Banff and Jasper National Parks offer sensational Stanley Thompson golf and a gorgeous international travel experience
This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of NCGA Golf
By Scott Seward
When Golf magazine unveiled its greatest 18-hole list as part of its “The 500 Greatest World’s Greatest Golf Holes” book, the four greatest par 3s in the world were No. 15 at Cypress Point, No. 4 at National Golf Links, No.17 at TPC Sawgrass-and No.4 at Banff Springs in Alberta, Canada.
Talk about some heady company.
“People have high expectations about that hole,” said the resort’s director of golf, Steven Young. “But it manages to over-deliver every time.”
I never thought I’d see anything as extraordinary as Big Sur’s Bixby Bridge when I first laid eyes on it from Hurricane Point some 20 years ago. The magnitude and beauty staggered my senses.
But each time I visit Peyto Lake (above) in the Canadian Rockies, it re-emerges as my favorite place in the world.
Situated between the charming mountain towns of Banff and Jasper on the Icefields Parkway, in Alberta, Canada, Peyto Lake’s vista serves up the perfect blend of the area-a bright turquoise lake surrounded by towering peaks.
Northern Californians are blessed with numerous stunning vistas throughout the region: Yosemite Valley, the Marin Headlands and McWay Falls come to mind. But the scenery in the Canadian Rockies is just spectacular. At seemingly every turn, the views are downright mind-boggling.
While the golf here is amongst most visually spectacular in the world, it’s safe to say that the sport is not the first draw.
Banff (90 minutes) and Jasper National Parks (three hours) are a spectacular drive through the Canadian Rockies once you land at Calgary International Airport. With one look at Peyto Lake and the many other stunning stops along the Icefields Parkways (which connects the two towns), it is clear that hikers and nature enthusiasts have found heaven on earth.
And then there are us golfers. While Bixby Bridge is one of my favorite sights in the world, the scenic coastline that would be perfect for golf does not include a course.
Fortunately for golfers who venture north, Canadian golf course architecture titan Stanley Thompson created masterpieces at Banff and Jasper.
Evaluating the quality of Thompson’s work can be difficult. The backdrop and mountain panoramas are overwhelming, dwarfing the golf and the shot at hand.
Just as some argue that Pebble Beach wouldn’t be considered among the game’s greatest courses if you took away the ocean, there are those who feel the golf in Banff and Jasper National Parks wouldn’t be outstanding if you took away the tremendous landscape.
Well, the ocean is inseparable from Pebble Beach, just as the towering Rockies are married to Banff Springs and Jasper Park golf courses.
Which makes both Canadian Rockies courses an absolute treat.
Banff is first on most Canadian Rockies itineraries.And the town oozes mountain charm.There are many lodging options that can meet any budget, but it doesn’t take long to notice the huge castle that looms over the village. That is the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a 764-room resort that dates to the 19th century. Shops and restaurants abound. A visit here is mandatory, even if you aren’t staying on the property. It’s difficult to imagine a more sublime setting to have a drink than the Rundle Lounge overlooking the Bow Valley.
Stunning geography has a way of inspiring extraordinary living.
The 27-hole Banff Springs routes around the hotel and along the Bow River under two towering peaks, Sulphur Mountain and Mount Rundle. It features an original Thompson 18- hole routing that, upon its debut in 1928, was the most expensive course built in the world. It was the first golf course built north of $1million, as loads of topsoil were imported, and the wilderness had to be tamed.
Nine additional holes were eventually added, and the clubhouse has since moved, but the resort still has days when the original Thompson sequence is played.
This might not matter to some, but to the architectural aficionado, it’s difficult to imagine a more dramatic backdrop to the first and last holes than the Banff Springs Hotel. The eighth hole in that sequence (below), now No. 4, is called the “Devil’s Caldron,” and it is the one included among Golf magazine’s greatest par 3s.
Playing 192 yards over a lake to a bowl-shaped green with towering Mount Rundle looming behind, the hole is visually spectacular. But as difficult as the hole looks, it plays rather easy. More birdies and holes-in-one are made here than any other one shotter on the course.
