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The Northern golf tour

The Northern golf tour

Desert courses, tundra greens and raven hazards—if you thought you couldn't putt North of 60, you were wrong. The sport's just a little more rugged up here.
By Daniel Campbell, Katie Weaver
Jul 02
2015
From the July 2015 Issue

So, you call yourself a golfer, huh? Ever bounced a ball into the hole off an old mine boiler? Ever miss a shot and watch your neon-pink ball sink into the frigid Arctic Ocean like it’s one of Franklin’s ships? Ever line up a hole-in-one, only to have your ball snatched from the air by a wily raven? The hazards of these courses are no tame, little sand-traps, but are as untamed as the land they’re carved into. (Oh, we have sand-traps, too. They just make up entire courses.) So grab your golf clubs, and a considerable handful of cash for airfare, and check out the wildest golf courses Canada has to offer. You bring the beers—we’ll provide the bears.

Dawson City Golf Course - Dawson City, Yukon

The course: Tired of the same old trees and bush at your local links? How about teeing off among old mine boilers and buckets from dredges strewn across the greens? Mining brought droves of people to Dawson City, and the relics of that bygone age attract golfers to the Dawson City Golf Course. To reach the course from the city, you need to cross the Yukon River and you can reach it by taking the George Black Ferry or boating yourself to the ninth hole. (Or be as stylish as you want, really—one of their members has been known to arrive via helicopter.) 

The hazards: Paul Robitaille, president of the Dawson Golf Association, says the holes start off easy but get harder and harder. “The top portion of our course is quite flat and straightforward and offers the opportunity to keep your scores low. But once you head to our bottom section, there are way more opportunities to lose balls and put yourself in very difficult spots,” he says. Not only that, but the mining equipment on the greens does sometimes prove to get in the way. Don’t worry, you will receive relief if you drive your ball into a giant metal boiler.

The hole: Although the scorecard declares Hole 9 the hardest, the golf club’s members believe it’s actually Hole  7. Golfers have to cross a ditch and a creek, all while headed steeply uphill. “Most of our members accept bogey as a good score on that one,” says Robitaille.

Hang tight: Success at this course does not come easy. “You need to have a good start on our course and pad your score, ‘cause the bottom section will get you. In Dawson, our out-of-bounds goes for thousands of kilometres,” says Robitaille. “Lots of ways to lose balls. Resolve helps.”

Annie Lake Golf Course - Mt. Lorne, Yukon

The course: While the Second World War tore apart Europe, it built a golf course near Whitehorse. American soldiers constructed the course while they were in the Yukon hooking Alaska up to the continental road system via the Alaska Highway. Over time, it’s been revamped and expanded, and it’s just had new markers, flags and benches put in. But don’t start thinking the course is too cushy. Local volunteer Agnes Seitz reminds golfers that “you’re not playing on a perfect lawn.” She describes it as a wilderness golf course with natural meadows—and gopher holes.

The hazards: There is no shame (or penalty) in losing a ball forever down one of the course’s many gopher holes. 

The hole: The par-four 16th has two routes to play to the sand green from the tee. Route one is 176 yards. In the safer, more popular route, you hit around an intervening bank of trees that hide the green and  flag. Route two is for the daredevils: at 132 yards, you can hit a blind shot and go right over the stand of trees. Local golf enthusiast Mike Mason says it can be pretty rewarding if you make the green in one shot. Annie Lake golfers often place a good ol’ fashioned wager on who can put it closest to the pin.

Scotland in the Yukon: Mike Mason is a fan of the crocuses that grow in the middle of nearly every fairway of the course. Why? “Not something you’d ever see on most fairways in the world,” he says. The crocuses show that the Annie Lake course can be considered “pasture golf”: basically, un-manicured and natural. “In many ways it harkens back to the roots of the game from long-ago Scotland, where golf was born,” Mason says.

Faro Golf Course - Faro, Yukon

The course: To call Faro a “golfing town” might not paint a full enough picture. You see, the town itself is a golf course. Faro’s nine holes wind through the town, with some holes by the school and others by homes. There is also a driving range and a rental shack with clubs, carts, balls, tees and anything else one might need to tee off in the small town. Volunteers take care of the course—because if the course is in shape, so is Faro. And if you like to reward yourself with a sip of beer after your tee-off, don’t fret—public drinking is legal in Faro. 

