Last Updated on Sunday, 28 September 2008 07:27 Saturday, 27 September 2008 11:02
Taking a holiday in the Okanagan section of B.C. is second nature to me. While I wasn’t raised in this beautiful part of the country my parents have lived there for 20-some years now and as such, Kelowna and area has become my holiday ‘home’.
While most Albertans hit the ground running to get as much golf in as possible when they visit this part of the country on a golf holiday, it seems most tend to gravitate towards the courses with the big names in the area – Predator Ridge, Gallagher’s Canyon, The Harvest Club and such.
Having gone that route in years past, I chose a different game plan this time around.
While there’s nothing wrong with the well known layouts - in fact they’re all great tests of your game - I was looking for something different this time and found it by getting off the ‘beaten’ path of tracks everyone thinks they must play and heading to those I feel everyone should play.
With this year’s group of courses that I whacked my way around – Kelowna Springs, Canoe Creek, the Vernon Golf and Country Club, Inkameep and The Club at Tower Ranch - you get a taste of great golf from clubs not everyone knows much about.
Since I’m from northern Alberta and didn’t want to waste any time getting to my appointed rounds of golf that ran from the Salmon Arm area south to Oliver on this trip, I took a WestJet flight from Edmonton to Kelowna.
KELOWNA SPRINGS GOLF CLUB
Within an hour of touching down at the Kelowna airport, I was teeing it up at Kelowna Springs, a walkable course that throws more at you than you think when you first see it. The 6,300-yard course is flat but to discount it because of that is a huge error in judgment.
This track is one that’s loved by the locals and it stands up well to anyone’s game because it calls for a sharp short game to have any sort of success.
Owner Ian Robertson says he feels his course stacks up well against others in the valley for a number of reasons.
“It’s a very well designed course by Les Furber. It has a good location and we appeal to every chunk of the golf market not just a specific chunk of the golf market like some with length or difficulty of play or not being lady-friendly,” he said candidly to Inside Golf.
“I think we are probably the strongest in the Kelowna market in the female market, the senior market and we’re probably the middle of the pack of the 30- to 50-year-old male market which is probably the No. 1 demographic in golf,” he added.
Robertson credits several factors at his course for drawing the public to its fairways. He feels the length is a big thing – white it’s not overly long it offers short game challenges with those tricky in-between shots for big hitters – and the fact it’s an easy walk.
More than anything though, he notes, it’s the greens that make this course what it is, along with some aid from all the bunkers and water that come into play.
“We have water in play on 11 holes which is probably the most in the Okanagan golf market. We’ve probably got as many, or more, bunkers than anybody. The greens average about 5,000 square feet with the typical Furber mounding and subtle breaks,” so while the putting surfaces aren’t difficult to get to they sometimes aren’t easy to get off of, the owner explained.
The true benchmark of this course, Robertson continued, are the five finishing holes starting with a par-4 that measures ‘only’ 377 yards but challenges a tee shot to land between water hazards and an approach shot over water to a well-bunkered green. That’s followed by a 508-yard par 5 with water all the way down the right side and huge bunkers in front of the green; a par-3 at 179 yards that’s again guarded by water and sand and then a nasty 408-yard par-4 that calls for a demanding second shot over water to reach a rolling green.
Things are wrapped up with a 501-yard par-5 hole that gives you plenty to aim at on your tee shot but quickly narrows down to a strip of grass protected by sand and water as you near the green.
“The last five here are really a remarkable run of holes,” Robertson states with delight in his voice. “Because it’s a shorter course it’s quite conceivable many golfers could have a good game going walking off the 13th hole,” which can disappear in a hurry down the home stretch. “The last five have lots of water and bunkers and there are no boring green sites. Many a round have a bite taken out of them in the last five holes, that’s for sure,” making this course one of those you won’t be disappointed in.
