Exceptional By Design
Nicklaus North Golf Course
Photo: Darryl Palmer
What makes a golf course “great”? According to renowned golf architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., “The hallmark of a great course resides in a golfer’s ability to remember and visualize all the holes after playing the course once.”
Golf course design is a combination of art, craftsmanship and engineering that melds form with function. A good golf course should be enjoyable, memorable and challenging for all levels of players. The course design should take in and use as much of the natural surroundings as possible; and the design should offer the player strategic options on various shots throughout the round. Based on these criteria, four of the courses in the Whistler area check all the boxes.
In the latter half of the 20th century, some of the game’s greatest players started adding their names and unique insights into golf course design work. In fact, two of the greatest players of their era started their own golf course design companies: Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Both have designed and built courses here in Whistler.
Nicklaus’s company has built almost 300 courses in more than 40 countries, but the Golden Bear has granted use of his name on only four, one being the Nicklaus North Golf Course in Whistler. Opened in 1996, the course has many of Jack’s trademark design characteristics: big, wide fairways, a couple of double greens and exceptionally challenging par 3s.
Jack was always considered a great iron player, and he believes that his par 3s should provide the golfer with a good test. That is certainly the case at Nicklaus North where the layout offers five par-3 holes, four of them over water. They include the stunning, signature 17th hole on the shores of Green Lake. With five sets of tees for players to choose from, the hole can be downright intimidating from the back at 226 yards, and a gentler challenge from the forward tees at only 135 yards. The tip here? Choose the right set of tees for your playing ability!
With 62 PGA Tour wins, Arnold Palmer’s first was the 1955 Canadian Open. Of the 300-plus courses his design team has built, his first Canadian design was — you guessed it — here in Whistler. Opened in 1983, the Whistler Golf Club is situated on the valley floor across from the Village and is a superb course with a very walkable layout. The course is surrounded by old-growth cedars, five lakes and Crabapple Creek, which winds its way strategically through the fairways.
Whistler Golf Club. Photo: Joern Rohde
Arnold Palmer-designed courses are renowned for their green sites and his Whistler layout is no exception. New bent-grass greens were installed in 2012 and are often referred to as the firmest and fastest in the valley. Rolling undulations place a premium on where the player leaves the ball in relation to the pin. No other hole exemplifies that better than the par-3 eighth. If the pin is in a front-hole location and you’ve hit it to the back of the green, good luck trying not to three-putt!
Bob Cupp’s career in golf design includes 15 years working for Nicklaus. Since he started his own firm in the mid-’80s, he has designed numerous golf courses that have hosted many national and international tournaments as well as seven major championships. Cupp was brought in to design and build Big Sky Golf Club in the early ’90s. Just a short drive north of Whistler, Big Sky has matured into one of the country’s top courses and a locals’ favourite.
Big Sky Golf Club. Photo: Darryl Palmer
On what was essentially a potato field, Cupp laid out a stunning track that includes seven lakes and a serpentine creek that comes into play on many holes. Doglegs both left and right, long holes that play into the prevailing wind, strategic bunkering and risk-reward options at every hole make Big Sky a memorable challenge.
Tree planting was purposely kept to a minimum to preserve the incredible panoramic views of Mount Currie, which rises 2,591 metres (8,500 feet) above sea level. Stand on the long, par-4 14th tee deck and notice how your drive seems to hang suspended in air against the backdrop of this majestic mountain!
Another legend of the golf course architects’ fraternity, Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed and built Whistler’s only true mountain course, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club, in the early ’90s. The course rises and falls as it follows the contours along the base of Blackcomb Mountain, offering dramatic backdrops to the unique design.
Fairmont Chateau Whistler Golf Club. Photo: Darryl Plamer
Jones is an interesting character who is also an accomplished author and poet. His artistic leanings find their way into his design at the Chateau course as he talks about the principle of harmony as it applies to golf: At the Chateau Whistler Golf Course the bunkers and the snowdrifts high in the mountains relate to each other. They’re part of the same harmony, although they're miles apart.” The best example of this is the well-bunkered par-4 13th. Those bunkers mirror the snow you can see high above on Blackcomb Glacier from the tee box. Don’t leave your camera at home!
As a golf destination, Whistler is fortunate to be home to four courses designed by some of the biggest names in golf course architecture. It’s recommended that you try to play all four while you’re here, and if you can pull your eyes away from the stunning scenery, try to pay attention to the subtle and not-so-subtle design features at each course.
Will you be able to remember each hole after your round? Will you have a favourite designer? Fore!