Divine Service in the Devil’s Cauldron
No one knows exactly who coined the name first, but when the words “Devil’s Cauldron” are spoken, it immediately conjures up feelings of anticipation, fear, drama, and mystery – all hallmarks of golf course architecture excellence. For those who have had the distinct pleasure of teeing one up on this visually stunning par-3 know there cannot possibly be a more fitting description for such a divine place.
Simply labeled as the “Cauldron” on Stanley Thompson’s original scorecard, this picturesque, almost supernatural looking par-3 had become instantly personified in the eyes of the public; even before the official opening full season of 1929. Debuting for the first time during at a soft opening on August 1, 1928, the Cauldron had immediately ascended within ranks of some of the world’s most revered one-shot golf holes. From the day the “Course on the Roof of the World” opened, its signature par-3 was forever christened – The Devil’s Cauldron.
For whatever reason, both original designers of the then named Banff Golf Course; Bill Thomson in 1910, and the renowned golf architect Donald Ross in 1919, neglected to utilize this part of the property. Whether they simply missed discovering it, thought it to be too difficult to attempt, or were deterred by the property boundaries of the day, we will never know for sure. What we do know however, is that Stanley Thompson had discovered this picturesque glacial pond on one of his initial routing walks in 1926. He insisted that the client, Canadian Pacific Railway, purchase the additional land so he could build his par-3 masterpiece – the likes of which the world had never seen.
Stanley was well known for his negotiating prowess, and he not only convinced the CPR to purchase the ‘Cauldron lands’, but the lands nearest the famous Banff Springs Hotel also which would become his 1st, 2nd, 17th, and 18th holes. With the revised course boundaries now in place, Stanley had finally settled on his routing plan and the clearing of corridors began almost immediately.
Interestingly, Thompsons routing was very reminiscent of a traditional Scottish Links routing with its recognizable nine-out and nine-back sequencing; a very rare layout for inland golf courses, especially in the mountains. Setting the tone for the round, Thompson’s routing started off with one of the most thrilling tee shots in all of golf, an elevated forced carry over the turbulent Spray River below. This unforgettable tee was situated directly below the iconic Scottish-style castle – the Banff Springs Hotel - or more commonly referred to as the “Castle of the Rockies”.
The golf holes continued due west with the prevailing winds directly at ones back until reaching the venerable Devil’s Cauldron. The Cauldron was not only the most anticipated golf hole on the course, but it was also situated at the critical turning point within the round. Not unlike the Eden hole at The Old Course in St. Andrews, the golfer must now make the turn and head back towards town (or the castle in Banff’s case). However, now the prevailing winds are directly in ones face. Although there are no seaside views like on a proper Links course, these homeward golf holes ran directly adjacent to the ever present white water of the Bow River. With limited irrigation capabilities, the ground was most likely very firm and fast during the hot summer months which would have allowed golfers to enjoy low ground running shots on some of those windier days.
Another interesting fact about the golf course’s early years was it had very little trees on it and was relatively wide open in comparison to today’s course. This was largely due to an out of control forest fire that passed through the area right before the turn of the century. This fire had thinned out much of the forest which resulted in many of the original golf corridors becoming generously wide-open and exposed to blustery mountain winds – yet another important Links comparison. These double wide fairways also allowed for the creation of Banff’s grandiose bunkering and “S” shaped strategic playing angles. The oversized scale and nature of Banff’s playing corridors was something Thompson was very aware of, and is even still considered wide to this day; even after the last 100 years of tree growth.
It is well known that the Banff Golf Course was one of the most expensive courses built in its day. In fact, it was the first course to ever exceed 1 million dollars to build - it was actually closer to 3 million in today's money. The moving of mountain rock wasn’t the only challenge Thompson faced. They had to import all of their sand, topsoil and manure for the project, and there was nothing of the likes to be found in the area. This meant harvesting soil from farmers fields around the Calgary/Springbank area, filling train cars destined for Banff, then unloading these train cars into horse drawn wagons, which then shuttled the soil down to the golf course and finally hand spread by some 200 men. It also meant importing bunker and greens sand from a pit located in the Revelstoke B.C. area, a treacherous train ride through the notorious Rogers Pass even by today’s standards. Luckily for Thompson, his client CPR owned the rail line!
But what many don’t know is how close the project had come to being completely shut down. In the summer of 1927, the year work on the new course had officially begun; the construction was already running way over budget and was nowhere even near close to being on schedule. Paying a visit to find out what was going on was CEO of CPR, a larger than life figure by the name of William Cornelius Van Horne. The story goes that Van Horne showed up to either fire Thompson, or shut the whole project down. Thompson insisted that Van Horne tour the course with him prior to making any rash judgments, and thankfully he obliged. Some three hours later the two men returned arm over shoulder smoking cigars and laughing. Not only did Thompson get to keep his job, but he secured even more funding to get his golf masterpiece completed. It is believed that Thompson took Van Horne straight to the Devils Cauldron where they smoked cigars, possibly a dram of whiskey or two, and hit golf balls towards the soon to be built par-3.
Like every great golf hole in the world, rumours and tales are part of the Devil’s Cauldron’s mystique. When it comes to the formation and discovery of the Cauldron, there is no shortage of these. The two most commonly repeated tales include some variation of a rockslide. The most popular story describes Stanley Thompson walking the site when he suddenly heard the roar of a rockslide come down the mountainside. He immediately went to investigate where the slide had supposedly occurred, and when the dust settled, he discovered his now famous par-3 just waiting to be built.
