BANFF, Alberta - The traffic slows to a halt on one of the world's most spectacular mountain highways. It's a "bear jam", no doubt, and tourists from all over the globe pull out cameras in hopes for a bear-in-the-wild photo to take home.
Most likely it is a black bear, but if you are fortunate enough to view a grizzly it's something you will never forget.
It could happen anywhere on Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway. Or you might see moose, caribou, deer, mountain goat or bighorn sheep in the area of the Columbia Icefields, Bow and Crowfoot Glaciers, Athabasca Falls or Peyto Lake.
As you enter Banff, founded in 1885 as the gateway to Banff National Park, a man-made object appears in the distance, rising above the forest in historic splendor - it's one of the grandest hotels in the world - the Fairmont Banff Springs Resort, erected in 1888.
But there's much, much more. This Rocky Mountain region opens a floodgate of natural wonders to the tourist including renowned Lake Louise, the winding, forested Bow Valley Parkway to Johnston Canyon or Highway 93, the Icefields Parkway to Jasper National Park.
Today, more than ever before, golfers from all over the world are driving these byways and discovering Canada. They always knew the scenery was unparalleled. Now they are finding the quality of golf is just as impressive.
Imagine standing on the first tee with a lofty granite-gray backdrop, pine- and fir-lined ridge tops in the distance, an iridescent blue-green glacial-fed lake to your left, a lush-green fairway straight away mottled by white-sand flash-faced bunkers, bent-grass greens framed by sandstone "hoo-doo" formations, a cobalt-blue sky and a temperature hovering in the upper 70s.
You can even finish your round at 10 p.m. - there's still plenty of daylight at that late hour.
Did you say "sounds like golf heaven?"
"We think golf in Alberta is a well-kept secret, but that the secret will soon be discovered," said Peter Gregus, International Director of Travel Alberta. "We are home to 275 golf courses and lay claim to six of Canada's top 25 courses. A golf vacation in Alberta and the Canadian Rockies means world-class golf, great values compared to the premier courses in the USA and mild summer temperatures."
The architects of these great golf courses?
Americans probably won't recognize too many of the names, but if you ever find yourself in one of Stanley Thompson's bunkers you will remember him. A Scottish-born Canadian, Thompson was a master strategist. His creations at Banff Springs, Jasper Park and the Highlands Links in Nova Scotia in the 1920s and 1930s are legendary. Each hole will present you with a preferred route. It's up to you to recognize it and direct your golf ball correctly.
The golf architects of the world have always recognized Thompson's designs along with the great layouts of Alister MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross. Today's new generation of Canadian designers - Les Furber, Gary Browning, Tom McBroom, Doug Carrick, Graham Cooke - were all inspired by Thompson.
"Stanley Thompson's courses throughout Canada and the northern U.S. are works of golf art," said Robert Trent Jones Jr. "He loved natural landscapes, and his large, sweeping bunkers emulated the seaside dunes even in the high Canadian Rockies at Banff and Jasper. Thompson was a charming, persuasive non-conformist and artist, who could steal your heart as well as your par."
Thompson's masterpieces at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (1925) and the Fairmont Banff Springs Resort (1928) are still the standard-bearers of great golf in the Canadian Rockies.
And how about British Columbia?
"The surprise to most international visitors to our area is that the quality of the BC Rockies' golf courses matches the magnificent scenery that is our trademark," said Chris Dadson, President of Tourism Rockies. "But equally as important a consideration of being 'Canada's Golf Destination' is the sheer variety and concentration of these courses. Vacationing golfers can experience eight high-end resort golf courses within a one and a half hour drive."
If you are ready for a world-class golf vacation here's a suggested itinerary after Air Canada delivers you to Calgary, an oil-boom cowtown and host of the 1988 Winter Olympics.
In Calgary start at Heritage Pointe, a new 27-hole target-style layout designed by Ron Garl in the Pine Creek Valley. Pick from the Pointe, Heritage and Desert nines, which provide lots of elevation changes and entertaining shot selections. The Desert nine, landscaped with cacti transplanted from the American Sonoran Desert, is a visual treat. (www.heritagepointe.com)
Just a few miles south of Banff is Canmore, site of cross-country skiing in the 1988 Winter Olympics, where SilverTip, named for a rare grizzly bear, opened in 1998. The course was designed by Les Furber, who worked for Robert Trent Jones at Kananaskis. This extreme golf experience has a slope of 153 from the tips and an elevation change of more than 500 feet. No wonder Furber calls it "an extreme golf experience."
From the first tee you see ski-slope type elevation changes and Mt. Lady MacDonald. You might also see an osprey dive for a rainbow trout anywhere on this 7,200-yard long, carts-only golf adventure.
"I think the hardest thing to do on this golf course is focus," said Greg Andrew, SilverTip's Director of Golf. "Everywhere you look there's dramatic scenery and a snapshot. Most golfers want to take some extra tee shots because they are too busy enjoying the scenery to concentrate on the golf." (www.silvertipresort.com)
Stewart Creek Golf Club, opened in 2000, is just across the highway from SilverTip at Three Sisters Resort, a 2,000-acre development in Canmore. It's a spectacular mountain course with a mining theme and some pleasurable elevation changes. An old mine entrance on the first hole was restored at a cost of more than $250,000 to remind golfers of the mining influence in the area.