The hazards: Think of all the things you might find in your town. Now, imagine golfing through them. You could hit electrical lines, fences, buildings, you have to cross roads—it’s important to keep your eyes peeled and your shots accurate.

The hole: The toughest shot in Faro—250 yards, par 4—lies among homes and backyards, courses uphill and features a natural swamp. And it’s only Hole 2.

We can hear the bells: The course is such a central part of the town that Hole 5 held a wedding on it in 2009, with the hole’s fairway acting as the aisle. The reception occurred on the course, too, with booze and all. Faro allows open alcoholic beverages, so don’t worry: even though the course is outside in the middle of a town, you can still crack that beer. 

Yellowknife Golf Club - Yellowknife, NWT

The course: Yellowknife’s 18-hole course offers all the accoutrements of southern clubs: power carts, a driving range, club rentals and a stocked clubhouse with food and beverages. But things start looking really different when you head out in search of the greens. Yellowknife’s fairways are made of sand, not grass, the roughs are sparsely treed taiga and the greens are artificial. In order to play off the sand, golfers have to carry around small mats of simulated grass to hit their balls from throughout the game. The transition from grass to sand was an interesting one for Matt Gray, the club’s general manager and head pro who hails from New Zealand. “They said it was a sand-based golf course. They didn’t quite tell me that it was a full-sand golf course.” But after spending nearly six years in the Northern capital, he’s grown to appreciate the dusty fairways. “It’s still golf, it’s just a different form of golf.”

The hazards: The hazards in Yellowknife are fairly standard for most golf courses: there are water hazards, swamps, trees, bushes and even bunkers. (Even though most of the fairways are sand, yes there are still bunkers—you’re just not allowed to place your mat down in them). 

The hole: The fifth hole of this course is the second-longest par 4 of the course and it’s a doozy. With a dog leg left around trees and trees and hazard running along the right-hand side, it’ll take a good tee-shot to cut the corner. Once you round the bend, the green is the next challenge. With three tiers and undulating ground, you’ll be hard-pressed to hold the green on your approach shot. Putting won’t come easy either. 

Fore! Being surrounded by wilderness, you’d think the biggest things Yellowknife golfers would have to worry about would be wildlife and mosquitoes. Not so. The course, situated right below the Yellowknife Airport, was victim to two unlikely aeronautical accidents in as many days. On June 18, 2004 an AIM-7 Sparrow missile detached from a CF-18 fighter jet preparing to land in Yellowknife and crashed through the golf course’s driving range net. Military members in SUVs swarmed the site and evacuated the club. The missile, which was unarmed and safe (according to military spokespeople) was detonated on the course, scattering metal debris around the site. The very next day, another CF-18 pilot was attempting to land on the runway and was forced to eject. His jet slid off the runway and the golfers were forced to evacuate yet again. According to media reports at the time, the military’s investigative team offered to have a plaque made that read “To the Yellowknife Golf Club … thanks for letting us play through.” 

Roads End Golf Club - Inuvik, NWT

The course: This is one of the few places north of the Arctic Circle where golfers can play on actual grass. The aptly named “Roads End” course is at the current end of the Dempster Highway. Though it only has three holes, the three separate tee-off points at each hole means golfers can play a full nine smack-dab in the middle of the Mackenzie Delta.

This little course has its own clubhouse, artificial greens and a driving range, which makes it a popular attraction for golfers across the Beaufort region. But while the fairways may be grass, the rough is really rough—it’s basically willow bushes and long grass. “There really is no rough,” says Conrad Baetz, who runs the course. “You’re either on the course, or if your ball is off you just go get a new ball … It’s a ball eater, there’s no doubt about that.” 

The hazards: “We have challenges with ravens,” says Baetz. “Even on our driving range we go through a significant amount of balls. I recall one night, a couple of years ago, where [if I had a camera] I could have had—in a single frame—four or five ravens each with a golf ball in their mouth, taking off from the driving range.” Luckily, players won’t be penalized if that happens during their round. As for other wildlife, Baetz says the course is located near the town’s dump, so golfers should be bear aware.

