Inspiration and heartache at the Canadian base
camp of architect Riley Johns
Words by DJ Piehowski
Light / Dark
The Banff Springs Golf Course in Alberta, Canada, will forever boast at least one loaded distinction: When its third iteration opened in 1928, it became the first-ever golf course to cost north of $1 million. Today, it’s still overlooked by an imposing, spectacular hotel that was the world’s largest when it opened in 1888. Throughout its short season, the course’s tee sheet is packed with resort guests paying more than $250 a round.
Here you’ll find Riley Johns, a young architect whose stance on the game aims to take golf in the opposite direction. But he’s been raving about this Stanley Thompson design for the months we’ve known each other and when we finally get a chance to tee it up, it’s an illogically nice afternoon in the Canadian Rockies. It’s just one day before the course will close for the winter and our group is comfortable in shorts and short sleeves while stacks of snow fencing are already lying near the subtle, slightly shaggy greens. As most of us stride happily through the back nine, taking in the mountainous scenery of the real-life postcard all around us, Johns is standing in a drainage ditch, beaming with admiration.
“This is what this guy was so good at,” he shouts from across the fairway, praising the legendary Canadian architect. “Look at this! Stanley knew he needed something for drainage here but he didn’t just bail out and build a catch basin. He made it part of the strategy of the hole. I love stuff like this.”
He really does. This is what it’s like to hang out with Johns over three days in Alberta. It’s a trip full of stories and trivia and short hikes through the woods to see depressions in the ground he claims are abandoned Donald Ross bunkers. As a golf nut, it’s a guided tour I should have had to pay for. He points out things I never would have noticed on my own. And that’s kind of the double-edged sword: Johns can open your eyes, but you may not always like what you see. Today, Banff Springs serves as an example of what the modern golf business can do to golden-age design. When you stop to think about what seemingly small things like driving ranges and restaurants do to architectural intent, it can become a depressing walk.
Nobody knows how much they don’t know. It’s a frustrating, ever-present reality of humanity. But golfers can often take accidental pride in that ignorance. Their passion is their curse. Outside of putting surfaces being fast or slow, most of us can’t tell you why a course was particularly good or bad. More often than not, the quality of a hole is judged by the score on the card. Architects spend hours, days and months agonizing over the grade of a fairway or the strategic placement of a bunker, only to have most players breeze by without giving it a thought unless they find themselves in it. You can’t fault them. For many, golf is an escape. It’s recess. But for Johns and a growing group of young architects, it’s history, art, science and an after-school community program all rolled into one. When he starts talking about golf, rattling off courses, stats, names and dates off the top of his head, he sounds like he’s regurgitating a textbook. That’s because he often is.
“Riley is one of the most talented people in the golf industry,” says Rob Collins, the co-owner of King-Collins Golf and the mastermind behind Sweetens Cove in Tennessee. “He also just happens to be one of the funniest and most entertaining people I’ve ever met.”
Whether it’s through shaping, design or illustration, Johns has had a hand in creating many of the most critically acclaimed golf holes of the past 10 years. He was the winner of a prized internship from Tom Doak (past winners include Gil Hanse and Mike DeVries) and he also won the 2014 Lido Prize for design from the Alister MacKenzie Society.
“Golf wins when you enter into a collaborative venture with someone like Riley,” says Keith Rhebb, another fellow architect, who originally hired Johns to help finish Cabot Cliffs for Coore & Crenshaw. The two eventually would go on to complete their first solo design together. “He just gets energized by all the possibilities.”
Johns’ wealth of knowledge, which he picked up from reading everything under the sun and serving as a mentee to Doak, Bill Coore and Rod Whitman, makes you realize how much there is to learn about the game. And it’s what makes it so hard for him to ignore the imperfections—big and small—that run counter to the integrity of the game he loves.
