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Alberta has a gem in Rod Whitman's Blackhawk Golf Club

Andrew PennerBy Andrew Penner,

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Remember the name Rod Whitman. Held in the highest regard from some of the greatest architects in the game, Rod Whitman is an unsung hero in golfdom. Although his name is seldom mentioned (some say he likes it that way), he has designed golf courses all over the world. He's tweaked courses for major championships and worked alongside Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, and Bill Coore. Now, routed along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River just south of Edmonton, Alberta, Rod Whitman may have just designed -- and built -- his best course ever.

In a day and age when the top architects -- many of them former or still-active tour players -- zip around in personal jets and spend as little time as possible on the job sites, Whitman is a refreshing throwback. Just like he did when he sculpted Wolf Creek (an outstanding links-style course) in central Alberta in the early 80s, Whitman spent day after day on Blackhawk's inspiring river valley site, wearing out the seat on his bulldozer.

Blackhawk's character is one of rustic beauty and peaceful, riverside charm. Nothing is forced, but everything good on the site is utilized to the fullest. The course sweeps up to a plateau, away from the river, to start. Then it tumbles and rolls through pockets of white-poplar and pine. The stunning back nine drops into the gorgeous river valley and builds to a hair-raising closing hole lined with Whitman's ragged and dramatic bunkering.

While Blackhawk is not a long course (6,777 yards, par 71), it's packed with options and subtleties that golfers will enjoy. And the routing is to die for. While there are some holes that can be attacked from the tee, it's the epitome of a "thinkers" layout, someone who can create a shot, work the ball, and save a score by executing a variety of shots around unique and challenging green complexes.

Like a number of his close peers (Coore & Crenshaw and Pete Dye the best examples), Whitman's work is intricate, deliberate, and dramatic. Greens are smallish, with bold and original contouring. Some have steep fronts and swells, and others are canted to one side, requiring a specific angle of approach. All seem to dip and dive with the rumpled prairie.

Perhaps the best aspect of Whitman's work at Blackhawk is his exceptional bunkering. Similar to Alister MacKenzie and his good friend Bill Coore, Whitman's use of natural-looking, grass-lined pits with ragged, crumbling edges adds a dramatic, untidy flare. It sets the stage for an experience that feels anything but plastic.

Unlike Wolf Creek, where Whitman moved an amazing amount of dirt to establish a links-like environment, not much soil was moved at Blackhawk.

"The site was wonderful as is," says Whitman. "We moved some earth to build the eleventh green and pushed around a bit of dirt on eighteen, but that's about it. The seclusion, the plateau on the front nine, and of course the river, it's a great piece of property."

While most first-timers will leave the course tingling from all the "wow moments" on the back nine -- the most riveting being the drop to the valley on the par-5 11th and the pristine over-water 16th -- the course's best strategic holes might be on the front. The long par-5 seventh, for example, is played up and over a tree-lined knob and down to an immense fairway peppered with sand. Once over the hill (hopefully in one shot), the golfer must factor in the wind, the lie, the pin placement, and avoid a ferocious collection of bunkers in order to set up a rare birdie.

The ninth, a 374-yard downhill slider, is also the type of hole that presents many options. "I think it's only a matter of time before somebody drives that green with an iron," says Whitman. "It's certainly the type of hole that will get people thinking." From the tee, clearly the "proper" way to play the hole is by using the slope on the right, but which club and how far down do you want it? Big hitters may have to tone it down because an overcharged driver might roll through the green.

From a visual standpoint, the 11th is easily the most spectacular hole on the course. Golfers hoist tee shots high into the air against a backdrop of sandstone cliffs and the aspen-coated banks of the North Saskatchewan River. A cluster of unruly bunkers guard the right side of the fairway, but a strong tee shot can carry the danger. From there, a decision must be made whether or not to go for the sunken peninsula green in two. It's the type of hole where anything can happen -- an eagle one day and a triple bogey the next.

From there the course glides along the river and the incredible beauty and tranquility of the setting can sedate you. One-man fishing boats chug up the river and deer splash through the cool, shallow waters. Truthfully, it's one of the prettiest settings I've ever seen for a golf course.

It's already difficult getting a tee time at The Blackhawk Golf Club -- something not too common for a new course. Opened in July of 2003, Blackhawk is, at least for a few more months, a public-access course. Unfortunately for the green-fee player, it likely will go private in 2004.

As for Whitman, still an Alberta boy at heart, you won't find him sipping drinks with the high rollers and playing with luxury toys. In fact, at this very moment he's likely on a bulldozer somewhere like Rhode Island, Indonesia, or Germany, shaping and sculpting the earth to form the next Wolf Creek, the next Blackhawk. And soon, whether he likes it or not, people will know his name.

Andrew Penner is a golf professional and a Travelgolf.com Staff Writer. His new book, "One Flew Over The Caddyshack," is available at Amazon.com.

Where to stay

There are numerous hotels near the Airport and the Blackhawk Golf Club. For more information on where to stay when in the Edmonton area check out: http://edmonton.lodgingguide.com/. The Nisku Inn and the Holiday Inn Express are good choices near the Airport.

Other courses

Northern Bear -- great Jack Nicklaus Signature course just 40 minutes from Blackhawk. northernbeargolf.com
Redtail Landing -- long, open, and difficult layout beside the airport. redtaillanding.com
Cougar Creek Resort -- plenty of variety in a secluded setting. cougarcreekgolf.com

For more information on Edmonton's golf scene check out golfedmonton.com

Other attractions

Edmonton's most famous attraction is the West Edmonton Mall -- one of the biggest in the world. The mall contains a water park, amusement park, skating rink, submarine rides, hundreds of stores, a hotel, casino, and much more. Check out westedmontonmall.com.

For other things to do in and around Edmonton check out: discoveredmonton.com

Blackhawk is located 10 minutes from Edmonton's west end and just 20 minutes from the Edmonton International Airport. Edmonton is the capital and second largest city of Alberta.

Keep in mind the following if making a trip to Edmonton and the Blackhawk Golf Club in fall: temperatures are cool (frost delays are common in September and October), the courses close for the season in mid-October, the golf is inexpensive ($65 at Blackhawk), and the fall colors are gorgeous!

Fast Fact

One-man fishing boats chug up the Saskatchewan River and deer splash through the cool, shallow waters, making concentration on the golf at hand more difficult.

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America and Europe. You can see more of his work at www.andrewpenner.com.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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