CANOE CREEK GOLF COURSE
Having escaped K Springs with a bit of dignity, and a few golf balls left in my bag, it was into the car and down Highway 97 to Salmon Arm on Day 2 of my journey.
This time I was off to a new track in the valley, and one that’s received rave reviews even though it’s only been open for 18 months.
Yet when you step onto the first tee at Canoe Creek, Canadian PGA Tour veteran Dave Barr’s first-ever design, you think you’re on a well-established course. That feeling is driven home even more as you line up shots on the already-mature fairways and stellar greens that all run fast and true.
Only 90 minutes or so north of Kelowna, this track is worth the drive. It’s in a great setting and there’s a feel of British golf to it with pot bunkers and fescue grasses if you stray from the short grass.
Head pro Hall Thomlinson feels his course isn’t out of the way by any stretch since it’s “right in the way of anyone driving to those other courses from Alberta. We’re only an hour from Kamloops and 30 minutes from Vernon, so we thought it was an excellent place for a golf course.”
There’s no arguing that fact when you start making your way around this work of art that plays to 6,541 off the blue tees and just over 7,000 from the tips. It calls for every shot in your bag and sometimes ones you may have to create on the fly.
Thomlinson stands by the man that created this masterpiece, saying Barr put his handprint on the course and it will become one of the big name courses in the not too distant future for a few reasons.
“Dave Barr likes the subtle greens, the pot bunkers, the more traditional British links styles. You’ll find our course more forgiving than some. We’re very forgiving off the tee but we narrow in around the greens. We have a couple of holes where I guess you’d call it a blind shot – but what is a blind shot? Yeah, you can’t see where you’re going but once you play it once you know where you’re going. I think people exaggerate blind shots,” the course’s head pro states emphatically.
One of those shots comes into play on the 11th hole, a par-5 dogleg left with trouble everywhere if you miss the fairway. It calls for a drive of around 240 yards, give or take a few, to safely land in a good area for your second shot over the creek that leads you into the turn.
While that doesn’t sound difficult, you must stay far enough left to see the green for your third shot, but also not so far in that direction you end up in the hazard. Big hitters can go for the green and an eagle possibility but a miss can be costly.
As for how he’d play his course the first time, Thomlinson noted it’s a risk-reward type of setup so that plays a major role in how players should approach this course that’s a blast to play.
“If you want to attack it you can be rewarded but you can also be penalized,” he said. “There are holes out here you can go after,” but you must be cognizant of the troubles that lie in wait if you get off the short grass.
That being said, this course sets up well for players of all abilities the head pro noted, and it is designed to work well with another well-known course in the area.
“We wanted our course to compliment the Salmon Arm Golf and Country Club,” Canoe Creek’s head pro stated. “The Salmon Arm course has an excellent reputation and we didn’t want to build another golf course that looked like it. You’re playing two different tracks. Every one of our holes is different and it’s easy for you to remember which one of our holes is which.”
Sometimes when new clubs open they struggle to find the right service footing for handling guests. That won’t be a problem at Canoe Creek, Thomlinson said. While plans eventually call for a hotel and conference centre to be constructed on-site, for now it’s all about today and their playing guests.
“It’s their day out,” Thomlinson said of golfers teeing it up at his course. “It’s their holiday and we want them to have a nice experience,” which at this great track isn’t hard to do.
Canoe Creek is user-friendly and one of those courses that as soon as you walk off the final green you’re ready to head over to the first box and tee it up again for another run at a course whose reputation is going to grow quickly.
VERNON GOLF & COUNTRY CLUB
Back down the road in Vernon, I decided it was time to play the venerable Vernon Golf and Country Club, the oldest club in the Okanagan. As such, this course features inviting fairways lined with Lombardi pine and weeping willow trees, which can often come into play.
“Tosses the 90 per cent air theory right out the window,” club member and playing partner Bryan Wiens said as I looked at what was shaping up to be another punch shot from behind one of the beautiful, but somewhat annoying, trees.