In 1911, the same year that inaugural tee shots were struck at Interlachen and the National Golf Links of America, a nine-hole course opened in the newly tamed wilderness of Banff. Financed by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the original nine holes were designed and built by Bill Thomson, a Scot who apprenticed under Old Tom Morris. The course was part of an aggressive expansion of the already ambitious hotel property and a response to the growing demand for golf among North American travelers. Much of the initial design simply required chopping down some native grasses in the montane valley and digging out a few cross bunkers. To get the course opened quickly, sand was brought in from the banks of the Spray River and packed into square “greens.” After breaking ground in the spring, the course officially opened on July 15, 1911.
As the Banff area grew in popularity among nature-seeking travelers and the hunger for golf swelled, ownership decided to expand to a full 18 holes. Like many far-flung destinations, they looked to pull in tourists with name recognition and hired Donald Ross to complete the design. James Bernard Harkin, the head of Dominion Parks Branch (the precursor to Parks Canada), made his ambition clear in a 1919 open letter to the locals: “I am advised that in the United States, expert golfers will travel thousands of miles to reach a course which they know has been laid out by this man.”
Despite finalizing a plan to complete the remaining nine holes and overhaul the existing course, the Ross renovation dragged on through the early part of the 1920s. Staff found it difficult to grow grass properly in the harsh mountain climate, despite levelheaded solutions like re-irrigation and more desperate ideas like using buffalo chips as the primary fertilizer. The Ross course was finally unveiled in 1924; to make up for lost time, the Dominion Parks Branch went on a marketing blitz for its new, big-name golf course. In addition to traditional advertising, they also ran promotions like Banff Indian Days, when golfers could play against members of the local Stoney tribe. In these “the taming of the West” pantomimes, golfers would use their clubs while the Stoney would use their bows and arrows.
Riley Johns has been everywhere, but he’s never had a reason to leave his hometown of Canmore, Alberta, for good. The small, picturesque mountain town sits 20 minutes southeast of its touristy neighbor, Banff. As quaint as it seems to an outsider, the influence of other glitzy resort towns around the world is evident everywhere, especially on Main Street, where the local grocery store Johns visited as a kid now sells trendy lodge furniture. During my visit, the town’s littered with local election signs. I ask Johns about the main issues on voters’ minds.
“Tourism,” he says quickly. “We have to decide what it is we want this place to be. Everything’s getting so expensive that it’s pricing out all the people who have been here forever.” Like most of our conversations, this comment leads us back to golf.
Johns was never supposed to be in the game. It’s a perfect Canadian cliché, but he was supposed to be a hockey player. Today he’s still got the build of someone who split his younger days between an ice rink and a surf break. He’s got hockey strength off the tee, coupled with the short-game creativity that comes with shaping green complexes for a living.
It’s easy to be envious of a childhood in Canmore in the early ’90s.
“I mean, look around at this place,” Johns says, motioning to the expansive, gorgeous wilderness that seems to go on forever. “This was our playground. We could just disappear for days out there.”
There are tales of “borrowing” supplies from construction sites to build mammoth tree houses deep in the woods. There were days that included skipping school to go to the “driving range”—an elevated, makeshift tee box where Johns and his friends would pump balls into the crystal-clear lake. As they grew older, he and his friends hosted cave parties—annual events that were part wilderness retreat, part generator-powered Lollapalooza.
Throughout his childhood, Johns’ parents stressed the importance of travel and getting outside of his comfort zone. The creativity of his upbringing lent itself to filmmaking. After high school, he had a partial scholarship offer to attend film school in Vancouver. After laboring over the decision, Johns came to the conclusion many teenagers and their parents aren’t wise enough to embrace: He wasn’t ready for college. He was itching to do more. To see more of the world. Really, to be anywhere but a classroom.
After graduation, he packed up and bought a plane ticket to Asia. As he was growing up, the local Canmore economy was driven mainly by seasonal work (golf courses in the summer, ski resorts in the winter), so the sporadic schedule wasn’t much of an adjustment. After he jumped on his first bulldozer, at 18 years old, he discovered his passion for shaping golf holes. He spent his summers working golf construction projects all over the world, saving as much money as he could and spending large chunks of the rest of the year traveling the globe, surfing and reading. He toured South America, Nepal, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. In Central America, he bought a van and drove around aimlessly, looking for an empty beach in front of a good surf break where he could spend a night or a week or a month.
