“My most vivid memory of Capilano is my very first visit,” four-time Canadian Amateur champion Doug Roxburgh reminisced. “I was 14 years old and caddying in a tournament for my instructor, Jack Westover, and the game was at Capilano. It was a dreary day, and as we drove up toward the course, the clouds got lower and lower – and then suddenly, there to the right, was the course. When I came off Capilano that day, I could remember every hole. It was the first Stanley Thompson course I’d ever seen. I came back the following year to play in the British Columbia Junior Boy’s Championship – it was a real luxury for us boys to play such a course. I’ve played many events there since, including the BC Amateur and on the Canadian team in the World Amateurs. The scenery – especially on a clear day – is just spectacular. And any day, it’s the kind of course that challenges you to use every club in the bag, from every possible lie – uphill, downhill and sidehill.”
Capilano clings to the southern face of Hollyburn Mountain in West Vancouver, across the Burrard Inlet from Vancouver proper. (‘Capilano,’ incidentally, is the anglicized form of a name held by First Nations men of mixed Squamish and Musqueam heritage; the course is just west of the Capilano River.) Players teeing off on the glorious par-4 sixth will note that the hole’s trajectory aligns smartly with Lion’s Gate Bridge (more on number six later). The realization of Capilano was closely connected to the completion of the bridge. A shrewd entrepreneur named A.J.T. Taylor – well-connected both in Vancouver and England – was able to negotiate very favorable terms for the purchase of 6,000 acres of West Vancouver property (including 160 acres for a golf course) for a group of investors that included the Guinness family (of stout brewing fame). To make these homesites – and the golf course he had long imagined – a feasible suburban retreat, he needed a bridge to the city. Through diligent arm-twisting, Taylor eventually got the bridge signed off on by the Canadian Prime Minister. What was then the world’s second largest suspension bridge (the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest) officially opened in 1939, the same year that Capilano’s grand clubhouse opened its doors. (Play had begun on the course in 1937.)
Taylor had not waited for approval of the bridge project before laying plans for the golf course that he hoped would draw well-heeled home buyers across Burrard Inlet. In 1931, he hired Stanley Thompson to wrest a course from the heavily forested mountainside above Vancouver; Thompson accepted the assignment before ever seeing the site. (Upon visiting West Vancouver the following winter, Thompson was quite satisfied with what Mother Nature had given him to work with, and recognized that Capilano had potential to perhaps be the finest work of his career.) Known as the “Toronto Terror” – perhaps because of his proclivity for alcohol, perhaps for his competitive nature on the golf course – Thompson made periodic visits west from his offices in New York, returning east to create plasticene molds of the holes he envisioned.
Drama seemed to follow Thompson, and one visit to Capilano shortly before the course would open, a small design tweak earned him the attention of the West Vancouver police. The story goes that Thompson looked down the first fairway and declared that some trees to the left of the hole were blocking a view of Burrard Inlet and the Vancouver skyline. When told that the trees were not on golf course property, Thompson instructed his crew to remove them, nonetheless. A local constabulary soon caught up with Thompson at the course, and informed the architect that he would have to come down to the station to explain himself. Thompson acquiesced, but before going, asked the policeman to accompany him to the clubhouse site at the top of the property. Once there, he pointed down the first fairway and is said to have exclaimed, “Isn’t this the most glorious view you’ve ever seen in your life? If we didn’t cut those trees, you would never have been able to see this view.” The officer acknowledged that it was a fantastic view and left Thompson to his devices – though not before imploring him not to cut down any more trees that were not on club property.
The first hole at Capilano not only sets the stage for the rest of the day, but encapsulates some of the qualities that make the course stand out. A short par-5 (for members) and a longer par-4 four tourney players, the 448 yard 1st plays sharply downhill, and offers the aforementioned view of Vancouver; it’s fittingly named Hathstauwk, Squamish for beautiful view. Those hitting even a moderately long drive have a great chance to reach the green in two, but they’ll want to beware of – and marvel at – the handsome Thompson bunkers that flank the large green. These characteristics – the vistas, the use of the steep terrain (there’s a variance of nearly 500 feet from the high point on the course to the low point) and Thompson’s elegant bunkering (designed to reprimand poor or risky shots but save players, as often as possible, from the more punitive rebuke of lost balls) all make Capilano shine.
Most Capilano regulars agree that the first five holes are the time to score; the layout builds in nuance and complexity from here. The 399-yard sixth hole, “Lions Gate,” trumps the first in terms of Vancouver views. The seemingly straightforward downhill par 4 has statistically proven to be one of the course’s most difficult holes, thanks in large part to greenside bunkers that have an insatiable appetite for Pro V1s. The par 3s are each a treat. “Lily Pond” (4th) and “Wishing Well” (11th) both play over water hazards so elegantly wrought that you almost want to drop your ball in. The ninth, “Bunker Hill,” plays 181 yards uphill, with elegant Thompson bunkers right and short to catch tentative shots. Number 14, “Portal” actually plays over the driveway to Capilano – though don’t let this idiosyncrasy give you pause; the delicate green, and expansive views back down number thirteen will help you block out any traffic distractions. Number 16, “Hadden Hall” (named for the first structure, a home, that graced the site) is 245 yards – but the large green with an unobstructed front urges you to swing away, and encourages run-up shots.
As Hathstauwk perfectly sets the tone for a round at Capilano, the par-5 18th – Whamultchasum – provides a fitting close. At 556 yards and steadily uphill – with a blind second shot, and potentially a blind third to a raised green guarded by ominous bunkers at its base — this is a three-shot hole for just about everyone. Capilano’s regal Tudor clubhouse rests to the right of the putting surface, reminder that there will soon be an opportunity to toast one of the finest outings Canadian golf has to offer.
Doug Roxburgh is director of high performance player development for the Royal Canadian Golf Association. A member of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, Doug has won the Canadian Amateur Championship four times and the British Columbia Amateur Championship 13 times. He has represented Canada a dozen times in international play, and is an enthusiastic supporter of junior golf.
If You Go
Getting There: Capilano is roughly 20 minutes from downtown Vancouver, across the Lion’s Gate Bridge in West Vancouver.
Course Information: Capilano Golf Club (604-925-4653; www.capilanogolf.com) plays 6,495 yards to a par 72 ; it has a slope rating of 125. The private club is rumored to have one of Canada’s longest waiting lists for membership.
Accommodations: Vancouver is a delightful city where British and Asian influences rub up alongside each other against the backdrop of mountains and sea. The Greater Vancouver Visitors and Convention Bureau (www.tourismvancouver.com) lists the city’s broad array of lodging options.
(From Fifty More Places To Play Golf Before You Die)