 642-yard par five from the tips. Several sand traps come into play along the fairway, and three solid shots are required to reach the putting surface.

Mt. Kidd does not relax its challenge to your game from start to finish. And even though you may not set any personal scoring records on this course, the natural beauty of each hole is what will bring you back for another round.

Perhaps best of all, both Mt. Kidd and Mt. Lorette are daily-fee courses and are quite reasonable pricewise.

Three other worthy courses in the Kananaskis area include The Springs at Radium, The Ranch at Windermere and Greywolf.

The Springs at Radium's 18-hole championship course was constructed by Les Furber and opened in 1988. The course follows the massive Columbia River.

Sitting high up on the edge of a plateau, it offers panoramic views of the Columbia River Valley plus the Purcell and Rocky Mountains. The Springs Course boasts one of the bestpractice facilities in Canada.

The Ranch at Windermere is a 6,800-yard layout that offers very diverse terrain following the natural contours of the site, resulting in unusual undulations and challenging holes throughout.

Natural features and views from the golf course are spectacular, highlighted by stunning rock work and natural grasses complimenting the many ponds and streams.

Greywolf was constructed by BMR Golf and opened in 1999. The golf course is part of the Panorama Mountain Village development, owned by Intrawest.

With bentgrass from tee to green, and water meandering through 10 of 18 holes, this 7,140-yard mountain course is nothing less than spectacular.

Inspired by the celebrated Stanley Thompson, Greywolf was designed by renowned golf course architect Doug Carrick.

That nationwide course building boom Canada is experiencing has brought two new courses to the greater Banff area in the past several years.

Silver Tip, a challenging 18 holes of sheer mountain golf and beauty designed by Les Furber; and Stewart Creek, a somewhat less demanding track designed by Gary Browning.

Both will be part of multi-purpose projects that are designed to eventually include more golf courses, homes, hotels and shopping opportunities.

Silver Tip, for example, plans to build seven hotels, the first of which will be a 100-room resort slated to open in fall 2002.

Although Silver Tip is the kind of course that can eat you alive, better golfers will appreciate the shot values and demands of frequent elevation changes.

The opening hole lets you know immediately what you're in for on the day. The tee boxes are located on a rise looking almost straight down at a lake. The fairway then climbs sharply uphill to an elevated putting surface.

Very few level lies await you in the fairway, and sometimes you may feel as if you're a mountain goat when trying to hit a ball that's nearly level with your forehead!

Three Sisters' Stewart Creek (named after the Three Sisters mountains that serve as an awesome backdrop to the course) is more forgiving, with less elevation change and wider fairways than those found at Silver Tip. Of course, those who wish for a stiffer test can find all the challenge they desire from the 7,200-yard back tees on this Gary Browning design.

One hole Browning is particularly fond of is the par-four seventh. The tee shot is somewhat blind, caused by a natural mound in play on the fairway. A well-placed drive however will give you a clear view of the putting surface, which sits almost 100 feet below the fairway. But that's not all. There's also a rock outcropping right in the middle of the fairway 20 yards short of the green.

The 18th at Stewart Creek is a strong home hole. This par five can be reached in two, but only if a lake on the left is avoided.

The response to the first 18 holes at Stewart Creek has spurred plans for two more courses (Mine Side and Three Sisters) to be built over the next several years.

Like the Big Island of Hawaii, the Canadian Rockies is big country: big views, big golf courses, big elk, big glaciers and big fun. It makes a golfer hungry for a big bowl of Wild Alberta Mushroom Chowder.

George Fuller is a freelance writer based in Half Moon Bay, California.

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