“That’s a big part of the design and they provide you with challenges,” the club’s head pro, Shannon Glenesk, said of the trees lining the course. “They defend the course well. You always have to be mindful of the trajectory of the ball here. You have shots under, over, and beside trees all day, which allows a premium type of player to come out of here. The most notable of those is Chris Baryla, who is now on the Nationwide Tour.”
The other important element one must remember when playing this stately course is that every putt on the greens, and I mean every putt, breaks towards Vernon Creek, sometimes quite sharply.
Those two factors, plus the length of some of the par-4 holes are what makes this grand old course what it is, Glenesk said.
“I’d say the greens defend the golf course. The character of the golf course is it plays difficult to start and then you have a bit of an easier run through the middle, where you can make a few birdies. As soon as you start coming home on 16, 17, 18 though it gets very difficult. You can often lose a good round there.”
While this track measures out at ‘only’ 6,597 yards there are a few holes that make that distance seem miles longer. In particular, two par 4 holes stand out as monsters and often leave players having to one putt for a par.
The first of those is No. 6 at 444 yards and playing uphill. It calls not only for a great tee shot but a wonderful second to have any hope of reaching the green. If you come up short and left with a pitch shot in, you have to be careful where you land your ball as making a one-putt on any green on this course is never a given.
The second demanding par-4 is the 16th, which calls for a blind tee shot (you look ahead through the coolest of periscopes, hidden under some leafy foliage just off the tee box) and then another long second shot into a small green. Playing at 460 yards, a par here is a reward for a well-played hole.
Those two are offset by a couple of shorter holes to begin the back nine – No. 10 is 340 yards off the blue tee and easily reachable in two while No. 11 is even shorter at 287 yards, really calling for only an iron off the tee.
The slope of their greens protects both of these holes and taking only two putts on either is often a bonus. The one thing the public has to realize is this is a members’ club, but when space is available traveling golfers are more than welcome to challenge this layout.
“The current situation, which may change, is we do a member draw for tee times twice a week,” the head pro said. “Generally we try to ask outside and guest play to book after the member draw. Of course, with the area being a resort destination, people need to book in advance so we do that, although those have to come through my desk.
“We don’t like to put too many guests through in the morning. What we do to encourage guest play and to get them to feel welcome and play in the afternoon is offer a complimentary golf cart with their green fee, for play between one and four in the afternoon. That’s some of the best value you’re going to see in the Okanagan,” the club’s head pro, who trained at the Mill Woods Golf Course in Edmonton, explained.
Again, this is a course many occasional players in the area may bypass for a bigger name. To do that, Glenesk feels, is a mistake.
“Let me say I’ve never come across someone who has been disappointed after playing this golf course,” he commented. “It seems to be the place that offers plenty of challenges for the scratch golfer because you have to hit all kinds of shots. There’s not a ton of hazards like the average resort course so the beginner can come out here and konk the ball along and really enjoy the course and have a good time.”
One interesting sidelight to the Vernon Golf & Country Club is a character who has become a permanent fixture alongside the second tee box. Mike has been there for over 30 years, with the blessing of the golf course’s management, selling ‘experienced’ golf balls he finds outside the property line.
In a brief conversation prior to teeing off, Mike told me he sends most of the money he makes from selling the balls (at $1 for a Pro V1 he offers good deals) to his family back in Europe.
“He’s an institution here and welcome here and always has been,” Glenesk said. “You see him at 4:30 in the morning walking the hills collecting balls. The membership has adopted him and supports him. We could probably sell triple the balls in the pro shop here (if he wasn’t on the tee box) but that’s OK.”
Just as it’s OK for the public to book a time at this stately old course and give it a try as it is one of the truly fine facilities in the Okanagan Valley.
NK’MIP DESERT CANYON COURSE
Going south down Highway 97 towards the U.S. border, I’ve found a new favourite golf course in the Okanagan – Nk’Mip (Inkameep) Desert Canyon Course.
