Appeared in May/June 2007 LINKS
The advice was caddie-esque, with a bit of a twist: “Ten feet, slightly uphill. Greens as fast as glass. Choose your weapon.” After a bit of hefting, I decided on a rather bulky, ominous-looking affair. Then, as instructed, I ran it up the fat of the Champagne bottle to the neck, where it blew away the cork, the cage and the first inch or so of glass. Thus my initiation into the black art of “sabreing,” a specialty of Andre St. Jacques, owner of a restaurant called the Bearfoot Bistro.
And a fine introduction as well to Whistler, 80 miles north of Vancouver. It’s all quite well organized: four golf courses within minutes of the village, lifts to the top of cheek-by-jowl Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, your skiing destination (if you wish) following the morning round, as well as the town itself.
Whistler’s charms, as well as its cold, snowy winters and Alpine possibilities, combined nicely with Vancouver’s cosmopolitan feel to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Whistler's lodging choices are far-ranging, from full-service resorts like the Four Seasons and Fairmont, to any number of boutique hotels, to less formal accommodations around town. Whistler is an easygoing, hey-dude kind of place, where ski bums coexist with visitors looking for a more lavish vacation.
Whistler may be first and foremost a ski mecca, but the summer brings its share of visitors, especially for the golf. There are three courses, all relatively new, within minutes of the village and most of its lodgings. A fourth course, in Pemberton, an easy 20 minutes north of Whistler completes the consortium called Golf Whistler.
Whistler’s three courses—Nicklaus North, Whistler Golf Club, Fairmont Chateau Whistler—are kind designs. At 6,908 yards, Nicklaus North is a comfortable loop. Much of Nicklaus North’s interest comes from its par 3s, which provide hazard-free landing areas just off the greens for up-and-down shots at par, as well as birdie opportunities by challenging hazards like fronting bunkers or water.
Whistler, designed by Arnold Palmer, is beautiful to look at, thanks to an abundance of streams and lakes. Like its neighbor Nicklaus North, Palmer’s course asks players to frankly assess their own capabilities, perhaps look to make bogeys and up-and-down pars, and walk off the 18th thirsty and content. While not long at 6,722 yards, Whistler has water hazards that define margins of fairways, and flirting with them often results in shorter, easier approach shots.
Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s Fairmont Chateau Whistler has a different feel, primarily because it is set not in the valley, but along the flank of the mountains. Elevation ups and downs sometimes render scorecard distances irrelevant. The 3rd, for example, a par-4 dogleg protected in front by a stream hustling glacier melt down into the valley, is listed at 399 yards, but it drops 160 feet along the way.
The 8th hole captures the essence of the course. It’s a par 3 listed at 212 yards, falling downhill all the way. Greenside left a pond pushes in. A miss to the right and a chip back toward the water is the play. Rock blown away in construction has been left exposed, pinching the safe landing area. The front left bunker amounts to the only real bailout. All of which mingles with the rather baffling job of club selection. It’s the toughest of threes.
At 6,635 yards, Fairmont Chateau seems rather short for a mountain course. That’s because at 2,200 feet, Whistler isn’t all that elevated. And the area’s fourth course, Big Sky Golf and Country Club in nearby Pemberton, is even lower, with an elevation of 670 feet.
Set against Mount Currie, 8,300 feet of nearly vertical rock, ribbed with ice, waterfalls and clutches of Douglas fir, Big Sky is impossible to forget. It is a backdrop that would overwhelm any golf course bold enough to challenge its primacy.
Around many of the greens, shots near the edges will slide off and down into tightly cut swales, from where pitches, chips, putts, hybrid or fairway wood chips—whatever works—require perfect execution. Pretty good is not good enough.
My favorite is the 4th, a par 5 of 520 yards that offers many tactical choices. Organized around a stream that weaves its way across the fairway three times, it asks for a well-executed plan that makes the crossings comfortable. All in all, Big Sky’s subtly demanding design and spectacular scenery make the trip from the village worthwhile—and demands a return visit, a sentiment that easily could apply to Whistler itself.