(The following article first appeared in the June 2011 edition of Golf Canada Magazine)
After 100 years and countless rounds, the Banff Springs Golf Club's colourful history is ripe with juicy anecdotes and tall tales.
One chestnut bound to be frequently repeated during the club's season-long centennial celebrations is the almost certainly apocryphal story of the birth of the Devil's Cauldron; the impossibly picturesque par three that numbers among golf's most photographed holes.
Legendary architect Stanley Thompson, so it is said, was sitting on a rock, enjoying a wee nip from his flask, 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 divine hand of a design talent even greater than his own, Thompson decided to build a golf hole on the spot.
Thompson and his groundbreaking design work at the Banff Springs will naturally be a focus of birthday promotions that include the unveiling of a commemorative logo, the awarding of 100 free rounds of golf played with replica hickory clubs, and the publication of an anniversary book. On July 13, the centennial of the golf club's founding in 1911, the Banff Springs Golf Cub will host a tournament for members and special guests.
For many golfers around the world, the Banff Springs Golf Course and the Fairmont hotel that looms like a fairy-tale castle on the cliffs overhead have come to symbolize Canada as surely as the beaver, red-coated Mounties and even Niagara Falls.
Golf first came to the Bow Valley in the early 1900s, when guests of the hotel pursued the game on a makeshift course with sand putting surfaces. That lasted until the arrival of young Scottish golf professional William E. Thomson, who designed a challenging new nine-hole track and helped found the golf club in 1911.
Next came Donald Ross, then considered North America's greatest golf architect, who expanded the course to 18 holes. But when it opened in 1924, Ross's nine was revealed to have a fatal flaw: not enough money had been invested in adding topsoil to the thin rocky earth of the mountain valley. Almost overnight the health of the course's turf deteriorated alarmingly.
Enter Stanley Thompson, a bluff, hard-living and fun-loving man who liked to tell jokes and talk and drink with cronies long into the night. The Toronto-born architect had already made his reputation with his stunningly innovative work at Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course, a three-hour drive to the northwest of Banff.
Thompson proceeded to plow under Banff's old holes and build a course universally proclaimed as a masterpiece. Wherever possible, he left nature alone, taking his routing through tunnels of fir trees, while bringing into play the Spray and Bow Rivers. Thompson startled the golf world by clearing gaps through the forest to point golfers toward greens aligned with distant mountains, and by whimsically patterning his flash-faced bunkers after the snow formations on their peaks.
Drawn by the rave reviews and the rugged splendour of the Rocky Mountain scenery, golfers have flocked to Thompson's course ever since its official opening by the Prince of Wales in 1929.
Celebrity visitors have included golf legend Gene Sarazen, who played an exhibition match in 1936.
Marilyn Monroe memorably posed with golf club in hand while in town making The River of No Return in 1953. Almost as big a stir was created by Monroe's fiancé, Joe DiMaggio, who tackled the course when she was busy filming.
Club regulars also recall watching Japanese home-run king Sadaharu Oh boom drives incredible distances in the thin mountain air. Clint Eastwood, another passionate golfer, came for a look. And an elderly Bob Hope played six holes before heavy winds chased him into the clubhouse. Hope said that his old friend Bing Crosby had told him that Banff was one of the courses he had to play before he died.
A big part of the thrill of playing the Banff Springs is the opportunity to get close to nature. Grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, cougars, wolves, coyotes and eagles all make appearances at a course set within the protected confines of Banff National Park. But it's the dozens of elk seen every day of the golf season that cause the most disruption.
Groundskeepers still shudder when they recall the summer evening several years ago when two rutting bulls locked horns in full view of the clubhouse dining room. So ferocious was the battle that diners rushed to the window for a better view. Afterward, groundskeepers spent hours cleaning up bits of antler, blood and hair.
The famous golf club that introduced the game to the Alberta Rockies has since spawned a host of local competitors. There are the two superb Robert Trent Jones Sr. designs an hour west of Calgary at Kananaskis Country Golf Course and two acclaimed courses, Silvertip and Stewart Creek, on opposite sides of the Bow River Valley. Another strong track is found at Canmore Golf and Curling Club, just outside the Park's gates.
Though challenged, the Banff Springs has reigned for a century at the summit of mountain golf, establishing a design template admired and imitated around the world. Through all the years, nobody has built one better.
TWO OTHER CANADIAN COURSES ARE CELEBRATING CENTENNIALS AS WELL...
- The Wascana Country Club, in Regina, Sask., first opened its doors in 1911, and has evolved to the point where they rank as one of the province's premier courses.
The par-73 course, located along Wascana Creek, actually has 20 holes - ensuring that those who go there will always have the best 18 holes to play, on any given day. Wascana is one of only three private golf clubs in the province.
- Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club, host of this year's RBC Canadian Open, in July. Formerly called Shaughnessy Heights Golf Course, the club got its start in 1911 when nine businessmen agreed to turn 67 acres of the prestigious enclave of Shaughnessy in Vancouver into one of the country's landmark courses, now a favourite PGA stopover, according to players.
For tickets to the 2011 RBC Canadian Open, visit rbccanadianopen.com