No one at Wolf Creek seems to recognize Rod Whitman, or maybe they have no idea that the quiet man in his fifties hitting slight draws off the mats near the clubhouse is perhaps Canada’s best golf architect. They also have no idea that Whitman, quiet, understated and unassuming, has generated a lot of attention recently for his work at Cabot Links in Nova Scotia, a course that will officially open in two weeks. Cabot isn’t perfect, but it is the best modern golf course built in Canada, and could enter the Top 100 in the world. It is big and bold, full of interesting quirky elements dreamed up by Whitman on his bulldozer. That couldn’t be more in contrast with the designer himself, whose voice rarely rises above a quiet mumble.
It was Wolf Creek where Whitman got his start in golf design, working with his friend and owner Ryan Vold to build the Old Course, now slightly dated, but long regarded as one of the better courses in the country. I’m not a huge fan of the original course – but the new one has nine of Whitman’s best work – and Vold runs a neat facility that I’d frequent regularly if I lived in Edmonton.
Whitman has a sense that if the timing were different, he’d be in demand given his work at Cabot. But with the golf design business coming to a crawl following the slow down in 2008, Whitman isn’t sure what is next. He spent years tinkering and tweaking the new nine and is still working at Cabot (he rebuilt a par three at the seaside links this spring after new land was acquired), but isn’t sure where his sequel to his Cape Breton work will come from.
I’ve had the good fortune to play with Whitman twice – once earlier at Cabot and then this recent instance. But I first met him eight years ago at Blackhawk, the course he designed outside of Edmonton. It was the first course I’d played by Whitman, and I came away impressed by his ability to shape land and the aesthetic of his design vision. Blackhawk wasn’t perfect – some actually despise the 9th and 10th – but the best holes (#2, #5, #11) are tremendous and it has one of the best closing holes in Canada. I was a fan of Whitman when Blackhawk founder Al Prokop offered to introduce me to the designer who was building a short course behind the 18th tee.
Playing the new 18 at Wolf Creek is a treat, with Whitman saying quietly and calmly, “I think you’re going to like this green site.” He was generally correct. Some might mistake Whitman’s quiet demeanor for lack of confidence, but they’d be wrong. He knows exactly what he wants in his design, and can be quite assertive in his perspective when it comes to golf courses. For example, he seems quite anxious to rework the original 9 holes on Wolf Creek’s Links course to match the vision of the newer back nine. However, I still think Whitman is most at home on a bulldozer pushing land around as he sculpts another hole.
In other times Cabot might propel Whit to the next level. Instead he’s likely heading back to Europe to tweak one of his earliest designs. He says he’d love to help out his friend Bill Coore with the second course at Cabot, even if that just means shaping Coore’s concept for the property. There’s not a lot of outward ego to Whitman – he likes creating golf holes, even if they are designed by someone else.
Towards the end of our round, I ask Whit where home is these days. He’s noncommittal. Over the past few years he’s spent time with his girlfriend in Nova Scotia, Alberta and B.C., as well as weeks in Mexico. It is a nomadic life – and it’ll be fascinating to see where it takes him next.