The par three fourth hole at Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course is called the Devil's Cauldron, but it was designed with a little help from Above.
Or so the story goes. This impossibly picturesque par three, photographed countless times and recognized around the world, was shaped by a legend of Canadian golf: Stanley Thompson, the renowned course architect. Thompson, so it is said, was walking the site of a future course one day in the 1920s when a rockslide came crashing down from the Rocky Mountain cliffs above. After the dust cleared, the shaken architect saw that the slide had dammed the watercourse, creating a small lake and transforming the valley into a gorgeous natural amphitheatre. Recognizing the hand of a design talent greater than his own, Thompson decided to build a golf hole on the spot.
The stories about Thompson grow taller every year, and for golfers and designers he now ranks alongside Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Tom Fazio as one of the premier designers in the history of the game. In Canada, where Thompson built most of his courses, he enjoys a cult-like following.
Golfers and other architects make regular pilgrimages to his most famous public courses. "Thompson's courses really are national treasures," says Doug Carrick, a Toronto-based golf architect and the president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (which Thompson helped found in the 1940s). "His designs always fit so naturally into the Canadian landscape. Without even realizing why, golfers will think, 'This course looks right. It belongs here.' "
Thompson left a legacy of about 145 courses that he built or remodelled during a 30-year career. His most celebrated public-play Canadian layouts include Green Gables Golf Club in Prince Edward Island, Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello Golf Course in Montebello, Que., and Whirlpool Golf Course in Niagara Falls, Ont.
And his reputation will soar even higher in the countdown to the 2010 RBC Canadian Open at Toronto's St. George's Golf and Country Club, a private Thompson- designed beauty dating from 1929 that has hosted the national championship four times previously, the last time in 1968. "I think next year's Canadian Open will be a real eye-opener for the pros," Carrick says. "Since most of Thompson's courses are in Canada, this will be the first exposure for many of them to one of his classic courses. They're in for a real treat."
Born in Toronto in 1893, Thompson first gained prominence with his mountain courses in Banff and at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, stunningly innovative layouts that established a template for mountain courses to this day.
At Jasper, his first major commission, Thompson astonished the golf world by clearing gaps through the forest of fir and spruce to point golfers toward greens aligned with distant mountains, then whimsically patterned his bunkers after the snow formations on their peaks. And in a major break from the "penal" tradition of North American course design - which demanded the golfer hit the shot dictated by the architect or be sorely punished - Thompson always offered a safer, albeit usually longer, alternative route to the green.
A bluff, hard-living and fun-loving man who liked to tell jokes and talk and drink with cronies long into the night, Thompson always had his best fun when designing his distinctively bold and cunningly shaped bunkers.
At Jasper, he patterned them to create the outline of a rose, a painter's palette, a giant's footprint and, on the par-three ninth hole known as Cleopatra, the outrageously voluptuous form of a woman. Unamused by this last gag, management ordered him to disguise the ancient pharoah's charms.
Thompson's sense of whimsy is evident at all his best courses. At Digby Pines Golf Resort in Nova Scotia, a lush parkland layout opened in 1929, he placed a question-mark-shaped bunker near the green at the 278-yard, uphill par-four 11th hole. Clearly, he was challenging golfers to try to drive the green.
Many came close, but no one accomplished the feat until the July day in 1936 when baseball's mightiest slugger, Babe Ruth, who was vacationing in Nova Scotia during the first summer of his retirement, clouted a home run.
Designed in the classic style, with tight fairways and small, subtly undulating greens open at the front, the Pines places a premium on accuracy. What's most striking is Thompson's uncanny ability to make every hole memorable. As at all his best courses, each hole at the Pines has an appearance and personality entirely its own.
Despite his prominence, Thompson's profligate spending and heavy drinking kept him constantly in and out of debt. He was apparently bankrupt, though still busy working, when he died of a stroke in Toronto in 1953.
Many believe that Thompson's masterpiece is Highlands Links in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where in June the Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada unveiled a plaque commemorating the architect's "national historic significance."
Thompson was reportedly astonished by the windblown setting when Parks Canada hired him to design the course in the late 1930s. By then his reputation had been established by his courses in Jasper and Banff, each sculpted from terrain as rugged and distinctively Canadian as this.
In the shadow of Nova Scotia's tallest mountains, the course features humped and slanted fairways that snake through terrain from a pine-edged valley, cut by the charging Clyburn River, to rocky outcrops and seaside marshes.
It features green complexes left open at the front, in the classic style, but made trickier by the architect's hollows, run-offs and bumps. Yet Thompson paid just as much attention to the setting: He painstakingly carved views through the forest to reveal the ocean and the surrounding peaks.
The late George Knudson, like Thompson a Canadian golf legend, raved about the splendour of the setting and of the designer's artistry. "When you're driving up the road to the course, it's like driving up to heaven. There's not a better walk in golf."
Brian Kendall is the author of Northern Links (Anchor Canada).
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Renowned Thompson courses in Canada
FAIRMONT BANFF SPRINGS 403-762-6801; http://www.fairmont.com/banffsprings/Recreation/Golf. Green fees $149 to $219. FAIRMONT JASPER PARK LODGE 780-852-6090; http://www.fairmontgolf.com/jasper. Green fees $125 to $225. DIGBY PINES GOLF RESORT 1-800-667-4637; http://www.digbypines.ca/pines_golf.html. Green fees $56 to $67. GREEN GABLES GOLF CLUB 1-888-870-5454; http://www.greengablesgolf.com. Green fees $65 to $120. FAIRMONT LE CHATEAU MONTEBELLO 819-423-4653; http://www.fairmontgolf.com/montebello. Green fees $49 to $84. WHIRLPOOL GOLF COURSE 1-866-465-3642; http://www.niagaraparksgolf.com/whirlpool. Green fees $49 to $72. HIGHLANDS LINKS 1-800-441-1118; http://www.highlandslinksgolf.com. Green fees $71.86 to $90.84.
MORE INFORMATION Stanley Thompson Society http://www.stanleythompson.com