“I would just kind of get lost in these countries,” he says. “I wanted the full experience and was just…having a time.
It was all about trying to find that perfect place to string your hammock up and chill out for two months to just read books and surf.”
Johns’ golf in those days was mostly contained to his summer jobs. On the beaches, he would typically read dense nonfiction about history’s most colorful characters.
“I almost think that should be a prerequisite before anyone goes to school,” he says of the six-plus years he spent traveling before eventually enrolling in college and studying golf course architecture full time.
“By the time I got to school, I was ready to learn. It’s not like I was going to my first party or having my first beer,” he tells me. “I wasn’t skipping class because I wasn’t interested in what I was studying. I was there for a specific reason and I had all that wildness of my youth out of my system so I could focus on what I was really there for—more importantly, what I was paying for.”
Today, Johns seems to have those youthful itches out of his system; he married a member of the Molson family (oh, Canada) and is enjoying life with a mortgage and a young son. But his Canmore friends seem to have some youth left in the tank. During my visit, I’m invited to play in the group’s annual golf ritual, The Broken Club Classic. Why is it called The Broken Club Classic?
“I broke a club one year,” Johns says sheepishly. “It’s really not all that clever of a name.”
The event rotates to a different course each year, partly for variety and partly because the group is not always invited back. When our rented school bus pulls into the parking lot of the nine-hole, bunkerless golf course, the group’s de facto leader urges the 30-plus participants to at least try to hide the alcohol they’re sneaking onto the property.
“Everyone just remember to be respectful,” he shouts. “Buy a beer or two out there. We might need to come back here next year.”
The format is a two-man scramble with the added wrinkle of unlimited “shotgun mulligans.” (This means teams get an endless supply of mulligans, provided they shotgun a beer before each one.)
“There’s actually a lot of strategy involved,” says one Broken Clubber. “I mean, you can help your score on that hole, but you do it too much and you risk not being able to make contact on the last few holes.”
While my partner and I can’t seem to get anything going—a potential mismanagement of shotgun mulligans—Johns and his partner shoot out of the gate. Team Riley birdies five of the first six holes and it’s clear we’re on the cusp of something special. Johns and his partner eventually land in the first playoff in the event’s nine-year history. The nerves and enormity of the moment are snapped when, on our drive back to the first tee, we pass three players who look strikingly like the Hanson brothers from Slapshot, sitting in their carts on top of a hill comparing Jack Nicholson impressions by simply saying the actor’s name over and over to each other. I look to my cart partner for an explanation.
“They’re all fucked up on acid,” he says plainly.
With the rest of the tournament’s participants following, cheering, booing and drinking in the fairway, Johns and his partner halve the first hole of the historic playoff. Ultimately they go on to lose in an unprecedented chip-off with unorthodox (made-up) rules.
“I’m like the Greg Norman of this thing,” Johns says. “This is the third time I’ve finished second. I just can’t get it done!”
The entire crew piles back into the bus and rides back to the awards ceremony. The pub where they host the awards dinner is the same one where Leonardo DiCaprio would frequently hang out while in Canmore to shoot The Revenant in the same wilderness where Johns and The Broken Clubbers built their tree forts. After the trophy is presented and The Broken Club blazers are passed down to the winners, the dinner conversation turns to golf and the previous day’s round at Banff Springs.
“That place sucks,” one of the participants says bluntly. Surprised, I ask what he doesn’t enjoy about it.
“It’s just flat and boring,” he says. “You need to go see some of the other courses in the area. The conditioning is way better and they’re way more interesting.”
I glance over at Riley, expecting him to jump in from the top rope with a big reaction—a call to arms for the benefits of naturalness in a golf course, an impassioned case for subtle strategy over the cheap thrills of elevation change. But it’s clear he’s had—and lost—this argument before, and not just in Canmore. His tired look tells me everything I need to know. Even his friends don’t know what they don’t know.
