Set amid majestic Rocky Mountain peaks, Alberta’s world-famous Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course is a showcase for the genius of Stanley Thompson, Canada’s most revered golf course architect.
Jagged mountain peaks tower in every direction. Forests of evergreens, magpies flitting noisily among the branches, strain toward a clear northern sky. Scattered across the fairway far below, a dozen or more elk graze on the fescue dancing in the breeze alongside the emerald fairway.
No matter how many times I visit the elevated back tees of the Banff Springs Golf Course’s par-four 15th hole, I’m awestruck by what must surely be one of the most fabulous vistas in all of golf, if not the world.
Designed by Canada’s most revered golf course architect, Stanley Thompson, the Banff Springs Golf Course and the Fairmont hotel that looms like a fairy-tale fortress on the cliffs overhead have come to symbolize Canada as surely as the beaver, Wayne Gretzky and Niagara Falls. The course, the first anywhere to cost more than $1-million, has long been included in virtually every ranking of the game’s leading layouts, and its most celebrated hole, the par-three Devil’s Cauldron, which Thompson set beside an impossibly picturesque glacial lake, numbers among the most photographed in golf.
The southwestern reaches of Alberta hold several of Canada’s most beautiful and demanding golf courses. There are the two superb Robert Trent Jones Sr. designs an hour west of Calgary at the Kananaskis Resort and two acclaimed courses, Silvertip and Stewart Creek, on opposite sides of the Bow River Valley close to Canmore. A three-hour drive to the northwest of Banff is the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course, another Stanley Thompson gem.
Though challenged, Thompson’s accomplishment at the Banff Springs has never been surpassed among mountain courses. Many consider it the crowning achievement of a life’s work that included such Canadian classics as St. George’s in Toronto, Capilano in West Vancouver and Highlands Links in Cape Breton. Never does Thompson’s layout at the Banff Springs impose itself on the perfection of the natural setting. Rather, he created with the subtle strokes of a painter, bringing the artistic elements of balance, harmony and proportion to his work. In Banff and elsewhere, Thompson pushed the frontiers of the designer’s craft.
Often during my rounds at the Banff Springs, I find myself imagining Thompson, the man now regarded as the father of Canadian golf course architecture, walking the same ground in 1927 while making his final plans for the 18 holes that would seal his reputation. With the passing years, it has increasingly become clear that the Toronto-born architect ranks alongside A.W. Tillinghast, Alister Mackenzie and Donald Ross as one of the premier designers of the 1920s and ‘30s, the so-called golden age of golf.
Cane and sketch pad in hand, Thompson tramped every inch of the valley floor for more than three weeks searching for the inspiration for his hole designs.
In such a setting, it wasn’t long in coming. On land almost directly below the hotel near the confluence of the Spray and Bow Rivers, he envisioned a sensational opening hole (today’s 15th) where golfers would hit across the Spray from a set of men’s tees set beside the outdoor patio of a Tudor-style clubhouse. A set of championship tees would be sited another 100 yards or so farther up the slope toward the hotel.
Work got underway in the summer of 1927 on what would prove to be a massive two-year undertaking. Many thousands of tonnes of rock would have to be dynamited and laboriously removed, rivers and streams bridged and acres of trees felled to create a golf course that in full maturity would appear to be at one with nature’s plan.
Meanwhile, at cliff-top, the Banff Springs Hotel was itself in the final stages of a refurbishment begun in 1911 that saw the old mostly wooden structure blossom into the rock-faced and green-roofed palace still seen, with a few additions, today.
Working with the natural contours of the landscape wherever he could, Thompson routed his course through tunnels of fir trees, while bringing into play the Spray and Bow Rivers. And in a major philosophical break from the “penal” tradition of North American design, which demanded the golfer hit the shot dictated by the architect or find himself sorely punished, Thompson’s layout always offers the golfer a safer, albeit usually longer, route to the green.
With an artist’s eye, Thompson contoured his fairways to follow the shapes of the mountain ranges beyond, bordering many of them with sloped mounds to help bring errant drives back into play. Fairways were also made extra wide to accommodate his philosophy of providing two distinct routes to each hole.
As Thompson would write, “The most successful course is one that will test the skill of the most advanced player, without discouraging the ‘duffer,’ while adding to the enjoyment of both.”
A bluff, hard-living and fun-loving man, who liked to tell jokes and talk and drink with cronies long into the night, Thompson always had his best fun when designing his distinctively bold and cunningly shaped bunkers. Many bunkers at the Banff Springs feature upswept flashed faces, a technique designed to increase their visibility from the tee. Yet, as golfers quickly discover, Thompson’s traps are not always as they first appear. Depending on the angle of the approach or the sun’s position, they mysteriously seem to change in shape and size in the thin mountain air.
But most impressive was Thompson’s ability to make every hole, one through 18, stick in the golfer’s memory. Like a living thing, each has an appearance, personality and story of its own.
Often told is the almost certainly apocryphal tale of the birth of Devil’s Cauldron, the photogenic par three where players hit from an elevated tee over a glacial lake filled with huge boulders to a small sloping green set in the shadow of Mount Rundle.
Thompson, so it is said, was walking the future site of the course when a rockslide came crashing down from the cliffs above. After the dust cleared, the shaken architect saw that the slide had transformed the small valley into a natural amphitheatre of breathtaking beauty. Recognizing the divine hand of a design talent even greater than his own, he immediately decided to build a golf hole on the spot.
Set amid the rugged splendour of Banff National Park, a protected wildlife refuge, Thompson’s masterwork offers golfers the thrill of playing close to nature. Indeed, one of the primary goals of a $4.5 million 1990s restoration of Thompson’s original 18 holes (an additional nine holes built in the Thompson “style” opened in 1989) was to make the classic course friendlier to wildlife.
Golfers receive a welcome speech on the first tee that includes a warning about the large and potentially ferocious animals they’re likely to encounter.
Grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, wolves, coyotes and eagles are all frequent visitors to the course. But it’s the dozens of elk seen every day of the golf season that cause the most disruption. Each dawn reveals at least one green that has suffered extensive damage from the hooves of elk during the night.
Groundskeepers shudder when they recall the summer evening several years ago when two rutting bulls locked horns on the ninth green in full view of the clubhouse dining room. So ferocious was the battle that diners rushed to the window for a better view. Afterwards, groundskeepers spent hours repairing a putting surface splattered with bits of antler, blood and hair.
Drawn by the mountain scenery and the world-famous 770-room Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, golfers have flocked to Thompson’s course ever since its official opening by the Prince of Wales in 1929. Celebrity visitors have included golf legends such as Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson, as well as an elderly Bob Hope, whose old friend Bing Crosby had told him that the Banff Springs was one of the courses he had to play before he died.
Following his triumph at the Banff Springs, Thompson took his place among the world’s top golf architects. He designed or remodeled some 145 courses in Canada, the United States, the Caribbean and South America before his death in 1953 at the age of 59.
But Thompson’s finest work is found here in the heart of the Alberta Rockies. His brilliantly conceived layout at the Banff Springs established a template for mountain courses followed to this day. In all the years since, nobody has done it better.