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A creek runs through it: Chateau Whistler Golf Club brings a tough test of serious nature

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,

WHISTLER, British Columbia (June 15, 2005) - The roar of the rushing creeks catches many a city dweller off guard. You hear this sound and aren't quite sure what it is at first. This is one brand of white noise you have no experience with.

Cab honks you're an expert on. Woofers blasting, those you can almost pick out the exact decibel level on. Jumbo jet engines zooming overhead are categorized in a second. A faulty muffler? Please! That's child's play.

But this? This is only drawing blanks.

It sounds like there is a rustling in the trees right off the fairway. Only as you draw closer and look down, do you realize it's the water speeding past. Such a little creek. Such a loud noise. At least loud when amplified by the silence of these forest surroundings.

You've played plenty of golf courses with water hazards of course. But none where the hazards have a mind of their own.

Welcome to Chateau Whistler Golf Club, where the water doesn't just sit there on command, it moves. These rushing creeks are just one of the things that makes Chateau Whistler unlike most courses you've ever played before. Including the other courses in Whistler, British Columbia's nature wonderland.

Where else would you find a course built right into a mountain with nary a house in sight? Where else would you find yourself looking down on the whole town just four holes in? Heck, where else would the director of golf be confident enough to guarantee a bear sighting before tee off?

Rod Cochrane made that prediction as our group stepped up to the first tee and got a good look at all the towering Douglas firs that make straying from the fairways at Chateau Whistler an unforgettably punishing proposition. Of course, once you get going at this Robert Trent Jones II design, you don't have time to think about much of anything - bears or otherwise.

Some courses ease you into a round. Robert Trent Jones II hits you over the head with a cast iron skillet at Chateau Whistler.

The first four holes make up the most difficult stretch of the course. On this stretch, you will climb 400 feet up Mount Blackcomb. If you're lucky, it won't be done bogey by bogey.

The green of the par-4 third is up on a ridge, with one those creeks rushing below it. The scenery is so eye-catching, it's easy to become distracted by it and shank that iron shot.

"It's easy to lose yourself - and golf balls - here," Tucson golfer Joe Grimm said, laughing.

This is one course where it really feels like you're playing through the woods. And it's old woods at that. Some of Whistler's Douglas firs are 1,300 years old. One of the trunks of the bulkier trees at Chateau Whistler was bigger around than two elephants.

Jones II makes sure this isn't just a nature hike, however. Chateau Whistler carries a 145 slope rating from the back tees and it does not take statistics to make you realize this is the toughest course in town.

Jones II turns these 6,635 yards into a beautiful monster with tight fairways, uphill shots, numerous carries and tucked-away greens. It's not tricky hard. It's just hard.

Looking around, it's easy to see why Chateau Whistler ballooned over budget. Projected to cost $5 million, the final tally came in at $11 million after two years of work. Now that the course has impressed for more than a decade (it opened in 1993), there are a few quibbles how Jones II spent the cash.

Especially if you're standing on the fourth tee box with the entire village spread out so far below. It would be easy to think this was a view only small plane flights could provide.

"You can take a breath after this hole," Cochrane said assuredly, no doubt aware that the only thing competing with the vistas is your dread at a rapidly skyrocketing score.

Cochrane is right in a sense. After climbing through four, you spend the next 14 holes maneuvering back down Blackcomb. As any mountain climber or Chateau Whistler golfer can tell you, though: descent's no guaranteed picnic either.

Not with holes like No. 8 just up ahead. This 212-yard par 3 shoots straight down into a green surrounded by granite rock beds to the right and the lake to the left.

Snapping a picture here isn't just a souvenir grab. It serves a very practical purpose. You probably need the delay to figure out which club to pull out of the bag. The downhill makes duffers think this par 3 plays shorter than it actually does.

"The thing I like about it is this is course where you have to think a few shots ahead," Grimm said.

Flying by the seat of your pants, or the club head of your driver, is a sure recipe for a long Chateau Whistler round. Jones II sets up the nature to confound the long-drive obsessed. There are several holes where you're best advised to lay up before creek or rock crossing, others where it's all about navigating bends.

"It's not very long, but it's very penalizing," said local Whistler area golfer Scott Downing. "You can't let the whole pretty picture thing fool you."