But one of the greatest holes in the world wasn’t even included in the original design. During construction, an avalanche created a small glacial lake.Thompson gladly re-routed the course to take advantage of beautiful setting.
It was a tribute to the force of Thompson’s personality that the course was even built. The Canadian architect’s masterpiece replaced the resort’s original Donald Ross course, and came close to shutting down during construction multiple times.
But the Toronto native clung to his vision and was able to complete the job, despite the record-setting cost.
The course plays shorter than its 6,938 yards due to its setting at more than 4,500 feet of elevation. But even though I’m able to hit my 9-iron a pro-like 150 yards, precision is still mandatory on the well-protected greens.
Post-round, be sure to try the Bow Valley Grill, with its superb view, or Castello, a satisfying Italian restaurant, to cap your day.
Away from the course, seek out the Tunnel Mountain hike (below). The short hike (less than three miles round-trip) yields panoramic views of the town and golf course. It’s a photographer’s delight.
Connecting Banff and Jasper is the lcefields Parkway, also known as Highway 93. Numerous stops along this drive provide one stunning vista after another. Besides Peyto Lake, which is the highest point of the 140-mile Parkway, the Bow Valley Lake and Columbian Icefield are worthy scenic stops.
A good way station for an afternoon drink, hike or overnight stay is Lake Louise. Sitting on the outdoor deck of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s Lakeview Lounge gazing at the beautiful alpine lake is a truly memorable and relaxing experience.
There’s also the five-mile Lake Agnes tea house hike. It’s a workout, but the view from the top looking down on the lake and hotel is well worth it, and you can enjoy a cup of tea or a sandwich at the tea house before heading down.
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is smaller than its Banff counterpart, but the same grandeur and luxurious sensibility prevails.Waking up to a commanding view of the azure waters of the lake and the towering mountains behind it is unforgettable.[box] Other Things to do in the Canadian Rockies
- Hike some of the best trails in the world: Peyto Lake, Tunnel Mountain in Banff and Lake Agnes Tea House at Lake Louise.
- Have a drink at some of the most scenic bars imaginable such as the rear patio at the Banff Springs Hotel.
- Practice your photography.Your Facebook friends will think you are a professional. [/box]
A short drive from Lake Louise is Moraine Lake, one of the Canadian Rockies’ iconic images.
When the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge golf course (below) debuted in 1925 three years before Banff, it served as a milestone in Canada because it proved a golf course could be constructed in the rugged environment of the Canadian Rockies.
“Thompson had a different job than he did at Banff,”said Jasper Director of Golf Gregg Lown.”He started with a fresh palate of land and framed each hole into the mountains.”
The effect is almost cinematic. Even looking backwards at a hole produces a perfect setting. While the course doesn’t have a dazzling hole like the fourth at Banff Springs, it does have some standouts. The 231- yard ninth is a drop-shot par 3 with a tiny green that would be at home on Pebble Beach Golf Links. The 14th is a cape hole, a 361-yard par 4 that tees off over and hugs the coastline of Lake Beauvert. Similar to Banff and unlike modern mountain golf, the course is easily walkable.
The elevation is lower here, but you will still pick up half a club on the 6,663-yard course, which has earned best resort and public course accolades multiple times from Canada’s ScoreGolf magazine.
The golf course wraps around Lake Beauvert and the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, whose cabins’ rustic luxury spaced out over 700 acres makes for a tranquil experience. The quiet ambience of the property is markedly different than Banff or Lake Louise, where day-trippers and tourist buses produce more hustle and bustle.
The Lodge celebrates its centennial in 2015. A meal at the Emerald Lounge overlooking the lake is the perfect way to end your day in the northern Rockies.
Away from the course, consider the Old Fort Point hike. It’s short, and only mildly challenging, but produces fantastic 360-degree views.
The Canadian Rockies should be on any golfer’s wish list. Amidst some of the most stunning scenery in the world, you will find luxurious accommodations and memorable golf.