Set on a rather remote 389-acre site that lies on the side of a hill beside Nicola Lake in British Columbia, Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club [now known simply as Sagebrush] is the result of collaboration between designer Rod Whitman, developer Dick Zokol and agronomist Armen Suny. The course opened for play in 2009 to critical acclaim.
The topography was never going to be easy to tame here but, with a little shaping here and there, Whitman was able to lay out eighteen intriguing fairways that deliver a remarkably engaging and enjoyable round of golf on a big course that matches the big views.
First impressions often count for a lot but in this case the relatively dull opening hole can be overlooked as the architect was merely attempting to overcome the severe change in elevation on the site by routing a wide, forgiving par five 1st hole straight uphill.
Thereafter, the holes rise and fall across, up and down the hillside with many of the fairways offering more than one route from tee to green. The two par threes on the inward half are played either side of the driveable short par four 11th, leaving a long run of challenging two and three shot holes on the way back to the clubhouse.
In keeping with the minimalist approach to many things at Sagebrush, there are no distance markers on any of the fairways and, rather oddly, neither are there rakes in any of the bunkers – though some may feel the latter idea is taking the “back to golfing roots” philosophy a bit too far.
Sagebrush ran into serious financial difficulties and closed its tees for play in the fall of 2014 and was due to reopen in 2016 as a high-end pay-and-play public facility managed by Troon Golf. However in September 2017 the course remains closed with no opening date in sight.
Initially, Sagebrush was to be a private retreat for well-heeled members and their guests. Unfortunately, that model could not sustain itself and the club went into a period of dark times -- actually closing for a short spell.
That has since changed. I had read much of what had happened and made plans in June 2016 to visit the interior area of British Columbia given the information I was receiving regarding the totality of the golf offerings in the region.
Sagebrush is located on nearly 400 acres of land. There is no internal clutter -- no housing intrusions. The property is generally rolling and the lack of man made interruptions allow the eye to take in the full breath of the property. Sagebrush has sweeping vistas and adding to the mix is Nicola Lake -- located across the main road from the course and providing a stellar backdrop easily seen from a number of holes.
The golf course is the handiwork of architect Rod Whitman -- a Canadian designer of immense talent -- likely unknown to many golfers. Whitman has an uncanny sense in knowing how the entire terrain needs to be tied together -- not just putting surfaces alone. Those playing Sagebrush quickly realize shaping shots starts at any tee. Whitman has successfully married the duel strategic elements of forcing the golfer to weigh the totality of a shot -- the flight aspect -- as well as the ground dimension.
It is my contention any golf course which fails to provide for some intersection of both flight and roll is an incomplete course. Unfortunately, so many of the modern American and Canadian courses -- especially those that came into existence during the go-go 1990's -- were created with only "point-to-point" play courtesy of being so over-watered as to place major limitations on their overall versatility. The essence was how such courses "looked" rather than the more important dimension -- how they "played."
Sagebrush excels in providing numerous outlets for the talented golfer to show shotmaking skills. Working the ball from side-to-side as well as controlling the trajectory is the mark of a consummate player and also of a premier layout.
The main downside is that the opening hole at Sagebrush literally is an abrupt uphill proposition. The par-5 is still reachable by the longest of hitters and it does provide an opportunity for players to get off to a good start despite being a bit of a climb.
Upon reaching the 2nd hole -- you're quickly whisked away - the sheer beauty utterly dazzling -- exceeded only by the need to show the highest of dexterity off the tee. The series of holes that follow have the same pattern -- making the player think carefully on how to proceed. The lone other major weakness on the outward side is the banal long par-3 6th. But, that slight detour is forgotten quickly with the series of holes that follows. The par-5 7th will in the near future have its green and fairway relocated. I can only hope the planned new version will be equal to the original.
Whitman is also able to ramp up the demand meter with two solid long par-4's on the outward nine. The 8th and 9th respectively are both top shelf. The 8th mandates a right-to-left ball flight to achieve the optimum run out. At the 9th you see Whitman's creative talents in full stride -- jagged bunkers cut into the fairway landing area -- the longer the hit -- the more demanding the shot that's needed. Best of all, the putting surface at the 9th is nothing short of sensational -- plenty of contours demand an approach that attains the proper distance and location on the green.
