Doug Carrick and the Birth of Cliffhanger

Of all Canada’s signature holes perhaps only the legendary Devil’s Cauldron enjoys greater fame than Greywolf Golf Course’s par-three Cliffhanger. Architect Doug Carrick recalls the genesis of his mountain masterwork.

"Cliffhanger" Par Three (Image: Evan Schiller)

Cliffhanger plays 180 yards across the sheer drop of Hopeful Canyon. (Image: Evan Schiller)

(Last updated January 2020.)

Doug Carrick instantly recognized the gift Mother Nature had given him at Greywolf Golf Course.

The Toronto-based course architect recalls the bitterly cold day in January 1996 when, on the back of a snowmobile, he anxiously explored for the first time the spectacular British Columbia setting of his first mountain commission.

“I’d already studied the topography maps of the site, so I had an idea we might have something pretty special,” says Carrick, who had never designed a course west of Ontario. “But I knew from experience that maps don’t nearly do justice to the real thing. Suddenly I drove out onto a small open area perched on the edge of vertical rock cliffs. Mountains towered all around, and in one direction you could see for miles down an incredibly beautiful river valley.”

Doug Carrick golf architect

Greywolf was architect Doug Carrick’s first mountain commission.

About 180 yards across the sheer drop of Hopeful Canyon, Carrick spotted a wooded outcrop, slightly higher than where he stood, that would make a perfect teeing area. “I’d never seen a more dramatic setting for a par three,” Carrick says. “By the time I got back on my snowmobile, I had the entire hole set in my mind.”

What the architect didn’t know, but might already have hoped, was that Cliffhanger, as it’s aptly known, was destined to become the signature hole of an artfully designed layout Golf Digest would name Canada’s best new course of 1999. Greywolf’s sixth hole has come to rival the Banff Springs Golf Course’s legendary Devil’s Cauldron as the most photographed and talked about par three in the land.

Greywolf, which is tucked in the Purcell mountain range about a 90-minute drive from Banff near the British Columbia-Alberta border, is next door to the popular Panorama Mountain Village ski and golf resort.

“Greywolf was probably the most beautiful site I’d ever worked with, and the most humbling,” says Carrick, who has also designed such acclaimed courses as Ontario’s Muskoka Bay Club and Scotland’s The Carrick Golf Course. “When you’re in the mountains you can’t help feeling more insignificant. But at the same time I felt inspired to be there.”

His Greywolf layout stretches 7,140 yards from the tips, with tree-lined fairways, mountain views on every hole and almost 500 feet of elevation change. At the par-four fourth hole, the drop from the elevated tee to the green is a dizzying 200 feet. Adding an extra dash of drama to the scenery are the rapids of Hopeful Creek, which slash the fairway on the par-five fifth.

For a mountain course, Greywolf needed surprisingly little dynamiting during construction. Most of the work was at Cliffhanger, where the face of the green site sloped from front to back and had to be reduced by about six feet to make it more receptive. Blasting was completed in a day and cost between $10,000 and $15,000, which is a pittance as such projects go.

Greywolf "Cliffhanger" from front tee (Image: Greywolf Golf Course)

Cliffhanger viewed from the forward tee. (Image: Evan Schiller)

Cliffhanger’s total cost came in at around $150,000. That’s about average for a par three, but less than half what it typically costs to build a par four or a par five. Any way you look at it, Greywolf’s owners got themselves a bargain. Their course’s signature hole turned out to be one of the cheapest on the property.

Even during construction Cliffhanger was already such a popular attraction that a temporary tee box covered with synthetic turf had to be built for workers and visitors determined to try their luck over Hopeful Canyon. It was also during this time that a Greywolf tradition of howling like a wolf after a particularly good shot, especially at the signature hole, first started.

Fittingly, Greywolf’s architect was there at the tradition’s birth. As Carrick recalls, “Whenever I was on site, a few of us would go out in the dirt and hit balls as a way to pass the time at the end of the day. The howling began as a play on the course’s name. When someone hit a good shot, we’d howl like a wolf, “Owwwooo!’

“And after a bad shot,” Carrick adds with a laugh, “we’d break into a pitiful low whimper, like a whipped dog.”

A two-ball rule applies at Cliffhanger, which stretches from 200 yards at the back tees to 142 at the reds. If neither of the golfer’s first two shots carry the canyon, then the third has to be played from the drop area adjacent to the green. Club selection must take into account the constantly swirling winds through dramatic Toby Creek Valley. And even if the ball successfully carries the vertical rock cliffs guarding the left and front sides of the green, an overly aggressive shot might end with a plunge off the severe drop at the back.

Carrick says that whenever possible he reserves a site’s most dramatic features for his par-three holes. “Waterfalls, river rapids, the canyon at Cliffhanger…natural theatre like that is ideally suited for short holes,” he explains. “I think it’s a real treat for a golfer when he can stand at the tee and take in that kind of spectacular scenery at a glance.”

Greywolf Golf Course Hole No. 14. (Image: Greywolf Golf Course)

Carved through a boreal forest, Greywolf features a dizzying 500 feet of elevation change. (Image: Evan Schiller)

Another consideration is that an obstacle such as Hopeful Canyon might too heavily intrude on a course’s playability if routed into a par four or par five. For instance, a second-shot carry over the chasm for a better player could in turn mean a second-shot layup for a golfer who is shorter off the tee.

Back on that wintry day in 1996, when he first envisioned Cliffhanger, Carrick already secretly suspected that it might one day compare in stature to Banff’s Devil’s Cauldron, the hole that more than any other defines the genius of Stanley Thompson, the godfather of Canadian golf architects.

“I thought right away it had that potential,” he says. “But that type of popularity is a phenomenon you can never count on. I just knew the scenery was there for it to happen.”

But Carrick confides that though he is proud of Cliffhanger, it’s not even his favourite hole at Greywolf. If he had to pick the one dearest to his heart, he’d choose the 527-yard 14th, a twisting uphill par five.

Like a difficult but beloved child, the 14th was a hole that gave Carrick fits during construction. The fairway required a deep and troublesome cut, and tons of dirt had to be hauled in to raise the tee area. Though he knew the hole had a lot of potential, Carrick wasn’t sure how it would turn out until all the work was finally done. Then it proved to be one of the strongest holes at Greywolf.

“When you get on the green, you look to your right and see this full, beautiful mountain range unfold,” Carrick says. “And that’s a sight you don’t have a clue about until you’re actually standing there. I love that element of surprise.”

Could it be that Cliffhanger had come too easily to him to inspire the same level of emotion?

“That might be right,” Carrick acknowledges with a grin. “Mother Nature gets most of the credit on that one.”

Northern Links by Brian Kendall

Adapted from Northern Links: Canada From Tee to Tee (Penguin Random House) by Brian Kendall.