Located in Oliver, this track was re-designed from the original 9-hole course, Cherry Grove, in 2001 into the present 18-hole layout that’s not only fun to play but also a pleasure to look at. By the way, when you first drive onto the property, don’t let your initial view of the course derail thoughts of a great day.
What you’re actually seeing is the flatland area of the course, the old holes that were worked into the new design, and a couple of practice holes left over from the old layout and these holes are actually far from what most of this great facility looks like.
“What they did was re-build 13 holes, nine of which are on the back plateau, in what used to be a rock quarry,” head pro Jeff Papilion explained about the skewed first impression new visitors can get. “The five holes on the bottom are all new tee decks, new fairways, new greens, but it’s still the old Cherry Grove. Really, we have 13 canyon holes and five park/meadows holes.”
While the flats are nice it’s the canyon part of this course that catches one’s attention and also any wayward shots one fires off. The holes are framed by the desert and hillside rough, which can put you in purgatory in a hurry.
“The first hole has an environmental canyon on the left and desert on the right and it’s about as wide as a hallway,” Papilion said, warming up to the task of laying out the visuals of his track.
“No. 2 is a dogleg with desert on the right and left. No. 3 is a tough par-3. No. 4 is desert left and canyon right and it goes over the flume, which carries the water from Okanagan Lake all the way down to the south Okanagan. There’s another irrigation flume and a canyon so your second shot is a carry over...nothing to a leveled off green. The first four holes are probably the four toughest starting holes I’ve seen in a long time.”
Things don’t get a whole lot easier once you clear that stretch. The fifth is in the flat and wide open, inviting a big swing after the confines of the first four holes. At the same time, it is long at 485 yards and with a waste bunker stretching down the right hand side of the fairway, it’s a monster laying in wait.
Oh, did we mention that it’s a par-4 hole?
You can’t walk in afraid of the course, Papilion notes, but asking for some help on the first tee isn’t a bad thing. From the back tees, which measure out at just under 7,000 yards, the pro simply says “it’s tough,” and advises those of more than a five handicap to steer clear of those markers. The blue tees are around 6,560 yards and the whites sit at about 6,000 yards.
This is one of those courses where straight is better than long, and that monstrous fourth hole aside, Papilion says while not all off-line shots end up in bad places, there are some waiting out there for stray missiles.
This is more of a target course than a “smash-and-bam” layout but Papilion noted, bad shots could end up in places where you do have a chance to recover.
“You may have a shot from out there but chances are you’re going to be under a rock or behind sagebrush. You can get some pretty funky lies out in the desert,” he warned pointing out again straight is better than long out here.
“You need to be a shot-maker out here. You have to be able to place the ball where you want it. You have to hit the right side of the green and they are fast. It’s basically distance control and course management.”
The one thing about great courses like this is the amount of time they’re open for play. Inkameep opens in early March and runs through until the first week of November, stretching the season out about a month more than clubs in Vernon and Kelowna may get.
To the course’s head man, the time it takes to drive down here is well worth it. He suggests golf is still reasonably priced in this part of B.C. and with a season that stretches out into period of time Alberta starts getting snow, it’s certainly worth the extra little bit of effort it takes to get here - because when you pull into this course you’re in for a surprise – and a good one at that.
Nk’Mip Canyon Desert Golf Course is a wonderful track that is pleasing to the eye, whether your scorecard reads close to par at the end of your round or well above it.
THE CLUB AT TOWER RANCH
The newest course in the Kelowna area, Tower Ranch is a gem that’s calling on all visitors to take a run at its manicured fairways, undulating greens and unbelievable scenery.
To sum it up simply – WOW! Or as my playing partners put it – “This makes Gallagher’s Canyon look easy!”
This track is somewhat intimidating in its visuals alone – steep drops on holes and just as steep climbs to reach others. The elevation changes are startling and the vistas provided while playing here are absolutely stunning with the lakes of the Okanagan and the city of Kelowna spread out in front of you on almost every hole.