The other version describes the same rockslide, but happening in the dead of winter when nobody was around to witness it. When Thompson returned in the spring to finish his routing plan, he discovered the newly formed pond hidden amongst the trees. Divine intervention by the golf gods is everyone's favourite explanation.
But the fact is, the Devil’s Cauldron existed well before any human had even settled that area. The bright green and turquoise pond is known in geological terms as a “kettle pond”. This sunken depression feature is formed when a retreating glacier breaks apart and leaves behind an enormous block of ice – some the size of an apartment building! The slow melting of this gigantic ice block is what eventually creates the kettle pond, and in this case, the Devil’s Cauldron.
Another unique geologic feature at the Devil’s Cauldron is the pattern of the glacial sediment present on the bottom of the pond. These distinct formations resemble giant plates, or dragon scales. They are the result of mountain spring water forcing its way upwards through the cracks of the rocky pond floor. This venting effect pushes the fine glacial sediments upwards until they eventually settle in areas less turbulent. The results are what golfers see today, a fractured looking pond floor -- almost as if the Devil himself is trying to escape from the rocky depths below.
Another interesting tale that is connected to the history of the Devil’s Cauldron is the one regarding its dramatic bunkering. In his original rough routing sketch from 1927, and also in his 1928 official routing plan (drawn by draftsman Bateman Hutchinson), Stanley Thompson never once depicted any bunkers around the Cauldron’s green. However, in the 1933 survey plan for the golf course, all of a sudden 6 bunkers appear around the green?
Photos from the first couple of years after opening never revealed any bunkering either. During the popular Banff Highland Gathering & Scottish Music Festival held in Banff from 1927 to 1931, Reverend Ralph Connor conducted his famous open air Sunday service directly in the Devil’s Cauldron. With a congregation of over 3,000 people sitting around the natural amphitheatre in their Sunday best, Reverend Conner conducted his sermon from a makeshift raft floating in the Cauldron waters. This divine service must have been a powerful scene to witness, let alone be a part of; but most importantly, these photos from this sacred event reveal no bunkering present.
"Very impressive is the open-air services held at an old pot-hole under the shadow of Mount Rundle formerly known as the Devil's Cauldron. The Rev. Ralph Connor conducts this service of which the Calgary Scottish Choir leads in the singing of the psalms" - quote from the 1930 festival program
Check out some old footage from the 1929 Banff Highland Gathering. My favorite is the pole vaulters at the very end of the clip, savage!
So when did the Devils Cauldron receive its iconic bunkering?
Well, I believe the answer can be found with Stanley Thompson’s short lived partnership with Robert Trent Jones. Jones, who had joined up with Thompson briefly in the early 30’s, had made a trip to Banff in the summer of 1932. Part of Thompson’s obligations at Banff was to prepare an annual assessment for the course, and in this particular year, he was too busy to make the journey himself so he sent Jones instead. Included in Jones’s nineteen-page written report was his thoughts on the Cauldron, which he recalls as being one of the most profound experiences he had ever had playing the sport. Interestingly, he made the following remarks about his experience as revealed in James Hansen’s book A Difficult Par:
“The Cauldron,’ one of the finest holes that I have ever seen from the standpoint of a ‘golf shot’ and an unusual nature setting, would be greatly improved by the addition of shallow traps on the right and left walls of the green slopes” RTJ - 1932
Jones went a step further by even sketching a drawing of his thoughts. The title of his drawing -- “Proposed Flashing ‘Cauldron’ -- shown below.
With the absence of bunkering from 1927 to 1932, and then bunkering suddenly appearing in 1933, one can only infer that Robert Trent Jones’s suggestions were actually acted upon. Whether it happened late in the season in 1932, or early season in 1933, I have yet to find documented evidence. Interestingly, it was during this same period of time that the Cauldron's putting green had been ever so slightly altered too. It was in the late 70's early 80's that it was even further altered when the "C" shape bunker on the right was deepened/accentuated and the green was lifted in the same corner. The green assumed a more “bowl” shape as we know it today.
In 1930, and only two years after building the Cauldron, Stanley Thompson built a strikingly similar golf hole on the other side of the country at Digby Pines in Nova Scotia. Interestingly, this golf hole also did not have any flashed bunkering around its green.
Regardless of the hole’s somewhat murky history, the Devil's Cauldron is an undeniable religious right of passage for any devoted golfer. Not many golf holes' reputations precede themselves, nor do many stack up to the hype.
The Devil’s Cauldron, however, delivers in spades. Making the pilgrimage and experiencing this supernatural Stanley Thompson masterpiece will be forever etched in ones memory. The Devil’s Cauldron is rightfully cemented amongst the top celebrated par-3 golf holes in the world, and on a signpost near the tees, Thompson is quoted as saying “I was commissioned to build the last word in golf” - a fitting self tribute to one of the greatest golf architects of all time.
Check out some footage from Shell's Wonderful World of Golf at Banff Springs Golf Course, narrated by Gene Sarazen. The 1962 match was played between Stan Leonard and Jack Burke Jr. My favourite comment by Sarazen is at the 16 minute mark when he says "Last time I played in the snow was in the Australian Open in 1936". That's a sentence I never thought I would hear!