It’s nothing special. And it’s everything special.
Elk Island Golf Course, a nine-hole track built as a make-work project during the Great Depression, lies 60 kilometres east of downtown Edmonton in the heart of Elk Island National Park.
It’s golf without the frills. Very little sand. One teeny pond. No gimmickry.
But its very existence and its architect, the larger-than-life Stanley Thompson, should put Elk Island on your to-do list. Especially this year, Canada’s sesquicentennial, during which the federal government has gifted us passes for all our national parks.
Elk Island National Park boasts the country’s densest population of ungulates — i.e. hooved mammals — including two kinds of bison, moose, elk and deer. There are hiking trails, lakes, birds, beavers and picnic areas.
And there is a Stanley Thompson golf course.
Thompson’s name is on two Alberta golf tracks that are among the top 10 courses in Canada — the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, opened in 1911, and the Fairmont Banff Springs, which opened in 1927. He also was involved in the Waterton National Park golf course, opened in 1929. And he designed the Elk Island course, built in 1936.
The most successful course is one that will test the skill of the most advanced golfer without discouraging the duffer. —Stanley Thompson’s philosophy, from the Stanley Thompson Society
Most fairways at Elk Island Golf Course are as wide, in Dan’s estimation, as football fields. (This did not in any way reduce his lost ball count, but that is another story.) The score card suggested there are two tee boxes but that is not true. There is just one.
The fairways are shaggy. The greens are shaggy. And almost every fairway, in defiance of the laws of nature, seems to be mostly uphill. It is cause for celebration when your feet are on the same level as the ball. Capping the experience, most of the greens are also elevated.
This, my friends, is golf in its purest form. The ball, the clubs, the undulating, rolling, natural terrain and your wits.
Thompson golf holes were created to look as if they had always been there and were always meant to be there. — stanleythompsonsociety.com
You see, they cut down trees but they didn’t move a lot of dirt back in 1936 when the Elk Island Golf Course was built by a workforce made up of Depression-era labourers desperate to put food on the table and — so the story goes — Fort Saskatchewan convicts.
The layout’s spare design was purely by design. Thompson’s golf courses were always less invasive than they were infusive; such was his uncanny knack for blending foreign architecture into natural surroundings.
Eight decades later, the golf course does not stick out like the proverbial sore digit.
Thanks to those endlessly rolling hills, there were three holes that provided a bell (well, really a big old steel gong) meant to allow golfers to signal the group behind that it was safe to tee off. The day we played, we never saw another single soul on the course. But we merrily rang the gongs nonetheless.
The fewer the blind holes the better. — stanleythompsonsociety.com
Ahem. About that blind hole rule, Stan.
The lack of other golfers was probably not an anomaly. We were told that Elk Island gets about 75 booked tee times each week. That’s approximately how many tee times a busy course would book every day. And as befits a government facility that gets little use, there is — shall we say — a minimum of upkeep. And fewer frills.
Fairways boast a white 150-yard post, but that is the only marker on each hole. There are no blue concrete discs at 200, there is nary a red stake denoting 100. We don’t carry GPS devices, but we’ve read that they’re not much use either on this course.
There was no refreshment cart. But we weren’t charged for the pull cart, which desperately needed a bit of WD-40
However, in keeping with our bilingual nation, the signage was in both official languages, and the distance was provided in both yards and metres. There were benches and weather shelters because, after all, this was a course built in a time when everyone walked.
And after making the final climb to the final elevated green on the ninth hole, the spacious (and air conditioned) clubhouse awaits along with a cooler of beer and a small but creative menu that includes the likes of perogies, green onion cakes and burgers — a choice of beef, chicken or, yes, even bison. If the weather is fine, settle outside at a picnic table or into an Adirondack chair and enjoy the peaceful view of Astotin Lake.
Like we said. It’s everything special.
By the numbers: There is one tee box. The score card tries to tell you otherwise, but there is just one. Yardage is 3,043.
$$: Rate including GST for 9 holes is $27.30 Monday through Thursday, $33.60 on Fridays, weekends and holidays. For 18 holes, you’ll pay $40.95 and $52.50 respectively. In years other than 2017, you’ll also require a national parks pass.
Course deals: We didn’t see any.
Defining characteristics: Hills, wide fairways and elevated greens.
Walkability: For the first time on this Drive Time series, we would strongly consider a cart. Those hills! We only played nine holes and enjoyed the walk (despite the occasional huffing and puffing after a steep climb), but an easy trek it is not.
On-course amenities: Hmm. Well, there were some wooden bench/shelter structures. We can’t say with certainty but we don’t recall any ball washers at the tee boxes. But the clubhouse is a gem, the food was good, the beer was cold, and the staff is friendly and helpful.
As long as you’ve made the drive: Elk Island National Park is simply lovely. Plan an early morning round and then hit a hike or a picnic site before you leave. The park boasts the world’s biggest herds of plains and wood bison, not to mention lakes, scads of walking trails, a fine beach and recreation area. The golf course is close to the Astotin Recreation area; if you do nothing else, at least take a gander out to the interpretive signs close to the theatre. They tell a story of the birth of the park and the genesis of the many animals that live there.
In this Drive Time series, Road Wordy will spend the summer finding some hidden golf gems easily accessible to Edmontonians as a day or overnight trip. Here are some our previous stories:
• Golf and sausage: slices of life in Mundare
• Barrhead raises the bar for country golf
• Can’t hit the fairway for the trees at the Sundre Golf Club
• Into the black sands at Coal Creek
• Dan Barnes: Golf, the original social network
Do you have a suggestion for a golf course we should try? Tell us about it in the comments and maybe we’ll pay it a visit.