Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club - Part One

Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club
Nicola Valley, BC, CAN


7372 Yards (Par 72)
Course Rating/Slope: Not Rated
Course Architect: Rod Whitman, Richard Zokol and Armen Suny (2008)
Career Rounds: 7
Last Played: July 25, 2010.
Low Score: 73 (+1)

ACCOLADES -
- Golf Digest Best New Canadian Course 2009
- Golf Digest Top 100 Outside USA 2012: #85
- Golfweek Best Canadian Modern 2012: #3
- ScoreGolf Best New Course in Canada 2009
- ScoreGolf Top 100 Golf Courses in Canada 2010 #28


"Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club reaches into, explores, and touches golf’s soul. To play the course is to experience the generosity of spirit that one finds at the Old Course, Royal Melbourne, and Muirfield. Sagebrush embodies traditional values that golf at its best and most exhilarating represents. The open expanse allows the golfer to experience freedom, while inviting a wide variety of shots to answer Sagebrush’s questions. To play Sagebrush is to uncover one’s golfing mind, in a setting that encourages discovery from the first to the final shot."
- Lorne Rubenstein

After spending four days in Victoria, my wife, my son and I flew into Kelowna and made the one hour drive north to Vernon, where we would be staying the next four days with some friends.

The next day was the big one - I was heading out to play Sagebrush, a highly-touted and very private new club about 45 minutes south of Kamloops.

Two-time PGA Tour winner and B.C. native Richard Zokol is the visionary behind this project and shares design credit with Rod Whitman and Armen Suny. For those that don't know the story behind Sagebrush, there were two key moments that inspired him to create his own private golf and fly fishing getaway.

First, a trip to Redtail in Port Stanley, Ontario in 1994, the exclusive private club owned by Chris Goodwin and John Drake. Zokol really enjoyed the whole experience at Redtail, specifically the low-key nature of the club and the camaraderie between friends over fine wine in the Redtail lounge after the round.

Shortly thereafter, Zokol was sitting in the clubhouse at Warwick Hills during the Buick Open, listening intently as Ben Crenshaw passionately discussed the new project he was working on with Bill Coore in Nebraska. Crenshaw was talking about Sand Hills GC and that was the moment that Zokol became inspired with the concept of minimalism in design.

It took another eight years before Zokol’s dream started coming to fruition, as he started his partnership with Terry Donald in 2002 and that started the journey to getting Sagebrush off the ground. The club purchased 400 acres of land on the 100,000-acre Quilchena Cattle Ranch just off Nicola Lake, about an hour south of Kamloops. It opened late last year for limited play and the full course finally opened in 2009.

I have been following all of these developments for a few years now and I was very determined to find a way to play the course. The downturn in the economy helped somewhat - the club is offering some limited public play in 2009, with one or two foursomes a day getting access to the course and all the amenities for $700.00 a day ($175.00 per person).

I figured I'd be able to take advantage of that but a friend of mine told me he could do better - he is friends with Mr. Zokol himself and said he'd make a call on my behalf. Awesome!

I ended up getting a call about a week before heading to BC from Richard, inviting me to the club as his guest, quite the turn of events to be sure! To say I was pumped about meeting him and seeing Sagebrush would be the understatement of the year. This was the day I was looking forward to the entire trip.

I made the two and a half hour drive from Vernon, going through Kamloops down highway 5A. The vision of the club on the hillside in the distance, with Nicola Lake in the foreground, is just stunning and really sets the tone for the experience.

NOTE: You can click on the pictures for an enlarged version. I didn't crop any of them, so they are quite large.



The parking lot is maybe big enough for 12 cars - you won't see any corporate tournaments out here! It's meant to be very exclusive, with maybe seven or eight foursomes playing per day. You park your car, strap your own clubs into one of the carts that are sitting there and head up the road to the golf shop, which is housed in one of the two Yurts on the property.

I met Mr. Zokol in there and he gave a few of us a quick orientation of the property and the course itself while on the point where the lodging will be built. Construction on the lodging starts in early 2010 and will be able to accommodate around 30 members and their guests.

Richard and I got in a cart and we watched a group of four guys (one member and his three guests) tee off on the first hole. Richard then asked if I wanted a tour of the property. Of course, I said yes and we hopped in his truck and went for a drive through the facility. We made a stop at the Hideout, which in basic St. Catharines G&CC terms would qualify as the world's best halfway house. More on that later...

I figured that might be the end of my day with Richard, as he's got to be a busy guy. Well, thankfully, that wasn't the case.

"I'm going to grab my clubs and we'll go out and play", he said.

Wicked!

