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Yardage Book: Cleopatra

The 9th at Jasper Park Lodge. Par 3 - 231 yards

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For centuries, the name Cleopatra has been synonymous with great beauty. Her romantic liaisons and military alliances with the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony abetted her rule of ancient Egypt for almost three decades. Yet Cleopatra was no simple Roman plaything. She spoke as many as a dozen languages, and Greek philosopher Plutarch noted her “irresistible charm.” With its blend of stunning looks, intelligence and just the right amount of mystery, imparted by architect Stanley Thompson, the ninth hole at Jasper Park Lodge Golf Club is more than suitably named.

Trains a-comin’

The best golf courses in the world are generally products of the environments in which they are placed, and the story of Jasper Park Lodge Golf Club is no different. Set amongst the snow-capped, rugged peaks of the Canadian Rockies near the western border of Alberta, Canada, the course is named after the 4,335-square-mile national park in which it resides. At Jasper Park you are almost as likely to bump into an elk, bighorn sheep or bear as you are another golfer.

In addition to its natural bounty, Jasper Park is the product of a heated rivalry between resort owners, as well as of the brilliance of Stanley Thompson, both as an architect and an ever-hustling salesman. 

The golf course resides in the Athabasca River Valley. A century before the Yellowhead Highway and Icefields Parkway began transporting people from around the world into the heart of the Canadian Rockies, the Athabasca River served as the primary route for western trade. The North West Company built a supply depot on Brule Lake in 1813, a settlement that later became known as Jasper House after North West Company trading post manager Jasper Hawes. With the decline of the fur trade, Jasper House was abandoned in 1884. Canada established Jasper Forest Park in 1907, just as the Canadian Northern Railway and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway began constructing the country’s second transcontinental rail line through the reemerging hamlet. 

Originally the Canadian government’s idea to bolster tourism, railway companies were given the green light to create attractions that would bring the wealthy to the national parks. This, as would be expected, created fierce competition between the rail companies. 

Canadian Pacific Railway president William Van Horne envisioned a string of grand hotels across Canada that would draw visitors worldwide to his railway. With advertising showcasing scenic mountains and magnificent vistas, the opening of the Banff Springs Hotel in 1888 was a massive success. In 1911, in an effort to elevate its offerings, Banff Springs unveiled a nine-hole course laid out by William Thomson, a Scottish immigrant who apprenticed under Old Tom Morris at St. Andrews. 

In 1921, Parks Canada commissioned Thomson to look for a golf course site for Jasper National Park. On a family trip in 1914, famed author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) had suggested a site next to Pyramid Lake, at the foot of Pyramid Mountain. However, Thomson quickly ruled the location out, deeming it too severe for golf course construction. Instead, after scouring the area for alternatives, he settled on a site on the eastern banks of Beauvert Lake. He created a nine-hole layout, suggesting there would be room for an additional nine holes should the government wish to expand the course in the future. Parks Canada funded the construction of the course in 1922, but development was stifled due to a lack of funds. 

In 1923, the Canadian Northern Railway and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway were taken over by the Canadian government and merged into the Canadian National Railway. In 1924, the new corporation assumed ownership of the area, leasing it for one dollar from Parks Canada, and began planning for their own world-class destination resort to compete with Banff Springs. Meanwhile, that same year, the Banff Springs course was expanded to 18 holes by Donald Ross. Not to be outdone, in early 1924, Stanley Thompson, Canada’s best-known architect, was selected to be the architect for the Jasper course.

Million-dollar track

In a report to the Canadian National Railway, Thompson wrote, “The principle observed in planning the course has been that the course should be sufficiently high-class to justify itself apart altogether from the extra-ordinary setting in which the course is being placed.” Thompson visited the site in May 1924, creating a preliminary routing for a course measuring some 6,600 yards. That summer, the land was cleared utilizing 200 men and 50 teams of horses. The soil in the valley proved to be too thin, so more was sourced and shipped from Stony Plain, Alberta, some 200 miles away. A functional nine-hole routing opened first, made up of what are currently Nos. 1 through 6, 11, the practice hole and the 18th. The full 18-hole course opened in 1925. 