When the 18-hole Donald Ross layout finally opened in 1924, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was challenged by its competitor, the Canadian National Railway, which had commissioned famed Canadian architect Stanley Thompson to build a course in Jasper, some 170 miles to the northwest. When ground was broken for the Jasper course in 1924, it kicked off a tourism arms race with Banff and Jasper competing to fill their hotels with lucrative golf travelers.
When the Jasper Park Golf Course opened and reports trickled out about the course’s incredible views and strategic design, the CPR reacquired Banff Springs in an effort to fully realize the golf potential of the site. The first step, they thought, was to add a topdressing of soil and new water piping to fix the grow-in problems of the Ross course. The new ownership soon found out this project alone would cost more than $25,000. Instead, the CPR approached Thompson in an attempt to beat Jasper at its own game. E.J. Hart’s book on the Banff centennial, The Battle for Banff, describes Thompson “walking the grounds for several weeks with nothing but a hatchet and his cane” before sharing with the CPR how much the land inspired him. In his mind, simply redressing the Ross course with topsoil wouldn’t do the place justice. The railway trusted his vision and committed to building the third iteration of Banff Springs, and work began at the end of 1927.
Here’s how Thompson’s feelings were summed up in an October 1927 issue of Canadian Golfer: “When asked as to whether the Banff course would be his best, Mr. Thompson said he had been commissioned to build the last word in golf courses. Whether it would be his best work, the public would be the judge….When asked what the course would cost, Mr. Thompson gave no figure other than it cost money to work with rock.”
That wasn’t the only thing that cost significant money. Railcar after railcar filled with topsoil and manure were brought into Banff Springs from faraway prairies in order to build up more than two feet of new turf. More than “200 men were put to work clearing, blasting and sculpting,” according to Hart, who reported there came a time when construction ran sharply over budget and was nowhere near completion. That’s when the CEO of the CPR, William Cornelius Van Horne, paid a personal visit to Banff Springs to “either shut the whole project down or to fire Thompson.”
When Van Horne arrived, Thompson urged him not to react to anything until he had a chance to tour the property. Legend has it that Thompson took him down to the Devil’s Cauldron, a punchbowl par 3 over a glacial lake that would eventually become one of the most famous holes in Canada. According to Hart, the pair returned three hours later, “walking back to the construction campground with their arms around each other, laughing and smoking cigars.”
Thompson had convinced Van Horne to look beyond the balance sheet, and after the conversation, he had the additional funding to complete his golf course.
The third, and by far most expensive, version of Banff Springs opened in 1928. It cost $3 per round and players were handed a scorecard on the first tee with the course’s new slogan, “Golf on the Roof of the World.”
The genius of the design was in its wild, strategic bunkering and Thompson’s spectacular routing. Despite being nestled high in the Canadian Rockies, Banff Springs played more like a nine-out, nine-in Scottish links. (This was not a huge coincidence: Two of its architects, Thomson and Ross, were born in Scotland, while Thompson spent his post–World War I days on a golf tour of the British Isles.) Golfers could carry their clubs through the immaculate lobby of the Banff Springs Hotel and walk directly out onto the first tee, where they were greeted with a bombs-away opening tee shot that played more than 70 feet downhill. Players would play their round away from the hotel and into the wilderness, starting their dramatic turn back to the clubhouse when they reached the Devil’s Cauldron. Players would slowly make their way toward the faraway hotel, which would grow in size with each step taken toward the home hole. When they finally reached 18, players would finish in the hotel’s imposing shadow while taking in the beauty of nearby Bow Falls.
When National Golf Review released its rankings of the world’s 100 greatest golf courses in 1938, Banff Springs landed at No. 8, just ahead of Royal Melbourne (No. 9), Augusta National (No. 11) and Oakmont (No. 13). Most importantly, it was 28 spots ahead of Jasper Park.
