Review for Sagebrush

Reviewer Score:


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.

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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.

Date: September 24, 2020

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