The jagged edge of Mt. Rundle pierces the sky at 10,000 feet. Across the valley, the mist from the natural hot springs hovers above the stately pines of the Bow Valley. Down below, the bustling town of Banff sits cozily beneath mountain cathedrals and hoodoos carved by the Bow River thousands of years ago. At the base of Rundle, standing proud with its gothic steeples pointing towards the heavens, the Banff Springs Hotel beckons travelers from every corner of the globe. Below the steeples and the magnificent work of the craftsmen, stone-carvers, and artists who needed 18 years to build this awesome structure, rests the pristine eloquence of the Banff Springs Golf Course, a Stanley Thompson gem.
The Banff Springs Golf Course was the first course in history to cost over one million dollars to build. Back in 1928, when Stanley Thompson began his work here, they called on horses, mules, railcars, and hundreds of men to bring in soil, remove rocks, and shape the earth into Thompson's vision for golf majesty in Banff. Eventually, after six years of backbreaking work, his vision evolved and this magnificent product has brought glory to thousands of golfers throughout the past 70 years.
Like many old, traditional courses, some work has been done on the Banff Springs course to ensure it challenges golf's longer hitters and still provides the resort golfer an enjoyable experience. In fact, Banff Springs has been tampered with on numerous occasions. Most recently, the "restoration" back to Thompson's plan has been most sought after. The course has succeeded in this mandate and the product today, albeit somewhat longer, has no doubt been transformed into something Thompson would approve of.
With greens masterfully positioned into spots only a genius could have found and approaches back-dropped by massive granite walls, the test of golf presented at Banff Springs is simply stirring. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the course is the exquisite nature of Thompson's bunkering. The faces are flashed and steep, similar to how Alister Mckenzie did his work.
The unforgettable experience at the fourth is every golfer's dream. The "Devil's Cauldron," as it is affectionately known, is a delectable par-3, voted one of the best 18 holes in the world by Golf Magazine in 2000. With a tee perched high on a granite shelf and a crystal clear mountain lake sitting eloquently in the foreground, the setting at the fourth is surreal. The green sits in a natural bowl, or "cauldron," just over the lake - a menacing 170 yards away. Surrounding the green sit five "devilish" bunkers waiting to snare your Pro V ball. Don't worry, you won't be the first to find a hazard at the fourth. The water in the lake is clean and pure - on any given day a thousand balls glisten under waters fed by nearby glaciers, each a reminder that distraction is the norm at "Devil's Cauldron."
Banff opens relatively easy with a gentle right to left par-4 of medium length. The second is a great one-shotter up the hill with a sloping green and a magnificent mountain backdrop. The third, a sweeping short par-5, is also a work of art. The green at No.3 is flat and appears unhittable from the landing area. Not to worry, it's deep and relatively easy to putt on when you find it. In all likelihood however, your thoughts will be revolving around what lies ahead, at the captivating "Cauldron".
If you have played Banff in years past, you might remember teeing off atop the Banff Springs Hotel. Ten years ago, the necessity to accommodate a growing number of visitors to the area demanded a new clubhouse and pro shop. The new clubhouse is further down the road and caters well to larger groups. The addition of the "Tunnel" nine also means more golfers can enjoy the game in Banff. However, because of relocation, the routing has been changed. As mentioned, the starting holes are different and the hole atop the Hotel is now No. 15 on the inward nine. Not to worry, the deed is done and the bickering is nearly over from the "traditionalists" who liked it better in the "good old days."
What hasn't changed from the "good old days" is the difficulty of the course. Now boasting a stern yardage of 7,074 yards from the back tees and a lofty 74.4 rating with a par of 71, Banff is anything but "soft". "We wanted to restore the work of Stanley Thompson but still provide an adequate challenge for the world-class player," said Doug Wood, Banff's longtime Director of Golf. Judging by the recent scores of a professional tournament at Banff in which an even par score of 71 was low, they've done just that.
When visiting a national park in Canada, wildlife comes with the territory. One of the things that Banff has become known for is the presence of elk on the course. Although they don't seem to get excited with golf balls zinging over their heads, the elk have posed a problem on occasion. It is not uncommon for golfers to have to zigzag between as many as fifty elk sitting on the pristine fairways. While the instances involving "elk rage" are extremely rare, golfers do need to take some caution when nearing these large animals. Most golfers playing Banff don't seem to mind sharing a fairway or two with the elk, which are actively protected within the boundaries of the park.
The back nine at Banff opens with a terr ific par-3 that requires a bold strike with a long iron or fairway wood. The Bow River weaves into the hole from the right and anything hit short or right will find its rocky banks or fast-moving current. Making three is a welcome achievement to start your journey to the Hotel and back.
Unlike the front nine, the back side features an abundance of meaty par-4s that demand precise long and medium iron approach shots. With grassy mounds leaping out among sandy fingers flashed with silica, punishment for mis-hit shots can be severe. Add a Bow River creeping into landing zones and unpredictable gusts of mountain winds and you've got a difficult test of golf.
With a new tee box sitting higher and further back than where it used to be, the 480 yard par-4 15th is a beauty and a beast. However, when taking in the breathtaking scenery from high atop your perch, the mountain peaks shining in the sun and the Bow River reflecting the Rocky Mountain splendor, making four just doesn't seem to matter.
The back nine truly requires exceptional shots to get around near par. With par being 35, both par-3s over 220 yards, five par-4s better than 420 yards, and an overall length well over 3,600 yards, the back nine from the back tees can be brutal on the average "Joe." Thankfully, with four sets of tees, adjustments can be made to play within your ability.
The best thing about playing the Banff Springs Golf Course is that it's in Banff. There's no other place on earth quite like it. Unfortunately for the golfer, getting a tee time at Banff can be tough (not to mention pricey). Nonetheless, your money will be well spent on this "million dollar" gem. After the round, and just as it's been done for 70 years, head up the road and soak in the natural hot springs. After all, it wouldn't be Banff without the "Springs."
Banff Springs Golf Course
Banff, Alberta, Canada
Pro Shop / Tee Times: (403) 762-6801
Black Tees: 7074 yards / par 71 / 142 slope / 74.4 rating
Blue Tees: 6938 yards / par 71 / 140 slope / 73.8 rating
Red Tees: 6390 yards / par 71 / 140 slope / 70.7 rating
Yellow Tees: 5525 yards / par 71 / 131 slope / 66.7 rating
$85 - $165 (rates vary depending on the season). Guests of the resort receive discounted fees.
Banff is located 1 ½ hours west of Calgary on the Trans Canada Highway. To get the Banff Springs Hotel/Golf Course, drive through town and cross the river. Turn left and follow the signs.
Staying at the Banff Springs Hotel is a tremendous experience (you'll also save some money on the green fees). However, Banff offers many other world-class hotels, inns, B & Bs etc. Call 1-403-762-6801 to arrange a golf package.
Dining in Banff is an experience in itself. Banff offers everything from a fondue house (Griz House) to Mexican (Magpie & Stump). The Beaujolais is regarded by many as Banff's best fine dining experience. After hours head to The Rose & Crown for Banff's best live entertainment.
Banff is a recreational triumph. Early mountaineers discovered the hot springs and people initially came for hiking and healing in the medicinal waters. Today Banff is a recreational hub for everything from skiing to bird watching. Banff National Park is the ultimate destination for mountain exploration and recreation. The town of Banff has a number of small museums that are worth checking out. Go to the Cave & Basin and Whyte Museum. Don't forget to take a plunge in the hot springs!