Review: Sagebrush Golf Club

Unfortunately closed, Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club is in the discussion for the best modern golf course in the country, and up there for the best in North America

Information:

  • Quilchena, British Columbia
  • Public — Daily Fee
  • Rod Whitman & Richard Zokol, with Armen Suny (2009)
  • 9th in Canada (Beyond The Contour)

More than any other modern golf course, Sagebrush has been through absolute war to be open in 2022. Following the first couple years of a Redtail-esque model with a small membership to deliver an exclusive private club, Sagebrush opened to public play. In keeping with the original spirit, public play was limited to 80 players a day.

I first played Sagebrush in the fall of 2014, and luckily, I took advantage, playing four times between September 1 and Thanksgiving (mid-October in Canada). At the time, I didn’t know that I might never play Sagebrush again; I just liked the golf course, so I kept going up from Kelowna. As 2015 rolled around, news rumbled on about bankruptcy, meaning Sagebrush would not open in 2015. Likewise for 2016, although a new owner and Troon Golf coming in to manage the facility suggested it might open. Alas, 2022 is Sagebrush’s first full season in eight years.

I was lucky enough to visit the facility in July 2021 prior to a soft opening in the fall of 2021 and the official re-opening season of 2022. Having come out of hibernation, the team at Sagebrush was incredibly gracious to let us visit at the time. From photos (courtesy of Sagebrush’s excellent Instagram), the golf course’s general condition has improved. Granted, we were not complaining at all. In fact, it was a true miracle to see the golf course alive. Superintendent Neil Pilon has done a brilliant job saving one of Rod Whitman’s only golf courses in Canada, and I would argue, his second best (following Cabot Links).

Sagebrush opens with a short par 5, something around 510 yards, but working directly uphill and across the entrance road. This is actually a pretty difficult opening tee shot. Much more room right than it looks, and left is less appealing.

Ideally, finding the fairway leads to a good chance to get home in two. In the Nicola Valley, the ball flies further than perhaps you’re used to, and even though it plays drastically uphill, long hitters can still get home in two. For those laying up (I suspect most should on the first hole), a big blowout bunker on the left awaits, but the scale of Sagebrush becomes apparent and you can play out to the right.

After avoiding the two layup bunkers, a tricky wedge shot awaits to a green perched high above the fairway short. Back in 2014, the ball would run back some 60 yards off the front edge. In 2021, and because the golf course was not officially open at the time, it did not have quite that affect. I hope it is back to that same terror, and I hope to see first-hand in the coming years.

Like everything else, cameras flatten everything, but you can still get a sense of the false front below.

In 2014, the 454 yard par 4, 2nd was my favourite hole, so it is nice to know I was an ok judge at golf holes back in the day! It is still my favourite hole, and an exhilarating one at that. A blind drive, only guided by the fairway edges curled over the ridgeline, awaits. If the opening is a welcoming front entrance, the second is the bouncer in the club asking for ID. Hint: over the right edge of the fairway is ideal.

Cresting the top of the fairway, all the emotion came back from 2014. The perfect sense of déjà vu; we were back! Sagebrush lives!

Even if it is a pretty golf hole to look at, this is a sneaky quality approach shot as well. For most, a fade lie into a green tilting hard to the right means a fade will not work. The original concept of the golf course is heavily reliant on match play; those who can hit the draw off the fade lie into a tricky green will reap the rewards.

The massive hillside mountain to the south of the golf course is the main factor in the routing, and Whitman does a brilliant job balancing out how we interact with it. In the first four holes, we go directly up, across with the low part on the right, across with the low point on the left, and directly down. On the 416 yard par 4, 3rd, the dogleg left sees the left side lower than the high right.

The approach shot is another really nifty concept. With a hard right-handed hook lie and the green orientated to come in with a draw, the golfer is faced with the decision of how much to fight the hill, or how much to let it turn it over. Similar to the 1st, the small pot bunker short right used to be a very influential hazard. The conditions used to be so firm that the play was almost directly on top of the bunker, but as mentioned, 2021 brought softer conditions. I imagine the firmness is back to what it was, or at the very least, close.

