Banff Springs Golf Club is set in perhaps the most spectacular and striking location in the world. The setting in the Canadian Rockies is so special that only the most focused golfers will be able to concentrate on the game in hand.
The Canadian Pacific Railway Company can be thanked for bringing a nine-hole golf course to Banff in 1911 as an attraction for its stunning, turreted hotel, known as the Castle in the Rockies. World War I civilian internees built a further nine holes to a Donald Ross design, but it was the illustrious Canadian architect, Stanley Thompson, who really put Banff on the map when he redesigned the course in 1927.
Thompson brought the course closer to the hotel and literally moved the earth to fashion the new Banff Springs. $1,000,000 later, the most expensive course in the world at that time opened for play to a rapturous standing ovation.
The stunning location presents all sorts of problems for the greenkeepers who battle with the extremities of the Alberta elements – warm days and freezing nights of spring. They do a stunning job because the course is invariably maintained immaculately.
Banff Springs is blessed with many world-class holes, all of which are named but there’s too many to mention here but we simply have to mention the 4th which is perhaps Canada’s most outstanding one-shotter. A climb to the elevated tee presents a heart-stopping view of the Devil’s Cauldron with its punchbowl green which slopes from back to front in order to drain the water off the putting surface as quickly as possible. The green is nestled at the foot of the colossal Mount Rundle and your tee shot must carry across a glacial lake and then avoid numerous greenside bunkers. Can you stay focused and swing smoothly on this 200-yard hole?
Banff Springs is set within a National Park and the course runs parallel with the River Bow with the thundering Bow Falls at one end. We’ve waxed lyrical about the location of Banff Springs Golf Club, but we can assure you that nothing prepares you for the reality, charm and sheer enormity of the setting.
After driving through the flat resort town of Banff (population 7,847) I was greeted by the imposing 11-story neo-gothic castle-like Fairmont Hotel situated high on a hill. The original hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1888 but was subsequently destroyed by fire. The 11-story tower was added in 1911, and the main block constructed in 1928. In total the structure is 195 feet high, has fifteen floors, 764 rooms, and 12 restaurants.
I checked into my room and took a few pictures looking north out of the room. At the time I did not realize these pictures (see picture 1 below) included part of the course. The body of water on the left is the Bow River with part of the course to the right.
In judging a course, it is always ideal to start where the architect intended you to start. Good golf course designs have a flow and rhythm to capture the golfers’ attention, and this starts on the first hole. Furthermore, it is usually best to finish at the original 18th hole because more often than not that hole is something special. At Banff Springs the original first hole turned out to be one of best opening holes in golf and the 18th a grand conclusion to this special day.
The original first hole at Banff Springs is now the 15th hole, and the current 1st hole is the original 5th. Knowing the course was packed with players, I asked Jamie how I could squeeze into the steady stream of golfers coming off the 14th green to play the final four holes first. Again, as luck would have it, he said “no problem” because there had been a frost delay that morning that occasioned a shotgun start, so there might be a gap in the field just at the right time and place for me. We drove our golf carts two miles back to the 15th tee, which, luckily, was vacant. Amazingly, I was able to play the full 18 holes free and clear of any players ahead.
In the beginning . . . a nine-hole course was built here in 1911. A second nine came in 1924 (designed by Donald Ross). After Thompson completed Jasper Park in 1925 to high acclaim, the owners of Banff Springs gave him literally an unlimited budget to create a new 18. The main course at Banff Springs opened in 1928 at a cost of $1 million (at that time the most expensive course in the world). An additional nine holes (called Tunnel) was added in 1988 (designed by Geoffrey Cornish and Bill Robinson). Canadian golf course architect Les Furber (former associate of Robert Trent Jones, Sr.) oversaw a $4.5 million, two-year total restoration that was completed in 1998.
At 4:45 p.m. I was on the very elevated 15th tee (the original 1st hole). See picture 2. From at least a 50-foot perch you 4 are presented with a very challenging tee shot combined with a spectacular background. There is about a 200-yard forced carry over the Sprey River with a direct sight line to the nearby imposing Mount Rundle. The hole is a dogleg left with a fairly tight landing area (trees on both sides and two bunkers on the right). At 475 yards from the back tees this par-4 hole immediately grabs your attention.
After playing just a few holes I knew the course design was superior. The current routing produces a front nine with three par 3s and three par 5s. The back nine has two par 3s and one par 5 for a total par of 72 at 6,938 high-altitude yards. Fortunately, the nice flow of the design overcomes any negative connotation suggested by this unusual mix of holes.
The course is in a valley. In a few places there are some modest elevation changes, but basically the terrain is flat. The thunderous Bow River (which occasionally overflows its banks) borders one side and Mount Rundle is tight to the other side. On the Rundle side you can almost reach out and touch the sheer rock wall and your neck gets twisted as you look thousands of feet straight up. The only negative on the Bow River side is the water is not totally visible. For erosion prevention, a single line of trees is hugging most of the length of the river bank.
