Lethbridge, Alberta - The Old Man River snakes its way along the dry, sandy soil of Southern Alberta, carving its channel an inch deeper with every passing year. Just west of Lethbridge, Alberta, the walls of this canyon formed by the Old Man are nearly one hundred feet high. With its steep cliffs, hoodoos, and contrasting shades of green, Paradise Canyon offers an abrupt change in the prairie landscape - it's an oasis in the middle of one of the driest, windiest regions in North America. It's also a perfect setting for golf.
Paradise Canyon Golf Course is the work of Alberta architect Bill Newis and GPEC, a company on the forefront of golf course building and design in Western Canada. While other projects such as the Golden Golf Club (Golden, BC), The Hamptons (Calgary, AB), and The Willows (Saskatoon, Sask) are fine reflections of world-class work, their accomplishment in Paradise Canyon is the cream of their crop.
"Paradise Canyon is an Arizona transplant in Southern Alberta," says Mike Fleishhauer, the club's young, up and coming head golf professional. With an average annual rainfall of barely 10 inches, he's not far off. The brown soil and sparsely vegetated hills surrounding Paradise Canyon are dry, baked, and certainly reminiscent of sights found in Arizona and Southern California. The relentless summer heat is also a reminder that you're in desert land. Temperatures in July and August soar to 100 degrees on a consistent basis - bring a hat and drink plenty of water!
Of course, along with the heat and lack of precipitation comes a noticeably longer playing season. Traditionally, courses in Alberta open in mid-April and close in mid-October. Not Paradise Canyon; they play golf as early as February and usually play into November - pretty good for a place north of the U.S. border. Calgarians, living two hours to the north, are often shoveling snow off their sidewalks when the green grass of Paradise Canyon is being cut to three sixteenths of an inch.
Much of the golf course plays alongside the Old Man River. The Old Man, a wide charming river with a wonderful disposition, is really the centerpiece of the property. Not to say it's always been kind to the folks living here. In 1995 the Old Man got angry, spilling its banks and flooding the course and endangering some of the homes at the resort. "The flood in 1995 was unbelievable," says Jack Wilson, the club's Guest Services Manager. Paradise received twice its annual rainfall in a week and the Old Man rumbled into places it didn't belong. Fortunately, the integrity of the course was, for the most part, left intact. Although the Old Man did reclaim portions of playable fairway, just one green (the 17th) had to be rebuilt.
Paradise starts strong. In fact, the opening six holes will likely make or break your round (especially with a north wind). The first hole is a healthy par-4 that will likely require a brave strike with a long iron to reach the tiered green. Grassy mounds and bunkers surround most of the greens at Paradise, including the first.
While plenty of dirt was moved to frame the low-lying holes on the front side, the mounding is suitable within the natural landforms and atmosphere at Paradise. Hitting the ball into the mounds means awkward stances and rough lies. On most holes there is plenty of room.
Holes three and four play alongside a man-made lake and will certainly test your courage. No. 3, the number one handicap hole on the course, is a long par-4 with a split fairway. Anything hit left off the tee will find a wet domain. Hit it straight and slightly to the right to avoid the pond and penciling down a number that will put you in your "red zone."
The fourth is the first of two difficult par-5's on the front side. Both par fives, No.4 and No. 8, have small, thin targets and are extremely difficult to hit in two for big hitters wishing to take a gamble. Beware, behind the green at No. 8 is a deep bunker that is hidden; it will crush all hope of birdie for any mortal.
The seventh is a rock-solid par-4 that hugs the banks of the Old Man. At 446 yards from the tips, you're best advised to take out driver and bust one down the middle! The green is small for a hole of this length and is much more receptive to a shot approaching high and soft - tougher to do from 200 out.
The back nine at Paradise is golf with a dramatic flare. Holes cruise along the Old Man and crawl up into the dry, baked hillsides where cacti are common. With exalted views of the Old Man River Valley and the vast rangeland that envelops it, the view atop the 12th tee box is always the pinnacle of your round.
The drama on the back nine actually begins with the eleventh, a short gambling par-4 just over 300 yards from the back tee. About 200 yards from the tee the fairway vanishes and gives way to a rugged canyon laden with hazards. The smart shot is a mid-iron to the narrow landing area on top, then a pitch down to the green. The greedy few that attempt to drive the green will likely find a spot more fitting for rattlesnakes or cacti - if they find their ball at all.
No. 12 is easily the signature hole at Paradise. After climbing fifty steps to a ledge they call the tee box, you'll need a moment to catch your breath and absorb the panoramic views. Once ready to play (if that's possible on 12), you'll need to throw one into the wind and hope it falls onto a patch that's green in color. The ball will be in the air for what seems an eternity. At 150 yards from the back tee box, and falling a jaw-dropping 100 feet to the green, it's anything from a three iron to sand wedge depending on the wind and hole location.
The thirteenth is a terrific par-5 that slithers along the Old Man's banks. A reachable par-5 with a solid tee shot, the thirteenth is as aesthetically pleasing as they come. If Paradise hasn't sold you yet, playing this cruiser along the river will have you begging for more. Don't worry, you'll get it.
The last two holes also hug the banks of the river and will punish anything hit right. The seventeenth requires a long iron that must be pinched between bunkers left and the river to the right. It is the most demanding par-3 at Paradise. No. 18 is a nerve-racking par-5 with no room for error off the tee. With O.B. left and the Old Man right, you'll have a tough time deciding on which side to miss - neither will do.
Paradise is a golfers' course. The shot requirements are solid, the atmosphere better. Southern Alberta is home to some terrific scenery. It's wild, rugged, and roomy - it's "where the deer and the antelope roam." Now plenty of golfers roam here too. Tune up your "wind game," bring your camera, and set sail for Paradise. The Old Man will be waiting.
Paradise Canyon Golf Resort
185 Canyon Blvd.
Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada
Tournament Tees: 6,810 yards, par 71, 132 slope, 73.1 rating
Championship Tees: 6,372 yards, par 71, 129 slope, 70.7 rating
Regular Tees: 5,832 yards, par 71, 124 slope, 68.3 rating
Forward Tees: 5,282 yards, par 71, 125 slope, 71.8 rating
The city of Lethbridge, home to about 60,000 people, offers many hotels to choose from. The Lethbridge Lodge is centrally located (about a 15-minute drive to Paradise Canyon) and would be a good choice. Call 800-661-1232 to reserve. Your best choice, however, would be staying right at the Paradise Canyon Resort. They offer luxury accommodations, just steps from the course. A swimming pool, fitness center/spa, tennis center, and a restaurant are all located in the resort.
Anton's in the Lethbridge Lodge is regarded as one of the finest restaurants in Southern Alberta. You won't go wrong heading there for Sunday Brunch. Also, the restaurant at the golf course is outstanding and there is no need to venture elsewhere if you're staying at the resort.
The Old Man River is not just a nice thing to view from a distance. You can ride on his back while on a canoe, kayak, or raft. Southern Alberta is also known for its Native American Historic Sites. The Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, a forty-minute drive from Lethbridge, is a remarkable historic site/museum filled with ancient artifacts that date back well before cursing at a white dimpled ball was thought up.
Andrew Penner is a longtime member of the Canadian PGA. Author of "One Flew Over the Caddyshack," he also writes for a number of magazines throughout Canada and the U.S.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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