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, the course has remained closed through to 2021.
In 2021, Randy Smith (the club’s new Head Professional) contacted us and commented as follows:
“A small group headed by Langley real estate developer Andrew Knott now own the long-term lease on the property, which sits above Nicola Lake, fifteen minutes east of Merritt BC. Andrew and his group are making substantial investments to the course and the overall property in the efforts to re-establish the Course as one of the best in Canada. The Club features some very stylish and comfortable suites available for overnight stays as well. The ultimate goal is to create a unique residential and destination golf community.
Former superintendent Neil Pilon has been brought back to restore the Golf Course which has been neglected in recent years. Pilon and his crew have done considerable work since last fall and have been busy since the winter snowfall lifted. Neil is supported by General Manager, Mark Strong and Head Golf Professional, Randy Smith who have been developing all aspects of the overall Club and Golf Operations.”
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 in late 2008 for limited play and the full course finally opened in 2009, right in the middle of a major economic downturn.
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. 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.
There are an abundance of different shots to play out here and you are also given many different risk/reward opportunities off the tee and in the fairways. Accuracy off the tee isn’t the most crucial factor at Sagebrush, with plenty of width in the fairways to accommodate wind conditions. As indicated, one of the things Richard was most proud of was the fact that almost every hole had a tee box at the beginning of the fairway to improve playability for novice players. With many of the holes swinging downhill a bit to start, that means the golfer can roll it off the tee and still have a reasonable opportunity to continue to play the hole out. Meanwhile, playing the tips will challenge the best players with more some forced carries sprinkled throughout the course.
Richard admitted that Sagebrush might be a pushover for top players in calm conditions but this is a course that was designed with windy conditions in mind, conditions that are prevalent pretty much every afternoon in the Nicola Valley. It is a superb test under normal conditions.
Sagebrush also offers incredible variety: looking for short par threes? Got it. Long par threes? Got it too. Driveable par four? Yup. Reachable par fives? Yes sir. Heroic, long par fives? How about two of them? With wildly undulating fairways and greens and myriad playing possibilities on each hole, Sagebrush offers as much variety as any course I’ve ever played. It’s truly a place where you can play a hundred times and each time you can try something different. One quibble is that a couple of the par fives (7 & 16) and a couple of par fours (2 & 5) play and feel very similar. From a memorability standpoint, every hole seems to have a different wrinkle to it but the whole concept of the course and it’s design seems to flow beautifully from the first hole all the way to the last.
The backdrops at Sagebrush are awe-inspiring, with the mountains towering above the course and Nicola Lake always present in the background as well. As for conditioning, the seventh hole was still in kind of rough shape when I played as mentioned earlier. There was also some work being done near the green on 16 but I must say that the overall conditioning here is outstanding. Their superintendent has done a wonderful job getting the course to play exactly how Richard envisioned – firm and extremely fast. The greens were stimping at close to 11 when we played, or “right on the edge” as Richard said. The ball just rolled and rolled on the fairways and the ground game is embraced with open arms at Sagebrush. Truly wonderful and the course was awarded by the USGA as one of the top clubs in North America from an agronomic perspective shortly after opening.
The overall feel and atmosphere both on the course and at the club is off the charts. This ‘feels’ like the way golf should truly be – the club likes to have only about 7 to 8 groups on the course on any given day, making you feel like you’re the only ones out there. Add this to the gorgeous backdrops, the coolest halfway house I’ve ever seen, the fly fishing and the unbelievably fun golf course and you have the perfect golf experience!
There are a couple really tough hikes from green to tee so it would be a very difficult walk. I don’t think it’s impossible though and one day, I hope to try to carry a bag and walk the place…
What I can say honestly is that my day at Sagebrush was one I’ll never forget. I obviously had the great fortune of teeing it up with the ultimate escort in former club chairman Richard Zokol but even putting that aside for a second, I’ve never played a golf course that was more fun than this one.
There are so many different ways to play each hole and each shot you face during your day. You have a smile a wide long on your face all day as you watch balls trickle down slopes toward the pin or tumble an extra 30 yards down the firm fairways. This is the way golf was meant to be played and enjoyed and I truly can’t wait to get back.
Read more here:https://nowontheteegolf.com/2009/08/26/sagebrush-g...
NOTES: I played Sagebrush a total of seven times between 2009 and 2011. The course has been closed for a number of years due to ownership changes and associated financial difficulties. There are rumours that the club is under new ownership and work is being undertaken to get the course back into playable shape, with hopes of reopening again in 2021 or 2022. If this happens, Sagebrush will once again be seen as one of the top 15 courses in Canada.
Such a shame because this course was truly unique in so many ways.
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.