It’s hard to exceed the beauty of Whistler’s quintessential quad of golf courses
“What is wrong with you people?” I breathed as I boarded the Pacific Coach Lines bus in Whistler for the return trip to the airport in Vancouver. Why were its occupants evenly split between the two rows, I wondered. Perhaps those to my right had all bonked their heads on one of Whistler’s notorious downhill mountain bike runs and lost their senses. I mean, anyone who’d been here before, or who had at least travelled the northbound leg of the 2.5-hour journey, must surely have remembered that a west-facing window seat is mandatory stuff along the Sea to Sky Highway, that brilliant run of mountainous strips, rushing rivers and Glacier-fed waters the colour of blue Freezies that hugs the west coast of the B.C. mainland.
Or maybe they were just distracted by the inordinate number of beautiful, fit-as-fiddle folks making their way around Whistler Village—a talent level augmented by a slew of young Aussies and Kiwis securing off-season employment. They’re all drawn by a cornucopia of athletic pursuits, as well as the awesome twin peaks backdrop of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Whilst the resort traditionally ranks atop North America’s downhill ski destinations (including après-ski activities), Whistler Village is actually more populated in the summertime with tourists whose agendas range from hiking, zip-lining, watersports and cycling to mountain biking, ATV tours, fishing, bear watching and some pretty inspiring sightseeing that includes the longest zipline in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the breathtaking Peak 2 Peak gondola ride between Whistler and Blackcomb.
But the recreational pursuit that provided the foundation in transitioning the world-famous winter resort to a year-round destination is golf. The first half of Whistler’s quintessential quad opened in 1993 to multiple accolades—Whistler GC (Arnold Palmer) and Fairmont Chateau Whistler GC (Robert Trent Jones II), with Big Sky GC (Robert Cupp) in nearby Pemberton following a year later and Nicklaus North (Jack Nicklaus) opening in 1996.
They all work seamlessly together in providing golf packages and tee times for guests. As well, each of the three village-based courses have introduced a Kids Play Free program that allows youth aged 10-18 to play free if accompanied by a paying adult. And while each of the fab four is a distinct, must-play experience, my favourite remains Chateau Whistler. The place could pretty much copyright “mountain golf at its finest” as part of its marketing package, so often has the phrase been associated with the RTJ II layout. Beginning across the street from the Four Seasons and rolling along the side of Blackcomb Mountain, the course presents players with one stunning view after another of the surrounding Fitzsimmons Range, augmented at various times by skyscraping trees, exposed rock faces, mountain ledges, wildlife, ravines and waterfalls.
They say the first four holes can claw up your scorecard like a Grizzly—an example being the delicate short par-4 second, which requires a dart-like approach over a rushing creek to a thin landing area—but I honestly have no recollection of the difficulty; only the drama. And it just kept getting better—the par-3 fifth, a solid seven-iron with Mount Whistler in the background, being a prime example.
It’s a truly inspired routing that provides unique looks at every tee and green, the latter of which were as lush and true as billiard tables.
Big Sky Country
We’ve just pulled into the Big Sky GC parking lot. Although a 35-minute drive north of Whistler, it’s also a 1,600-foot plunge into the Pemberton Valley, meaning a microclimate that’s anywhere from three to 10 degrees warmer. But it’s the looming, steep-faced backdrop of Mount Currie immediately adjacent the layout that leaves mouths agape. Bigfoot could have ridden a unicorn across the first green and I still would have missed it, so constant and commanding is the view of that 8,500-foot mountain.
A pair of rockslides on the day, raising dust instead of a snowy powder thanks to a very early and hot golf season, added further draw to a course that was once considered merely a decent layout propped up by an amazing backdrop, but which has matured significantly in recent years; its trees better framing holes, foliage filling in and new T1 Bentgrass greens rolling as smooth as silk.
Highlights include the aptly named Green River, which curls by the par-3 fifth green (you can get a jetboat ride through there), and the par-5 fourth. Entitled Purgatory, it’s a relentless par-5 that crosses a pair of creeks, with Mount Currie providing a dark canvas against which the flight of every shot is easily tracked. But the 19th hole is even better—a helicopter experience that starts at $325 pp and includes a flight from the course to the top of the mountain, where your group hits biodegradable balls off the cliff before returning to play your round afterward. But you can also tee it up here for the relative bargain of $99 after noon. And given that golfable hours extend to nearly 10:30 p.m. around Summer Solstice, that’s plenty of ‘after-noon’ to be had.
Post-round, lovers of fine spirits can drop in to the Pemberton Distillery, where, under the guidance of a young master distiller Tyler Schramm, the organic-certified establishment has been fashioning some marvellous potato-derived concoctions, including a tasty gin, vodka and a brand new, dangerously easy drinking whisky with hints of vanilla and butter.
The photo ops continue at Nicklaus North. Carved around a bird sanctuary just a few minutes outside Whistler, this lush Golden Bear design is easily the most forgiving of the four tracks—not including its two signature par-3s, that is. The first of that perilous pair is No. 12, a stiff 200 yards over water into the prevailing breeze, with the walk to the green over a Scottish-like stone bridge. The second is the magnificent 17th. Measuring 213 yards from the blue tees, its well-bunkered green juts left into the still waters of Green Lake, framed by snow-capped mountains beyond, with seaplane landings a regular occurrence.
Of the area’s four courses, the most easily accessed—but hardest on your golf ball supply—is Whistler. Accented with nine lakes fed by two winding creeks, towering stands of ancient cedars and a pair of 480-year-old sentinel firs to the left of the first hole, Arnold Palmer’s first Canadian design offers absolutely no shortage of places to lose your golf ball when your swing goes awry. The assault begins at No. 3, a tight, boomerang-right par-5 that reminds one that, with all due respect to environmental concerns, there needs some clearing out of that dense underbrush. Let’s just say that if you hit it in the forest, you’ll find a bear before you find your ball.
As enchanting, scenic and well manicured as this Audubon-certified layout was—there are five types of trout spawning in Crabapple Creek—our entire group were gradually afflicted, as one ball after another sailed into oblivion, to the point that our slow, silent, shoulder-slumped walk down the fairways began to resemble the Bataan Death March.
And then, just left of 14th tee, there was this tree, the bark of which had been clawed off for several feet. “It’s regularly used my mama bear to teach her clubs to climb in the spring,” our guide informed us.
And I pretty much stopped looking for golf balls at that point.
WHERE TO STAY: My home for the week was the Crystal Lodge, ideally situated in the heart of the village. My second-floor room was simple and clean, with free WiFi, although it was cold enough to hang meat when I opened the door. There was, however, a cozy sauna just down the hall with a shower attached, and a decently sized hot tub and pool beyond the Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant downstairs.
WHERE TO EAT: Steak lovers should seek out the Four Seasons Sidecut restaurant. Foodies also won’t want to miss Araxi in the village, with its off-the-charts quality and service at a surprisingly reasonable price. And while there are 1,100 labels on the wine list (starting at an affordable $28), there’s also a great half-bottle selection, as well as 30 by-the-glass offerings. Hopheads should check out the craft beers at the laidback BrewHouse, with its model train circling the rafters.
GETTING THERE: I travelled to Vancouver via Air Canada—I’m addicted to the free movies—and then WestJet for the return trip (no in-seat screens or free movies, which seems so old school, but the service is always top notch).
Tourism Whistler: whistler.com
Golf Whistler (vacation packages and links to all four courses): golfwhistler.com
Peak 2 Peak Gondola: whistlerblackcomb.com/discover/360-experience
Pacific Coach bus lines: Pacificcoach.com
Crystal Lodge Hotel: Crystal-Lodge.com