The hole: Hole 3 is a par 3 where golfers tee off from a high elevation over top of a pond. “And there’s no ifs, ands, or buts: you either gotta clear the pond or you don’t,” Baetz says. Once you get on the green, things don’t get any easier either. “It’s got quite a crown on it.”

Making green spaces: Visitors to Inuvik might be surprised as they crest the hill into town from the airport—the bright green fairways of this course contrast with the dark, rugged boreal forest of the Delta. But the space wasn’t always like this.

The course was built on top of an abandoned gravel pit and slowly seeded over the years to become what it is today. And the course will be expanding this summer as well. Volunteers are adding three new holes, which could be ready for duffers as early as this August, if the grass grows in quick enough (that takes a while up here). 

The Holman Golf Course - Ulukhaktok, NWT

The course: It’s proudly the most Northern 9-hole golf course in the world. Though it’s not the only club on Victoria Island (see next course), its artificial greens, designated tee-off markers, ball-washers, towels and course layout signs make the Holman Golf Course about as professional as you can get on the tundra.

“There’s some pretty cool views up there,” says Matt Gray, a club pro in Yellowknife who tried the course out a few years ago. “It was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had golfing.” Instead of carrying around a mat to hit off like in Yellowknife, players must find patches of moss to hit from. And the best part about playing so far up North? “We were the only two on the golf course,” Gray says of his trip. “We were the only two I could see for miles. It’s a nice change to have the whole golf course to yourself.”

The hazards: The rocks and shears mean you never know where your ball will end up. If you’re lucky enough to land on moss or sand, you should play it as it lies, but otherwise, watch for the big breaks and bounces across the tundra.
There’s also plenty of ravens and seagulls ready to carry your ball away. 

The hole: The final hole on this course is the trickiest. It’s a par-4, 244 yard run that ends on a slanted green. 

The man, the legend: Billy Joss, a Hudson’s Bay Company man who managed the Holman post back in the 1930s, brought the first set of golf clubs to the community. People used to watch him drive golf balls from the sea ice of King’s and Queen bays.

Later on, another HBC manager began making the first golf holes in Ulukhaktok, with sand greens. The community honours Joss’s memory with the annual Billy Joss Open Celebrity Golf Tournament held on the third weekend in July, where golfers (like some Edmonton Oiler alumni) are treated to char, muskox, bannock and caribou dishes, drum dances and fishing in between golf, putting and chipping competitions. 

Many Pebbles Golf Course - Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

The course: When you look out across the Many Pebbles Golf Course in Cambridge Bay, you’ll understand what local golf enthusiast George Hakongak means when he says: “It’s not like any other course.”

The boulder-strewn tundra, situated right on the Arctic Ocean, is a challenging course where you can easily lose your ball, and your wits, if you don’t keep your head in the game.

He recommends golfers bring lots of extra balls, because it’s easy to lose track of them on this landscape. But that can be avoided, since you’re likely to find a ball from some other hapless golfer, whose shot has gone awry, “if you know where to look for it.” Newcomers, though, should probably bring a ton of balls; there’s no clubhouse you can go running to when you’ve forgotten something. 

The hazards: You name it, they’ve got it—well, except for trees. The course goes over rocks and boulders, through marsh, mud, sand, water and veers dangerously close to the ocean.

There’s one hole near the bay, and when high tide rolls in, it’s easy to hit your ball into salt water and watch it float away. Not only this, but there are a ton of large rocks on this course and balls have been known to crack or break if they hit the rocks at the right speed. And that’s if you can find your ball.
An inaccurate shot can send it bouncing into any of the innumerable nooks and crannies of the tundra.

The hole: Hole 7's boulders are a challenge. The hole follows a road, which is lined with rocks. Your ball could break, or end
up gone forever in the crevices.

Hakongak says a pile of boulders five yards from the green is as big as four kitchen tables put together.

There are a series of uphill inclinations and downhill slopes, too, so keep a watchful eye of where you’re placing the ball, lest it rolls away. Finally, the greens are sand. Yup. Absolutely nothing is easy up here.

