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Whistler Golf Club: British Columbia wonderland's 'cheap' course stands up as no barebones bargain design

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,

WHISTLER, British Columbia - Looking down the first tee, a wide open invitingly flat par 4, Vancouver golfer Dave Brown provides a pragmatic explanation for why Whistler Golf Club is his vacation course of course.

"I play here because it's the only one a regular guy can afford," Brown said. "It's $60, not $120."

In some ways that sums up Whistler Golf Club's standing in this Canada resort outdoor wonderland community. It's the cheap course. Of course, that outlook is as limiting as a strait jacket.

For Whistler is a town with four courses and three of them happen to be as high end as high end can be. The golf scene is essentially a collection of Tiffany's, Gucci and Prada shops.

Beingthe cheap course in Whistler hardly puts you in bargain bin, mom-and-popdiscount shop category. It just means you're more like Banana Republic.

Call it swings for the average folks. If you (or your spouse) keep an eye on the kids' college funds while pursuing your golf jones, Whistler Golf Club could be the vacation course for you.

That doesn't mean you're going to lose out on service. An attendant raced back to the clubhouse and gave a woman shivering in our group her own backup sweater to use even before any would-be chivalrist could step forward. The woman didn't even bother to tell the girl she was cold, the attendant just noticed it.

Who ever said a course for the people couldn't be people friendly?

Of course, all the smiles and above and beyond service (as the increasingly common industry catch phrase goes) means diddly to most golfers if the course doesn't measure up. Here Whistler Golf Club comes through there as well.

Palmer Course Design Co.'s vision is a traditional layout in untraditional settings. Whistler Golf Club plays much more wide open than the mountain skier's paradise region's other courses. You can see across to other holes on many fairways and there's anything but an isolated in the middle of nowhere nature feeling.

Whistler Golf Club still offers plenty of nature touches. On No. 16, a 460-yard par 4, you shoot over a pond from an elevated tee. This forced carry reaches 180 yards from the back tees, but the distance is not what you'll remember.

No, the star is the distinctive tint of striking blue the water is. It's almost Carolina Tar Heel blue, so light and clean looking. Wilderness amateurs, you're staring at glacier water!

Back on No. 9, beavers have built a dam along the right side stream that has taken more than a few golf balls away. In fact, beavers have been known to value your Pro V1s almost as much as you.

One beaver den in Whistler revealed a collection of hundreds of golf balls. And everyone thought you'd gone crazy when you insisted someone must have been moving your ball in the woods!

But the beavers are only part of the gallery at Whistler Golf Club. No. 13 is named Bear Island for good reason. The black bears enjoy hanging around the completely hidden dogleg left green.

Talk about your blind tee shots.

You get this nature in an easy-walk package. Whistler Golf Club's 6,676 yards are made for you to rediscover golf without seats. In fact, if you take out a cart, you're liable to feel foolish seeing everyone else easily and happily hoofing it (medical conditions notwithstanding of course.)

"We have groups that walk the full 18, turn right around and walk it again, playing a second round," director of golf Alan Kristmanson said.

Whistler Golf Club is a leap back into time featuring the long lost art of the easy rhythms of a walking course conversation.

"You can really relax when you're walking," sales manager Ro Davies said. "You don't have to worry about where the cart is all time and can just concentrate on playing the game."

The game is very playable at Whistler Golf Club. There's little tricked up about this course and it's about as visually intimidating as Barney the Dinosaur.

"Psychologically, I like how open it is here," local golfer Marty Lidstone said. "The fairways are forgiving."

If the other Whistler courses try to beat you up like schoolyard bullies, Whistler Golf Club plays at being a golfer's friend, before delivering a subtle, but noticeable kick to your backside.

"Like 95 percent of Arnold Palmer courses, it's the type of course that gives you plenty of rope until you get to the greens," Kristmanson said. "Then it hits you with rolling greens and makes it difficult."

Pin placement carries even more impact than usual on your score at Whistler Golf Club.

Not that Palmer's design team hasn't given you a fair chance at collecting birdies. Or in Arnie himself's case a par 5 eagle.

The first time Palmer played this course with his name on it, he eagled No. 11 - a 515-yarder with two creeks running through the fairway. For most mortals this is one of the tougher holes on the course, with club selection on creek navigation vital. A mid-1980s Palmer, just took them out of play.

"People still talk about that eagle around here," Davies said.

Arnie's Army lives strong in Canada as well.

Especially with this hacker friendly design approach.

"You can score quite well if you play properly," Lidstone said. "It's not about trying to frustrate you."

Or shaking out your wallet.

The verdict

A Whistler pioneer when it opened in 1985, Whistler Golf Club still shows it belongs among its flashier, younger neighbors. It combines a memorable setting with a relaxing atmosphere like few other courses.

The scenery isn't the most inspiring in all of Whistler, but that's like saying a painting sort of blends in at the Louvre. Compared to other areas, it more than holds its own.

You see houses on Whistler Golf Club and you never really feel like you're up in the mountain woods like at Chateau Whistler, but the bluish-looking mountains still loom overhead and the air's still almost scary fresh.

Being out on a course in Whistler is like finding yourself in a mountain breeze deodorant commercial and Whistler Golf Club is no exception. It turns out the pioneers who brought golf to this winter sports paradise were crazy like a fox. And Whistler Golf Club management continues that tradition by continuing to offer a reasonably priced option for locals and value conscious tourists alike.

The Palmer Design Co.'s relatively small size approach holds up in this modern age of monster courses because the approach shots to the green are what really determine your score here.

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 will 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 village. 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 sure you stop at least once. It's located right near the 7-Eleven in the main village.

Fast fact

Whistler Golf Club's status as an Arnold Palmer signature course gave an unknown golf area an immediate boost of prestige and set the stage for the big name designs that followed years later.

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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