By: Andrew Penner
It’s only 155 yards to the pin but, standing high on the perched tee with a wicked west wind swirling through the Old Man River Valley, I have no idea what club to hit. I choose the five-iron, thinking it’s plenty of stick to get me to the green. I make a rather rusty (what can I say, it’s been a long winter) swat and, surprise surprise, the ball plummets into the bunker fifteen yards short of the green. Apparently the five-wood may have been a better call.
But this is early spring golf. And the mind isn’t quite firing on all cylinders yet. Making poor decisions – and poorer golf swings – just comes with the territory. And, speaking of territory, southern Alberta, for die-hards, is thee place to play in the early part of the year.
Tucked into a cozy setting along the Old Man River in West Lethbridge, Paradise Canyon is, unquestionably, one of the premier golf courses in Southern Alberta. With many memorable riverside holes, including the super-scenic 12th, one of the best par-3s in the entire province, Paradise Canyon serves up a wonderful experience anytime of year.
“We’re typically open two weeks earlier than Calgary and the rest of Alberta,” says Mike Fleischhauer, the General Manager at Paradise Canyon. “We’re usually open around March 25th.”
In terms of making an early start, they are not alone. Henderson Lake, Magrath, Land-O-Lakes, and Picture Butte – all quality 18-hole courses in the Lethbridge area – were all cutting holes for regulation play in late March.
In Picture Butte – home to 27-holes of solid southern Alberta golf – they tend to get out of the gate the earliest. “Believe it or not, two years ago we opened on regular tees and greens on February 1st,” says Head Professional, Dean Sklarenko. “Obviously, that’s very rare. And it certainly caused a major stir in the golf community. We were busy and turning people away some days. Mid-March is pretty standard for us.”
Obviously, the reason for the early start to the golf season in southern Alberta is all related to the weather. “It’s just a lot drier down here,” says Fleischhauer. “When Calgary gets a foot of snow, which is typical in a spring storm, we often don’t get anything. The golf courses here are usually snow free in early March. The big Chinook winds also dry us out pretty fast.”
Unquestionably, the temperatures also play a key role. On any given day you can add three or four degrees to Calgary’s forecast high. And that, especially when it comes to spring golf, is huge.
Interestingly, another course in this general area, the Marais Valley Golf Course, which is located just over the US border in Shelby, Montana, used to stay open year-round. Due to staffing, they now close in November and open again on March 1st. The scenic 18-hole course boasts its own micro-climate (don’t think palm trees) in an arid valley that makes for even warmer and drier conditions. “Our situation is definitely unique,” says Clubhouse Manager Louise Acheton. “For whatever reason, this valley just holds heat. And, yes, we get a lot of Albertans down here playing in early spring. It’s an easy trip from Calgary.”
Another Montana course that more and more Calgarians seem willing to make the drive for in spring is Montana’s Wilderness Club. The Nick Faldo-designed course also boasts a warmer-than-you-think micro-climate and typically opens in late March. Rated the number one golf course in Montana, the Wilderness Club is living up to its hype. The holes, which fit like a glove on the rolling, pine-peppered terrain, build to a riveting run along the lake to close out the round. New luxurious lodging options and a tucked-away ambiance add to the allure. Rest assured, the 3.5 hour trip here will be worth your time and effort, especially if you make the journey in the early part of the golf season.
In Calgary, when things finally do fire up in mid-April, there are plenty of excellent public golf facilities to choose from. In South Calgary for example, Heritage Pointe is often in excellent shape early in the season. The 27-hole course, which meanders through the scenic PineCreekValley, features a number of huge elevation drops and also boasts one of the best practice facilities in Alberta (perfect for removing early season rust!).
Another exceptional early season golf course in the area is Speargrass. Located in a rolling prairie setting 35 minutes southeast of Calgary near the tiny town of Carseland (the bar scene in Brokeback Mountain was filmed here), Speargrass is the type of course that sneaks up on you. Its appearance – broad open fairways that meld into the adjacent wheat, barley, and canola fields – doesn’t overwhelm, but after you play it, the wonderful sequence of holes, the outstanding conditioning, and the stunning finish along the heaving banks of the Bow River make for an excellent day of classic prairie golf.
Speaking of classic prairie golf, a straight shot up the QEII Highway near Ponoka is where you’ll find the Wolf Creek Golf Resort. With two sprawling 18-hole courses designed by the talented Rod Whitman, WolfCreek is still the go-to venue for award-winning inland links golf in Alberta. The original Old Course is a quirky little gem with sod-walled bunkers, narrow holes through chutes, and brawny par-4s framed in fescue.
The newer Links Course weaves its way through aspen stands and features bold, unkempt bunkers and enough challenge to give the best “prairie” players all they can handle. Length is not the only defense here as Whitman’s undulating greens are some of the toughest in the flatlands.
Although a number of facilities suffered considerable damage during the unprecedented floods of 2013, most of the courses in Southern Alberta are back on their feet. Over 30 courses in the province sustained damage, some worse than others. For example, the Kananaskis Country Golf Course is still closed and will likely not reopen until 2016. Other courses such as the Highwood Golf & Country Club, Inglewood G.C., and McKenzie Meadows Golf Club were also hit hard. However, all of those courses will be open on 18 holes in 2014.
“Calgary itself recorded just 40 millimeters of rain during the storm that preceded the floods,” says McKenzie Meadows superintendant, Wade Bishop. “However, we just had no idea the volume of water that was coming down the BowRiver. There was nothing we could do.”
At McKenzie Meadows the BowRiver tore through the course thanks to a low-lying area along the 13th hole. In some places, the water was over 15 feet deep overtop of the greens.
“The flood of 2013 was something we will never forget,” says Brent Ellenton, who was the Director of the Alberta Golf Association last year (he has since retired.) “The event affected everyone and there are some courses that will never be the same. The cost of the disaster to the golf industry has been staggering.”
However, while there is still clean-up going on, the golf courses in Alberta have shown – thanks in large part to the thousands of volunteers that stepped up to help – they are a resilient bunch. And, come 2014, the golfers in the province will be itching to start swinging golf clubs as opposed to shovels. And I should know, I’m one of them.
Andrew Penner is a golf writer and photographer based in Calgary. You can visit him at www.andrewpenner.com.