At 210 yards, the par 3, 4th is likely the “signature” hole from a marketing perspective, yet strategically, it is still excellent (many golf courses in BC wish they could say this). The hole aggressively heads downhill towards the Nicola River, meaning those who feel they can get it close have options: fly it to the green, or toss it in the slope short and see what happens. If I’m remembering correctly, it is not much more than a 170 shot if you elect to play the ground.

It sure does not look like it, but there is a fair amount of room short to play with.

The 5th is the third high-quality two-shot hole on the front nine, and the first with the prospect of a forced carry. Depending on the line, the carry becomes harder. If you go right, a longer carry awaits. Choose the left lane and a short (if any) carry provides a more forgiving route.

Why attempt the longer carry? Those who take the conservative route up the left will have a blind second shot, whereas the right reveals a view of the green complex. On first play, this is paramount to success, but upon multiple plays and learning the ground’s gravitational pull, you might become more comfortable from the blind approach.

Of my six rounds at Sagebrush, I can remember hitting putter twice, a 9 iron, and two long irons flighted. Bailing out short and left is actually the correct play as the ball will feed down to the hole. Anything short and right is absolute death. Likely the deepest bunker on the golf course, and by far the meanest. With how firm and fast the golf course plays, putter is almost the play if you get the tee shot to a good spot!

The Nicola Valley is historically very windy, and Rod Whitman’s routing uses the predominant winds very well. For example, the 258 yard par 3, 6th, while daunting on the card, historically plays severely downwind. While still a longer club, it is not as bad as it seems. On our visit in 2021, it was rainy and zero wind (both an oddity in the very dry Interior BC), and I have never seen the 6th play into the wind.

Like the 3rd, the left side is lower than the right. Playing high and to the right allows the ball to run up. Anything a little left will likely fall down into the collection area on the short left side.

When we visited in 2021, the 7th looked slightly different than what it did in 2014, and what golfers play now. Initially, the hole played up to the right and back down to the left. The “new” 7th went down and back up to the green. I have split the review into two sections below: the old 7th, which is the current 7th is the routing, and the “new 7th,” which the new ownership turned into a chipping course.

From a mere few steps from the 6th green, the tee shot on 7 works back into the hillside, with trouble all up the left.

Like the 6th, the 7th plays directly downwind and downhill, meaning the 650 price tag plays much less. In fact, occasionally, it can be reachable in two for long hitters (and honestly, not that unheard of). For those going for it, a difficult shot cresting the hill awaits. For those who layup, a difficult shot visually, as it is still blind, and hard to know exactly where to go. The line is further right than it looks.

As you crest the hill, you see how it can be possible to hit the green in two. With a feeder slope up the right, the brave golfer who smokes two downwind can likely get it to the front of this 22,000 square foot green. The two bunkers mysteriously await those who bail right of the green, but not right enough to properly layup. This green is massive.

These bunkers are quite spectacular, and a ball just left of them should tumble down quite aggressively. From the layup area to a right flag, you could just chip a wedge over and it could end up better than trying to fly it closer.

Because the original 7th played up to the right and back down, and the new 7th takes a more direct route, the scorecard yardage would be somewhere around 600 (though unofficial, I have never seen a scorecard with the new hole on it). The tee shot is dramatic, heading directly downhill. Three bunkers cut short of the fairway provide good aiming points to base the shot off of.

It was difficult to get sorted on what exactly this hole is supposed to play as, but if I remember correctly, the tee shot was difficult to figure out exactly what’s happening. However, that is nothing compared to what comes on the second shot, which feels very Tobacco Road on steroids (and far more silly).