Before going into detail on each of the holes, I think it’s important to talk about the intended playing conditions at Sagebrush. Zokol and company wanted to build the first minimalist ‘links-style’ course in Canada and one of the reasons for locating the club in the Nicola Valley was due to the natural dry climate in the region. Very fast and firm fairways would be a prerequisite and at 2200 feet above sea level, the course plays substantially faster and shorter than courses of a similar length. As such, Sagebrush is meant to be explored through the ground game by design.

This is golf on a very grand scale, with wide fairway corridors and at times, extremely large green surfaces which range from 4500 sq.ft. to over 20,000 sq.ft. Wind is a huge factor out here and the wide fairways are an important part of the playability of the course.

There are no specific tee markers at Sagebrush. It’s meant to be a match play course and the player with the honour gets to select where the group tees off. There are up to four or five tee decks per hole and one of the things Richard was most proud of was how beginner-friendly Sagebrush was built to be, with almost every hole having a tee deck on a flat area of the fairway for novices, thereby eliminating the forced carry.

There are rocks placed at the 150 yard mark to the middle of each green but those are the only markers on the whole course. A yardage guide was in the printing stage when I played so that will help but this is a golf course where you need many rounds under your belt before truly understanding how far or high to hit the shot. Richard mentioned on more than one occasion that it took him about twenty rounds to really understand how to play the bumps and knolls at St. Andrews and he feels that Sagebrush requires the same amount of attention before becoming an expert.

Another quirk is the fact there isn't a rake to be found on the entire golf course. Richard believes that bunkers should be true hazards, with the ball meant to be played as it lies regardless of the conditions. Don't confuse them with waste areas - you still can't ground your club! The sand is firm and well compacted and you are expected to smooth out your footprints before leaving the bunkers.

Richard and I each had our own carts and we took off to the first hole.

THE FIRST HOLE: 508 YARDS - PAR 5

A relatively short par five designed to gently ease the player into the round. It is uphill all the way, however, so it definitely plays much longer than the scorecard indicates. From the back tee, you need to hit your shot over the left corner of the cross bunker, which is about a 225 yard carry. It’s a much shorter carry from the other tee decks.


Richard nailed one right down the pipe and then I stepped up and hit a weak fade into the carry bunker.

"Hit another one", he said.

"Some people get a bit nervous playing with a Touring Pro", he continued.

I smiled, teed up the ball and just as I was about to take it back replied "I'm not nervous at all. Just a bad swing."

Then I ripped that one down the middle right past Richard's ball.

He laughed and said "Good!"

We were on our way!

There is a bit of room left of the cross bunker but you have a semi-blind second shot where you have to hit over the sagebrush and more fairway bunkers if you’re looking to hit the green in two.

You get a good view of the bunkering right away on the first hole: rugged and wild, with islands of fescue grasses ready to gobble wayward shots. Richard told me how excited he got when he was able to persuade his fellow collaborators into keeping the fescue islands.

The layup is no bargain, with a deep bunker sitting about 100 yards from the green. You can see the huge false front and the very deep greenside bunker on the right side in the picture below.

It’s an enormous green, something you don’t really appreciate until getting there, as much of the green is hidden from view down below. There is a punchbowl effect at the back of the green, as balls hit long right will come right back toward the middle of the green. This is an intentional design feature and one that is prevalent throughout the golf course.

I'd actually make a routine two-putt par to start while Richard hit into the front bunker in three and couldn't get up and down, making a bogey six. I had the early lead but it wouldn't last. Haha. A fun opener with enough width to allow most players a birdie chance if they play the hole well and it is a great introduction to what is in store the rest of the day.

THE SECOND HOLE: 454 YARDS - PAR 4

A long par four that plays considerably shorter than the yardage on the card, as the fairway slopes downhill and left to right. Tee shots played toward the tall tree through the fairway or slightly to the right of it will work best, catching the slope and shortening the approach shot.

Big hitters can try to gamble and aim down the right hand side, as the hole does swing slightly in that direction and there is a bit of a slope that will kick balls off to the left, as you can see in the picture below from the landing area.

The approach shot should be played a bit left of the green and you can use much less club than you normally would with that distance, as a low, running approach will bounce off the hillside (yes, even out of the sagebrush) and kick down toward the green. Shots missed even slightly to the right will likely be swallowed by the huge front right bunker.

The green slopes considerably from left to right and features many cool bumps and undulations, as you can see below.


Just a lovely hole with Nicola Lake in the background and one that can play reasonably short in the morning when the conditions are calm or one that can be an absolute bear when the tradewind blows in your face.

We originally teed off on this hole around noon when the winds were calm but picked up our tee shots and moved to the eighth hole when we saw that group of four still on the green. When we came back around to play this hole again, I still used the same 4-iron I used hours earlier, even though the tradewinds were howling in my face. That left me with an exceptionally long second shot of about 230 yards. I was able to get a 4-iron to the front of the green and made the two-putt par, matching Richard on the hole.

