CANMORE, ALBERTA - The beautiful mountain town of Canmore, Alberta was originally known for its coal mining. Starting in 1886, thousands of miners kissed their loved ones goodbye, then disappeared into the bowels of the earth for up to twelve torturous hours at a time. Of course, with the inherent dangers of underground coal mining, some of them would go down and never come back up to see the light of day again. Buried by rock or getting lost in the maze of tunnels were common ways for a man to die while mining in the depths of the coal-blackened earth. Now, on the eastern slopes of the Rundle Range near Canmore (a fifteen minute drive from Banff), a spectacular new golf course called Stewart Creek parades overtop many of these long forgotten mine shafts.
Designed by Alberta architect Gary Browning, Stewart Creek has quickly become recognized as one of Canada's premier mountain golf destinations. A recent runner-up finish in Golf Digest's "Best New Canadian Course" category hasn't hurt the cause either. While some of the game's finest connoisseurs are taking notice (and players with a zest for high-altitude golf are filling the tee sheets), constructing the course didn't come easy. Or without a price. According to Browning, Stewart Creek was forced to spend an estimated $300,000 on reinforcing fairways that potentially could have collapsed or sunk, due to the old mine shafts that are located under the course.
Interestingly, the final 18-hole product at Stewart Creek incorporates a number of refurbished mine entranceways that add some authenticity to the course's setting. Although golfers can enter no further than fifteen feet or so into the mines (upon which the tunnels are barricaded with steel grates), the openings have been reconstructed with new timber and serve as excellent rain shelters.
However, the mine entrances were the least of the worries for construction crews. With over fifty miles of tunnels under the course, the greatest worry, according to an Alberta provincial safety board, was centered on reinforcing fairways that, with substantial rainfall or constant pressure from golf carts, could sink and endanger the public. Enter 120,000 square feet of a geo fabric (or geo grid), which was used as underlay to strengthen the ground on two of the fairways that posed the greatest risk.
The geo fabric is extremely strong. Interestingly enough, it's very similar to what is used to keep ski racers on the course after a spill. (Yes, that would be the orange fences that line the World Cup downhill courses.)
"You could cut the fabric with a knife, but it holds amazing strength when woven together as a textile. Its tensile strength is unbelievable," says Browning. The theory behind it, of course, is that if ground underneath the fabric settles, the people on top will be protected by the grid and the ground should remain solid.
"Hypothetically, you could have portions of a golf hole that are actually suspended by the fabric, with nothing but hollow ground underneath," says Al Draper of Evans Golf Course Construction and the project manager for the work done at Stewart Creek.
While what's under the ground at Stewart Creek may be of interest to golfers, it's what's on top of the ground that gets golfers excited here. That would be the lush Kentucky Bluegrass fairways that are woven between granite outcroppings and the massive, elegantly contoured green complexes, many of which look so good you'd think they were set there right when time began. "Impressive," is a word that hardly does justice when describing the golf course at Stewart Creek.
"With the recent award from Golf Digest as the runner-up in the 'Best New Canadian Course' category, we like to call ourselves 'The Best in The West,'" says club GM Tim McMurtry. (The actual winner of the award was a private course in Nova Scotia called "Fox Harbour"). While there were a couple of other outstanding new golf courses in Canada's west that weighed in, you'd be hard pressed not to give Stewart Creek serious consideration for the title belt.
It doesn't take long for the course to get going. The first, a medium-length par-4, drops over one hundred feet to a pristine fairway lined with pines and a granite shelf. It's a bona fide jaw-dropper. "Right from the start we wanted golfers to know that they were going to be in for an awesome experience," says Browning.
Other highlights on the front side include the ninth, another par-4 where a parachute could come in handy. At about 230 yards from the tee, the fairway simply vanishes. Golfers are forced to layup - or donate a ball to the whisky-jacks and marmots that make their home on the rocky ledge. From the fairway, it's another mouth-watering vista and another nervy mid-iron to a green protected by two massive water features - one on either side of the green. Can you say "glory?"
The back nine at Stewart Creek is also filled with photo-ops and beautifully sculpted holes. Some tees beckon for a soft fade while others set up best for a subtle draw. But it's not just the shotmakers who will enjoy this test of golf. Any eyes that have a passion for the mountains, nature, and adventure will be treated to a feast. The Three Sisters, a spectacular three-peak massif, hovers over the property and provides a stirring backdrop on a number of holes. Other holes are framed with the distant slopes of the Rockies and the Bow Valley. Regardless of the quality of golf, you'll certainly come away with plenty of money shots to stick on the fridge.
With coal now a relatively low-in-demand resource, it's not very likely the tunnels under the course will ever be illuminated by a miner's headlamp again. Today the black coal-lined tunnels have been replaced with lush green networks of Kentucky Bluegrass - a sign of the times. In addition, the local miners have exchanged their pick axes for golf clubs. As for Stewart Creek's turf care team, they get up early in the morning and kiss their loved ones good-bye. With the smell of coal still in the air, they put on their hard hats and venture into dangerous terrain. And moments later, with coffees and clubs in tow, golfers with a zest for high altitude golf amidst pristine fairways roll through the gates.
Canmore, Alberta, Canada
Fees: $135.00 includes cart & range
Places to stay and eat: The town of Canmore (just minutes from the course) is home to numerous hotels, motels, and B&B's. For accommodation and services in the area, go to www.canmorealberta.com and you will find all the information you need on the area.
Nearby Courses: The Silvertip Resort, also located in Canmore, offers a stellar Les Furber championship course that is extremely difficult. The Canmore Golf Club is a pastoral trek that still hasn't received its proper due outside the province. Both of these courses, as well as the Banff Springs Golf Club, are well worth extending your trip for.
Other Attractions: Canmore is a mountain recreation utopia. There is hiking, biking, fishing, skiing, rafting, paragliding, and much more available for people who love the outdoors.
July 17, 2002