Destination golf course is a term used all too frequently these days. Every new course sells itself as a destination course; somewhere worth travelling to. But despite the hyperbole there are very few courses that really merit the title. St Andrews? Yes. Pebble Beach? Yes. Augusta? Yes. These are all courses that every golfer would crawl over broken glass to play on.
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.
Date: April 30, 2015