Restor­ing K-Coun­try’s golf great­ness

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JAMES MCCARTEN

The golf-mad old man would de­scend the stairs as early as 4:30 a.m., anx­ious to seize ev­ery avail­able mo­ment of Al­berta’s end­less sum­mer day­light.

“Boys,” he would say, like a death row war­den at dawn on ex­e­cu­tion day. “It’s time.”

Only in the Rocky Moun­tains did Dad’s un­godly tee times in­voke a sense of any­thing but dread.

Not even the sore back and nau­se­at­ing propane stench of sleep­ing in a truck bed camper could sully the thrill of wak­ing up in a park­ing lot in Kananaskis Coun­try.

You could still wear metal spikes back in 1983 when Kananaskis Coun­try Golf Course opened — a lush, ver­dant pair of Robert Trent Jones Sr. emer­alds guarded on all sides by tow­er­ing peaks and lodge­pole pines, laced with glacier-fed rivers and dot­ted with bril­liant white sil­ica bunkers.

For the next three decades, K-Coun­try’s Mount Lorette and Mount Kidd cour­ses would gar­ner their share of at­ten­tion, to be sure. But liv­ing in the shadow of Banff and Jasper’s world-fa­mous Stan­ley Thomp­son moun­tain mas­ter­pieces meant they never quite en­joyed the ca­chet they de­served.

Then sud­denly, in June 2013, the rivers took it all back: Higher-than-usual snow pack and sev­eral days of sus­tained heavy rains sent record flood waters cas­cad­ing down from the moun­tains, tear­ing apart the cour­ses and smear­ing the val­ley with rocks, trees and de­bris.

For staff, the catas­tro­phe marked the start of an ar­du­ous, emo­tional, will-they-or-won’t-they jour­ney — one that would go on to prove just how spe­cial a place Kananaskis Coun­try was.

“I guess that’s the sil­ver lin­ing, al­most, to the whole thing,” head pro Bob Pa­ley said in an in­ter­view as the course of­fered a sneak peek at the progress to date.

“You have an idea that some­thing’s re­ally spe­cial, but when you actually hear it — when you get a pat on the back or you get some nice things said about you, it re­ally makes you feel good. Cer­tainly, that’s the feel­ing we got from all over the world.”

Pa­ley, golf ar­chi­tect Gary Brown­ing and di­rec­tor of golf Dar­ren Robinson were among those mark­ing a ma­jor milestone as they showed off the re­sults to date of a years­long ef­fort to re­store the two lay­outs to their for­mer glory.

Lorette is fully grassed and needs only time to ma­ture be­fore full-time play be­gins in spring 2018.

The Mount Kidd course is more than half­way fin­ished and has yet to see sod, but there’s a chance — weather per­mit­ting — that it, too, could see play next year, said Pa­ley. Four years ago, that seemed un­think­able. In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the flood, Kananaskis faced long odds in­deed — longer still af­ter 2015, when the New Democrats were elected in Al­berta, end­ing the very 44year Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive dy­nasty that spawned the cour­ses in the first place un­der for­mer pre­mier Peter Lougheed.

In the end, despite much po­lit­i­cal ran­cour, the NDP — but­tressed by a favourable re­port from the prov­ince’s au­di­tor gen­eral — opted to let the $23-million re­build­ing ef­fort pro­ceed. The govern­ment hopes to re­coup much of the cost through Ot­tawa’s dis­as­ter as­sis­tance pro­gram.

“With the NDP be­ing elected, I didn’t think it was go­ing to pro­ceed, to be hon­est,” said Brown­ing, whose Al­berta-based de­sign firm got the nod to take on what he de­scribed as a mon­u­men­tal restora­tion pro­ject.

“I think a vast ma­jor­ity of Al­ber­tans were happy to see that was the de­ci­sion. As an Al­ber­tan, and a golfer, I des­per­ately wanted to see that pro­ject come back, just be­cause of the value it held for Al­ber­tans and the value it held for the prov­ince as a tourist desti­na­tion,” Brown­ing added.

Not­with­stand­ing some mod­est rout­ing changes, play­ers fa­mil­iar with the two cour­ses will rec­og­nize the orig­i­nal vi­sion of Jones, the late Bri­tish-born pa­tri­arch of a golf ar­chi­tec­ture em­pire that in­cludes sons Rees Jones and Robert Trent Jr.

All three are known for stout, well-bunkered lay­outs that test ev­ery part of a player’s game.

Brown­ing has soft­ened Kananaskis slightly by flat­ten­ing and en­larg­ing its heav­ily con­toured putting sur­faces, shrink­ing bunkers and mak­ing ap­proach shots less in­tim­i­dat­ing.

“It’s still a very strate­gic test, that’s for sure,” he said.

“I’ve kept my phi­los­o­phy in­tact through­out, but I tried very hard to im­part Jones’s phi­los­o­phy as well, which was, ‘Dif­fi­cult par, but easy bo­gey.’ And I think we’ve main­tained that.”

CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO

A groundskeeper mows the fair­way on the 14th hole fol­low­ing re­pairs to the Kananaskis Coun­try Golf Course’s 18-hole Mount Lorette course.

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