KANANASKIS, Alberta — Renovation and restoration are terms often used when referring to rejuvenating a golf course.
The word renaissance? Not so much.
But that is exactly the way to describe the revival of Kananaskis Country Golf Course in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
No doubt when a young Robert Trent Jones worked with his mentor, revered Canadian architect Stanley Thompson, on the masterful layout at nearby Banff Springs Golf Club, he dreamed of a time when he could tackle a similar challenge of his own in the awe-inspiring Rockies. His chance came many years later, in the early 1980s, when the Alberta government decided to build a 36-hole golf resort in the Kananaskis River valley near Canmore, an hour’s drive west of Calgary.
The result was two courses, Mount Kidd and Mount Lorette, on what Jones described as “the finest location I have ever seen for a golf course.”
When the courses opened, they redefined Rocky Mountain golf. Combined with Banff Springs and Thompson’s other masterpiece, Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course, the region emerged on every avid golfer’s radar. Other outstanding courses followed and the region became a popular golf destination.
Then came the horrific flood of 2013. All but four of the 36 holes at Kananaskis were ruined, with up to 6 feet of debris covering the courses. Such was the devastation that there was talk of never reopening the courses.
“Huge trees were scattered like pick-up sticks,” recalls Gary Browning, a Calgary-based course architect who viewed the scene shortly after the flood.
Browning was called in by Darren Robinson, who has been the general manager at Kananaskis for two decades.
As the two stood near the clubhouse, surveying the damage, Robinson asked Browning, “Is it fixable?”
“Of course,” replied Browning. But in his heart, he admits now, “I thought, ‘Is it? Can it be done?’”
It could. And it has been. Kananaskis is back as good, and perhaps better, than ever before.
“The courses look, feel and play better than before,” Robinson said. While respecting the original artistry and integrity of Jones’ design, Browning opened up some of the playing corridors, relocated and redesigned some of the bunkering and softened punitive contours on the putting surfaces. Two new sets of forward tees were built, right down to a beginner-friendly 3,800 yards.
The result, says Robinson, is more welcoming for resort golfers of average ability while remaining challenging for low handicappers who want to tackle more than 7,000 yards, elevation notwithstanding.
Almost 40 years ago, fresh out of school, a brash Browning bid on the contract to build the courses at Kananaskis. He didn’t get the job, of course. There was tremendous competition from established architects to put their stamp on this fantastic property.
In the early 1980s, noted course architect Robert Trent Jones was selected over Calgary-based Gary Browning to design Kananaskis Country Golf Course's Mount Kidd and Mount Lorette layouts. After the floods, Browning was chosen to lead the renaissance of both courses, including Mount Lorette's par-3 sixth hole. (Photo: Steve Baylin)
He recalls thinking, “Why did they give it to some old guy from the States?”
But when he saw Jones’ work, he realized the right choice had been made.
“The first time I saw it, I just stood back and said ‘Wow.’ It was unbelievable. To have a chance to bring it back to life after such a disaster is one of the proudest moments of my life.”
“When I first saw the result of the flood, I was so sad, so emotional,” he said. “Not only were the courses all but gone, but we had to say goodbye to many employees, some of whom had been here 20 years or more.”
The same depth of emotion arose when all 18 holes at Mount Lorette opened for play on May 10. The front nine of Mount Kidd opened June 1 and the back nine will be in play as of today, Aug. 1.
“Pure elation,” was Robinson’s reaction.
As it is by the thousands of golfers who are flocking to the relatively new Kananaskis after its renaissance.
Kananaskis Country Golf Course
Location: Kananaskis, Alberta
John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario.