Driving Ahead at The Fort McMurray Golf Club
Beginning his job as General Manager of the Fort McMurray Golf Club (FMGC) April 1, 2016, it was no belated April Fool’s for Michael Gillan when The Beast (Fire 9, MWF-009, Horse Creek Fire) came into his and our world Tuesday, May 3, 2016.
Along with more than 2,400 structures, which were estimated to be 10 per cent of the city, the FMCG lost the majority of its structures; including the clubhouse, pro shop, maintenance shed and the iconic log structured halfway hut.
But the greens stayed green and the fairways remained relatively unharmed; the blaze singeing or destroying parts of the surrounding Boreal forest.
“The first expectations in my mind, is that it would have been worse,” recalled Gillan, 44, of the course which was originally designed by Bill Newis of GPEC Designs. “We thought there would be no property at all. Everything lost.
“We were fortunate that the fuel of the fairway and greens did not ignite from the big stuff that was coming off the trees and timbers.”
Also gone was the popular clubhouse deck, with its breathtaking view of golfers approach shots incoming into the magnificent par-five hole # 18.
Measuring, at that time, 6,596 yards from the longest tees with a slope rating of 142 and a 74 USGA rating, FMGC would have needed to take a long deep breath.
Gillan knew a major restoration lay ahead.
Fortunately, he had a strong background in the golf industry, be it as a manager or golf professional.
With over 25 years in the industry, Michael’s experience includes stops at some of Canada’s best private and resort style properties. Courses including Hawk Ridge Golf and Country Club in Orillia, Beacon Hall Golf Club in Aurora and The London Hunt and Country Club in London along with his tenure at the picturesque Bell Bay Golf Club in Baddeck, Nova Scotia.
This would be the buffer, providing Gillan and staff had the skill and more importantly, the will, to meet the trial head on.
“Right off the bat, it was getting boots back on the ground as this (FMCG) is such an important part of our community,” said Gillan, of the then 18-hole course, which originally opened as a 9-hole development in 1990.
“We wanted the community to know that we were back. A place where they can come and play golf and escape from their daily troubles.”
“A place to come down to and have a drink and hit some balls and swap stories about the fire and evacuation and get away from the daily grind. An excellent place for golfers and even non-golfers to relax.”
Absorbed in getting the course back up and operational, Gillan was astonished at the concern the general public had in return for the FMGC itself.
“We were well on our way to having a fantastic year prior to the fire,” said Gillan. “After the fire, people were coming to see if we were OK. That was the “Wow Moment” for me. With so much going on, people were asking how we were doing.”
As may be the case after any natural disaster, renewal, be it physical or spiritual, takes time.
For the FMCG, it was a staged reentry last spring, leading to a multiplex system of seven attached trailers to house the temporary clubhouse, pro shop and restaurant.
“It has been acting as our clubhouse last year and for this year and it is has been working quite well for us,” said Gillan, who is vice president of the Canadian Society of Club Managers. “It does get a little cozy at times working in such close quarters but we have become used to it.”
FMGC superintendent Jeff Hacior and crew also had the course in pristine condition in record time, opening Canada Day 2016.
This spring the FMCG will be opening a new nine-hole stretch called the Fox Tail which will complement the original front nine Big River and Black Bear back nine.
“The challenge will be the difference in shot elevation. A whole different view and different look to golf in Fort McMurray.”
Jason Vaughan, head golf professional at FMGC since 2008, echoes Gillan’s perspective of Fox Trail.
“It’s going to be exciting to introduce to our members and other golfers as it is a lot more uphill and undulating and the greens have a 2017 look to them,” said Vaughan. “Our No. 3 is a long par four uphill…around 4,409 yards…and it is going to be a tough hole. Once you get to the top, you will have a great view of the Athabasca River. It will be breathtaking.”
Driving forward to November 2017, the trailers will be removed, “and construction will continue throughout the winter and early spring with a 2018 unveiling of the new clubhouse,” said Gillan.
While not letting the cat out of the bag, Gillan continued his explanation in regards to the reincarnation of the FMGC facility: “Our new clubhouse will basically be a larger version of what we had before. Bigger and better. We will be able to accommodate larger groups and possibly in the future, have some winter activities to offer.”
Vaughn concluded what the FMCG means to him and many other individuals in Fort McMurray: “It’s home away from home for everyone. It is nice always to see a familiar smiling face.”
Fort McMurray Golf Club General Manager Michael Gillan.
Fort McMurray Golf Club General Manager Michael Gillan (right) welcomes back Outside Services assistant Rayen Case (left) as the club prepares for the 2017 season. In the background is Aaron Buchner the club’s Associate Golf Professional.