December 1, 2009

Best New Canadian

Best New Canadian: A firm, dry links experience spread across a mountain slope in the high desert of British Columbia, Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club is far from conventional. View more photos of this course >

Best New Canadian: A firm, dry links experience spread across a mountain slope in the high desert of British Columbia, Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club is far from conventional. View more photos of this course >

If you remember 51-year-old Richard Zokol, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, it's probably from his days as "Disco Dick" in the early '80s, when he played tournaments listening to music on his Walkman.

Disco Dick has become Designer/Developer Dick. Smitten with the camaraderie of ultra-private Redtail Golf Club in Ontario and stunned by the visionary minimalist Coore-Crenshaw design of Sand Hills Golf Club

in central Nebraska, Zokol spent a decade trying to establish a corporate retreat in his native British Columbia. It took him years to locate the right land, a 389-acre hillside of sagebrush acquired from the 100,000-acre Quilchena Ranch, and then line up $10 million in equity financing.

At the urging of Ben Crenshaw, Zokol brought in golf architect Rod Whitman, now 56, a soft-spoken Alberta native who designs from the seat of a bulldozer and has quietly created two of Canada's most intriguing minimalist layouts, Wolf Creek

and Blackhawk

. Zokol also brought in agronomist Armen Suny and soon made him a partner in his design business. Suny, who grew up in Philadelphia near Merion, has been superintendent at Cherry Hills

and Castle Pines

, and general manager at Shadow Creek

-- all 100 Greatest Courses.

The three amigos share a distaste for conventional architecture that forces features upon the land, preferring to follow the whims of the landscape. They wanted Sagebrush to reflect the reality that, as Suny puts it, "nature is never perfect and is very random."

Still, when he first saw the property, Whitman was skeptical. Zokol wanted a classic links, but this was the side of a mountain! Suny's first reaction was similar.

"Are we going to ski or play golf?" he asked.

"Once we got to walking around, we could find some flat spots," Whitman told the Vancouver Sun. "There are several holes out there where we didn't move any dirt to speak of, just some fills, basically to get the fairways wide enough to play golf."

They tackled the dilemma of getting up the hillside head-on, making the opening hole a short par 5 that plays straight uphill. It's the steepest climb encountered. Everything looks so intensely natural, it's hard to identify the spots Whitman had to create.

Because of the general cant of the property and the daily winds generated by Nicola Lake across the highway, Zokol and Suny flagged out massive fairways (the 14th is 150 yards wide) and mostly enormous rolling greens. "The vistas are huge," Suny said. "You had to come up with a big golf course to feel right. Even now, we have 70-yard-wide fairways that look tight from the tee."

Zokol wanted a course where you didn't need to be a home-run hitter to score well. Though Sagebrush measures 7,372 yards from the tips, with a par (or what Zokol prefers to call the "standard scratch score") of 72, there are three other sets of tees, and the scorecard doesn't even list their yardages. Members and guests can play wherever and however they feel comfortable. Skip the first hole, if they like. Or play the first four as a warm-up before starting over on the first tee, very near the fourth green. Or play the first eight and then the 18th from the ninth tee. The options are endless. A busy day will be six foursomes.

BEST NEW CANADIAN 1. Sagebrush G. & Sporting C. • Quilchena, B.C. • Yards: 7,372 • Par: 72 • Fee: $5,000 per year individual; $10,000 per year corporate (by invitation) • Designers Rod Whitman, Richard Zokol and Armen Suny • sagebrushclub.com __2. Otter Creek G.C.__• Otterville, Ont. • Yards: 7,124 • Par: 72 • Fee: $77 • Dick Kirkpatrick • 519-879-9800 • ottercreekgolfclub.com 3. The C. at Tower Ranch • Kelowna, B.C. • Yards: 7,212 • Par: 72 • Fee: $125 or $10,000 • Thomas McBroom • 250-491-8211 • golftowerranch.com