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Waterton Lakes Golf Club: Canada's Relic in the Rockies

Andrew PennerBy Andrew Penner,

WATERTON LAKES, ALBERTA - The story goes like this: They picked him up drunk at the rail station. He was tired, sore, and not allthat happy about getting his bones - and his cheap martinis - shaken andexhaustively stirred for two full days on the train. Plus, he wasventuring into the middle of the Canadian wilderness. But in the mid1930s, towards the end of his remarkable career as a golf coursearchitect, the famed Stanley Thompson , a.k.a. "TheToronto Terror," (Banff Springs, Jasper Park Lodge, andHighlands Links are just some of his timelessmasterpieces) made one last "statement" in the Canadian Rockies.Although the Waterton Lakes Golf Club is certainly notthe equal of Banff or Jasper, and Thompson himself spent only a few dayson the site, there is plenty of evidence of the master's hand.

Short (it plays just under 6,200 yards from the back tees, par 71),quirky, exposed to a constant wind, rudimentary in much of its shapingand design, and often lacking in conditioning, there are manyjustifiable knocks against this almost completely untouched relic in theprovince of Alberta's far southwest corner, where, as the park's slogansuggests, "the Prairies meet the mountains." But, just as there arethose who are quick to point out its weaknesses, there are many whoswear by it, who are charmed by its simple, backwoods appeal, itsglorious mountain-veiled setting, its fairways that teem with wildlife.

They started playing golf in Waterton in the early 1920s, well before Thompson made his cross-country trek to help with the design and implementation of an 18-hole route. The early games were played on a roughshod course, tee markers and greens set haphazardly on the mostly open, rocky, and stunted-tree terrain directly beneath the mighty explosion of rock on the course's western boundary.

The early golfers here were mainly park employees, recreationalescapists, the early keepers of the game, who realized that this was,indeed, inspiring terrain for golf. And, in that respect, not much haschanged.

Waterton National Park, the Canadian counterpart andneighbour to Montana's famed Glacier National Park, isstill the major player here when it comes to local support. The park,although not nearly as popular as Canada's other national parks -Banff, Yoho, Revelstoke, Jasper, etc. - is smitten withchiselled peaks, trout-filled lakes, and red rock canyons that hikersand sightseers have been drawn to for years.

Besides the heralded mountains, the Prince of Wales Hotel is the historic icon, the visionary stronghold, of the park. Perched on a rocky spit of land high above Waterton Lake, the hotel speaks volumes of what this place is all about.

Built in 1926, the hotel features an elegant but rustic Swiss theme,complete with high gables, carved beams, and ornamented balconies. But,like the tiny village of Waterton, the hotel never really blossomed likethe fabled Banff Springs Hotel, the ChateauLake Louise, or the Jasper Park Lodge . Todaythe hotel, although clean, and relatively well restored, can be a lonelyplace. Clinging to the rock on its treeless promontory, it seems almostinevitable that, one day, it will finally buckle and yield to the fiercewinds that continuously batter its walls.

And such is the case at the Waterton Lakes Golf Course. Facilities are old, the parking lot still gravel, and one gets the feeling that little has changed in 80 years. That wouldn't be far from being the case.

Those who require agronomic perfection (the greens are iffy and hoofprints abound), contemporary design, and a 7,000-yard challenge completewith hand towels and GPS-equipped carts will walk away disappointed.But for those who revel in the vintage game, truly subscribe to the"play for the fun of it" approach, and thrive in alpine amphitheatres,there is much to offer here. For one thing, the price is right foreveryone (Cdn$33 for 18 holes), and the golf exudes a simple, down-homefeeling that the big-ticket courses simply cannot have.

But, make no mistake about it, there are holes here that are as good - as fun to play - as any from the big-name courses. Thepar 5s, for example, are all birdie-able holes that sweep up hills andrise to greens framed by mounds. The premise is simple and exciting:pick a spot on the mountain, a hopeful line, and shoot for glory. Anumber of par 4s are drivable, their greens sunk in depressions ortucked in pockets of aspens. But it's the par 3s that will really keepyou on your toes. Thompson was a par-3 perfectionist, crafting thefamous "Cauldron" hole in Banff, "Cleopatra" and "Bad Baby" in Jasper.Clearly, in his opinion, the par-3 hole warranted special attention.

The fourth is the first of the one-shotters and requires a long, semi-blind shot to a small green sandwiched between stunted trees. Then there is the wickedly long seventh that plays predominantly into the prevailing wind. At 247 yards, there is no tougher par at Waterton, or perhaps Alberta, than this man-maker.

The par 3s on the back are nearly as good. The 13th is just 151 yardsbut is played to a tiny, pie-slice green wedged into the hillside. Bangit into the hill behind the green and it might just roll back down togive you a putt for birdie. If it stays up, however, you'll need nervesof steel and a pinch of luck to chip it down and hold the surface. On17, golfers need to swat a long iron up the hill to a narrow two-tieredgreen that drops off to wilderness on the right.

And it is the wilderness - the bears that frequent the fairways, the 400 elk that rut on the course every fall, the eagles that swoop in from the tree-coated slopes - that is what really makes this experience worthy. For there are some holes, especially on the front nine, that, on their own merit, are rather bland. But this intense beauty, the unfathomable work of the glaciers, is simply stirring. It's the reason why they solicited the guidance of Thompson in the first place. So, half-heartedly and full of the drink he came. But something tells me he left feeling a bit humbled, sobered, moved by Mother Nature's might. And, if you too venture here, perhaps you too will realize that going to Waterton Lakes isn't all that bad after all.

The verdict

Waterton Lakes Golf Course is an untouched relic. It's rustic, it's old, and it plays easy compared to most contemporary courses. Walkers will enjoy one of the nicest - and easiest - strolls possible for 18 holes of mountain golf. However, the golf course itself is not overly impressive. For the most part, the lasting impressions here are derived from the spine-tingling scenery and the abundant wildlife.

Stay and Play

The town of Waterton has a limited selection of places to stay. Nonetheless, it is still a selection. The Bayshore Inn (888-527-9555) offers basic lakeside rooms in the center of town and would be a good choice. Also, the historic Prince of Wales Hotel (403-236-3400) should also be considered, if nothing else than for the majestic views and the unique experience. For modern suites, complete with fireplaces, whirlpools, and lofts (not all rooms), the best choice would be Glacier Mountain Suites (403-859-2004).


The Lamp Post Dining Room in the Kilmorey Lodge has been a staple here for many years. Their award-winning menu, which features dishes from around the world prepared with Alberta flair, is complemented by great service, great value, and a warm atmosphere. Other restaurants to try include the Lakeside Kootenai Brown Dining Room & Fireside Lounge in the Bayshore Inn and the Wolf's Den Lounge at the Waterton Lakes Lodge.

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America and Europe. You can see more of his work at www.andrewpenner.com.

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

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