Over the last few years the primary thrust for attention in Canadian golf has centred on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. The opening of Cabot Links in 2012 followed by the opening of sister layout - Cabot Cliffs - in 2015 has clearly provided a clear game changer, with Canada high on the golf agenda for those relishing top tier golf designs.
In addition to the goings on with Cabot, there has also been unrelated development, still tied to Cape Breton Island. Golf Now, an Ontario-based golf management company recently secured a long term release in restoring and bringing back to life the famed Stanly Thompson Highlands Links Golf Course and the related lodging establishment Keltic Lodge in Igonish, in the far northeast corner of the Island.
But, the golf story line now provides a compelling counterweight - on the other side of the country in British Columbia - with two courses of equal stature that combine stellar on and off course scenery, as well as top tier designs. Most people view British Columbia and see it through the lens of what is offered when visiting Vancouver, one of the world’s most fascinating cities; or through Whistler famous for its ski contributions; and there is also the province’s capital city Victoria, which is the southernmost part of Canada and which offers a splendid array of gastronomy choices as well as a glorious intersection of land and water.
The interior area of British Columbia has in recent time started to demonstrate a clear and convincing case as a golf destination of the highest order. The two most compelling courses - Tobiano and Sagebrush - are near enough to one another and can provide multiple rounds to enjoy what they so wondrously provide.
Part of the issue for Tobiano and Sagebrush is getting critical mass in terms of attention from media. Too often golf media and those connected to the broader travel destination arena the tendency is to continue to write about the usual suspects - many of which are superlative - but often at the expense of other areas that have clearly made major strides.
Interior British Columbia is blessed with majestic scenery and the best of the golf offerings - such as Sagebrush and Tobiano - are far more than just stunning postcard views. The Canadian dollar also provides a healthy incentive for other stronger currencies - such as the American dollar - to make such visits even more doable.
Canada has a rich golf pedigree and the interior regions are adding much more to what is possible to play beyond the qualities of the golf found in the major metropolitan areas of Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver.
When Sagebrush opened in 2009, it faced a stiff headwind caused by The Great Recession that significantly impacted golf development throughout North America. The initial plans were to have “qualified “guests” use the multi-purpose property with the ultimate aim in them becoming members. That model was unable to buck the economic trends happening and the club went into a period of uncertainty until new owners, Newmark Group, purchased the property on November 1, 2015.
Sagebrush is located in the beautiful Nicola Valley, set on approximately 400 acres of land. The design attempts to include links-like design concepts on a piece of property that’s hilly in spots and plays along a mountainside slope.
The aim of the design was to include ball movement on the ground - a hallmark of a true links - and Sagebrush does achieve this at times when playing. The layout had to make an early concession by having an uphill par-5 as the starting hole. The climb is not abrasive but it did permit the routing to get to a part of the property that provides for several holes of note.
The first third of the layout plays in full range of Nicola Lake and the views are breathtaking. The 8th and 9th holes are two most demanding holes in succession on the outward half. Both play uphill and the player who has the wherewithal to shape a tee shot for length and position can reap huge dividends. The 9th green is one of the finest designs I’ve ever played - simply well done.
Sagebrush does have a quality mixture of holes. On the inner half of holes there is the drop shot par-3 10th with a long diagonally angled green. The par-4 11th is a first rate par-4 bending left over a chasm the player must decide how much risk is worth taking from the tee. The hole drops into a valley before ascending to a elevated green contoured appropriately. The only disappointing aspect of Sagebrush is the long and inordinate cart ride from the 11th to the tee of the 12th. It simply breaks up the pace of the round.
The ebb and flow of holes continues with the quality short par-3 12th which plays a bit longer than the scorecard indicates. The short par-4 13th gives the player the opportunity to decide on whether the bold play at the tee is worth the risk.
The concluding holes at Sagebrush feature two par-5’s that play in opposite directions - the 14th plays uphill and into the prevailing wind. The 16th featuring a blind tee shot and then turns left and downward, ultimately concluding with a mega-sized green. I especially liked the par-4 15th - the green situated on a high knoll - the further you hit the tee shot the likelihood you will encounter a blind pitch to the target. Very nice indeed.
