Kananaskis Country Golf Course – The Reopening of an Icon

Every so often you stumble across a place where all your worries melt away. You may not even be able to explain why, but you just know it’s special. For 30 years, Kananaskis Country Golf Course was one of those places for thousands of golfers.

Kananaskis Country Golf Course originally opened for play in 1983 in the heart of Kananaskis Country among the stunning Rocky Mountains. The 36 hole facility designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. would bring in throngs of tourists each summer and, over those next 30 years, become a golf icon in Alberta.  With it’s close proximity to Calgary and a discounted rate for Alberta residents to play, it also became near and dear to the hearts of locals.

Then, nature took it all away.

In June of 2013, significant flooding swept across Southern Alberta. Floodwaters from the Evan Thomas and Kananaskis Rivers ferociously breached their banks and ravaged Kananaskis Country Golf Course. It was so powerful that it washed away fairways and greens, ripped up asphalt and tore up parts of their irrigation system. Once the floodwaters receded to reveal the full extent of the damage, the course was barely recognizable. They had no choice but to make the gut-wrenching decision to announce the course closed, and inform their 175 staff members that they were now out of work.

There was an incredible outpouring of support following the closure of the course. They held a liquidation sale to unload their fully stocked pro shop and head professional, Bob Paley, described it as a “pilgrimage” for golfers as they appeared in droves to show their support and tell them what the course meant to them. Thousands reached out to offer support, some from as far away as China.

The staff always knew it was a special place, but they didn’t realize the impact it had on people until it was gone. “It was humbling to hear what a golf course meant to someone’s life”, GM Darren Robinson said. Stories were told of on-course engagements, anniversary rounds and annual buddies trips. Turned out that Kananaskis Golf Course wasn’t just a place where people showed up to kill four hours. It became part of people’s life story.

In that sense, there were many silver linings discovered amongst the devastation and heartbreak from the floods. “It was both the worst and best thing to ever happen to us”, head professional Bob Paley said.

The long and difficult restoration process became a time to reflect on their business and their culture. This resulted in a new slogan — “make the time” — a play on words with several meanings. It is meant to serve as a reminder that the people and things you love are fragile and you just never know how long they will be there. So put down your cell phone or the TV remote and make the time to play golf and be with your friends. It can also be taken quite literally, as in, make the (tee) time. It also serves as a reminder to their staff to make the time to go the extra mile to make guests feel welcome and ensure their experience is special.

By July of 2014, the Government of Alberta made the commitment to rebuild the golf courses, and the clean-up phase was completed by the end of 2014.

After a stop work order was issued in 2015 (complicated political stuff), the restoration was halted for most of that year, and then picked back up in full force April of 2016.

Now, the Spring of 2018 is within sight, which will officially mark a new chapter for Kananaskis Country Golf Course as it prepares to reopen its fairways to the golfing public. Mount Lorette will be open at the beginning of the 2018 golf season, and they expect the Mount Kidd Course to be ready by July of 2018.

We were fortunate to receive an invite to a sneak-a-peek event of the restoration work, and be among the privileged first to play 18 holes on the newly minted Mount Lorette course. We obviously jumped at the opportunity.

The Mount Lorette Course – version 2.0

It was a cool and blustery September day in the mountains, but that did not dampen the spirits of the enthusiastic staff and guests in attendance. The buzz and excitement to be playing golf on this property once again was uncanny.

Kananaskis Country Golf Course Lorette reopening
Beth and Josh — the cold was no match for our excitement

Golf course architect, Gary Browning, took on the restoration of this Robert Trent Jones Sr. design. His intent was to maintain the integrity of the original design and keep the same routing, but implement a few tweaks along the way that would make the course even better and more approachable than its previous self.

He added two additional tee boxes on the front end to help accommodate every age and skill. The course can now be played as short as 4700 yards or as long as 7000+ yards, with several options in between.

Kananaskis Country Golf Course Lorette reopening
The par-4 3rd hole

One of the first things I noticed was how absolutely pure the conditions were. Every time Beth fired an approach at the pin, she was glowing over how amazing the fairways were. I couldn’t get over how receptive, fast and smooth the greens were.   For some reason I was expecting sod lines and shaggy greens, but Lorette could host a tournament tomorrow if it needed to. It was some of the best conditions I have experienced in a while. Visitors are in for a treat in 2018.

Kananaskis Country Golf Course Lorette reopening
Looking back on the par-3 4th green

The layout is still very Robert Trent Jones-y with beautifully contoured bunkers and large sloping greens that are tricky to read. I love that it’s a course in the mountains but not a “mountain course”. It’s relatively flat and walkable, with undulating terrain that skirts along lakes and rivers. The same rivers that tore the course to shreds in 2013 add a unique ambiance to the layout.

Kananaskis Country Golf Course Lorette reopening
View from the par-5 5th tee box
Kananaskis Country Golf Course Lorette reopening
View from beside the par-5 5th green

If you haven’t yet noticed, the mountainous backdrops in every direction will be a drain on your camera battery. It’s hard to get very frustrated by poor shots when you look around and remind yourself how lucky you are to be where you are.

Kananaskis Country Golf Course Lorette reopening
Overlooking the par-3 6th green
Kananaskis Country Golf Course Lorette reopening
View from behind the par-4 9th green

In general, the course actually feels pretty open from the tee considering it’s carved through the forest and alongside lakes and rivers. While there is no lack of visual intimidation from bunkers and hazards, the playing corridors are extremely fair and provide every opportunity to get it in play.

Even if you do stray off the fairway, the treed areas seem to be fairy tidy and provide a fair chance to find your ball and get it back in play (or so I was told – I would obviously never miss a fairway).

Kananaskis Country Golf Course Lorette
Looking back down the par-4 12th fairway
Kananaskis Country Golf Course Lorette reopening
Yours truly on the beautiful par-4 14th tee (photo by Beth Strukoff)
Kananaskis Country Golf Course Lorette reopening
The par-3 17th hole

So how much will a visit to Kananaskis 2.0 set you back in 2018? Their rates are expected to be set before the end of this year, but they did state their intention to provide the best value for golf in Alberta.

And the Alberta residents rate that used to be so popular?

“We will still have the discounted Alberta rate that everybody in this province has been so proud of”, said GM Darren Robinson enthusiastically. (Update 25 Oct 2017: they have now published their 2018 rates)

I have a feeling it won’t take long for the tee sheet to fill up once they start taking public bookings in March of 2018, so if you’re interested in getting out there at the beginning of golf season, you might want to mark that on your calendar.

While a good layout and a unique setting are prerequisites for any great golf experience, head professional Bob Paley was quick to remind us what turns something great into something special.

“It’s the people that make this place what it is”


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