To get an idea of Riley Johns’ philosophy on golf design, look no further than the office he keeps. There is no sign on the door to mark the international headquarters of his design company, Integrative Golf, which has done shaping, design and construction work for some of the game’s most famous designers. Instead, you climb a nondescript staircase and find a heavy, plain door that opens into a part living room, part den that sits one story above Canmore. The office is only as big as it needs to be; it’s scenic and homey and it definitely promotes creativity. It’s everything Johns strives for his golf courses to be.
There’s a drafting table covered in hand-drawn plans that sits adjacent to a picture window that overlooks Main Street. At once, it’s a picture of modern efficiency and a tribute to his hometown. Johns walks to work on the streets where he grew up and spends his days bidding on projects with and against giants of the golf industry. In the corner of the room is a small, comfortable leather sofa perfect for having your cake and eating it too.
“I’ve got these concrete walls in here and all the neighbors are really cool, so I can just sit in here and blare Tool albums while I work,” he says with a laugh. We commiserate about the band’s cryptic schedule for the release of their next album. “Who knows with those guys?”
Opportunities to talk about Tool with a member of the golf industry are few and very far between, and this shows the ease with which Johns slides in and out of any conversation; he’s just as comfortable talking about the ambiance at six-figure private clubs as he is making fart jokes with his high school friends.
On one office wall hangs a beautiful canvas with a Riley Johns original drawing of the routings of Cabot Cliffs and Cabot Links, the seaside Nova Scotian resort that he helped shape into 36 critically acclaimed golf holes. On the opposite wall is the drafting table with scattered drawings of dreamlike coastal golf holes with Cypress Point–style bunkering. They are Johns’ winning submissions for the 2014 Lido Prize. The beautiful leather carry bag that Johns was given as part of his win is easily the flashiest thing he carries with him on the golf course.
On the wall above the drawings is another canvas of his, showing nine holes winding through a small downtown. As a former Orlando resident, I recognize it as the Winter Park 9, the municipal course Johns renovated with Keith Rhebb in 2016. The project was the duo’s first big solo design-build work; typically they had been subcontractors for big-name architects like Coore & Crenshaw and Tom Doak. Armed with a budget of $1.2 million and a single bulldozer, the project finished weeks ahead of schedule and well under budget. Instead of keeping the savings, Johns and Rhebb rolled the money into a community putting course that’s free to play.
“The Winter Park Golf Course renovation was as fun as I had hoped going into it,” Rhebb says. “I took on more of the project-management responsibilities so that Riley could stay creative on the ground. To keep the project moving forward, we tried to remain as flexible as we could with real-time decisions.”
With just 2,400 yards, Johns and Rhebb earned more plaudits from the wider golf industry, putting a premium on strategy and shot-making rarely seen in municipal golf. They did it by employing golden-age principles of architects like Thompson while bucking most of the costly trends that have turned off so many players.
“Standing on the first tee at Winter Park for the first time and looking at the scorecard, the possibility of a round in the 20s crossed my mind,” says Andy Johnson, a golf course architecture expert (and The Golfer’s Journal contributor). “They just beg the long hitter to play aggressively, but as soon as you miss on that aggressive play, you’re struggling to try to save par.”
Johns and Rhebb are part of a growing group of talented young architects and shapers starting to upend a system that many believe has left golf in its own version of the Dark Ages. They are a like-minded tribe moving toward a trend of design-build that makes projects like the Winter Park 9 possible and economically feasible.
“The concept of design-build really picked up steam with Coore & Crenshaw and Tom Doak’s work since the early ’90s,” says fellow architect Rob Collins. “New practitioners are beginning to utilize that style and method as a way of maintaining artistic control over projects. They can typically also deliver a finished product below market cost.”
Design-build typically allows architects to take advantage of their construction backgrounds to keep projects moving forward. Instead of getting paralyzed by roadblocks in the field that require set-in-stone plans to get passed for costly revisions between builders and contractors and management and more, a design-build architect is in the field himself, riding a bulldozer and making changes on the fly.