On the inward side -- there's a bit of a departure with a fairly simple dropshot par-3 10th. However, Whitman moves quickly to forge ahead with the long par-4 11th -- a true Cape Hole that provides plenty of bait to tempt the player to achieve the Herculean blow. The short iron par-3 12th and the devilishly short par-4 13th are both well done -- providing a change of pace - but not yielding to anything but the surest of plays.
Three of the final five holes are par-4's and each is quite different from the other. I am a big fan of the 15th -- playing 369 yards it gives the quick appearance of being a pushover. The golfer who wallops on a tee shot may get near the green but the putting surface is especially elevated and set on a narrow depth. The closer you get to the green the more the shot becomes blind. Brilliant stuff in its simplicity and effectiveness. At the 17th and 18th bottleneck fairways are added to keep the longer hitters in check -- you want the mid-to-short iron shot -- be prepared to hit an archer-like shot to do so.
At the 14th and 16th holes you encounter two totally different par-5's -- the former is 584 yards uphill for the final half of the hole to a narrow green that accepts only the finest of approaches. At the 16th you encounter a blind tee shot to a fairway that provides a huge boost when working the ball right-to-left off the tee to a high plateau. Those who do well off the tee are left with a second shot opportunity that can reach the green. The putting surface set below the fairway and includes a green that could include two doubles matches from Wimbledon and still have plenty of room leftover.
The par-3's collectively at Sagebrush do not have the collective contribution Whitman did so well at Cabot Links - his gem layout on Cape Breton Island. But the totality of the two-shot holes at Sagebrush is vintage for the variety and level of shotmaking required.
For purists -- Sagebrush cannot realistically be walked -- although the club, to my knowledge, has no prohibition against those wishing to do so.
As I mentioned earlier - there are plans to create a new 7th hole and with that there will be enough room for a practice facility which is lacking now and clearly needed. The interior area of BC has escaped the full view of attention because golfers simply believed a visit to the greater Vancouver area would suffice. Sagebrush is now managed by Troon Golf and there will be on-site lodging which will clearly be a boost for those inclined to stay for a few days.
Whitman's work at Sagebrush will need more exposure -- with Troon that's likely to happen. Interior British Columbia has much to offer and I recommend nearby Kelowna as one's base of operations. The golf side has other offerings near enough to Sagebrush which I will opine on shortly to make for an extended getaway. It's taken a bit of time -- but Sagebrush is rollicking fun adventure -- with few lulls -- and plenty of grand stages where you'll find out soon enough if your game is up to the task.
by M. James Ward
Sagebrush has suffered through several seasons now of non-play. It is likely due for a serious re-adjustment on where it stands among BC's golf courses.
Most in BC will know of the plight and ensuing legal issues surrounding the development. The course seemed prime to re-enter the conversation this past year as one of the best golf courses in Canada only for it to be waylaid by "construction" delays. The course was, of course, ready for play. Added to this frustration was the somewhat disappointing engagement with course staff. The course advertised to golfers that they could sign-up to receive updates on the course and be notified on any developments. Little communication was provided. Even to this day, the course website reads the same, with a shockingly limited amount of information on re-opening, as when Troon Golf took over little over a year ago.
Golfers will care little about the intention to build vacation property by the course (a zoning issue that has plagued the course from the get-go) and the attached fly-fishing opportunities. Furthermore, the course is located a hair too far from Vancouver to do in a day and far enough for vacationers staying in the Okanagan (Kamloops, Kelowna, and Shuswap area) to make the trip down when there are so many golf courses in those areas worth playing. Sagebrush reportedly now offers some accommodation on property to presumably to speak to this issue, though given the track record of the course it remains to be seen whether the accommodation feature will in fact come to fruition.
Nonetheless, Sagebrush remains a tantalizing prospect for a golfer. It is likely best done on a trip up from Vancouver to the Okanagan. An early morning wake up in Vancouver would allow you to complete 36 holes and make to Kelowna/Kamloops before darkness in the summer. What sort of condition the course will be in given the prolonged delays and previous financial issues will be a question for some golfers, but for most in BC they just look forward to the opportunity to play a course that once ranked among the best in the country.