Gary Browning's design, which covers 7,150 yards, is also environmentally-sensitive. Just off the teeing area on No. 10 is an "off-limits" area - a natural salt lick frequented by bighorn sheep. A camera is monitored and if you venture in here for that brand-new Titleist Pro V1, you will be escorted from the golf course.
The course also features exposed bedrock formations, rock outcroppings, rolling creeks, tall firs, lakes and the occasional grizzly taking a swim. It's a wonder how this course was ever built since the entire area is teeming with underground mining tunnels.
Stewart Creek is also the first of three planned golf courses by the Three Sisters Resort. Look for Mineside and Three Sisters Creek to open in the future. (www.stewartcreekgolf.com)
West of Canmore is Canada's oldest and most revered national park at Banff. The Banff Springs Hotel, one of the most famous in the world was built in 1888 because Cornelius Van Horne, vice president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, had a vision and said: "If we can't export the scenery, we will import the tourists."
The hotel stands like a Scottish baronial fortress at the confluence of the Bow and Spray Rivers. As huge as the 770-room hotel is, it is dwarfed by the massive granite mountains that surround it.
Those same granite protrusions are what gives the Banff Springs Golf Course an awe-inspiring setting. Actually, golf has been played here since 1911, but Thompson did his re-work in 1928. A recent restoration put together the original Rundle and Sulphur nines into what is now called the Stanley Thompson 18.
"Thompson's genius was in refusing to impose a course on its setting," said Doug Wood, Director of Golf. "It is like a golf course was in the original design for Canada's most spectacular mountains. On the opening holes players feel they are right in the mountains. Then, on later holes, Thompson plays with your depth perception. Where the mountains were once right behind the holes, now, while still framing the layout, they are 20 miles away.
His bunkering, which revolutionized golf course design around the world - mirrors the shape of the background mountains and the natural run of the fairways - its simply masterful," Wood said.
From the back tees at 7,083 yards, par 71, the Thompson 18 is tough. You won't soon forget No. 4, Devil's Cauldron, a 199-yard downhill par-3 set in a bowl, framed by fir trees and the face of Mt. Rundle, tall as a New York skyscraper, in the background. The tee stroke must carry a mosaic rock-filled jade-blue glacial lake 65 feet below with bunkers menacing any mis-hit.
You also won't forget No. 15, a heroic 480-yard par-4 that requires a 160-yard straight-downhill carry over the Spray River. The carry looks much farther from the back tees, which were originally used only by professionals. This historic hole was the original No. 1, nestled just down from the hotel. Another tee, just below the first rock clubhouse (now a restaurant), serves as the ladies' tee. (www.banffsprings.com)
Next on our journey, follow the Icefields Parkway to Jasper, where Thompson's grand golf course is 76 years old at the Jasper Park Lodge. While the drive to the more remote and smaller Jasper will "wow" you, so will the resort and the links.
"There are times," said Kelli Fry, Jasper Park Lodge's head pro, "back around Nos. 3 and 4, when I think maybe I'm disrupting the peace and quiet with conversation. Enjoying the wildlife and the natural setting is important here and a highlight for many golfers is hearing the loons on Lake Beauvert early in the morning."
One of the more talked about holes here is called Cleopatra, a par-3, downhill 231-yard scenic test framed by Pyramid Peak in the distance. For years people have seen the form of a shapely woman in its mounds and bunkers. Legend says Thompson was owed money and built the shape on purpose. When the owners demanded a change, citing the embarrassment such a sight would cause, Thompson refused until his payment was received.
The restored Jasper Park Lodge course measures only 6,663 yards at par 71, but anyone who plays it will be challenged and impressed. The area at 3,300 elevation is lower than Banff, thus allowing a longer golf season, even though Jasper is farther north.
A new wildlife corridor to protect the elk, especially in the calving season, now also protects the greens and fairways from the huge animals. (www.jasperparklodge.com)
Now it's time to head for British Columbia and the first stop is Panorama Mountain Village, your headquarters for tee-to-green bentgrass at Greywolf, named Golf Digest's Best New Canadian Course of 1999, and Score Magazine's Top 10 Golf Resort in Canada and Runner-up for Best New Course.
No. 6 Cliffhanger, a 200-yard par-3 over Hopeful Canyon, is a true postcard. The green is dangerously perched on a rocky-mesa shelf, just along the edges of a death-fall cliff. Once you arrive on the lofty green the view is awesome looking down on Toby Creek and the valley. You might even see whitewater rafters in the distance.
"Everyone loves this hole," says Director of Golf Peter Smith, a native of Scotland. "One day I got a phone call that a group of golfers were hooting and hollering over at Cliffhanger, and that I might better go see if there was a hole-in-one. When I got there I just found out that all of them had cleared the canyon and were just celebrating making the green."