“The concept is just out of the comfort zone for a lot of people in the industry,” Collins says. “But if you look at the best golf courses that have been built in the last 25 years or so, most have been built using design-build.”
Plenty of people at legacy organizations have lined their pockets over the years by making golf and golf design more expensive and more difficult. As is often the case when an industry gets disrupted, these organizations typically don’t have a high opinion of this new generation. Where young talent sees opportunities to limit wasted time and resources in the design process, these organizations see cut corners and squeezed-out specializations. But Johns points out that the process is no different than efficiencies introduced in every other industry. If you’re not able to figure out how to do more with less, especially today, someone else will. There aren’t many financiers left in golf with pockets as deep as the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The 10th hole at Banff Springs, or at least what is now the 10th hole, is a strategic par 3 that plays out toward a wild bunker complex and a subtle green. There’s a legend looming behind the green that does a good job of summing up the feelings of many on what’s happened to the golf course.
A few years ago, there was a minor rock slide behind the 10th green. It left a peculiar white scarring on the side of the hill that comes into perfect view as you stand over your tee shot. It’s a bit of a Rorschach test, but many people seem to see a figure in a traditional white suit that looks a lot like the one Stanley Thompson was famous for wearing. When I looked up at it, I saw the figure holding up its hands and saying something like, “Guys…what the hell happened?”
Had I walked around Banff Springs by myself, I still would have had a fantastic time. The weather was great; the golf holes and the company were fun. But Riley Johns has a way of helping you see how much better something could be. And once you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to ignore.
Banff Springs wasn’t immune to the dark ages of the golf industry. In the 1980s, in an effort to keep up with seemingly important trends in golf, the owners had the familiar need to make room for things like a driving range and a new restaurant. To accomplish the goal, they changed the routing and added a new clubhouse far away from the intimacy and grandeur of the hotel. The club calls the new circular clubhouse “the perfect fusion of tradition and design.” In reality, it looks like a spaceship crashed in the middle of a picturesque valley with an intergalactic mission to serve draft beer and club sandwiches.
Instead of traveling out through the woods and back toward the rising hotel, players now start unceremoniously on a nondescript par 4 with mounding that even I can tell wasn’t supposed to be there. The Devil’s Cauldron plays as the fourth hole and the original starting hole plays as the 15th after a long, annoying walk or cart ride from the former home hole that disrupts the flow of the round.
The bunkering, which was once wild, natural, ragged and groundbreaking, has now been edged into oblivion. It’s a product of what many lament as the “Augustafication” so many golf courses have gone through over the past 50 years. Golfers don’t always know what they don’t know, but they definitely know what they see on TV. And that’s what they want.In a handful of the expansive, creative bunkers, there are mini islands of turf that once served as overgrown tricks of perspective, meant to confuse players about where the hazard began and ended. They have since had their tops chopped off and their sides edged, leaving confusing little geometric flying saucers taking up space. These unnatural discs bring to mind a dejected teenager whose parents finally made him get a haircut.
Arriving at Banff Springs, you’re blown away by everything that exists in front of you. It’s tough to believe in today’s world that such a beautiful location is reserved for golf. But if you’re lucky enough to have the right tour guide, you realize there’s so much more just under the surface and it’s tough not to be greedy for it.
While these things are impossible to ignore for people like Johns—people who can see the architect’s intent oozing out of each tee box and false front—it’s so easy and understandable for the average golfer to cruise past them and still get plenty of enjoyment out of their $250. They take photos at the Devil’s Cauldron and recap their rounds over cold pints in the weird-ass clubhouse.
It’s easy to clamor for a proper restoration—to claim that the course should bring back the intent and execution that took three architects to finally create. But how can you justify turning away a full tee sheet of paying customers? Whose place is it to tell them they aren’t enjoying something properly?
It would take Riley Johns playing the role of Stanley Thompson. He’d have to grab each visitor when they arrived and take them on a three-hour hike through the woods, reminding them that there’s more to the game than balance sheets. When they got to the Devil’s Cauldron, he’d have to light a cigar and explain the course’s true vision.