Review: Elk Island Golf Course

Raw Stanley Thompson East of Edmonton. What’s not to love?

Information:

  • Elk Island National Park, Alberta
  • Public—Daily Fee
  • Stanley Thompson (1936)

Stanley Thompson is far and away Canada’s most significant Golden Age architect, laying claim to five of the top 10 in this country: Banff Springs, Cape Breton Highlands Links, Capilano, Jasper Park Lodge, and St. George’s. Two of those come in Alberta, and alongside Royal Mayfair, Edmonton, and Waterton, make six eightteen hole golf courses in the Wild Rose province.

Elk Island, however, is Thompson’s only nine hole golf course in Alberta, and one of the few nine hole golf courses accredited to The Toronto Terror. There is no perfect conditioning here; no pristine greens or perfectly cut fairways. Instead, the best nine hole golf course awaits, very natural, and very unassuming.

The course starts out with a generous short par 4, playing 330 or so yards. The tee shot bends to the right, and the landing area is slightly uphill, killing drives. There’s lots of width here, but right off the bat, we see some insane terrain. This is essentially a better version of the 9th at Cape Breton Highlands Links, without the awful cart path work.

Pro tip: If you want a longer hole by about 30 yards, go back and to the left, and a tee that plays close to 365 yards is hiding back there.

The view from the alternate tee box on hole 1

As you can see below, this hole plays drastically uphill right from the tee, playing 36 feet up tee-to-green.

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The approach is clever, if unassuming. Some rumpled terrain short really kills any shot on the ground, and the green is pitched away from the line of play.

The view back is superb, showing you what you just played over. Luckily, the momentum continues to build.

The second, the longest par 4 on the course at 410 yards, is a slightly downhill hole, and moving ever so slightly to the right.

The hole plays up and over some interesting topography, but ultimately ends up playing about 10 feet downhill. As evident in the photo below and the Google Earth Pro graphic below, the hole plays up and over a topographic ridge. This is common here, and the first of a couple of blind tee shots.

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The approach features two of the five bunkers on the course, and is just one of two bunkered holes.

The third, a par 5 at 448 yards, is realistically a par 4 for todays standards. However, shaggier fairways limit roll on the ball, so you won’t really have wedge in to this green. Again, the fairway is pretty wrinkled, and moves over some interesting land.

I played this as a par 4 on my two visits to Elk Island given its short yardage, meaning the approach is quite difficult over a bit of a gully shy of the green.

The green is a pretty difficult target, almost meaning it is advantageous to lay up for most people. From the bottom of the hill, it is a slightly easier approach, but the green still falls off everywhere, almost a mini knoll affect.

The fourth is the first one-shotter on the course, and is a shorty, only playing 133 yards. A short iron or wedge awaits, but there is so much trouble surrounding the green that I almost got Bad Baby vibes from JPL.

As mentioned, trouble:

You can really get a feel for Thompson’s genius at a place like this. A look below shows the extreme mounding that makes a miss long severely difficult.

Upon my first visit to Elk Island in 2018, I wrote that I have yet to visit Cape Breton Highlands Links, but the 5th felt like a hole out of that golf course. I agree with my assessment four years later; the 5th seems to draw inspiration from the 14th at Highlands Links, though I might prefer the 5th here. At 388 yards, the tee shot plays over the same ridge as the 2nd, except this time, we go the left.

Even though we play over some inspiring terrain, the hole is essentially flat. This is one of three or so holes that feature a bell on the other side of the hill to ring once you are clear, indicating to the group behind the landing zone is clear.

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Cresting the hill lends itself to the most generic “photogenic” moment on the golf course given the green wrapped in three bunkers tucked into the hillside, but it is not quite the best here. Even so, it is clear Elk Island needs money and some vision, the bunkering is falling apart in spots.

The 6th is another old 5 that’s closer to a par 4 now. 459 yards from the only tee box, and again plays up and over some interesting land, only to play downhill.

The terrain is distinctly different than the 3rd, even if the holes do feature similar elements. As opposed to the 3rd which has a very distinct valley shy of the green, the 6th here features more of a wavy feel, as if we are on the beaches of La Jolla, California. As you can see below, the flag is not in, but a missed green left or long is really bad.

Like the 3rd, a short layup means an uphill third.

Looking back, it is surprising how downhill the hole actually is because it sure does not feel like it.

The 7th hole is the showstopper… the hole we all come for, and the one if you have not come for, you need to come. It is impossible to put into words how insane this short par 4 is, and photos do not do justice.

At 333 yards, this hole fits firmly into the “drive and pitch” category, especially because I believe it would be borderline impossible to squeeze the tee shot onto the green.

The fairway is a very distinct Hog’s Back, with off-centre hits funnelling away from the middle.

The dilemma? The green, angled from right to left, favours a shot from the right, but the right side is much lower and thus blind coming in. From the left, a harder approach shot brings in the false front more. A shot into the high portion of the fairway is ideal.

The left is not ideal either
From the right… that gully short of the biggest hill is almost 80 feet (!!) deep

As mentioned, the middle is best:

The collection area short left is a real menace, and likely sees a lot of play during a summer.

A mandatory look-back allows for a great view of the ideal grounds for golf you just played over.

The greens at Elk Island have some interesting movement, but generally, the land is the star of the show, almost overpowering anything interesting in the greens. At the 7th, a nice green complex awaits.

The 8th is another great par 3, a little longer than the last, playing 150 yards.

This hole felt like a do-or-die sort of shot, where short and long were both no good. If there’s any miss, it’s directly left. As seen below, long is no good.

Upon my first review in 2018 when this site was called drewharvie.com, I called the 9th my favourite hole. Upon a second trip around, the 7th takes the cake, but the 397 yard par 4, 9th is a worthy second choice. Up and over, this tee shot feels much more significant. And truthfully, as it should: this is the closing hole to an epic nine hole loop.

Google Earth Pro outlines the dramatic nature of the hole: up and over we go.

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Cresting the hill leads way to one of the more inspiring views on the golf course, with some pretty fantastic topography to play golf on.

The approach plays to a tucked green-site behind some natural land formations. This is an A+ green site, sitting seamless into the landscape.

Does it get any better than this?

This is such a pleasant place to play golf, and what a step back in time. Sure, conditions are not up to modern standards, but I find it hard to believe these are not better than the 1930s when Elk Island was built. Together with Highlands Links and Waskesiu, Elk Island completes the holy trinity of land movement in Canada. This is the single best nine hole golf course in Canada, and frankly, it is not quite close, either. A must-play for those architecture geeks.

Author

  • 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!

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