GDS Golf Design Services finally completes RotaryLinks course

  • Rotary
    GDS Golf Design Services

    GDS Golf Design Services has completed work on the second nine of the RotaryLinks course in Fort McMurray, Canada

  • Rotary
    GDS Golf Design Services

    Water plays a key role in the layout, especially on the recently completed back nine

  • Rotary
    GDS Golf Design Services

    The first nine hole opened for public play in 2019

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

GDS Golf Design Services has completed work on the second nine of the RotaryLinks course in Fort McMurray, Canada, 16 years after the project first kicked off. 

The project began in 2006 with GDS developing a master plan for 27 holes. It was later reduced to 18 holes on the property’s low-lying land, with a real estate element located on the site’s higher ground. Construction was put on hold due to the financial crisis of 2008-10 with a two-year period of tree clearing and earthworks starting in 2011. 

“With the golf course using the low-lying areas of the site, significant removal of peat bog was required to establish the subgrade for the golf holes on a firm clay and cobble base,” said Les Furber, lead architect at GDS. “The result was the excavation of approximately 400,000 cubic metres of material. Being too expensive to haul off site, this material was stacked in between the holes and in out-of-play areas to create bold dune-style formations. 

“Another part of the design was to integrate stormwater management capacity for the 900 residences on the adjacent land. On the course is a network of ponds, totalling approximately 21 acres of water, which also had to be excavated and would be used as fill material for construction of golf features.” 

After some funding challenges, construction of the golf course began in late 2014 with the rough shaping of nine holes substantially completed by the end of 2015. 

“Catastrophic fires occurred in Fort McMurray in May 2016, which again set the project back – the peat mounds that had been stacked between the holes were in danger of igniting, and as such, many were demolished by fire crews, undoing a fair amount of the of the previous earthwork and shaping,” said Furber. “All of the forest surrounding the golf course site burned completely, except for a few select areas, which were separate from the main forest due to the clearing that had been done for the golf course.” 

Rough shaping of golf features started again in summer 2016 with work also undertaken to repair damage from the fire and the related fire prevention activities. During this time, it was decided that the clubhouse and car park would be relocated and, due to the cost involved, the focus shifted to getting nine holes ready for play, rather than a full 18. GDS then devised a new nine-hole routing, which would return to the new clubhouse location. 

This ‘front’ nine was fairly complete by late summer 2017, with 2018 mainly reserved for grow-in, although some preview play took place that year. Nine holes officially opened for public play in 2019. 

“This nine has two par threes, two par fives and five par fours,” said Tim Birnie, design associate at GDS. “Water is in play on five holes, but the fairways are quite generous, and the water features are lateral and somewhat removed on three holes, with strategic carries on only two holes. 

“There aren’t many trees, and the long native grasses and other vegetation established on the peat ‘dunes’ created between the holes give it a linksy look and feel in most instances, although the water features and bunkering style are certainly more parkland style. Bunkers were initially grassed in, along with the rest of the course, and as part of our construction programme in 2021, we converted the bunkers to sand.” 

Although the front nine opened in late 2018, construction of the back nine stayed on hold until 2020 when the club received a recreation grant from the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo. Construction of the second nine began in August 2020 and was largely complete by August 2021. 

“Three of the new holes are integrated into the middle of the existing course, three others are adjacent to other holes or the driving range, and three are somewhat remote, which was per the original 18-hole design and were to be separated from the rest of the course by real estate,” said Birnie. 

“The newly constructed holes consist of three par threes, two par fives, and four par fours, which will result in an 18-hole layout of par 71, extending to 7,200 yards. There is a possibility that the existing hole numbers and routing will change if the clubhouse is ever relocated to its original intended location.” 

The new tenth hole, originally a par four in GDS’s plan, was shortened to a par three due to the relocated clubhouse. Its multi-tiered green is framed by bunkers left and right and the hole is located next to the club’s entry road. The following three holes all feature water in some capacity. The eleventh’s narrow fairway corridor is defined by peat dunes on both sides and has a water feature at the end of the fairway, while a strategic water feature is in play along the 560-yard par-five twelfth, and players on the short par-three thirteenth must play to a semi-island green, with water to the front, left and right. 

“The sixteenth is a short par four that should provide a scoring opportunity,” said Furber. “Fairway bunkers to the left frame the landing area and pinch the hole for longer hitters seeking to gain an advantage. Greenside bunkers left and right of an elevated green will challenge the player to hit an accurate approach. 

“And the long par-three seventeenth, playing to a maximum of 220 yards, will test accuracy for a long iron or wood approach. Playing over a marsh, a grand-scale greenside bunker will catch errant shots to the right, and the left side of the hole is protected by forest, with a marsh area back-left of the green. 

“RotaryLinks has been an epic journey,” added Furber. “There have been so many complications that it is somewhat difficult to describe all of the machinations that have gotten us to this point. Still, the club and their dedicated group of volunteers have persevered, and along with the support of the regional municipality and a little luck, the golf course construction will be fully complete in early 2022, with a soft opening sometime mid to late summer 2022, and likely an official opening in early 2023.”