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Calgary has gone crazy for golf

Andrew PennerBy Andrew Penner,

CALGARY, Alberta - The city of Calgary, which is now nearing one million strong, is golf crazy.

Industry surveys indicate there is no other place in the world that boasts a higher percentage of participants. More than half of the adult population plays the game. The oilmen, the executives, the cattle ranchers, the computer geeks - they all play. And, with the exceptional quality of golf courses that surround them, who can blame them?

Calgary is located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Thick forests of pine creep to its western edges and the beautiful Bow and Elbow Rivers, thanks to millions of years, have carved beautiful valleys through the city. Long before they began to flow, glaciers scraped and scoured the land all around the city, forming hills, ravines, and rocky escarpments.

It's in this intriguing environment that some of Canada's best golf courses have been built. While Calgary is home to some of the finest private golf clubs in the nation - Earl Grey, Calgary Golf Club, Glencoe, Priddis Greens, to name a few - there is a fine collection of world-class facilities that are accessible to everyone.

In the south of the city, largely hidden in the tree-lined folds of Pine Creek Valley, is where you'll find the Heritage Pointe Golf Club. Designed by Ron Garl, who is often quoted as stating that this is his finest course, Heritage Pointe offers three fantastic nines laced with character and challenge. The Desert nine parades through wheatgrass-capped dunes and features the largest sand trap in Canada. The 517-yard seventh, which features a tough-to-hit plateau green, is framed on its left side by a 400-yard long bunker that can definitely punish the right-hander's hook. But this is just one of many unique golf holes at Heritage.

Perhaps the best hole on the golf course is the first on the Heritage nine. From the elevated tee, golfers stare down to a landing area framed by a montage of creatively shaped bunkers, and the bulrush-lined Pine Creek. If you manage to squeeze one onto the left side of the landing area, you might be able to give the green a go in two. But, the perched green is protected by a deep sliver-like bunker that will gobble anything hit short. Hang onto your Stetson as anything can happen on this hole.

A few minutes southwest of Calgary, in the booming little town of Okotoks, you'll find some fantastic mountain views and a terrific championship course called D'arcy Ranch. Woven through coulees with outstanding bunkering and well-thought out green complexes, the D'arcy Ranch layout is easily one of the best plays in the Calgary area. Not surprisingly, Ken Dye (brother of Pete Dye) incorporated dramatic shot requirements here as greens are nestled tight beside ponds, cling to the hillsides, and are often protected by deep bunkers. With great routing, an awesome collection of par-threes, and a superior setting, it's no surprise that it's usually tough getting a tee time here.

Approximately 20 minutes east of Okotoks, near the farming community of Carsland, the land is much more typical of the Canadian Prairies. Grain elevators line the horizon and trees are scarce. But, surprisingly, this is the site of one of Calgary's newest and most interesting public layouts. The Speargrass Golf Club, designed by up-and-coming architect Gary Browning, is an unusual course (there are six par-3s, six par-4s, and six par-5s) with an unbelievable finish. For the first 15 holes, golfers traverse the grassy plains and the course takes on a distinct links-like flavor. After following the gentle dips and dives in the land - and battling the ever-present wind - golfers had better be ready for a closing run that tears through some remarkable terrain. Holes 16, 17, and 18 are carved into the steep slopes along the Bow River and are fully capable of destroying any good round going. The best of these three is the 17th, which is a downhill, drivable par-4 with a do-or-die theme. A slight miss left and your ball will find a resting place among the geese and ducks floating down the river. A miss to the right is punished by some of the gnarliest shrubbery on the course.

The 18th, a long par-4, crawls uphill along the riverbank and requires two laser-straight shots. When it's all said and done, you'll have done very well getting through this stretch intact.

The town of Cochrane, just minutes from Calgary's western limits, is built in an Old West theme. Saloons, gift shops, and antique stores fill the downtown core. Clinging to the windy bluffs above town is one of the best golf courses in Alberta. The Links of GlenEagles, host to the Calgary Classic of the Nationwide Tour, is a roller coaster of a course with plenty of challenge and gorgeous panoramic views. The course features a couple of wild par-3s that plummet down the hillsides and are definitely of the "hit and hope" variety. A brand new clubhouse and the prestige of the Nationwide Tour are only helping this place boost its status in the Calgary area.

Another nearby town with western flair is Bragg Creek. Bragg Creek, however, is nestled in the thick forests of the foothills and is home to an unsung gem that's maturing nicely with age. The Wintergreen Golf Course is a wooded Bill Newis design with plenty of water in play. The course, which was built in the mid-1980s, was never in great shape due to a meager maintenance budget and large amounts of spring runoff from the bordering hills and mountains. Now, with new ownership and a course-first strategy, Wintergreen is becoming a premier test in the Calgary area - and rightfully so as the layout itself is super strong and in a beautiful setting.

As much of the world is aware, the city of Calgary is graced in Western ambiance. Oil rigs, cowboys, and ranchland as far as the eyes can see are staples of life around here. The Calgary Stampede, well, everyone is aware of "The Greatest Show on Earth." Things are crazy around Calgary during Stampede week (the Stampede runs for 10 days in the beginning of July). And as for the golf, well, that's crazy all summer long.

Yee haw!

Calgary, Alberta, Canada tourismcalgary.com albertatourism.com

Getting there

Most major carriers provide service to Calgary's International Airport. Calgary is approximately 12 hours by car east of Vancouver and 14 hours west of Winnipeg.

Other attractions

One of Calgary's biggest assets is its location. It's only an hour or so from Banff and the spectacular Canadian Rockies. Lake Louise, Jasper, and Kananaskis are all popular areas to explore and sightsee. The Calgary Stampede attracts thousands of visitors every year. It's always held in early July.

Other good courses in and around Calgary

Valley Ridge Golf & Conference Center - Long, hilly, Ken Dye design that's tough on the high-handicappers. Will test your entire game.

Turner Valley Golf Club - Located half an hour south of town. Player friendly country course with an excellent back nine.

Elbow Springs - 27 holes of solid golf. Creek meanders throughout.

Springbank Links - One nine races through the coulees and one nine parades through the prairie. Difficult course when the wind blows.

Lynx Ridge - New layout with some great holes that overlook the city.

McKenzie Meadows - Extremely popular course in Calgary's far south. Good value.

Maple Ridge & McCall Lake - Calgary's two best munis are very underrated.

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.

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