The Course: Wolf Creek Resort – The Links (Panoka, Alberta)
Designer: Rod Whitman (original nine 1996, new nine 2010)
The Scorecard: “I think if you played the new nine, I’m not sure why you would want to play anything else at [Wolf Creek.]”
So says my friend John, who accompanied me on my tour to the Edmonton area. I was last in Edmonton six years ago, and Whitman had just started building his new nine at the unfortunately named “Links Course” (“I had nothing to do with naming them,” Whitman says drolly.) While the front nine (created in the mid-1990s) could use some updating to match the final holes, it is still a fun, if somewhat plain in spots. It gets better as it plays out. But when one crosses the round to Whitman’s final nine (opened two years ago), the course finds another gear both aesthetically and in terms of strategy. If all 18 were as good as the final nine at the Links course, this would be among the top courses in Canada. As it is, I’d say it is strong Top 100 material, worthy of investigation by anyone interested in the compelling vision of a designer who is quickly becoming Canada’s best.
- Greens. Starting at about the seventh hole, Whitman delivers green sites that are interesting and picturesque. The 11th green, perched in front of a large dune, is the start of the best putting surfaces, and 13, 14, 16 and 17 are all intriguingly located. The contour on the 18th is fascinating and foreshadows the work Whitman would later do on the double green at Cabot Links.
- Width and options. While the original Wolf Creek course is narrow, with numerous forced carries, the new one is wider with plenty of options. Consider the 12th hole – a long par four that is split by center-line hazards. Whitman suggested we play left to open up the flag on the far right corner of the green, but one could certainly play wide to the right, which is a shared fairway with the 13th hole. Whitman’s course is very much in line with what architects like Bill Coore and Tom Doak have been doing in the U.S.
- Aesthetics. Yes, they are gnarly bunkers with fescue growing out of them, and many aren’t defined in the traditional sense, but Whitman’s bunkering, especially on the new nine, is top grade. It is fun to look at and easy to play out of, interesting considering he used the natural sand in them. In other places where he stripped out the sand, vast waste areas have been created and they define much of the course.
- Conditioning on the new nine is spotty. Whitman says the water table in the area changed after the course was built, with springs popping up here and there, making previously dry areas wet. That’s too bad as the water detracts from the design.
- The front nine is relatively plain for the first few holes, and it isn’t until the seventh hole, a par four that slides to the right with a green site featuring a small false front, that it really becomes interesting to the eye.
- The 16th has a great green site, but what’s with the trees in the fairway on the right? Nothing a chainsaw couldn’t fix. Reminded me of the 16th on the original Wolf Creek course, which features a horrible pine in the fairway. Unfortunate – but easily fixed.
The Final Tally: The new nine on the Links course is among Whitman’s best work. It may not have the setting of Cabot Links or Sagebrush, but the architecture and design rivals either of those courses and I’d argue the green sites in many instances are the best he’s either found or created. The front nine doesn’t quite measure up – though it is strong through the final few holes – and conditioning on the back nine (especially drainage) has been a struggle. But that conditioning never impacted my enjoyment of what could well be some of the top work by a Canadian architect on a modern course.