As I rolled over a rise on the second fairway, suddenly, out of nowhere, there he was: a big black bear. For obvious reasons, the encounter was a little startling. This fellow was big and burly and didn’t seem overly personable. But after sizing me up he wandered off into the brush. A little perturbed, no doubt. After all, for the past seven years he had Sagebrush to himself.
Swerving through the sun-scorched hills high above beautiful Nicola Lake in central British Columbia’s Okanagan region, Canada’s revered Sagebrush is making a comeback. The golfers, after a lengthy hiatus when the place was literally abandoned, are back. So, yes, the bears — and every other critter that calls the place home — will have to put up with club-wielding intruders once again.
Of course, the in-the-middle-of-nowhere golf club — think Canada’s version of the celebrated Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska — is not, exactly, going to hum like your local muni. That’s not the game plan. Never was. And never will be.
“We’re a boutique golf club,” says Mark Strong, the club’s new general manager. “It’s a unique model. Our founders envisioned a one-of-a-kind golf adventure that capitalizes on the remote, natural setting and thrilling, links-like golf. This is about as ‘out there’ a golf experience as exists in North America.”
It’s hard to disagree. On my much-anticipated return visit, I had the course entirely to myself. There wasn’t another hacker out there. A handful of maintenance personnel, a gaggle of groundhogs, and yes, a bear. And that’s it. (I initially played Sagebrush — formerly known as The Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club — with the founder and past PGA Tour-winner, Richard Zokol, shortly after it opened in 2010.)
However, in the days and weeks to come, more golfers will certainly get the access code to open the gate, wind their way into these barren, baked-brown hills and embark on a golfing odyssey that is going to be unlike anything they’ve experienced before.
Designed by the talented Canadian architect Rod Whitman (perhaps best known for his work at Nova Scotia’s Cabot Links), agronomist Armen Suny, and Zokol, a Canadian Golf Hall of Famer, Sagebrush was voted Canada’s Best New Course in 2009. It’s also been ranked in the top 10 in Canada on SCOREGolf’s reputable list of the Top 100 courses in the country. Dubbed a modern classic, Sagebrush immediately vaulted to bucket-list status in Canada.
The course is minimalist design at its finest. Bunkers are chiseled into hills like the black bears clawed them out. Fairways and greens are laid out over the natural contours and channelled through existing landforms. Similar to other courses in the genre — Sand Hills, Sutton Bay and The Prairie Club, for example — Sagebrush is wild and rugged and not for the faint of heart. The heat, the wind, the severe slopes, the punishing sage, the thistle, the sand — it’s a tall task to get around without some carnage.
There are numerous standout holes and, not surprisingly, numerous ways to play them. On my maiden voyage in 2010, Zokol, a crafty player who relied heavily on his creative shot-making skills, demonstrated how you could putt your ball onto the green from 130 yards out on the par-4 5th. The blind tee shots on the 8th and 16th (look for the aiming stones) and the numerous opportunities to use slopes to ricochet balls onto greens and fairways also speaks to the quirky, old-world charms of the place. Severe false fronts, drivable par-4s, plunging par-3s, gargantuan greens and a cool chip-shot par-3 located on a rocky rise at the back of the property are other highlights.
Golfers will also be happy to know that the course is coming along nicely and playing fairly close to the way it was eight years ago. The greens have been nurtured back to life (they still need a bit more TLC) and the fairways, due to the bentgrass overseeding, are full, but playing much softer and slower than Zokol actually intended.
“The thing that I’m most proud of,” says Zokol, who won twice on the PGA Tour in 1992, “is the fact that we managed to create an outstanding golf course on a very difficult site. It was quite a process to determine the routing; the terrain was just so rocky and severe. But, ultimately, Mother Nature dictated where we slotted holes and I think all three of us would say we found the best course possible.”
And, of course, it was Mother Nature who did her best to take the course back. And she nearly did. Multiple times. (Since 2013, the course has had a couple of short-lived re-starts.) Indeed, the Sagebrush saga is one that requires a novel-length book to write. Which, interestingly, is exactly what Zokol is currently in the midst of doing.
Long story short, the trials and tribulations of the place are soap-opera scintillating. Lawsuits, in-fighting, prison sentences (the previous owner, Mark Chandler, was extradited to the U.S. and is currently serving a six-year sentence for a fraud conviction), the untimely death of a co-founder, global economic meltdowns, legal hassles, permitting problems, significant construction challenges, droughts, forest fires, pandemics; it’s all in there. And to dissect it all would require a word count, a messy foray into a journalistic realm, that we, arguably, don’t need to dive into. Suffice to say, given all of the difficulties, most people thought that the course would never open again. But, as we all know, strange things can happen in our world.
“Basically, our current ownership group decided that, given the current market demand for recreational property and the resurgence of golf due, in large part, to the pandemic, the timing was right to re-establish Sagebrush and take the initial vision to the finish line,” Strong said. “Our long-term plan is to create a residential community with large estate lots, cottages, and additional real estate options with a variety of ownership opportunities. This year our focus is getting the course back in shape and renovating key infrastructure pieces like the clubhouse and The Hideout.” (Sagebrush is owned by a Vancouver-based real estate development company led by Andrew Knott.)
For the remainder of this year, Sagebrush will be open for limited preview play at the discounted rate of $150 per day for unlimited golf. When all aspects of the experience are incorporated, likely in 2022, the rate will move to $275. The Hideout (a sweet mid-round oasis where food and fishing awaits), clubhouse, pro shop and dining facilities are currently being renovated or are in the construction phase. For groups, a third-party catering service is currently available. Sagebrush also has eight fully-furnished lodge rooms on site that can accommodate up to 16 golfers.
Fingers crossed, hopefully the coming years will see Sagebrush realize its true potential.
“Nobody wants to see Sagebrush succeed more than me,” says Zokol, who has moved on and is currently a real estate specialist at nearby Predator Ridge Golf Resort in Vernon. “Sagebrush is like a child to me. It was a labor of love. I wish the new ownership group all the best.”
From the massive scale of the property to the unrelenting challenge of the course, the “out there” adventure at Sagebrush is certainly one to savor. Just be mindful of the bears. My hunch is they’re still not convinced another Sagebrush comeback should be in the cards.
Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. You can follow him on Instagram at @andrewpennerphotography.