In fifty years or so, I suspect we’ll look back and judge it a tremendous tragedy that, at least at the time of writing, our country is blessed with merely a single golf course from the venerable modern trio of Doak, Hanse, and Coore and Crenshaw – that being, of course, Cabot Cliffs, the unanimously top-ranked golf course in Canada.
“How good could it have been?” Robert ponders, “with Rod and Bill involved, and potentially Keiser, I’d have to think it would have been Top 5 in the country and likely Top 100 in the world.”– Robert Thompson
Over the last twenty years, both Hanse and Doak have had original projects that were proposed and planned but ultimately failed to come to fruition due to a mixture of political and environmental issues, primarily. Although there still lingers some hope – or dread in certain circles – that Doak’s course for Cabot Cape Breton at Mabou Point will go ahead, Hanse’s Union Bay Links, on Vancouver Island, conversely, seems to be buried, dead and gone.
In both cases, a routing was presented and turned heads and moistened mouths. However, the most promising project ever to be pondered and teased in Canada may well have been at about the midway point (in a spiritual sense at least) between Vancouver Island and Cape Breton, amidst the largely unpopulated and unexplored prairie sand-dunes near LLoydminster, close to the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Soft-spoken and mellow in public disposition, Bill Coore isn’t prone to Trumpian hyperbole, so when he claims that a natural site is the best he’s ever seen, it is difficult not to lend his claim substantial credence. And that is exactly what Robert Thompson, who visited the site a number of times, related to his readers in May of 2006 on his now-defunct, yet still preserved and wonderful blog Going4theGreen.
Robert met with Coore, Rod Whitman, and Mike Keiser, who was considering backing the venture. “Bill Coore said it was a site like Sand Hills,” Robert recalls in a recent email exchange we had about the project, “Mike Keiser said it was too good to not go forward.”
“Mike, who I first met on the property (along with Bill Coore and a fair number of Mike’s colleagues who had built Bandon Dunes) wanted a Canadian to be involved. I may be mistaken, but I recall Howard McKee, who was Mike’s right-hand man, flew in and spent time in Lloydminster trying to figure out how they’d move the project ahead. But Mike wanted a Canadian partner, and asked if I knew of anyone. The only person I knew who was looking to build a golf course was Ben Cowan-Dewar and I told Mike about Cabot.”
Asked to compare his first impressions of the site to the one that would one day become Cabot Links, the Canadian venture with which Keiser would thereafter become involved instead, Robert relates that “they were very different sites. Cabot was a visual feast, with the ocean ever-present. But the ground wasn’t impressive and the site didn’t overwhelm you. It had potential, but the natural features had been stripped away. Alberta Dunes was something else—small choppy dunes over rambling land. It was pretty impressive and it didn’t look like much would need to be done to turn it into a better version of Red Tail, just in Alberta.”
Donald Steel’s Redtail is, of course, one of the most charming experiences in Canadian Golf, a club replete with old-world elegance, charm, and panache; however, it has also traditionally been one of the most exclusive. And, at least in its planning-stage iterations, the vision for Alberta Dunes reflected Redtail’s, as well as Sand Hills, another ultra-remote enclave whose success and ethos had been influential in Keiser’s early career as a golf course developer.
By necessity, Alberta Dunes, had it gone ahead, was likely to primarily consist of a national and international membership, with on-site accommodations and a similar “lay-of-the-land” and understated character.
Blessed with its booming oil industry, Alberta’s golf-crazed pockets are deep – “but here we are nearly 20 years later and nothing. I’m sort of surprised the latest golfing boom hasn’t led someone to try to move it forward, but everyone now is fascinated by seaside courses.”
“How good could it have been?” Robert ponders, “with Rod and Bill involved, and potentially Keiser, I’d have to think it would have been Top 5 in the country and likely Top 100 in the world.”
Considering that when the project was being considered, Coore and Crenshaw, along with their all-star crew of shapers, which still then included not only Rod Whitman but also Dave Axland and Jim Craig, were likely operating at their peak of their powers, having just built Bandon Trails (2005) and Old Sandwich (‘04) and Friar’s Head (‘02), Robert’s striking assessment of its potential seems conservative, if anything. Personally, I presume, rather confidently, too, that it would have been the best golf course in Canada.
“I’ve heard — but don’t know for sure — that there were gas pipelines put on the property, which limited moving ahead. I know some people who are influential in the business have looked at it, but the pipelines were a big issue in limiting anything from moving ahead.”
As Alberta Wilderness highlights, however, “AWA’s Middle Sand Hills Area of Concern covers an extensive 2479 square KMs of Mixed Grasslands in southeastern Alberta. The near-native grasslands, sand hills, ancient glacial coulees and wetlands are reminiscent of the Great Plains as they once were, where the Middle Sand Hills constitute one of two of the largest remaining blocks of Mixed Grasslands in Canada.” If, for whichever reason including being ravaged by pipelines, the exact proposed location of Alberta Dunes is no longer suitable for golf, then it does not seem too far-fetched – at least to this environmentally naïve easterner – to believe that an enticing alternative tract of land could be found nearby.
In hindsight, Robert concludes that “it just lacked the business wherewithal to move it ahead, but you’d have to think some oil rich businessman in Alberta who has visited Cabot or Bandon would want to partner with someone like Ben or Mike Keiser, but they haven’t come along yet.”
Here’s to hoping, I guess.