Blackhawk Golf Club (Spruce Grove, AB)
Designer: Rod Whitman
The Scorecard: While Rod Whitman’s Wolf Creek was always regarded as a fine golf course, it was the course builder’s Blackhawk that demonstrated he was a major talent as a golf designer. With wide fairways, scruffy bunkers, greens with plenty of movement and a smart, if occasionally awkward routing, Blackhawk is a throwback to another era, and certainly among the best modern designs built in Canada in the last 25 years. Yes, there are a couple of unusual moments in the design – but overall it is smart and fun to play. Whitman has only had a few chances to design in Canada (Sagebrush, Cabot Links, Wolf Creek), and while Cabot may be hailed as his best, Blackhawk is what defines him as a designer.
- Aesthetics. I’m a sucker for Whitman’s bunkers, with their ragged edges and wild movements. If that occasionally means you’ll get stuck in one of the bays of these messy hazards without an obvious shot, so be it. Bunkers were meant to be a hazard, something Whitman points out time and again at Blackhawk.
- The Back Nine. Yes, the front nine is solid, and I think it has some of the best holes (#2, with its approach to a plateau green is sensational, and the par four 5th, with its fairway narrowing to a difficult green site is smart), the course is very solid from the 11th hole on. Playing off a ridge high above the fairway on the 11th, players descend into a rugged river valley for the remainder of the nine. Great holes abound – the 12th with its heroic carry; the 14th with its fescue-lined fairway, and 15th, a par five where the fairway dips down a hill and gives away to the green.
- The close. The 435-yard 18th, with its angled green set on a hillside and protected by bunkers below the right of the putting surface, is one of the best closing holes in Canada.
- The routing. As much as I think parts of the routing are ingenious and well-executed, there are some awkward elements. Like at Sagebrush, his design in the interior of B.C., Whitman routes the first hole straight up a hill, creating an odd tee shot that climbs steeply. The ninth and 10th holes are opposites, with the ninth running hard downhill and the 11th a slightly less aggressive version of the first with a more difficult green. I like the 9th (it reminds me of the 8th at Highlands Links), but understand why many would feel these three holes, which are all short in stature, hurt the design. That said, they don’t bother me.
The Final Tally:
Blackhawk is certainly in a handful of courses that could be discussed as the best modern designs in Canada. Whitman’s use of width and contour in the fairway, and the attractive rugged bunkers, make for a terrific mix. There are few forced carries on the course (the par three 12th and 16th, both with water in front, are the only two I can recall) make Blackhawk very playable for all, but it has enough length, teeth and contour in the greens to be interesting for good players as well. What I find remarkable is with the exception of the 12th hole, there are very few forced carries, meaning a higher handicap could enjoy the course and a lower handicap would find it entertaining. That’s a rare combination. Blackhawk is a course that warrants its place in the discussion of the best courses in the country.