Opinion: GolfNorth, Please Treat Wolf Creek Right

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As with most things these days, social media speculation and a poorly-timed teaser allowed those to guess that GolfNorth’s most recent property acquisition, as teased on Twitter and Instagram in acknowledgement of our Top 100 Public, is Wolf Creek. A thirty-six hole facility at the hands of Rod Whitman in the Central Alberta sand hills, the property is held in high regard by golf architecture fans—including myself. In recent years, the general public and architecture aficionados began to see the property’s merits differently, as the conditioning and general upkeep declined year-by-year.

The news last fall that the facility had entered receivership broke my heart. Of course, any local or Albertan knew the ownership group was struggling to keep up. A shame: Ryan Vold, the previous owner, had been a part of the property from the start, and hired Whitman to see his vision through. In fact, Vold and Whitman both grew up in Ponoka, no doubt each having a soft spot for their joint vision. But the fact is/was, anyone who visits Wolf Creek will surely be able to see the vision and the concept, even if it had gotten rougher. Nobody could deny the architectural merits or counter that it is a special place, even if Father Time had beaten on it a bit.

Wolf Creek (Links) 11th hole (photo credit: courtesy)

Whitman, fresh and hungry and coming from his time under Pete Dye, at the time golf’s greatest architect, brought a new style to the prairies of Alberta. In an era where architects continued to bludgeon through the landscape to achieve their version of a “championship layout,” Whitman’s Old course meticulously meanders its way through the sandy terrain, the beautiful trees, and the creeks at the bottom of the valleys. Canada never got a Pete Dye design—the closest we came was Crowbush Cove before Thomas McBroom built the course we play today—but fans of Dye will find peace at Wolf Creek’s Old course, which draws off his influence for Whitman’s first solo design. Small, heavily-contoured greens that certainly remind me of Dye’s best work surround themselves with fescue, short grass, pot bunkers, or a combination of all three.

The Links is an interesting combo, split between 1992—five years after the Old—and 2012 following Whitman’s excellent Blackhawk (’03), Sagebrush (’07), and Cabot Links (’12) three course stretch (is that any good?). The juxtaposition in the styles contrast heavily, to the point where it is almost a detractor in the experience. The front nine, while solid with its small, heavily contoured greens but more space and less dramatic landforms than the Old, is no match for the big, brawny, and frankly, impressive back nine, which draws more from Whitman’s more acclaimed and celebrated golf courses. Big, blowout style bunkers, centreline hazards, and strategic marvels await. Not that strategy is not the case on the front, because technically and on paper, everything makes sense and asks some really interesting questions, but the back nine’s width, and 2012’s Whitman, is just sharper.

How good are both Wolf Creek’s? They both rank in the Top 20 public golf courses in Canada, and Top 60, public or private. They will immediately become the 2nd and 3rd best golf courses in GolfNorth’s portfolio, behind the celebrated and rightfully highly ranked Cape Breton Highlands Links. Not a bad pickup for Canada’s largest public golf operator. Further, Ben Cowan-Dewar, who is the brain behind Cabot and their recent expansion, tapped Whitman’s mind for Cabot Links—Cowan-Dewar’s first golf course as a developer—after seeing Wolf Creek (and Blachkawk nearby). In an interview with SCOREGolf, Cowan-Dewar said:

I first met Rod at Wolf Creek [Whitman’s first design in his hometown of Ponoka, Alta.]. We played a couple of days before 9-11, so I would have been 22 and had a real affinity for Pete Dye [for whom Whitman worked] and Pete’s work and knew Rod through that. So as I was going to play Wolf Creek I called Rod and asked if he would join me for a round. He did and we played and then I saw him again at Blackhawk [near Edmonton] and I said, ‘If I was to build a golf course in Canada, would you think about it?’ Bill Coore always told me if I was going to do anything in Canada I should do it with Rod. And that was top praise because obviously I thought a lot of Bill. And I always knew that Rod was supposed to have done Angus Glen and that while he was doing Angus Glen, Pete Dye got asked to do Crowbush Cove, and so at one point he was the architect of record at Angus, asked to do Crowbush, didn’t do either, and so this remarkable talent had sort of laid in wait. And I just loved Blackhawk and loved Wolf Creek and thought he’d be the ideal guy and if I can immodestly say, I think he was.