I do not necessarily have an issue with the actual second shot, but the strategies that revolve around it. No matter where the golfer plays, the third shot coming home is more than likely blind to any pin not on the far right side. I have no issues with blind shots, but in my opinion, the hole would have been better if there was a way to play to the right side of the fairway and have not only a better angle in, but a clear line. The terrain is so severe that every ball bounces down to the left, and likely ends up in the same place anyway. The view below is basically on the front edge of the green, and while the view becomes less obstructed from here, it seems like a very low chance a high handicap visitor can get the ball here.

The hole is much better as Sagebrush’s short course, and I’m glad it is not in rotation.

Looking back not only provides a good visual for the topography you just traversed over, but the massive size of the green complex and the hill near the green. In some respects, I get why the new routing attempts to bring it more into play, but the original 7th hole is a much better golf hole. As an additional note, the 7th green is the lowest point on the golf course, and closest to the Nicola River.

Finishing off the downhill/downwind is the 474 yard par 4, 8th, which actually features a slightly uphill tee shot to a blind fairway. The bush short and centre is an ideal line.

A bunker-less hole with some of the more fruitful contouring on the golf course, the golfer will once again fight a sideslope to try and keep the ball on the high side where the green is tucked above the run-off area left.

Very little of this review has been based off the green complexes, but they are truly exceptional at Sagebrush. Perhaps the best part? I find them very difficult to describe. On other modern golf courses, it can be easy to just say they do this or that, but at Sagebrush, they do this, that, a whole bunch of other stuff, and a wide variety of random movement that make it a ton of fun to putt on these greens. The randomness also helps at a place like this, where you want to go out multiple times. The replay value is off the charts, and the green complexes are a massive part of that.

Looking back provides a better view of the contours you played over.

Finishing off the front nine is the 442 yard par 4, 9th, which might be the most difficult hole on the front nine. Directly uphill, although a wide tee shot, a good tee ball is a must.

The difficult part? The approach shot, which seems benign… after all, it is just an uphill shot with a bunker short and left, right?

Sort of, I guess. In fact, the most interesting green in Canada awaits, with a boomerang-esque shape, and copious intricacies that add numerous pin locations.

Another look from the back left portion:

Starting the back nine is a charming little 168 yard par 3 to a wicked green complex. In my first review, I labelled the 10th as the weakest hole at Sagebrush, but I disagree with myself. In fact, I think it is a wonderful middle length par 3 (and, the weakest hole comes soon).

A sneaky good green complex:

While the 9th is the front nines hardest hole, the 11th is the golf courses most difficult hole on either side. 488 yards, this dogleg left plays over some very aggressive terrain, although there is more than enough width.

The issue? A tee shot up the right only adds yardage to this long par 4, and on the inside corner, gunk and a bunker just sit there waiting a mistake. In the photo above, anything left of the sprinkler on is ideal.

After a successful tee shot, a fan-favourite approach shot to a green set on the other side of a depression area short, perched into the hillside.

I really hate marketing courses around “well, we build this hole/course after x course,” and the 12th and 13th are Zokol’s vision for Pine Valley and Riviera. The par 3, 12th is 126 yards playing slightly uphill to a well protected green. I guess the concept is a bunker short right is inspired by the par 3, 10th at Pine Valley with the “Devil’s Asshole” bunker, but I still think it’s a cheap marketing ploy. Nonetheless, there is an obvious stylistic change as the routing heads into the forest.

As mentioned, the par 4, 13th is said to be Richard Zokol’s version of the 10th at Riviera. Bleh. At 320 yards and severely downhill, this is very drivable.

I am not quite sure where the connection comes from, but I guess they are both drivable. Regardless, this is the least interesting hole on the golf course because there is very little sense in laying up. In fact, I would venture there is more risk to laying up with the water on the left. In my view, having very little benefit to laying up essentially just turns the hole into a long par 3, but it’s nice to look at. From the layup area, it is a straightforward wedge, but the green slopes away from the golfer and can get fairly dicey.

Back to the good golf, the 584 yard par 5, 14th is an exceptional three-shot hole, and for my money, the best par 5 on the golf course.

