by Jeremy Glenn
Golf as a Journey
This is one of many stories about the Banff Springs Golf Course, located next to the small town of Banff, Alberta, Canada. For a number of reasons, it is perhaps one of the most famous golf course in Canada, if not the world, set amongst what may be the most spectacular landscape of any golf course, the Banff National Park: thousands of acres of untouched wilderness, located in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.
The golf course itself was built in 1927 by renowned Canadian architect Stanley Thompson, who also designed Jasper Park in Alberta, Capilano in British-Columbia, ChÃƒ¢teau Montebello in QuÃƒ©bec, and Highland Links in Nova Scotia. The Banff golf course was designed to be associated with the luxurious Banff Springs Hotel, a very large, castle-like mansion overlooking both the town and the golf course. The hotel would serve as a refuge for the aristocracy in the Ëœ20’s and Ëœ30’s, associated with CP Rail Hotels. It is still very famous today.
The Banff Spring golf course began as 18 holes, running away from and back to the Hotel, in a valley along the Bow River. What gives the course its breathtaking character is the towering presence of the Rundle, Sulphur and Tunnel Mountains. While looming majestically overhead, they seem to protect the course from the outside world, much as a mother would cradle her newborn baby.
In 1989, the course was expanded to 27 holes, and a new clubhouse was built in a central location. Unfortunately, the new nine-hole addition overlooked a very meaningful attribute of the existing golf course…
In the morning of Saturday January 2nd, 1999, I set out for a two-hour walk on the property of the Banff Springs Golf Course. The weather was cold, crisp and very clear. A good layer of snow enhanced the many mounds and slopes that roll throughout the site, even though it blanketed all of the course’s features, most noticeably Thompson’s magnificent bunkering. It was a beautiful day, and I was intent on taking many pictures â€œ thus hopefully catching one or two good poses, if only by accident. Starting off from the banks of the Bow River, at the base of the Hotel, my journey formally began on the old first tee, an elevated platform adjoining the former practice area, where on that day was bubbling with activity, used as a skating rink and sledding slope. It was easy to realise how simple it was for golfers, as recently as 10 years ago, to stroll down from the Hotel, warm up on the range, and step on to the first tee located no more than 15 yards away.
Waking away from the Hotel down the first fairway, my heart was really set upon reaching the old 8th hole (now the 4th), a world reknown par 3, aptly named Devil’s Cauldron. However, Murphy’s Law being what it is, my destination happened to be the farthest point on the property, on the other side of Sulphur Mountain. This was, of course, a minor inconvenience, as I had both time and a full roll of film at my disposal. As such, full of energy, I continued on down the old 2nd â€œ passing at an nerve-wracking proximity to a herd of Elks –and the old 3rd. The 4th hole, now the eighteenth, was a sharp dogleg right, leaning hard against a rib in Sulphur Mountain in the first landing area, gave someone the feeling of instantly reaching the other side of the mountain, as if turning a sharp corner. I kept walking past the new clubhouse, and kept snapping pictures as I walked down the old 5th, past the 6th, and down the 7th, to reach my destination.
Devil’s Cauldron, to the unfortunate few who do not know this hole, is a medium length, downhill par three. The tees are set into the side of a large hill, and the green sits on a small shelf at the base of Sulphur Mountain, towering a thousand feet above. As if the setting where not enough to intimidate, the hole is a full carry over a glacial lake. I was, on that day, miles from any other human being. The serenity and magnitude of the place, following an arduous trek, was overwhelming. I had reached the top of the world.
Looking at my watch, I still had some time available. As the snow was thankfully not too deep — and I was even more thankfully equipped with a good pair of boots — I decided from that point to head down to the Bow River. This would give me a different perspective of the land as I made my way back to the Hotel. It was only a small detour from the most direct route I had just taken, so I bade farewell to the 8th, and made my way to the River, using the 9th, 10th and 11th as a direct route.