Greywolf's designer, Carrick, studied under Thompson, and was honored in 1996 with Canada's No. 1 course design at Angus Glen.
"At first I thought Greywolf might be too tough," said Smith, "but it has turned out to be very player-friendly. We have lots of aces on this course and 40 percent of those have been produced by women." (www.greywolfgolf.com)
Not far from Greywolf is the best-conditioned course in the Canadian Rockies at Invermere's Eagle Ranch, where PGA Tour player Stephen Ames was on the practice tee this day.
"Time and time again we get compliments on our lush conditions, customer service and spectacular golf holes," said Director of Golf Wayne Rossington.
Golf Digest's recognition of Greywolf has greatly aided Eagle Ranch, which opened in April 2000. If you come to play Greywolf don't dare miss Eagle Ranch, which uses a GPS yardage system, because you might like it better.
The par-4, 370-yard ninth and the par-5, 537-yard 18th both play over the same deep gorge, presenting you with the ultimate risk-reward scenario. You will have to play No. 9 once before you can envision this challenge wholly. The 18th has "goal-post pines" which offer a direct line to safety.
Eagle Ranch's No. 16 is a scenic downhill par 3, 173 yards to a green in a natural bowl. To the right of the green are hoo-doo formations and to the left is an abandoned bear den. Miss the green into the gorge and there's no retrieval - this is an environmentally sensitive area. They do provide a long ball retriever for you to use if your ball is close.
"No. 16 is a favorite, no doubt," said Rossington. "Since it is in such a bowl we are having some problem with grass growth, but we plan on enlarging the green and working on the growth problems." (www.eagleranchresort.com)
Head south to the Bavarian-styled ski town of Kimberley, B.C. and you will find more scenic golf at Trickle Creek and in nearby Cranbrook at St. Eugene Mission.
Furber designed Trickle Creek in 1993 at the base of the ski resort. It's a fun 6,896-yard, par 72 with lots of water and sand in play and superb conditioning. The 11th is the signature hole, 174 yards from the tips with an elevation drop of 50 feet. The mountains frame the shot in the background. (www.tricklecreek.com)
Furber also designed St. Eugene Mission on land that has an interesting history. A huge stone building with a red roof serves as the background coming down the 18th fairway, much like the ancient clubhouse at St. Andrews. Located on Indian land, it was an old mission and school for Indian boys. The building will soon become the resort's hotel.
Measuring 7,007 at par 72, St. Gene, as it is affectionately called, is a visual treat and very playable since most of it traverses the valley floor. The course travels along links land, into the forest, beside the rushing St. Mary's River, and has views of Fisher Peak, hoo-doos and the Purcell Mountains. (www.golfsteugene.com)
So there's a small sample of championship golf in this huge country.
Canadian Rockies golf: it's a scenic wonder at every turn, it's quality golf equal to anything in the USA, it's a friendly Canadian greeting on every course and it's a bargain. If you dare to try it you might be venturing north every summer.
The Golf Courses of British Columbia - www.bcrockies.com/golf/golfcourses/index.html
The Golf Courses of Alberta - www.travelalberta.com/thingstosee/golfing.htm
The Fairmont Resorts, www.fairmont.com. Fairmont Reservations: 1-800-441-1414.
Alberta: Calgary, The Fairmont Palliser. Banff, The Fairmont Banff Springs. Jasper, The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.
British Columbia: Panorama Mountain Village, 2000 Panorama Drive, Panorama, B.C. Telephone: 604-331-3245. Internet: www.panoramaresort.com. Kimberley, B.C., Marriott Residence Inn, Trickle Creek, #500 Stemwinder Drive. Telephone: 250-427-5175. Internet: www.residenceinn.com. Reservations: 800-331-3131.
Don't shy away from hotel restaurants - the best gourmet chefs and pastry aficionados work here in Canada. Try the thick steaks at Calgary's Fairmont Palliser. The restaurants at the historic Banff Springs Resort are legendary. Try the massive breakfast buffet or have anything you want on earth for dinner.
Most memorable meal? Easy. The Jasper Park Lodge provided a feast of buffalo steaks, Aussie-styled shrimp-on-the-barbie and grilled asparagus on the banks of Trefoil Lake and in the sunset shadows of towering Pyramid Peak. A horse-drawn wagon was our transportation. Back in the Stanley Thompson cabin, with a view of the golf course, a chocolate golf scene awaited in our rooms, complete with green, bunkers, golf ball and "JPL" flagstick - all edible.
Try the baked pheasant at the Toby Creek Lodge Dining Room at the Panorama Mountain Village, B.C., or the steaks and salmon at the Kicking Horse. Both are right on the ski mountain accessible by gondola or car.
Air Canada, what else? Air Canada has 290 non-stop flights between the U.S. and Canada every day - more than any other airline. Canada is served by daily Air Canada direct flights from all major cities in the U.S., Europe and Asia. And they still serve hot meals. Imagine that! Visit www.aircanada.ca for more information. Reservations: 888-247-2262.
Greywolf, Eagle Ranch, St. Eugene Photos by Don Weixl.