Wolf Creek (Old)’s par 5, 11th (Photo credit: Pinterest)

Simply put, this is a stream of consciousness about Wolf Creek’s importance and quality. This is no local golf course you can barely maintain; like Cape Breton Highlands Links, this is a facility that people should travel to see, play, and enjoy. Truthfully, they are mandatory in the education of any Canadian golf fan. For any modern architecture enthusiast, seeing Whitman’s first golf course, and the sheer progression of his own flavour on a single property, is an experience unlike any other. Imagine if you could quite literally watch Tom Doak’s style evolve from Pete Dye disciple to modern marvel? Coore, too; they all came up together under Dye. That is what experiencing Wolf Creek is like. It is not only unique in Alberta or Canada, but the world of golf: to be able to see the evolution of an architect on one property is something to behold and cherish.

The chute on the Old course’s 2nd (photo credit: GolfPass)

Chain golf supply operators have historically never had much success in maintaining or even improving quality facilities. I am willing to give GolfNorth a chance, however, given Cape Breton Highlands Links seems to be doing ~ok~ considering the horror stories I heard from years past, although I am sure everyone can agree it is nowhere near it should be. It needs a chainsaw (which I can overlook given the Federal Government’s involvement) and a bigger turf budget to get it firm and fast to accentuate the contours and landforms, although the chainsaw would likely help with that, too.

My ask to GolfNorth is this: treat Wolf Creek with the grandeur it deserves. This is a facility that the public can witness Canada’s best modern architect, and the architect who impresses the most since Stanley Thompson died. Look at old photos, restore those needed, take out trees, maintain and present Wolf Creek with its firm and fast conditioning the faux-links, windswept prairie layouts need to showcase at its finest. Show it respect, and invest into a vision of something truly special. This is a facility that deserves its time in the spotlight, and I hope GolfNorth is up for the challenge; I will be watching carefully & cautiously.


  • Andrew Harvie

    Based in Toronto, but having lived in Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Arizona, and Texas, I have been lucky enough to see over 400 golf courses and counting!

4 thoughts on “Opinion: GolfNorth, Please Treat Wolf Creek Right

  1. Golf North has their work cut out for them, as the Wolf Creek golf courses have steadily declined under the past ownership. Despite having 46 families pay for long term RV leases and having the two busiest golfing years ever at Wolf Creek, the “resort” has never needed so much work. Makes you wonder where all the money went??

  2. Had the pleasure of playing Wolf Creek Old Course & Links Course also played Blackhawk. Always treated 1st. Class at Wolf Creek & Blackhawk. Am a Fan of Rod Whitman Design as am Pete Dye’s.
    Am from GTA & got transferred out here in mid-2thousands & yes do like Whirlpool, however, have had the opportunity to play from Golden to Furry Creek and courses in between. Got to enjoy Golf & The West!!

  3. Played in Canadian Amateur in late 80’s in Edmonton there were people talking it up then. I want to say some that missed cut traveled down to play. It was highly regarded then. Not sure what was on ground then, Seems like Whitman came in later? Have a fondness for Bond Head. Golf North took over and have not heard great things. It had deteriorated somewhat under Clublink. Although they knocked down fescue in spots which I thought helped playability. Not sure if you had North in your top public, it’s very enjoyable and strategic. Thought you could have rated south higher. Personally think it’s one the better modern courses. Have it ahead of any Carrick or McBroom. Design, build is a bit stronger. Needs firmness (approach area) to shine. Hopefully Golf North has it in them. Enough of the green Augusta Syndrome, That’s an issue for another time.Carried away on BH, apologies but It’s the top 36 hole facility in our region. Cart ball is it’s only knock. Thank BTC for your work.

  4. I’m a single digit handicapper, and over 50+ years, I have played over 225 different courses, 90% in Alberta, BC, and southwestern USA, and Wolf Creek is way overrated, Courses are ok, but nothing spectacular from either a playability, condition or visual perspective. I am not saying don’t play there, but courses are not what some people make them out to be. Golf North will have to put a lot of money into them to bring them up to a level some people might expect.

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