CRANBROOK, British Columbia – Wildstone was on my good side before I took my first swing.
We drove past seven deer meandering through the trees adjacent to the entrance road.
We checked in and discovered one of the most picturesque and practical driving ranges I’ve ever seen. Large putting green, chipping area and elevated tee boxes on a 350-yard range. Breaks between swings are spent gazing at the Rocky Mountains.
Wildstone has the distinction of being the first and only Black Knight Golf Course by Gary Player Design in Canada. When it opened in 2011, Golf Digest senior architecture editor Ron Whitten, after touring every new course in North America that year, wrote: “Wildstone was my favorite round of the year.”
The layout backs up Whitten’s assessment. Everything seems to fit together thoughtfully and seamlessly. Bunkers are well-located. Fairways are generous. Massive, undulating green complexes provide assorted options for pin locations.
“One thing I’ve noticed with a Gary Player Design, you’re much more rewarded for a good shot then you’re penalized for a bad one,” pro Dave Linardic said. “That lends to a lot of enjoyment for golfers of all levels.”
There are options to bump-and-run chips, attempt flop shots or perhaps utilize a backstop behind the hole. You might go flag-hunting on approaches or attempt to use a mound to feed the ball closer to the pin.
“From the tips its 7,127 yards so it can test even the greatest players,” general manager Chris Andrews said. “But it also can play 4,900 yards and we have junior tees from 2,400. They have their own scorecard so it’s a great place to learn the game, too.
The first hole, a 522-yard par 5, offers hope for a fast start if one conquers an uphill drive with a quality poke. Andrews and my brother Jack had good looks at birdie while an unnamed third member of the group considered benching his driver.
No. 1 is the first of three front-nine par-5s and five overall. There are also five par 3s, three on the back, including back-to-back on Nos. 15 and 16.
The third, a 423-yard par 4, is the No. 1 handicap hole for good reason. It’s uphill, bunkers guard the left side of the landing area and a small trap is centered in front of a wide, but narrow green.
The challenge of No. 3 gives way to the temptation of the reachable 283-yard par-4 fourth, which can dish out birdies or bogeys. A ridge divides the green into a lower left shelf and a higher right section.
Then it’s off to the fifth, a sharply downhill 360-yard par 4. A well-placed low iron or hybrid sets up a wedge approach to a large green protected on the left by sand and a pond. Andrews has seen players reach the green from the blue and white tees.
“When you stand on the tee and see the Steeples (mountains) and Fisher Peak it has a lot of interest,” Andrews said. “When you get down on the green and look back at the shaping done to make it an interesting, shorter par 4, it tells you the designers understood what they were doing.”
The initial par 3 is No. 6, which ranges from 91 to 152 yards with eight tee boxes. Again, options, variety and striking views.
The par-5 ninth is only 477 yards but a grove of trees rest in the prime landing area. Play to the left and the second shot is shorter but you might have to carry trees and hold your shot on an angled green. Play to the right and the second shot is longer but the green becomes more receptive.
The back side begins with another par 5. It’s just 480 yards but the fairway is tree-lined and cleverly located bunkers await off-target first, second and third shots.
The par-4 11th is no bargain at 408 yards and gently uphill. Water frames three-fourths of the 12th green, a 152-yard par 3. The par-5 13th presents a birdie opportunity but only if your drive avoids the bunkers off the right edge of the fairway and you follow with a precise second shot.
Then it’s hang-on time because the last five holes are demanding. The uphill, 458-yard 14th competes with Nos. 3 and 18 as the toughest par 4s. The par-3 15th measures 215 yards and somehow we played it in 1 under. No. 17 is a 404-yard par 4 with a crowned green – ala Pinehurst No. 2 – but there’s ample space on the putting surface to hold approach shots.
No. 18 is a downhill, 497-yard par 4. Bomb a drive over the trap on the right and it becomes a whole lot easier. Otherwise, a lengthy second shot awaits, along with a gorgeous view of Fisher Peak.
“We’ve asked and polled and asked again and we get a wide variety of answers,” Andrews said of customers choosing a signature hole. “A lot of people say No. 9 and No. 18. The bridge (across the pond) on 12 is unique. On the driving range jaws drop and people say, ‘What am I in for today?’ ”
About three hours later, our answer was an entertaining round on a well-designed golf course.
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