Bears! Mountains! The metric system! A golf adventure in Whistler

July 28, 2013

Fairmont-No-8In golf, and in life, it all comes down to decisions we make in tough situations. That's when we learn what we're made of. Those are the moments that change a round, and perhaps even a future.
I faced one such golf-and-life conundrum when I stood on a tee box framed by mountains and watched an adult black bear slowly emerge from a thicket of wild flowers and plop down in the grass about 40 yards in front of me.

It was a cloudy, cool Canadian summer afternoon, and there sat the bear, snacking on some daisies and other plants within paws-length, utterly oblivious to my foursome — or so we hoped. The beast was directly between my tee box and the center of the fairway, and it was now my turn to hit a shot. I had a driver in my hand. Staring at the bear and the fairway beyond, I narrowed my next move to four options:

1) Aim my shot to the left of the large mammal and fade the ball into the fairway.
2) Pick a line to the right of the bear and draw it into the short grass.
3) Keep it simple and fly it straight over his furry head.
4) Scrap the whole thing, make a beeline for the clubhouse and grab some lunch before I become exactly that.

These are the kinds of decisions you may face when teeing up in Whistler, British Columbia. Choose wisely.

This adventure officially kicked off 48 hours earlier when my wife and I arrived in Vancouver for a weekend of relaxation and a little golf in Canada's great Northwest. We had one rule for the trip: Embrace All Things Canada, even the loathsome metric system. If you've ever tried to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit in your head, you know this wouldn't be easy.

Snacks-FinalTo prepare for the two-hour road trip from Vancouver to Whistler, we stopped at a convenience store and plunked down a few loonies (or were they toonies?) for some Canadian snacks — easily identifiable thanks to their French product labels — and then hit the main drag.
The road takes you across the magnificent Lions Gate suspension bridge, and over, around and through the pine-blanketed mountains. There are several stops along the highway to pull over and snap photos, and we hit several of them.

Just before wheeling into downtown Whistler, we passed a bright yellow street sign that asked-slash-warned: "PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE BEARS." Leave it to the famously nice Canadians to make the request so politely, I joked to Mrs. Ritter, who reminded me that we were Embracing All Things Canada. It was time to dial back the sarcasm for our next stop.

ScandinaveNestled in the trees just outside Whistler's town center is Scandinave Spa, a posh, eco-friendly three-acre relaxation center that overlooks the dazzling landscape. Scandinave has all the requisite trappings of a luxury spa, including saunas and message rooms, but its bread-and-butter are the outdoor Scandinavian baths (shown at right).
Here guests take a quick plunge in a cold tub, then climb out and pop into a steaming hot tub, muscles contracting and relaxing along the way. It might sound intense, but after a few hot-and-cold cycles in that fresh mountain air, my wife and I were loose and totally stress-free. (It helped that water temperatures were listed in both Celsius and Fahrenheit, so we knew what was coming.) It was a unique and enjoyable experience. In fact, if this were a Yelp review, here's what I'd write: "Scandinave is hands-down the perfect place to relax after completing a moderately long car ride and consuming half a bag of Canadian popcorn."

After rolling out of Scandinave, we checked into the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, located at the base of Blackcomb Mountain and a short walk from the gondola that takes visitors up the slopes. Most travelers already know that Fairmont is a first-rate hotel chain, but thanks to the surrounding mountains, towering pines and crisp air, the setting for this one is special. Fairmont also operates a golf course just a short shuttle ride away, the Chateau Whistler Golf Club, our next stop.

Bear-FlagThe possibility of spotting a black bear while playing golf at Chateau Whistler doesn't fully register until you take about two steps inside the course's pro shop — that's when you'll see the screen above the main desk that plays a slide show on loop of black bears on the course. Some bears are big, some are small, and they are shown walking, sleeping and even frolicking around the fairways. There's one shot of a bear lying on the green with the flagstick bent over between his paws — the cub vaguely resembles a human baby swatting a mobile in his crib [see right]. For a golfer about to head out and potentially grasp this same flagstick, the photo is simultaneously adorable and disturbing.

Ironically enough, the course itself features an abundance of risk-reward holes. From the opening tee shot on No. 1 — a straightaway par-5 with a waste area cutting across the center of the fairway, you'll have to decide how much club to hit without reaching the hazard. I selected a hybrid and my tee shot settled about 30 yards short of the shmutz. No. 2 is a short dogleg left par-4 over another ravine for your approach. A round here is filled with strategy and shotmaking, and it's a fun test.

Along the way, the course winds up, down and through Blackcomb Mountain. It's easy to envision architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. having a blast while creatively using the contours of this piece of land. The course isn't expansive and forgiving — the fairways are relatively narrow, you rarely have a flat lie, and the greens are tricky. But it's beautifully landscaped and unique.
And what you'll remember most is the gorgeous scenery. Massive Douglas firs ring the course and the Canadian Coastal Mountains are above and around you at every turn. Each of Chateau Whistler's four par 3s feature a downhill tee shot framed by mountains. The only areas in the peaks that aren't covered by pines are the spots that have been cleared for ski runs. It really is something to see.

You need to play well, but making a good score here is possible. Dave Day, a chipper Torontonian and bogey golfer who played in my foursome, shot his first career 79 that afternoon. I did not break 80 but still enjoyed the experience, including Chateau's signature par-3 eighth hole (also pictured above), where I filmed this video. As an added bonus, you'll see my most atrocious golf shot of the day. Enjoy.

This is probably going to come as a shock, but I was unable to get up-and-down from underneath the pine tree at the top of that cliff to save par. It happens.

We were a couple holes into the back nine when a course ranger named Scott buzzed over in a cart with some exciting news for our group.

"You guys just missed the bear," Ranger Scott said sadly. "He's next to the fairway on seven, just eating away."

"Who is he eating?" I said quickly. Ranger Scott assured us that the bears at Chateau Whistler are omnivores. Flowers and other plant life are the diet plan. There's really nothing to fear, he said.

It wouldn't be long before we'd find out.

I was stepping onto the tee box at the par-4 14th when that scene I mentioned earlier played out: an adult black bear emerged from a patch of tall grass, about 40 yards in front of me. My wife, always cool under pressure, filmed this iPhone video:

You remember the decision I was facing: drive the ball over or around the bear, or flee the scene. After mulling it over, I decided that because the bear seemed disinterested in ingesting an American tourist, and because I rarely hit it exactly where I'm aiming, and because I was Embracing All Things Canada, I would hit a shot.
I took a line over the bear's head, prayed that I didn't top it, and took a swing. The shot was a high slice that easily cleared the bear, carved through the air and settled deep in the pine forest right of the fairway, about 240 yards away. We hopped in our carts and took a nice, wide arc around the animal as we drove by.

A few minutes later, I emerged from the woods without my ball and had to make yet another golf-meets-life decision: Do I return to the tee, as the rules of golf dictate when a ball is lost? I glanced back up the fairway, saw that the bear was now in motion and wandering toward the tee box, and immediately ruled out that option. Instead, I dropped a ball between my shoes and played on. Some things in life are more important than the rules of golf — like life, for example.

After the round, my wife and I returned to the Fairmont for a dinner at the Grill Room, a swanky spot right off the lobby that turned out to be one of our all-time best meals. We ordered dry-aged rib eyes and brownie-ice cream sundaes topped with a fruit-and-chocolate topping that's caramelized right there at your table. Luxurious? Check. Canadian? Check. It was the perfect way to end the trip, and it left no doubt that spending a summer weekend in Whistler was a great choice.

In fact, that was the best decision of all. (Photos: Jeff Ritter, Fairmont Chateau Whistler, Scandinave Spa)