All holes are bordered by tall Douglas fir trees. Many of the holes are doglegs (11 to be exact). There is a variety of tee shots, some tight through trees, but most to fairways with ample width. You do have to deal with strategically placed bunkers (the two in the middle of the 18th fairway come to mind). Attractive native grass far rough and numerous trees affect really wayward shots.
The course was in really good condition considering the time of year. The fairways were firm with a lot of roll. The playable course conditions were a tribute to the greens crew, who must deal with a short growing season in a national park where certain chemicals are not permitted. There are 121 bunkers, many large and deep and with a variety of beautiful shapes. Water comes into play on four holes.
The mostly angled greens are large with an average depth of 38 yards (the par-5 3rd is the deepest at 48 yards). The greens have subtle slopes and ridges although a few have a severe tilt. Some greens are wide in front and more narrow in back, which adds to the playability variety that allows some run-in shots off firm fairways to greens open in front.
In the middle of the back nine I had a “eureka” moment. This does not often happen (my first time playing Pebble Beach, Pine Valley, and Sand Hills come to mind). I wrote down in my note book that I have fallen in love with golf in the Canadian Rockies and Banff Springs. There is something very special about playing in peaceful, clean, thin mountain air with breathtaking 360-degree vistas along with elks grazing. The frosting on the cake is an excellent course design with a great deal of variety.
The bonus for the round was being able to finish on the original 18th hole (See picture 3) it is so much more dramatic than finishing on the current final hole which was the original 4th (a good par 5, but not in a heart stopper location).
The terrain on original #18 is flat and the 440-yard par-4 hole doglegs right through trees on both sides. You have to deal with 18 bunkers. As you round the dogleg, in the early evening shadows, there is truly a magical setting. The massive hotel, with lights on in almost every room, towers over the green. The hotel is silhouetted by a tall snow-capped mountain behind with shadows emphasizing the mountain’s ruggedness.
But if you want to finish the hole with a good score you better pay keen attention to the approach shot. The green is 43 yards deep with death on the right side. The green has a steep right slope falling to collection area rough funneling into a mean deep bunker. Then there is the bank of the roaring Bow River.
Thompson’s design did not let the course steal the show. Disregarding the setting, this is not a “wow” design. The angles, subtleties and great variety perfectly blend into the stunning surroundings. You leave the course with an intimate feeling with the whole experience. On my list of 1,175 courses played, Banff Springs is the best mountain course in the world and is definitely on my World Top 100 list.
"A course that is best in the region, worth flying in to play"
I actually convinced someone to get up at 3:30 am to catch a flight to make an afternoon tee time at Banff Springs and he thought it was worth it.
As Stanley Thompson mountain courses there is a consistent debate between Jasper and Banff and I have come to the conclusion that they are both very different courses both in how they play and how they interact with the surroundings. My preference is Banff as it feels swaddled between the mountains along the river. But, the debate is truly about personal preference. If you are "flying in" play both.
I live in Calgary and it is just over an hour to drive to Banff. I am a big fan of Mountain Golf and particularly Canadian Mountain Golf. Banff is a fantastic example of a Mountain Golf Course in the valley which means that you get to play golf from a flat lie. in my opinion there are too many golf courses that get you on the mountain where the ball is forced above or below your feet. At Banff an uneven lie (they exist) is based on Stanley Thompson choosing it to be there.
Before my time, the course got re-routed. The 14th hole was 18. I can't imagine having to finish my round into that afternoon wind. The, now, 15th tee shot is majestic. Make sure you go back. All the way back. The ball might actually spend too much time in the air. I am a big fan of current finish - 16/17 are on the shorter side, but still present the need to hit good shot. The par 5 18th is just a great finishing hole. Like a lot of great Thompson par 5s the bunkering is visually intimidating and creates some nerves on your second shot. I believe the proper way to play this hole is to draw one off the road, off the cart path, and on to the fairway. But, I can't hit a draw. For mortals, a safe shot out the the left still requires a well executed 2nd shot over the fairway bunkers to leave a wedge into the green. Great hole.
It would be tough to review Banff Springs without talking about the signature hole (4th). It is a beautiful (prettier than the pictures) elevated par 3 where you need to be confident that you cover the hazard without getting above the hole. Bogey is a good score from above the hole.
Value GIRs on the par 3s and stay out of fairway bunkers and you can score well. But, in the end just enjoy the entire day. There are few places I have played golf this visually stunning.