Beyond the horsepower and the soil shipments, the course’s construction has taken on many legends, perhaps none greater than the sustained rumor that it was built for almost 1 million Canadian dollars. Based on historical data—which is relatively easy to uncover, given that the rail company’s records are publicly available—the true cost to construct the course was just under $200,000. (With inflation, that sum today would equate to just less than $3 million.) These fabrications are not surprising, considering the name attached to the design. 

Thompson was a great salesman, and in all likelihood he perpetuated these rumors himself. He was forever on the hunt for an edge and the next big job, even claiming throughout his career that he was born in Scotland because he believed it to be good for business. (He was born in Toronto.) Like the golf courses that made him famous, Thompson was the perfect mix of quirk and genius. His protégé, Geoffrey Cornish, once described him as “a very inventive man who marched to a different drummer.” But his results cannot be denied: Both Jasper Park and Banff Springs (which he redesigned in 1928) are today considered masterpieces.

Cleopatra has no clothes

Thompson’s out-and-back routing at Jasper Park makes the most of the site. The course’s circular formation ventures out into the wilderness before turning at the farthest point and playing back toward the Athabasca River. It would be here, at the most distant point, that Thompson would craft a par-3 hole worthy of his own character.

Played from a high tee down to a perched green, the ninth hole was immediately dubbed Cleopatra. Such was the humor of Thompson: The original hole allegedly resembled a female form so provocative that it left little to the imagination. The story goes that the railroad ownership was so offended that they made Thompson change the hole immediately. Regardless, the name stuck. 

More than just a looker, Cleopatra is a 230-yard brainteaser that plays severely downhill, some 70 yards from tee to green. Thompson constructed a 6,500-square-foot green pad built up about 12 feet from the valley floor. As the green is entirely manufactured, its
cheeky contouring can give even the best putters fits.

Difficult recovery shots await those who miss left, right or long. The intimidating flanking bunkers often lure the uneducated into attempting to fly the apparent trouble and aim for the flag. However, stopping the ball with a long iron on this green is no simple trick. The green slopes predominately from front to back, similar to the slope of the surrounding terrain, so the best play is to use a right-to-left running approach to navigate the fronting bunkers and feed the ball onto the putting surface. Whichever route is chosen, a nearly flawless tee shot is imperative.

Everyone wins

Following the opening of the golf course in 1925, Jasper Park was so well received that, despite its Donald Ross facelift just a year earlier, Thompson was retained by the ownership at Banff to redesign their golf course. The result was so incredible—especially the bunkering, which was taken to a new level of naturalness—that the Canadian National Railway begged Thompson to return to Jasper Park. Thompson recognized the competition between the two railways and smartly used their rivalry to secure additional work and resources. 

In the spring of 1928, Thompson returned to Jasper Park with instructions to ensure it remained “better” than Banff Springs. In the span of just a few months, Thompson added more bunkers and utilized additional topsoil to raise the bunker faces and add islands to increase the visual drama of the overall design. 

For Cleopatra, these improvements resulted in the addition of a new forward bunker where the right mound was located, better concealing the ideal line to the hole, and a new left greenside bunker to exaggerate the angles of play. Finally, the existing front bunker was reshaped and enlarged to increase the visual impact. The upgraded hole featured nine bunkers guarding the putting surface.

Thompson’s work was nearing completion when a team of British golfers, which included renowned golf course architect Alister MacKenzie, visited Jasper Park in September 1928. MacKenzie was so impressed with Thompson’s work that he was quoted in the local Regina Post newspaper as saying, “In Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course, Canada has taken the lead in golf course architecture and has produced 18 holes that within the whole scope of my experience and knowledge are not surpassed. Quite apart from its scenic features, which are glorious, and considering it purely from a golfing standpoint, I consider the course to be the best I have ever seen.”