Wolf Creek – Old Course – A Rugged Alberta Gem
I have been fortunate to experience inland links-influenced courses in Canada and this Rod Whitman design in Ponoka, AB, is one of the country’s best. It is also a stout test, which I believe gives some cause for criticism. One reviewer said it well, “a beautiful but punishing course can be a great experience or an extremely frustrating one”. But make no mistake, this course is rightfully placed well inside of Canadian top 100 course rankings and I could see an argument that it’s underrated. Both courses at Wolf Creek – there is the Old (original) and the Links course (newer) – are designed by Rod Whitman. Design on the Old course began in 1981 and was open for play in 1984.
Ponoka, Alberta is just about 30 minutes north of Red Deer and just over an hour south of Edmonton. The expansive, log cabin clubhouse and pro shop sets a rustic and relaxed tone. There are modest practice facilities adjacent to the clubhouse. The Vold family own and operate the course and bring a friendly, honest and direct approach to communication, making guests feel welcome.
The scorecard provides recommended tee boxes for players based on their index and it is wise to heed this advice. I had the pleasure of teeing it up with soon-to-be Dad at the time, @GolfIsMental The cool, damp conditions seemed entirely appropriate for this course marketed ‘Where Canada Meets Scotland’.
This course has a little of everything: there is a clear links influence with fescue grasses, rugged bunkering, and the natural elements accentuated on a blustery and cool late summer day. But Whitman shaped the land and worked within existing tree-lined areas to infuse tighter tree-lined holes; water – no more so than the number 1 handicap hole, the shorter par 4 4th hole called Hawks Alley with water all along the right and expanding all around the green; and more expansive open areas where natural grasses and wind serve as protection. The round was a thrill ride and within one piece of property I was impressed with the diversity of golf holes and design features.
The stretch of holes from 5 to 9 plays alongside the Queen Elizabeth II highway which runs from Calgary to Edmonton. Sitting higher up on the property, here the winds and tall grasses serve as a primary defense. Of course, the par 5 6th hole, ‘Wasteland’ added another defence, a massive waster bunker which runs along the left side of the hole. One of my favourite holes on the course, the par 4 16th, really impressed me. The green is sharply left and is cleverly guarded both by elevation above but some of the more impressive bunkering on the course. The hole is not long, opening up options off the tee but it is the approach which requires the most attention. The back nine is generally more expansive, less tree lined, but not any easier. Whitman requires players to think and strategize; patience is key.
The greens were consistent in their quality, rolling consistently, albeit slower given the fine Scottish mist we were experiencing. The bunkers were impressive, challenging, but impressive. Greenside and fairway bunkers were rugged and natural and truly set as hazards to be avoided.
As it’s a par 70, there are four par 3’s and these provided for me a nice degree of variety, both in length but also in their demand. I appreciated the short par 3, 7th hole, playing only 105 yards from the Silver tees but guarded nicely with bunkers both long and short.
The round was capped off with an excellent clubhouse sandwich a locally brewed pint. No time to deeply relax, there was another round to play. After all, there may be no better place than Wolf Creek for 36 a day!
While Cabot Links may be viewed by many as Whitman’s finest design, his creativity and potential was unlocked in Ponoka at Wolf Creek, demonstrated extremely well with the Old course.
Aura – 6.5 out of 10 –Perhaps the magnitude of Jasper and Banff draw the eye of others in Canada when it comes to Alberta golf, but Wolf Creek Old, as a top 50 course in Canada really has a modesty to it with regard to aura. This is a course people should plan to play when traveling to Alberta. Alongside the Links course, it makes for a fun day of 36. For locals and those in the know, this number would be much higher. It is for me now.
Value (cost / experience) – 8 out of 10 – The standard rate set on their website is $85. A membership with full and unlimited access to both courses is $2750 (power carts and $750 credits in the clubhouse included). This is simply outstanding.
Course Condition (fairways/greens, layout) – 9 out of 10 – This is not a relaxed layout. But make no mistake; it is a fun golf experience. It is an intelligent layout which is demanding and requires patience more so than power. The tee boxes were very good, landing areas and fairways excellent and greenside conditions not overly manicured. There are four tee boxes to choose from, the course plays over 6600 yards from the tips but just under 6000 which was sufficient for this double digit handicapper. Greens were excellent; I was impressed that there were not many ball marks. The layout provided significant variety. The course is walkable though there is some elevation change, steep in parts. Whitman really created a memorable golf experience with the Old Course at Wolf Creek. The cart paths and range facilities have shown sign of aging in places but the course is the real star, as it should.
Overall Experience (how did the round make me feel; would I return) –9.0 out of 10 – This course is at the top of my Alberta replay list. I’d really like to experience this course again. It is not the easiest course people may ever play, but it is one of more fair and challenging tests, set on a beautiful piece of property.