Between the stunning mountain scenery and wildlife on the course, the setting is so spectacular you could wander for 4 hours without swinging a club and still leave satisfied. Banff Springs is something of a second shot course, with limited danger off the tee. The greens are large but quick and undulating, meaning that precision is required to realistically break par. Missing the green is usually penal given the number of bunkers guarding them.
Best Hole: 4-The famous one really is all it's cracked up to be. A par 3 that plays two clubs less because of the elevation drop. The green creates a small target and the right shot is to send it beyond the pin and watch it roll back.
Stanley Thompson described this as his crown jewel and it is! An outstanding test of golf and a great experience in playing a course that was designed in 1928. Typical Stanley Thompson, he has used the illusion of the mountains and bunkering to challenge golfers of every ability.
The staff and service are second to none. My only complaint would be that the condition of the course and specifically the bunkers could have been in better condition.
Set high in the Rocky Mountains Banff Springs Golf Course could not have a more beautiful backdrop. It is routed to take full advantage of the Bow River, and the mountains beyond.
Although the course originally dated from 1911, Stanley Thompson redesigned it in 1927, taking full advantage of the surroundings, improving the routing, and moving mountains (almost) to create the course we see today…
It was The Canadian Pacific Railway Company that first built a course in 1911 to complement it's Banff Springs Hotel- known as 'the Castle in the Rockies'.
Later another 9 holes designed by Donald Ross was added, but it was the complete redesign by Thompson that made the world sit up and take notice of what is still regarded as one of the great Mountain designs.
Thompson’s original first tee beside the iconic Fairmont hotel became the fifteenth hole to accommodate a new clubhouse that was added in the middle of the course in the 1980's. A nine hole course was also added.
When playing the course nowadays you will note a succession of very strong holes along the Bow river from hole 8 onward- these were originally the closing holes and the multi bunkered fourteenth hole with views of the hotel was the closer.
Perhaps the most famous hole is ‘The Devil’s Cauldron’- the par 3 fourth hole. The club claims it is rated as one of the 18 best holes in the world. It is an impressive hole with a drop of perhaps 70 feet from tee to green over a pond, with a magnificent mountain backdrop. However it has to be said that all of the par three holes at Banff Springs are outstanding...
Other notable holes include:
- the par 3 second hole with it’s elevated green
- the par 3 eighth hole with Bow River on the right and pond to carry. The green runs right to left making back pins harder to approach
- the short par 5 ninth hole with green beside the Bow River. The huge bunker short of the green asks you the question?- lay up, or go for the green…
- the long par 3 tenth hole, often played into the wind, and all carry over a bend in the Bow River. It is a test of nerves, and requires a long accurate approach.
- the long par 4 twelfth hole with a green set right on the river, and which narrows from front to back. The back pin has little green space, but abuts the river on one side and yawning bunkers on the other. It makes a tough approach.
- the long heavily bunkered par 3 thirteenth
- the long par 4 fourteenth hole. It was designed as the closing hole by Thompson and has the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel as a backdrop, and more bunkers than fairway…
- the par 4 fifteenth hole with it’s elevated tee shot over the Spray River to the fairway beyond
Stanley Thompson designed 145 golf courses, and as well as Banff Springs his designs at Highland Links, St Georges, Jasper Park, and Capilano, continue to be regarded among the best in Canada. All are world class.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
And there are others, courses that aren’t destinations just because of their history and connection to majors. In the US Bandon Dunes has become a bit of a pilgrimage for some. Ballybunion or Old Head might be another two in Ireland. These are places that offer an experience so special that they are the subject of dreams. We envy the experience of people who have played them.
It’s hard to say what really makes a destination course, but I suppose it has something to do with uniqueness. They each provide an experience you can’t get anywhere else. The Old Course layout has been repeated and copied around the world, but no matter how good the copy may be, it’ll never beat the feeling of walking onto that first tee, the anticipation building as you stand firm against a stiff easterly from the North Sea. Even dropping it straight into the Swilcan Burn is unlikely to dampen the spirits.
And it’s not necessarily about being the best golf course. St Andrews isn’t regarded as the best golf course in the world. Nor is it the hardest, unless the weather moves in. But it is special. Special counts for a lot.
One course I have wanted to play for years is Banff Springs, Stanley Thompson’s masterpiece in the Canadian Rockies. To me, it’s a destination golf course through and through. Every picture I have ever seen of the place screamed different, unique, special. It’s also hard to get to, being so very far away from … anywhere.
Luckily my wife and I were spending the weekend at the Fairmont Hotel in Banff, which owns the course, and so the morning after arriving I left her asleep at 6am, threw my clubs over my shoulder and headed to the clubhouse. It wasn’t a cheap round at nearly $200 but when else would I be likely to get the chance again? It was there. I was there. I had my credit card in my wallet…
First of all it has to be said that Banff Springs is all about the views. The actual course I’ll get to in a minute, but you can’t talk about playing golf here without first talking about the huge, majestic, jagged, imposing, grey monolithic mountains that surround and tower over the course, glaring at you from every angle as you play every shot. It’s like being watched by an audience of titans. It’s virtually impossible to remain fed up with a bad shot after looking up and thinking “Wow”!