This is another one of those tracks where course management is the key to success. You don’t necessarily need to bomb it but you do need to hit your target points repeatedly to stay out of the fescue grass, which eat golf balls for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Since Tower just opened its doors recently, it hasn’t fully grown in as of yet, but that wasn’t an evident problem on any of the holes.
“We had a bit of an advantage in that we have south-facing slopes,” head pro Neil Schmidt said about the quick maturation process of this layout that has let the public get onto its fairways quickly.
As for how to play this track, course management and patience with what it gives you are two key components to success, the head pro suggests.
“You have to play 3-woods and hybrids a lot. It’s not really target golf. You play to the 150s and then to the middle of the greens. The greens aren’t overly big but they all seem to collect in certain areas, which can allow you aggressive putts. It’s a golf course that makes you think. I almost call it a chess game. You have to think shot number two before you think shot number one. It’s a pretty neat course. It’s not like any other in the Okanagan.”
That, to me, was likely the understatement of this week.
The Club at Tower Ranch is imposing in its looks and its length, yet at the same time it plays shorter than the yardages tell you – well for the most part because there are those false fronts on four greens.
“The green on nine is a hot topic,” Schmidt stated about one of those greens where if you come up even just a yard or two short on your approach your ball is coming back to you, in a hurry.
“The false fronts are part of (course designer Thomas) McBroom’s designs. Eight has it. Nine has it as well as 10 and 11. The fronts saddle off but the backs saddle on. He gives you what I call bumpers,” which in effect force the properly landed ball into the middle of the putting area.
One hole with a false front is No. 9, a 366-yard uphill tester with a steep back to front slope on the green that continues well down off the front apron. To top that off, there are several strategically placed bunkers around the green.
One key to this course is there is somewhere to seek shelter from what can be spine-tingling approach shots on each hole. Schmidt pointed out there is always room to miss, usually to the right side of the green.
Upon request, he passed along a helpful hint for those that haven’t been here before – every putt and approach shot breaks towards the airport and not the lake.
“The airport is actually lower than the lake. It’s actually a frost pocket out this way. That’s where people get frustrated. They think uphill when it’s actually downhill. My tip is if you don’t know, find the airport because the ball is going to go that way.”
The Club at Tower Ranch offers golfers an experience unlike any other in the Okanagan from several points and that’s what makes it one you should make sure to tee it up on, Schmidt noted.
“This whole golf course is totally different than what’s here, including Predator. That’s a good course but they don’t have the elevation changes, or the views, we have here. There are things people take away from here that make them want to come back. You play it once and know the short cuts – where to go the next time.”
The one surprise with Tower is there are no trees, except behind some of the greens or tee boxes. In other words, the layout uses man-made defences against the onslaught of golfers.
“The bunkering is our defence,”Schmidt said. “The greens are our defence. And yeah, the fescue. There’s nothing that really tricks out on you here. The fescue and the bunkering are there to make you think,” he ended.
So if you do think you can walk onto this course and light it up, think again. It’s a great challenge of golf that can unnerve even the best player in a hurry, even with the gorgeous face it puts on.
Overall, the quality of golf in the Okanagan has always been top-rate and it’s going nowhere but up.
The courses I played were all in first-rate condition and playing times were generally around four hours or slightly over, which to anyone on a golf holiday means one thing – there’s enough time for a second 18 on the same day – and what more could you ask?
Gord Montgomery is a sports reporter/photographer in Spruce Grove, Ab. He can be reached at noraltagolf.gmail.com.
By Gord Montgomery
About the writer: Gord Montgomery is the sports editor of two weekly newspapers in the Edmonton area and is a member of the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. He has written for Inside Golf for the past four years with the majority of his coverage in north and central Alberta. He can be reached at email@example.com://www.insidegolf.ca