Bright balls: Hakongak recommends bringing neon-coloured balls to this course. And a lot of them. In the tundra, it can take several minutes to find your ball, and that makes for a long round. So spare yourself an hour and bring along some pink golf balls.

Coronation Golf Club - Kugluktuk, Nunavut

The course: Situated on a giant sand bar in the mouth of the Coppermine River, this 18-hole course looks out over the Coronation Gulf and the hamlet of Kugluktuk.

At 3,880 yards total, it’s one of the longest golf courses north of the Arctic Circle, but it’s low-key, with a few members from the community (who have boats) going out each year to play. The greens are made of packed sand, with drags and rakes on each hole for cleaning up after play. 

The course had its humble beginnings in the mid-1990s, says Jack Himiak, the man in charge of maintenance: “Back then one of the older guys that plays golf said they used to play across the river using homemade golf clubs—using conduit to bend it like a golf club and then hitting a ball and that’s sort of how it started. After a while we just started watching golf on TV and figured, ‘Well we might as well start a golf course.’”

The hazards: Once the snow melts away in the early summer, it takes a while for the sand bar to completely dry out. Himiak and volunteers do their best to fix up the holes and greens, but there are always puddles and grassy areas to contend with.
Some of the bushes on the sand bar are growing pretty tall too, meaning it can be tough to find your ball if it gets away from you. Don’t be surprised if you cross paths with a herd of caribou or a polar bear while playing, though Himiak says the wildlife usually makes itself scarce by early morning. 

The hole: The seventh hole of this course is challenging simply because it is the longest. It’ll take “two good drives” just to get close to the green, Himiak says.
The par five, 377-yard hole is up towards the north-eastern tip of the sand bar, facing out towards the Coronation Gulf, with some low ground behind the green. 

Golfing closer to home: Because the course is only reachable by boat, Himiak and other community members have been constructing a second 9-hole course closer to town on the mainland.

They’ve got the artificial greens, but as of late May they were still waiting for the snow to melt to install them.
Once completed, a short ATV ride from town will give community members a chance to play. Imagine that: two complete golf courses in a hamlet of 1,450.

Rankin Inlet Golf Course - Rankin Inlet, Nunavut

The course: This makeshift 9-hole course embodies the improvisational spirit of the North. “We had some issues with the course, I’m not going to lie,” says David Clark, who, at age 13 helped build the course with some of his buddies after they couldn’t find summer employment. “We tried to make the greens out of plywood and that didn’t work, and then on top of that we would find old carpet from the local dump, or go drive around town on our ATVs looking at garbage, trying to find old carpet. We found a lot of old carpet, so that’s what our greens are like, just old carpet. They seem to work okay.”

Beginning as a couple holes in the mid-1990s, the course was expanded to nine holes about 15 years ago with help from Clark, 28, who is now the recreation coordinator for the hamlet. “We watched [golf] on TV and played video games, so we kinda had a good idea of what we were doing. It’s not perfect out there, not even close, but we had so much fun doing it.” 

The teens never sought permission to build the course from the hamlet, nor had they any permits. “We were probably not supposed to … but we just did what we wanted and nobody said anything to us and people started using it, so we were happy.” And you’ll still find some Rankin Inlet residents out there, having some laughs, a few beers and hitting some balls, but Clark says he’ll only go out nowadays in late summer, or if the winds are blowing hard enough to head off the bugs. 

The hazards: About eight years ago the town built a new sand pit and the road to it goes directly through the golf course. It affects about three or four holes, so golfers will need to watch out for dump trucks on the “fairway.” Built on the tundra, there’s plenty of rocks and maybe even some caribou, though Clark says any unfortunate ungulates that wander this close to town will probably be shot. 

The hole: Hole 4 is a 300 yard par four that follows a large pond along the right side. So slice your tee shot to the right and you’ll be in the water.
 

Childhood memories: “We were kids and we used to have bonfires out there,” Clark says. “There’s a lake out there called John-John Lake and we would light golf balls on fire at night, and hit them into the water, and the next day we would go swim in and get them. It’s only a five or 10 minute drive out of town so we’d use our ATVs to get down there.”