The welcome at the clubhouse is great, as it always is at premium courses in North America. The people are charming to the point of annoying. The facilities are comprehensive. The breakfast is pretty good. The pro shop is well stocked, though with the ubiquitous collection of club branded rubbish, which I always hate but which I always end up buying.
The practice range was new and polished and clean and well run and did what it had to do, ie, terrify me that I was going to embarrass myself. The one good thing about playing 5,000 feet up, however, is that the well struck shots look magisterial, sailing through the thin air as they do. After a couple of those I headed to the first.
I was playing alone so I was paired up with another lone golfer and two Quebecois to make a fourball. I made a solid drive off the first and hit a good 9 iron into the green, so the ‘playing with new people’ nerves were dealt with effectively and for a brief moment they thought I was a good golfer. The first hole on any unknown course is always a bit or a blur. A mixture of nerves and excitement mean that just getting a par is about all I can remember. The only other memorable moment was the starter telling us what to do if we saw moose on the course!
The next couple of holes went by okay but if I’m honest I was distracted by the views. It’s hard to concentrate when faced with something like that. The mountains, shrouded in wispy early morning cloud, are blanketed on their lower slopes by dense pine forest. It looks like something from a Tolkein novel, not somewhere you’d be expecting to hit a golf ball. I was also aware that the course’s signature hole, The Devil’s Cauldron, was coming up at the 4th.
A par 3 over a pretty lake does not sound that daunting, but when you stand there, high up on the tee box, looking at this postage stamp green over 200 yards away, it’s pretty intimidating. Club selection is key here and I pulled a 3 iron from my bag. I never, ever use it in anger, but trying a club I have no familiarity with on a difficult hole on a course I have never played is the kind of idiocy I engage in on such occasions as this. I smacked it into the trees to the left of the hole. Still, I didn’t go in the lake! I got up and down for a par after a fluked second shot from a bunker and moved on.
The next few holes went well, a series of long, wide par 4 and 5s with strategic bunkers and lovely undulating greens. Everything here feels like a premium golf course. It’s well maintained, with good attention to detail. The tee boxes are immaculate, there are ball washers on each hole, there are water stations and bathrooms every few holes and the grass on the fairways and rough is lush and beautiful. Being this far north means it does not suffer the same arid summers as other courses in North America, so in the middle of August it remains a garden of Eden.
Around the turn the course winds along the edge of the Bow River and heads back toward the hotel, with some interesting holes that require pinpoint accuracy. Unfortunately, I was having a period of strong starts and bad finishes to my rounds at the time, so these tricky holes coincided with a loss of form and a good few balls lost to the white water.
The 14th ends at the foot of the hill where the hotel sits and the 15th tee box is about 150 feet up. It’s round about now you appreciate that they insist on buggies because you really don’t want to be walking up and down this hill just for a tee shot. That being said, it is an amazing experience to blast your ball across the Spray River and onto the wide fairway below. I faded (ie, sliced) my ball because I tried to hit it too far, but it still landed in a findable position in the light rough, so it’s a fun hole.
This used to be the opening hole to the course before a change in routing a few years back and the construction of a new clubhouse in the middle of the course. I understand the logic behind that move but it is a shame that this is not where you still start. It must have been an awesome experience and one of the best opening holes in the golfing world. Now the first is one of the more sane holes and this one feels sort of ignored. I suppose a purist could argue that hitting a drive from that high up isn’t really a proper golf shot, but it is fun and definitely special.
Another couple of holes and I was back at the clubhouse, now much busier than it was at 6am when I set out. I was almost tempted to go round again, and had my wife not been shopping with my other credit card I would have chanced it.
For me the biggest test of a course is whether I’m as sad for it to end as I was excited for it to start, and Banff Springs definitely achieved that. The neo gothic castle that is the Fairmont Hotel gives it an air of romantic fairytale, which complements the over the top mountain range in which it’s nestled, but the golf course itself matches them for grandeur. It’s not a difficult course, with generous fairways and large greens. Even the ample bunkering felt well placed and not simply there for show. Nor has it been tricked up to be special. It’s special enough just by being where it is.
One thing I have to note as an addendum is the mosquitoes! There was a plague of them when I was there and though this is apparently rare, the buggers were the size of crane flies and they wouldn’t leave me alone. I had to keep long sleeves on even after sun up or they wouldn’t stop biting me.
This has to be one of my favorite reviews on the site. I feel like I have played the course along side you and can't wait to get up there to play for myself!