THE THIRD HOLE: 416 YARDS - PAR 4

An absolutely gorgeous mid-length two shotter that swings dramatically from right to left off the tee. The play off the tee is slightly left of the fairway bunker on the far right, as the fairway slopes considerably from right to left. Longer hitters can try to challenge the carry bunker on the left side, perhaps aiming a little right of the pot bunker in the distance.

The hole traditionally plays downwind and actually functions as a short par four. Richard told me to ‘really give it a rip’ here and I hit a high draw that kept bouncing and rolling until it finally came to a stop about 30 yards short of the green. And yes, we were playing the back deck! 380+ yards? Needless to say, you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face after that one!

The carry bunker on the left is absolutely huge – if I’m not mistaken, this may have been the first hole they worked on at Sagebrush and when the crew were working on this bunker, Richard kept saying “BIGGER! DEEPER!” – he really wanted to take this one as close to the edge as possible.

If you avoid the trouble, including the little centerline pot bunker, you’ll have a short second and perhaps even just a pitch shot into a green that slopes sharply from right to left and back to front. The ground game works very well on this hole but I certainly found it very tough to get it close to the pin position from in close. I'd still make the two-putt par while Richard hit a wayward drive and made double. Back in the lead!


Like many great short par fours (the hole plays only 278 yards from the front deck), you can elect to layup off the tee or you can challenge the hole with driver, bringing trouble into play. This was one of my favourite holes on the course and the backdrop here is just unbelievably beautiful.

THE FOURTH HOLE: 210 YARDS - PAR 3

A downhill par three that plays much shorter than the yardage on the card. The tradewinds whip from left to right here and the fairway short of the green also runs from left to right. Richard wanted to hit a low stinger here toward the left edge of the green in order to get the kick off to the right but he pulled his slightly and ended up in the greenside bunker. I took the aerial approach and flew it on the green. Options even on the par threes!


It certainly qualifies as one of the prettier spots on the course, with Nicola Lake in the background. In the picture below, you can see one of the two Yurts on the property up on the hillside. That is currently functioning as the golf shop and sits right alongside the piece of property where the lodge will be erected in 2010.


You can see just how far this hole plays downhill and how well the ground game works from the tee. Richard would make a nice up and down for par and I'd match him, two putting from about 20 feet.

THE FIFTH HOLE: 430 YARDS - PAR 4

Another risk/reward type of tee shot, similar to the third hole only this time you have a dogleg right and the wind in your face. The more you cut off the dogleg, the longer the shot needs to carry. The ideal shot is aimed at the 150 yard rock through the fairway. You can see the green sitting at the bottom right hand side of the photo below.

The approach is similar to that on the second hole but even more pronounced, as you can land the ball up to forty yards short and left and the ball with still likely tumble down toward the green. I had about 220 yards in for my second shot after hitting well left off the tee – Richard wanted me to hit a 170 yard stinger so I punched a six-iron that landed well short and left but 15 seconds later, we saw the ball rolling toward the cup, stopping about 15 feet away. Tremendous fun!

Approach shots that get a bit frisky can roll through the green right down a large slope, leaving a tremendously difficult pitch shot back up the hill. The front right bunker, shown below, also gobbles up a lot of balls.


Yet another great hole where the ground game is embraced. The approach is similar in some respects to the second hole but the tee shot here is much more intimidating, which offsets the fact that the green is a bit more receptive than the severely sloped second. I'd two-putt for yet another par and Richard failed to get up and down from the bunker, making bogey.

THE SIXTH HOLE: 264 YARDS - PAR 3

A very long par three that plays decidedly shorter than the scorecard yardage due to the tradewind at your back. The play here is to aim for the right side of the green or even a bit further, as the fairway and the hillside both slope right to left and toward the green.

I hit a 4-iron from the back deck (!) with the winds whipping from behind and I pushed it about 10 yards further right than I wanted.

As it was in the air, Richard told me to grab another ball and hit again, thinking it might get stuck in the sagebrush. I turned to my bag, grabbed a ball and then heard laughter from the group (we had joined up with Club President Terry Donald and CFO Bob Garnett for two holes), as my ball just then trickled onto the front of the very large green. Again, even the sagebrush is forgiving at times out here. Richard knocked his 2-iron to about 6 feet...easy hole!


You can see in the photos above just how windy things can get in the mid-to-late afternoon at Sagebrush.

In the picture shown above, you can see how the hillside will take balls back toward the green and the open front allows the player the opportunity to run the ball in to the green. You don’t often think of long par threes being fun but this one certainly qualified for me. I'd make an awesome two-putt par from about 60 feet while Richard shockingly missed his short birdie effort, settling for par as well.

