G4G's Western Canadian Odyssey Day Five: Greywolf and Banff Springs

The Cliffhanger, taken from behind the green looking back at the tees.

Course Reviews:

Greywolf (Panorama, B.C.) — Doug Carrick

Banff Springs (Banff, Alberta) — Stanley Thompson

Greywolf is a course of extremes. Maybe that’s why people don’t pay that much attention to it. Doug Carrick, for example, thinks it is his most overlooked course.

I’ll admit the first impressions aren’t great. On the opening holes one seems to be playing straight up the side of a mountain — probably because you are. That makes the first three holes at Greywolf a bit of a slog — with the 513-yard third, with an approach over a large bunker to a two-tiered green, being perhaps the most egregious of the holes. That doesn’t make the first or second — bordered by streams and thick brush — any pushover either.

Greywolf's opener is the first of three uphill holes.

I remember Rod Whitman telling me that he designed Sagebrush’s first hole — a marginal par-5 uphill — to get the elevation out of the way, adding that since it was the first hole, if those that followed were exceptional, then people would forget about the slightly awkward opener. I suspect this is what Greywolf designer Doug Carrick had in mind when he designed Greywolf because after you navigate the opening three holes, the course becomes a joy to play. The fourth — a par-4 at 490-yards from the tips — seems monstrous, but in fact is so sharply downhill that a 3-wood will still yield a shot with a mid-iron, and the downhill par-5 fifth compensates for the struggles of the opening holes.

The downhill fourth features a raised green and a remarkable tee shot.

Designers won’t often admit that they’ve routed their course around a singular hole, but Carrick makes no bones about his decision to set Greywolf up around its 6th hole, the famed “Cliffhanger.” This is a picture-postcard one-shot hole that plays over a canyon to a green perched on — you guessed it — a cliff on the other side. The green is actually bigger than one expects and the hole is terrific — heroic and fun, with the ball hanging in the air. In fact, I’ve heard it said that a tee shot at Greywolf never rises above the ever-present treeline, which makes for fascinating viewing when one contrasts the green pines with a white ball.

The front nine ends with a great series of two-shot holes and an average par-3, and the back starts with a par-5 that is largely unremarkable. However, the series of holes that follow — the drivable par-4 11th, the par-4 12th with is fascinating fairway and green, and the terrific par-5 14th — are really the heart of the course. From there the ride in is rock solid, with the final two par-4s standing out for both their challenge and strategy. I was particularly fond of the 17th, which plays to the top of a ridgeline and then plunges down towards a green that sits between two hillsides.

Carrick used the natural landscape well, as witnessed in the par-4 13th.

Greywolf rivals Carrick’s best work. If it wasn’t for the slightly awkward nature of the front nine, and conditioning issues that the course struggles with given its elevation and location (and the decision to use bent grass instead of blue grass), one would expect more golfers would seek this course out. As it is they still should take the time — it is a great mix of strategy over wider fairways, something Carrick does better than practically any other Canadian designer.

Banff's initial closing hole, now its 14th. The drama is still there, but the timing feels wrong.

Banff also struggles with conditioning, which is why it was nice to see it in such solid shape when I was there a month ago. There’s still too much sand in the bunkers — you could bury a body in spots — and the routing change is unfortunate, but otherwise Banff is still the mountain golf course against which all others should be judged.

So much has been written about Banff that it is hard to add to the discussion. I’d say Stanley Thompson’s initial routing was astounding, something that has been altered irrevocably by the decision to build a clubhouse in the middle of the course. The initial opener (now the 15th) ¬†had the best clubhouse in golf — the Banff Springs Hotel — and an unrivaled downhill tee shot. The slogan on the front of the scorecard says “there is no more inspiring shrine than the Banff Springs golf course” (the quote comes from Golf Digest), and they are right. But one has to figure this is a better course if it unfolds in the way Thompson envisioned, even if that means carting golfers to the first hole. As it is now, the walk from the old 18th to old first hole is difficult and slows down play dramatically.

Devil's Cauldron from the original tees, which are down and to the right of the existing tees.

Thankfully Banff still has many of the best holes in Canada. The 4th — Devil’s Cauldron — must be played from Thompson’s tees that are down and to the right of the tees most play. In fact, many probably don’t know they exist, but these original tees present the appropriate line to the green. The hole is still a stunner, even with the awful permanently¬†temporary green situated to the right.

Even the shorter holes at Banff — like the 373-yard 6th and the 374-yard 17th — are charming and strategic, but it is the brutish long two-shot holes (the 5th, 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th) that really make Banff a step above Jasper when it comes to challenge, and it is Thompson’s refined bunker positions that elevate the holes to world-class.

Banff's original opening hole, now its 15th.

Interestingly, despite the change in routing, Banff can be walked, which is how it should be. That’s one of its real advantages over most mountain courses. It also makes it a nice contrast to places like Greywolf, where a cart is an absolute necessity.

Consider Greywolf and Banff the tale of two different mountain courses. Both face some challenges, but are without doubt a delight to play.

Next: Priddis Greens G&CC

Previous reviews from G4G’s Western Canada Odyssey:

Day One: Sagebrush

Day Two: Black Mountain and Tower Ranch

Day Three: The Ridge Course at Predator Ridge

Day Four: Eagle Ranch and Radium Springs

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Jeff Lancaster

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1 CommentLeave a comment

  • played Banff yesterday (Sep 30), 4 of us played in less than four hours. Perfect conditions except for the bunkers (too much sand x 3).
    Comparing the course to 1969, I prefer the old routing, however the “new” back nine is a great series of finishing holes, from 10 to 18.
    Took an extra 15 minutes to play the par three Devils Cauldron due to huge male Elk who challenged us on the tee. Agree that the second green on this hole is off-putting.
    Loved the course, would prefer the fairways wider to at least put the bunkers in most of the fairways. Sep 30 in Banff was one of the best golf days of 2010, sadly they closed the front nine for the season (it retains frost almost all day).

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