It's impossible to separate the course from the surroundings however. Just off the 10th tee in the woods is a bear testing station. This is where a string of barbed wire takes fur samples and disguised weights measure poundage when paws step on to grab food.

Then on No. 17, you come across the loudest rushing creek yet. It sounds like a gushing, rolling river to the novice city ear. Of course, since the hole requires that you clear it, it's much more than a test of your auditory nerve.

"I've been all over and this is one of those courses that make you realize why people started playing golf in the first place," said golfer Eric Graham of St. Andrews, New Brunswick.

The only time you really see signs of man-made progress are when you're shooting back towards the clubhouse on 18. Cochrane's bear guarantee turned out to be the equal of a Patrick Ewing playoff prediction. Not that you really mind. Our group did see plenty of bear evidence - with the creatures leaving some impressive droppings right near tee boxes.

"I swear that a bunch of bears get together and (poop) in the same place to try and scare people away with how big they must be," Cochrane said, laughing.

The bears are fighting a losing battle. It would take much more than that to keep golfers away from Chateau Whistler.

The verdict

Everyone tries to fool themselves that they're communing with nature when they golf. Chateau Whistler actually comes close to delivering on that eternal promise. Robert Jones II wisely stepped back and let the scenery be his show. He didn't force things in this design. Instead, he let the mountains, creeks and ancient trees star.

This isn't a course with a chorus of would-be signature holes. The holes blend in to the surroundings rather than sticking out and competing with each other for attention. It makes for a seamless round that goes by much more quickly than you expect. You're stepping off the 18th green wondering where four hours went.

Still, Chateau Whistler isn't for everybody. That 145 slope rating is no joke and if you're an average golfer who obsesses over scores, all the rushing creeks in the world might not be able to ease your frustration. Chateau Whistler is best enjoyed with a low-key group of friends.

This is one of the most expensive courses in British Columbia with average rates running from $159 to $209 Canadian. The staff more than lives up to this high-end experience, however.

Chateau Whistler has the best staff-to-golfer ratio of any course I've seen. Coming off the 18th green, there's a line of college-aged kids waiting to wipe down your clubs. And they don't take no for an answer.

When two local golfers tried to insist they could do it themselves, a smiling red-headed woman stepped in and insisted, saying "It's my pleasure." It's hard to say no when the ball girl is beautiful.

Even the minor inconveniences are made right at Chateau Whistler. The practice range is removed from the course, requiring a van ride over. But such walkie-talkie synchronization goes into making sure that the van's ready there when golfers are waiting, that it makes you feel like a big shot rather than put out.

Places to stay

If it's Whistler, the Four Seasons ((604) 935-3400) is the place to be if you can at all afford it. And if you can completely not afford it, work to find a deal before settling elsewhere. The level of service at this Four Seasons is that high, that memorable and that trip-making.

Everyone will know you by name by the time you pull up to the front door, if not before. The preparation level and synchronization that goes into this kind of greeting (the valet informs the bellboy, who informs the front desk, etc.) is astounding.

And it's hardly the only reason to love the place. The rooms are so comfortable you may be willing to trade in your house for a two-room Four Seasons executive suite by night two. You'll never find a more spotless hotel carpet.

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler ((604)938-8000) is another luxury option that puts you steps away from the Chateau Whistler clubhouse. The course is affiliated with the hotel and special packages are available. The lobby is a wide-open, inviting showpiece. Plus, the Fairmont has one of best breakfast buffets you'll ever find.

Places to eat

In the heart of the village, the Bear Foot Bistro ((604) 932-3433) offers great food and a huge book-bound wine list in a casual ski town environment. Here, you're liable to see a guy in jeans and a sweat shirt munching away a table over from a guy in Armani. And everyone's happy.

Pasta Lupino Gourmet ((604) 905-0400) offers some great fresh pasta at unbelievable prices ($5.95 Canadian for heaping lunch dishes). This small place with well-worn wood tables looks like a hole in the wall passing by. But make you stop at least once. It's located right near the 7-11 in the main village.

Fast fact

The bears who frequent Chateau Whistler are black bears, "the friendly bears" as Rod Cochrane puts it.

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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