By the way, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the little cooler stations near the tee every few holes. As Richard told me, golfers need their nourishment!


Loads of water and chocolate bars...just take what you need to keep you going! It's on the house!

THE SEVENTH HOLE: 646 YARDS - PAR 5

From the longest par three on the course to the longest hole period at Sagebrush. Thankfully, the wind is still behind you here as you face a slightly uphill tee shot that ideally is aimed at the Yurt on the hillside with a slight draw. You can try to gamble a bit and hug the left side and the gaping fairway bunker to give yourself a shorter second shot.

The second shot is completely blind, with an aiming rock in the distance. You want to go slightly right of that to leave yourself a short, downhill third shot.

If you accidently go left, as I did, this is what you will be facing...

This bunker is about 120 yards from the green and there is about 40 yards of sagebrush in between this and the green.

The ideal third shot is a little pitch shot down to one of the biggest greens on the course, measuring over 20,000 square feet. It's so big, the back portion acts as a nursery for the rest of the course, if needed.



Richard calls this hole the 'redheaded stepchild' of the golf course, as it is the hole that has given them fits from a conditioning standpoint. They just seeded the green in September last year but it looked and played just fine to me. Yeah, there were some rough spots on the fairway but nothing that detracts from the playability of the course.

I'd lose a bunch of ground to Richard here, making a double bogey when I airmailed the green from the sagebrush just past that bunker on my third shot while he made a routine par. I'd need to play this hole a couple more times before being comfortable - the layup is very challenging for a first-timer, let me tell you.

THE EIGHTH HOLE: 474 YARDS - PAR 4

A long par four with a blind tee shot. The ideal line is over the aiming rock just in front of the fairway. The fairway here slopes sharply from right to left and eventually goes downhill so slight misses to the right may be rewarded.

The second shot plays shorter than the distance, as the hole tumbles downhill all the way to the green. Again, the fairway slopes sharply from right to left so the perfect shot is hit toward the right edge of the putting surface and will kick toward the middle. This might be the most beautiful vista on the entire golf course, with the ninth fairway sitting well above the eighth green in the distance.


This is a great green complex, completely naked with no bunkers for protection and a running shot is the best option. The putting surface very large and you can feed the ball into the back right portion of the green and watch the ball feed all the way to a back left pin.

Richard and I both hit perfect drives and good second shots and we both escaped with solid pars. An excellent hole!

THE NINTH HOLE: 442 YARDS - PAR 4

The last hole on the front side features a long carry from the back tee uphill over a carry bunker. The fairway is extremely wide here but you don't want to stray too far to the right, as the carry becomes much longer the further you go in that direction. I'd find out the hard way, as my tee shot faded a touch and ended up pretty much dead, right up against the ragged lip of the bunker.

The second shot must be played boldly over the right front bunker, as the green tilts quite sharply from right to left.

This green complex might be the best on the golf course. There is a bunker cut into the left side of the green, which wraps around the top of the bunker to give it almost a horseshoe-like design.

Richard and I must have spent at least ten minutes on this green, trying all sorts of cool shots. If you're on the back left portion of the green and the pin is front left, you can putt the ball all the way to the other side and it will fall back toward the other side of the green and right to the pin. Conversely, if you need to access the back left pin from the front, you can chip the ball over the bunker from the putting surface if you'd like. Richard says you're not confined to using only the putter on these expansive surfaces. However, if you take a divot, you're supposed to let the staff know so they can fix the damage.

I'd have to punch out of the bunker here but ended up taking my second double of the day while Richard made a solid par, giving us both front nine scores of 40. This is just another tremendous golf hole.

Since I'm turning this course review into a novel, I should cut it short right here and come back in a couple of days with the back nine. Let me know what you think of the course so far!

Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club - READ PART TWO HERE

5 comments:

  1. Looks so sick. Awesome.

    I won't lie, I only looked at the pictures after reading the first 1/4 of the blog. Still awesome.

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  2. Unlike our impatient friend, I did read the entire blog. ( over the course of three days! I mean, c'mon. ) I am completely green with envy. Awesome pics!!

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  3. Beutiful course and great write up. Since I live in Atlanta, I am curious...what is the playing season in Canada?

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  4. Hey Mac,

    Here in Southern Ontario, we play from the beginning of April until November. Out west in British Columbia, specifically Victoria, they can play all year, with temperatures in the 40s usually in the winter time.

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  5. I love the bunkers they seem to set in with the natural topography of the mountains,Sagebrush and the lake. My favorite holes are numbers 2,3 and 6. great blog I felt like I was part of the group.
    I wish I was there!

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