Vision, pride and sweat equity built The Jewel of the North

Palm Springs Golf Club

Photo: Palm Springs Golf Club

Palm Springs Golf Club

The old log cabin clubhouse (above), built in 1966, was replaced by today’s combined golf and curling facility in 2004.
Photo: Jeff Gaye

Jeff Gaye

In 1957 – sixty years ago – a committee of RCAF personnel looked at several acres of swamp, brush, forest and meadow attached to RCAF Station Cold Lake and envisioned a rudimentary, but playable, golf course.

Palm Springs Golf Course opened that year with just three holes and sand putting greens. Membership was five dollars per year for military members, $15.00 for civilians. Year by year, bit by bit, the course was improved and developed, expanded and rebuilt to become “The Jewel of the North” and the best course in northeastern Alberta.

“That was the culture of the air force when I joined,” says Keith Rieder, a retired RCAF member who has documented the golf course’s history. “Every time you were posted somewhere, you volunteered and you left something better than when you got there. You did it because you knew everybody else on every RCAF base was doing the same thing.”

In the fall of 1958, the club hired Mr Clarence Armitage to be the groundskeeper, with the provision that he actually lived in the clubhouse. From its rustic beginnings, Palm Springs expanded to nine holes in 1960. Grass greens were installed from 1960 to 1963.

In 1966 a log clubhouse, which would be the home of the Palm Springs club until 2003, was constructed. This was also the year the first dam was put across Palm Creek, and for many years it was known as the “Dahl Dam” after the club president who got it done. This small dam helped store irrigation water, but it was subject to frequent washouts. Over the years, it has been built up to its present state.

During the nine-hole years, two separate tee boxes were built for each hole so players could go through the course twice and have the “back nine” present a different challenge.

But, Rieder says, “we overloaded that nine-hole golf course.” Cold Lake had a larger military population then, and more families living on the base. “Saturday mornings there would be an hour and a half wait to get on the course,” he said.

In 1976, a new Base Administration Officer and Base Construction Engineering Officer were posted in. Both were ardent golfers looking for a challenge. They persuaded Base Fund to commit $75,000.00, an architect was hired, and plans for eighteen holes were drafted.

“The holes were laid out with ribbon through the trees and clearing was completed before the spring thaw. Much volunteer work was involved, but it was not all volunteer,” Rieder said. “The swamps across holes 10 and 18 were filled with anything that could be found – asphalt, concrete, pit run gravel – and the Base Transport people got lots of OJT, along with heavy equipment training.”

The 18-hole course was ready for play by August 1977, with the layout more or less as it is today.

Volunteer effort and sweat equity were the keys to the club’s success from the very beginning. Units “adopted” holes on the course, Rieder says, and would develop them and groom them as a matter of unit pride.

“Instead of having a sports day, they would send 50 people from the unit over here to work,” Rieder said. “Clearing stumps, clearing underbrush, manual labour that was so essential to get the course going.

“Up until about ten years ago we used to have Tuesday night work parties. We’d go out and clear deadfall, and we’d take buckets of sand and seed mix and fill divots.”

As the course developed, the physical work was increasingly handled by paid staff. But the governance of the club was still taken on by military volunteers.

Big change came in 2003 when the old log clubhouse was dismantled and sold, and in 2004 the present golf and curling facility opened. In 2013 the City of Cold Lake assumed operation of the facility, now called the Cold Lake Golf and Winter Club.

The course faces challenges today, but Keith Rieder says that’s nothing new. The physical course and the club itself have always had their ups and downs, and he says a community golf course is not often a money-making proposition.

As this part of the world has become more populated and more affluent, other excellent golf courses have been built that might challenge for the title of “Jewel of the North.” But given its history, the old Palm Springs track remains a beautiful, challenging golf course that Rieder says today’s RCAF members can be proud of.

“As a golf challenge, it’s still one of the best in northeastern Alberta. You won’t find any better finishing holes than 16, 17 and 18. And the view on 16 – all that’s missing is mountains in the background,” he said.