Making my way back to the Hotel was perhaps even more motivating than the trek out, not because of the large cup of hot chocolate which had my name on it, but due to the presence of the frozen River and the anticipation of the Hotel’s appearance. As such, I continued on along the short par 3 12th, the par 5 13th (now the ninth) to the new clubhouse. Followed was another famous par 3, the 14th, then the 15th, 16th, and 17th. It is only upon reaching the 18th hole that the Banff Spring Hotel suddenly reappears in its entire splendor, beckoning the golfer home as it overlooks the final hole from high above.
‘So what is the moral of the story?’ you are sure to be asking. Why have I taken this long to describe, essentially, nothing?
The answer to this was not as evident for me as it should be to you. Indeed, the description I have given, by itself, should reveal the Genius of the Place, much more so than a walk in a snow covered landscape.
What struck me was that, unknowingly, I had walked the entire course.
Let me put this another way. The manner in which I had decided to walk the property was exactly the way the course had been routed. The manner in which I had walked the property was the most natural way to discover the landscape. I had followed each snow-covered hole, from the first to the last. Had no golf course been there, I would have walked the property in exactly the same way.
Mark Twain once said, ‘golf is a good walk spoiled’. He obviously had never been to Banff Springs. Indeed, this course has two of the fundamentals necessary for ‘a good walk’:
Variety and Destinations
These two elements are so fundamental to the Journey, that their absence â€œ unfortunately often the case on golf courses â€œ can quickly transform a stimulating stroll into meaningless drudgery.
The purpose of variety and destinations in to lead the walker into the landscape. The first time, he wanders and wonders. Every time thereafter, he anticipates and imagines. Either way, he is eagerly looking forward to the next revelation, the next landscape. What will it look like? Will it be any different?
The routing of the Banff Springs Golf Course does exactly that. It provides both variety and destinations.
We start off on one side of Sulphur Mountain, viewing the Landscape as the sun hits it a certain way. Reaching the other flank, we are confronted not only to an entirely different scene, but a different sunlight, as we anticipate the climax of the Devil’s Cauldron. We then go back down towards the Bow River, looking forward to its multitude of setting and the variety of ways the River will stimulate our senses, before we make our way back to the Hotel, awaiting its majestic appearance from behind Tunnel Mountain.
Leading the golfer is a trait that is repeated on some famous courses. Imagine visiting Augusta National for the first time. How would you walk the site? Well, you would probably head down to Amen’s Corner. After that, You would admire Rae’s creek as it makes its way along the 13th, then you would be drawn to the 15th and 16th hole located close by, before returning to the clubhouse. Remarkably â€œ not withstanding the 14th hole, which not coincidentally may be the weakest of the bunch â€œ you have just walked the exact routing of the back nine.
Each of these courses provides the golfer with a variety of destinations, something to discover, to look forward to, a mental nudge leading them deeper and deeper into the landscape. For example, if the routing leads southward for the first two holes, before changing direction, there should be a meaningful feature near the second green, a reason as to why the routing leads the golfer to this spot. This may be anything from a lake at the bottom of a swale to a vista from the top of a hill. When a routing is not anchored on the landscape, when its path seems unjustified, it leaves the walker confused and un-satisfied. A poorly routed golf course, from the point of view of a journey, is akin to climbing a hill and turning back before reaching the top.
Pebble Beach, even being a great golf course, is lacking this attribute. Had the spectacular 7th hole been at the farthest point on the property â€œ in lieu of the 10th â€œ the course would have been that much better. The 7th (and even the 8th hole) is a perfect spot to reach, turn, and make our way back to the clubhouse. The 10th green is not.
The routing is not a gratuitous entanglement leading nowhere. It does not direct the person to a point where nothing significant occurs. It should instead constantly give a direction, a meaning, a destination. It links the features of the landscape. It is the course’s spinal cord. The routing introduces, at least to the one following it, a sense of order and structure in the landscape. It is the path leading into the garden. It is the way from which the landscape is revealed, its secrets unveiled.
Sadly, the new Banff Springs 27-hole routing has lost some of this subtle charm…