More than golfing at St. Andrew’s, Lahinch, Ballybunion, Boulders or Bandon Dunes, playing the visionary, infamous links of Sagebrush seven years ago has been our favourite golf experience in the world.
“Sagebrush’s archetypal course design, fast & firm playability and modest essence embraces the origins of the time-honoured game of golf as it was hundreds of years ago.” Sagebrush Scorecard.
On a panoramic mountaintop overlooking the spectacular Nicola Valley, on fescue fairways once part of the legendary Quilchena Ranch, Sagebrush was acclaimed by Golf Digest as the “Best New Course in Canada” in 2009 when it opened for play.
At the fore, Sagebrush was Canada’s first “minimalist-style” golf course. Minimal construction and maintenance—by relying on the land’s natural features, moving little earth (few courses since St. Andrews have done this), embracing a dried-out look instead of country-club manicuring, watering the greens only twice a week and needing fewer maintenance staff. Minimal golfers—the idea was to never have more than 40-60 golfers on the classic links at one time. Minimal rules—you could choose the hole you wanted to start on, stop at the 14th and bag your club and cast a rod for trout, or like us, pause at the Hideout for a barbequed burger. Naturally, the price to play was not minimal, at first that is…
Former PGA Tour professional Dick Zokol discovered the area’s potential for a golf course in 1999. He had his eye on Douglas Lake Ranch, but before he could swing a deal, the owner, Bernie Ebbers, fraudster CEO of WorldCom Inc., got hung up in a scandal that eventually landed him in jail. Quilchena Ranch, Dick discovered, had recently been partially zoned for a golf course. He struck a deal to lease 388 acres for 149 years at a cost of $100,000 annually.
Founded as an exclusive private retreat to rival the best golf courses in the world, Dick was joined at Sagebrush by co-designers Rob Witman and Armen Suny. The trio envisioned a different “minimalist” way of financing the course, too.
As you know, most private golf clubs in Canada charge an initiation fee, which can cost up to $100,000, and bill each member thousands more annually to cover costs. To build his dream course, Dick envisioned 40 members paying $200,000 each for the privilege of joining and $5,000 annually toward services. Members could use the course for corporate outings and invite three other members each year, who would pay $7,500 in annual fees.
Bad timing. Competition came from celebrity designers with real-estate linked to their developments, like Tom McBroom, PGA Tour star Fred Couples and Canadian golf star Mike Weir.
Dick decided to offer a real-estate component to members, as the lease entitled him to, and brought in investors.
Then came the financial crash of 2008.
Sagebrush opened a year later, but it took until 2013 before three deluxe cottages were added—where Magellan and I slept in one of them for a night, dreaming of lofting a golf ball within inches of the cup.
Dick parted ways with the investors in 2012. Sagebrush was struggling. Not good for the course but excellent news for us because in 2014 they announced a bargain rate for two rounds of play and one night’s accommodation and meals for BC residents. (We considered a sweetly priced membership but the five-hour from Vancouver on the Coquihalla squelched our enthusiasm.)
A sense of playing with abandon, of freedom, immerses you at Sagebrush. Starting at the first tee, which plays straight uphill 300 feet and continuing on to generous fairways the width of a football field, firm and bouncy fescue (helpful to my score), rugged and rake-free natural bunkers, contoured and oversized greens (#16 at 23,000 square FEET is Canada’s largest) and the Badlands Putting Course, two acres reminiscent of the famed Himalayas Putting Course at St. Andrews and the Punch Bowl at Bandon Dunes…
I played the front tees (the course plays 4,838-7,396 yards) and Magellan the second-longest at 6,646 yards, which was most enjoyable because we often found ourselves in the same area on the fairway. Minimal is the signage. More than once we were lost looking for the next tee. And once we drove our balls onto the wrong fairway. Luckily, a woman saw us, so we teed up again to the correct flag and picked up our errant balls three holes later. With only about 14 players on the course that day, it didn’t really matter.
“With respect to match disputes, common sense must prevail.” Sagebrush Scorecard.
And (drum roll please…) I love Sagebrush because it is the first course (and one of a small handful) on which I broke 100! Not once, but on both rounds—97 and 93!!
Naturally we celebrated. After the first round and a delicious dinner, we gathered around an outdoor firepit , an employee staying up late to hydrate us, another couple and a group of eight guys who had been golf holidaying together for years. One of the guys played guitar, another sang beautifully and the rest joined in. Not your usual high-testosterone, big-swingin’ guys, the pleasure of their shared friendship and subdued camaraderie matched the quiet, relaxed and playful nature for which Sagebrush is known.
“Infamous,” however, describes more than the course playability at Sagebrush.
Sadly, at the end of the 2014 season after we golfed there, Sagebrush closed.
Mark Chandler bought Sagebrush in 2015 but the course remained closed, in part because zoning issues with the Thompson-Nicola Regional District held up real-estate development. Mortgages were extended but breached their terms and went unpaid. Contractors registered liens. Maintenance equipment and power carts were seized. The course was neglected.
By 2017, $62 million was owed to various creditors and the trustee for the project found that the 91 proposed units had been “sold” 149 times. Mark was later sentenced to six years in prison in a Los Angeles courtroom after being convicted on a charge of wire fraud.
Fast forward to today. A small group headed by Langley real-estate developer Andrew Knott now owns the long-term lease on the property. They have hired the former course superintendent Neil Pilon, spent more than $1 million reclaiming the course and plan to invest $3 million more on the course, clubhouse and Hideout. A priority will be selling lots, ranging in size from one acre to five acres. And they’re hoping to open July 1, 2021!
Like a clock, Sagebrush has come full circle in the twelve years since it opened. Let’s hope time is on its side because although we are barely golfing these days, we’d sure like to play another round at Sagebrush before our clocks run out.
“Executives Cut Ties with Sagebrush Golf Course.” Kamloops This Week. September 11, 2017.
Zimmer, Brad. “Sagebrush Gets a New Lease on Life.” British Columbia Golf.