Recently, nine-hole rounds have experienced a bit of a surge in popularity. The United States Golf Association’s push for nine hole rounds, with an emphasis on playing in two hours, has been instrumental. So has has Anthony Pioppi’s book The Finest Nines and Golf Magazine’s ranking of the world’s greatest nine hole courses.
Elk Island, about 45 minutes east of downtown Edmonton, is certainly remote. If Tom Doak had gone to Elk Island for The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, I suspect it would qualify for the “ends of the earth” portion in “The Gazetteer.” With all that being said, the 1937 Stanley Thompson design in Alberta had piqued my interest.
There are only a handful of Thompson designs west of Ontario remaining, so it became a priority to see on my first trip in 2018. In 2020, I returned, and felt all the same emotions return yet again.
Upon arrival Elk Island is incredibly lowkey. You’ll have to pay to arrive in Elk Island National Park, but it’s well worth the entrance fee. The opening hole, while gentle on the scorecard at 330 or so yards, is anything but.
The opening hole is like playing through the Sea on a rollicking stormy Sunday. At times, it’s overwhelming (where do you hit it? Where is the flat lie?) and perplexing, especially on the first go. Over time, like a Quentin Tarantino movie, the plot reveals itself, and when it does, it is hard not to grin. On the first, the heroic golfer who can hoist it up onto the top portion is rewarded. For those who are shorter, a second shot up the hillside might challenge those out of the gate.
For those who are aggressive, a much more inviting approach shot awaits.
Looking back, you get the sense of the heavily tilted green to the front, and the terrain, which is mind boggling.
Thankfully, the terrain on the 1st is not a one-off and continues with the 410-yard second. The tee shot is blind, but a wonderful surprise is the playing corridors Thompson left have not shrunk and provide enough room for the golfer to feel comfortable yet have the excitement of seeing the ball fly over the hill and not see it finish.
A look at the terrain Elk Island is painted over on the 2nd.
Elk Island, like Cape Breton Highlands Links, was built during The Great Depression, and shows restraint in bunkering, something that dominates Stanley Thompson’s early work like Jasper, Banff and St. George’s. Here, there’s five total bunkers, with two coming green side.
The third is the first of two par 5’s, and certainly short for today’s modern game. At 448 yards, the firm playing conditions provide a chance to get home in two. The open tee ball is particularly enticing.
For the long hitters, the fairway becomes uneven, weaving around the contours, but short hitters will have a flatter lie to deal with, as shown below.
The green site, majestically perched up behind the dip in the fairway, is evil for such a short hole. Those who are unsure if they can get home in two have a choice, and the best option will involve trying to navigate the humps, bumps and hollows to get a flat lie. Those who go for the green in two will be asked to fly the ball all the way to the hole.
Laying up down below leaves a difficult wedge shot back up.
Traditionally, par 3’s on Stanley Thompson layouts are the ones that has golfers’ chins on the floor. And while Elk Island has two excellent one-shot holes, they take a rare backseat to Thompson’s par 4’s here. Nonetheless, the 133-yard short par 3, 4th is a smart use of the contour ridge, with the green benched into it, featuring built up mounding left and long and a harsh fall off on the right.
The green site surroundings are just sublime and pure Thompson.
On my first trip around in 2018, the 388 yard par 4, 5th was my favourite hole. Certainly strong, and as no beef to the 5th, tastes change. At first glance, the tee shot is similar to the 2nd, rising over the same contour ridge, producing yet another blind tee shot. Unlike the 2nd, which asks for a gentle fade, the 5th prefers someone who can turn it over, working the ball to the left.
Cresting the hill, golfers will be greeted with perhaps the most stereotypically framed Thompson green, benched into the hillside, with three bunkers (one left, one right, one long into the hillside) wrapping the green. For those who are counting, that’s five total: we’re bunker-less coming home.
The second of two par 5’s, the 6th is slightly longer than the 3rd at 459 yards. Over the ridge, this tee shot is only slightly blind as I suspect most will see the ball land.
Yet again, the golfer tackles the undulations head on with the rolling hills of Elk Island National Park providing Thompson his canvas. A little less like mogul hills on the 3rd, and a little more like crashing waves at the beach, the 6th is a gentler version.
Looking back, you get a good sense of the topography you trekked over.
Speaking of standouts, the 333-yard par 4, 7th is one of the most interesting par 4’s in all of Canada. The fairway is a thing of beauty, with as much land movement as any golf course in the country. The Hog’s Back fairway asks the golfer to hit it to the middle, praying it does not fall off to the right (which is death). On the left is better, but still not ideal. The fairway in total has some 80 feet of elevation change (the highest point is to the right, while the lowest point is also to the right, showing why anything right of centre is dead).
A closer look at the brilliant spine running through the fairway effortlessly put to use by the genius that is Stanley Thompson.
From the right the approach is scary.
While the middle and left is a bit more approachable.
The green complex is perched above the surroundings, with a harsh collection area short left gobbling up balls that underestimate how uphill the approach shot is or for those who feel aggressive with driver off the tee.
The subtleness of the green complex is quite welcoming, too. Even more-so after playing over the laughably good yet aggressive fairway. The hillside on the right provides a bit of movement, but it’s rather subtle once you’re on the surface.
The penultimate par 3, 8th is a wonderful downhill par 3 at 149 yards with another smart green site selection from Thompson.
The built up mounding wrapping the green complex provides a bit of a mini amphitheater acting as a bouncer for those who want to get in the club with a mediocre approach shot. Missing long causes absolute havoc and is one of the many places at Elk Island the golfer can hit it and demolish the scorecard.
A golf course as good as Elk Island deserves a finishing hole that encapsulates the brilliance of the previous holes played, and that’s what we get on the 9th. At 397 yards, this up and over tee shot provides ample room to hit driver, but yet again, the tee shot being blind might force an error. The topography here is quite severe, too.
Aside from the view from the pro shop after paying, the golfer has no warning of which side of the hole provides the best advantage coming home. Compounding with the blind tee shot, the unpredictability and the necessary act of playing twice or with a guide reminds us that golf at its core is unpredictable and fun, and over time, the best features are revealed. Golfers who play down the left will have their drive end up in a crater of sorts, providing a greater chance at getting a harder, more demanding stance.
From the right, the approach shot is a bit more gentle.
The saddle style green is diabolical, and anything above the hole can cause problems, but also provide inspiration for creativity on the approach shot.
My first time around Elk Island was in 2018, and I was certainly impressed. Truthfully, it took a while for me to understand what I was looking at after my initial play. It was a tad rugged and a bit rough around the edges, as the photos show. But like a nice, dark, aged wine, I let it sit, and I continued to think back for almost two years.
It’s true: good golf courses linger on, providing that velvety feeling in your mouth that asks you to take another sip. And, so, I did. In 2020, after playing many other acclaimed nine hole courses in Canada — such as Norfolk, Uplands, Toronto Hunt, Fort Macleod, and Kenogamisis’ Thompson nine — Elk Island was even better than I remembered, establishing itself as the best nine hole course in Canada by a wide margin.
The raw, unaltered landforms at Elk Island ask the golfer to remember they are in Northern Alberta or somewhere winding through sand dunes. Firm, fast and fun playing conditions provide a canvas for Thompson’s Elk Island that makes it a must for fans of Thompson and architecture in general when visiting Alberta.