On the tee shot, a very wide and inviting tee shot awaits as it merges with the par 4, 11th. For the record, the fairway across is 154 yards, so swing hard!

I personally enjoy holes like this, and particularly, when an architect uses scale and width to provide a false sense of comfort. Yes, there is a ton of width to your right, but the green is tucked up to the left, meaning those who are aggressive or want to save some yardage must play up the left.

Even on the layup, there is far more width right than you reasonably need or should use, yet the added comfort almost suggests you can let loose a little bit. The issue is, any ball right of centre now has a difficult, blind uphill third shot. Even from the ideal position, the third is still semi-blind, with only a view of the top of the flag.

The back right tongue further accentuates the strategies asked, where the bold golfer in match play who needs to win a hole down the stretch must play up the left.

I really do not remember the 369 yard par 4, 15th being as good as it is, but here we are. With a high left little section and the lower right depression, a proper tee shot plays to the flat, level section up on the left.

This is such a great green complex, tucked effortlessly into the hillside with the right side being carnage. For a short par 4, a lot can go wrong here, but it should not be more than a long club-short iron if played correctly. From a match play perspective, risk-reward lurks; from a stroke play stance, a two-shot swing is certainly in the cards.

The final par 5 of the day feels a lot like the original 7th, and plays at a similar length. 644 yards, this downhill tee shot looks very tight, but there is more room right than you think. Like the 7th, the 16th heads straight downwind, but plays more downhill.

Unlike the 7th, a view of the green pops up from the fairway, allowing a bit more of a visual aid. However, unlike the 7th, a broken fairway bisected by some natural grasses divides the upper and lower portions of the hole. Get down below (or maybe get on in two), or stay high? That is the layup question.

A nice reminder of the scale of Sagebrush: that is a regulation size flag.

Why is another 650-ish par 5 reachable? The golfer really only has to get it over the bunker short of the green to hit the downslope and potentially springboard the ball towards the 24,000 square foot green. If you miss the downslope, you could potentially putt it like the 5th. Options are certainly around this golf course, and the 16th is no exception.

The 434 yard par 4, 17th begins the journey back home heading west. It is a beautiful tee shot with the valley in the background, but one that demands your attention: no longer do we have some mega-width (or at least that is how it feels).

The approach shot is fairly straightforward, but the green is good. Not a highlight, but is not necessarily a detractor from the quality found.

The 420 yard par 4, 18th is a good hole, but I almost get the sense that with match play being the main focus, having the 18th hole as a standout could potentially be a waste if matches do not make it this far. Like Toronto Golf Club or The Old Course, the 18th hole is not one of the stronger holes, but like the 17th, not a weak hole either. The tee shot reminds me of the 5th, where a ball up the right is a more difficult carry, but opens up a view of the green. Up the left is likely easier off the tee, but semi-blind or even blind coming home.

I do like the way the green sits into the landscape though. Simple and classy. A gentle way to end, although satisfactory enough where you do not feel like it ends on a sour note.

This is Canada’s craziest golf course, and it is not really that close either. After seeing Cabot Links and Cliffs, it combines the best aspects of both. A bit of adventure golf over hilly terrain like Cliffs, a lot of Rod’s fine detailing around the greens (and a strong routing) like Links. The only thing holding it back? Well, two things: it is a hike of a walk (granted, that is the property), and the 13th hole feels woefully out of place, in my view. Nonetheless, the scale is out of this world, the golf is fun and rambunctious, and Rod Whitman is at his absolute best here.

Before your round ends, don’t forget to stay until dark to use the putting course with the lights. The perk of Sagebrush is the fee is an all-day rate: enjoy it, play as much as golf as you can, and explore a fantastic property. This is one I cannot wait to get back to.

Author

  • Andrew Harvie

    Based in Toronto, but having lived in Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Arizona, and Texas, I have been lucky enough to see over 400 golf courses and counting!

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