Sagebrush concludes with two good par-4 holes, but the finish does not provide the ultimate crescendo one needs for such a glorious piece of land. Sagebrush is not open to outside play in ‘16 but the ‘17 season will clearly be one in which the facility seeks to reclaim all of the early hype it garnered back in 2009. Sagebrush when played on firm and fast turf will certainly provide a lasting memory, one where you will be rushing to start another 18 after concluding the one you just completed.
Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club
Architect: Rod Whitman, Richard Zokol and Armen Suny
7,399 Yards / Par-72
Course Rating - 75.7
The very first thing you notice when entering the grounds for Tobiano is the scale of the property. The property is free of any clutter and the eye simply scans the rolling terrain in all directions. Tobiano is the brainchild of architect Thomas McBroom, a Toronto-based golf architect and provides a stellar intersection of incredible beauty - both on and off property - as well as a diverse range of holes that continually challenge players to think wisely before making any stroke at the ball.
Tobiano gives the golfer an opportunity to get off to a good start with an opening par-5, short par-4 and modest par-3. The key is doing so because the remaining holes on the outward nine step up the intensity meter in a big time way. The 4th through 6th are exquisite long par-4’s that are very diverse in what is needed from the golfer. The par-3 7th is an eyeful, playing from an elevated tee to a green that is equally elevated and appears to be floating in space! The side concludes with a very strong 3-shot par-5 and quality mid-length par-4.
The inward holes continue the pattern, but are slightly less intense on the demands placed on the player. I am not a fan of the long and tedious par-3 12th hole. Ditto the same for the short par-3 15th. They are simply passages to the better holes you get on the back nine that come before and after them. The uphill par-5 13th would play even better as a long par-4 of 477 yards as it does from the Spur tees. The closing trio of holes on Tobiano allows for major swing changes: the downhill par-5 16th is reachable if you hit the fairway. The par-3 17th features a devilish green that is well protected. And the closing hole brings the round to a fine conclusion - a long par-4 that demands two top tier shots, one from the tee and on the approach with a green that requires a deft touch to end the day in fine fashion.
Tobiano provides a golf vibe hard to truly explain in verbal terms. When you stand on the first tee and gaze at the property it is utterly captivating. The land gets the golf juices going in a big time way. Tobiano also provides a range of colours as the sun rises and sets on the property. Few facilities can say they have the total package: Tobiano is not completely flawless in design terms but it provides a scintillating experience that will live long in one’s memory until the next time you visit.
Architect: Thomas McBroom
7,367 Yards / Par-72
Course Rating - 75.3
Overall Rating: Outstanding
The issue for the interior of British Columbia is simply getting more people aware of what is doable when travelling there. Tobiano and Sagebrush present outstanding golf facilities with ease to travel to both of them for a winning stay all the way around. There are other golf options in the immediate area of Kelowna also worth playing. Predator Ridge provides 36-holes of quality golf and is located just 30 minutes of Kelowna. Be sure to also stop by Sparkling Hill, a tour de force spa located immediately adjacent to the golf property.
The Harvest, Tower Ranch and Gallagher’s Canyon are three Kelowna-area courses offering good golf choices as well. Being in Kelowna also provides for a slew of lodging locations and top tier gastronomy too.
Sagebrush is going to provide a practice facility in the near future and right now not having one is a deficiency. The layout will also be adjusted slightly with a modified par-5 7th hole. The addition of lodges for guests who wish to remain for more than one day will also be a huge benefit for all involved. Tobiano is also planning to include on-site lodging in the near future and this too will be a real plus.
The elasticity of both Tobiano and Sagebrush will allow the fullest range of players to enjoy what is provided: the key is selecting the appropriate tees to provide the fine balance of fun and challenge.
Interior British Columbia is a glorious location for those seeking a true getaway with all the perquisites of 21st century travel. If you have not even considered it on your bucket list – it is high time you did.
IF YOU GO ...
When flying use Vancouver as your entry point - you can either take a short connecting flight to Kelowna - the largest interior BC city with an airport or make the short drive over from Vancouver which will take 3-4 hours. Kelowna is a solid central point to coordinate all activities and is roughly no more than 75-90 minutes from either course.