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Course Review: Tobiano Golf Club

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Course Review: Tobiano GC (outside Kamloops, BC)

Designer: Thomas McBroom

Opened: July 2007

Has there been a more marketed, more hyped course in recent memory than Tobiano? Let’s be honest, the photos that have been used for marketing the course are stunning. But like a dumb blonde, my concern was the course would be all eye candy and no substance. Sure McBroom had been calling it his best work — but Tom is kind enough to bestow that title to pretty much every new client.

Turns out in this case that McBroom was telling the honest to goodness truth. Tobiano is McBroom’s best work to date, a stunningly fascinating combination of desert golf mixed with the huge elevations of the mountains. It isn’t always kind — and in places can be damned difficult, with some imposing forced carries — but if you can get your head around that, and stop having thousand-yard stares out at the remarkably long vistas, then it is easy to conclude this may be McBroom’s modern masterpiece.

The look is defined before one even gets onto the course. Driving in on a roadway overlooking the course, it appears a mass of green in a brown landscape, so defined is the grass of the fairways and greens against the naturally arid surroudings. Essentially the Kamloops area receives about as little rain as anywhere in Canada, creating a desert-like setting. But there’s more than that to the land of Tobiano. It is also craved out by some long gone pre-historic force which yielded massive hills and valleys on a landscape that is almost treeless. The scale is stunningly large, with vistas running for miles up and down the valley that rests next to a blue lake. It is as good a setting for golf as any I’ve seen.

Which brings us to the actual course. The first hole (pictured above) provides a relatively good sense of what is to come. Playing significantly downhill, with a shallow valley on the right rising to a rugged ridgeline, with bunkering straightaway forcing golfers to turn their tee shot right to left, the opener is a fine par-5. All the elements of the remainder of the course are present: the bunker style, with its unusual grassing pattern, which isn’t rugged like a Doak or Coore bunker, but which has its own natural elegence; the severe drops to areas of no recovery, and the huge elevation changes. From this whole the pattern is taken to an extreme throughout.

Interestingly the second hole is a short, but tricky par-4, a routing pattern McBroom used at Ridge at Manitou in Muskoka, which starts with a par-5 followed by a short-4 with a green situated to the right of the fairway. It forces golfers to hit a high fade or a draw over the hazard if they wish to try from the green, though I wonder if the hole is too exacting to actually be reachable. The odds would surely be against the golfer that tries.

The fourth hole appears to me to set the pattern McBroom uses throughout the remainder of the course. Though the site is punctuated by large valleys bounded by huge rising hills, the architect decided to forsake the valleys for the drama of playing from hilltop to hilltop. The fourth — a par-4 playing over 500 yards from the tips — has tees set up on the tops of little hills, and a tee shot that plays over a naturalized area to a narrow fairway with a dramatic fall away that plunges into the valley of the fifth hole. Like many holes on the course, it asks for a drawn tee shot.

In contrast is the fifth hole, one of the only holes that plays through a valley. A fine, challenging hole, it is too bad that the course construction and ownership found the need to run cart paths through the entirety of the course, because it is here where they alter the landscape in a negative way.

After the lone valley hole, McBroom embraces his concept of placing tees on the tops of small rising hills and fairways running on large hills that are almost dune-like in nature. That makes the course unwalkable and leads to some long cart rides, but also creates some of the most breathtaking holes in all of Canada. The question for some will be whether it is all too much. The knock by some against the course — which has fairways as narrow as 25 paces in some spots — is that it is too hard, especially if a wind blows, as it often does. I played the course in two conditions — with a calm wind from a mix of back and next-to-back tees in the morning. The longest carries, though imposing, only measure out at around 225 yards, which might prove too much for the average golfer, but the average golfer shouldn’t be playing at 7,000 yards. The forward tees, which measure around 6,300 yards, present much easier carries.

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No where is this more obvious than on the 7th hole (above), which appears to be McBroom’s homage to some classic all-or-nothing par-3s, like Clammity at Royal Portrush, or even the 16th at Beacon Hall, which he assisted Bob Cupp in creating. At 200 yards from the tips, it plays over a massive chasm to a green 18 paces wide with a steep fall off at the back. It is a remarkable setting for a hole, and if I had one middling criticism, it would be that the fall off at the back is too severe for the long iron that is expected. That said, secondary tees, positioned to the left, open up the green and make it much more reasonable for a high-handicap player.

And give McBroom full credit as a designer. Though there are holes that run significantly uphill, his design rarely makes the player aware of the elevation change upwards. By using clever design constructs, holes like 13, a par-5 that is arguably the most exacting and best on the course, wind their way up 50 or 60 feet without tipping the golfer off to the trick. It is only when they arrive at the green and look backwards that they become aware of McBroom’s visual trickery. It is smart, fun golf.

[photopress:tobiano13.jpg,full,centered]Tobiano isn’t perfect. The carts rides from green to tee are excessive (as well as crazy long rides within holes on occasion, like the 6th tee to the fairway), and the occasional hole — like the par-4 ninth — seem too slight and severe for the higher winds. But it is both extremely challenging while also being a lot of fun, a combination that is rare.

A modern Canadian course that rivals the best in the country? That would be my take.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

10 CommentsLeave a comment

  • The Kamloops landscape is spectacular. As an easterner who moved west, I had no idea Canada had that sort of terrain and vegetation until I drove west. It shouldn’t be hard to make a spectacular course on that site.

  • Do you mean the cart rides from green to tee are excessive? (not tee to green)

    I think a far bigger problem than the green to tee cart rides are the TEE TO FAIRWAY cart rides. Far too often the golfer is required to tee-off and then descend into massive gullies (and back up the other side to the fairway. This aspect alone makes the course unwalkable. Perhaps bridges like Cape Kidnappers would have fixed this problem?

  • Andrew: Bang on — which is what I meant to say (and edited the review to reflect as much).

    Guy: Good question. It is a residential project, but the houses are well set back and they are only using very limited land for the course, out of all the land they own. Since it is a desert, I think the impact is limited. And there is little actual maintained land, versus the wide areas of unmaintained property.

  • I appreciate the photos. They are unique, I ‘ve seen about 6 other reviews of this course and they are all the super long shot looking into the lake.

    Any other reviews forthcoming re: Kamloops/Kelowna courses,
    I’m curious about how the Fred Couples course is.

  • As a local resident, I can tell you that Kamloops only gets about 10.5 inches of total preciptation per year, but it is intersected by major rivers and close to major lakes. The course has ample water sources nearby so it is not using scarce resources by any stretch. The landscape of the Southern Interior of BC is unique to Canada with it’s hot dry weather and sagebrush covered hills. Golfers come here for the great courses and reliable weather. Bring sunscreen.

  • Having just played this course I feel compelled to comment on the assertion that this is some kind of great course. It is an Arizona resort course dropped onto a beautiful piece of land with a marvelous view. It does have some decent holes but to much trickery is built in. Holes #2, 14, and 18 are prime examples of this. A beautiful view does not make the course great. BC has many more truly great courses. This course was built to capture the surrounding real estate value and only those with money falling out of their pockets will rationalize this as being a great course. Predator Ridge is far more fair and playable. One play is enough for me and the fact the tee recommendations clearly do not match the handicap required to play, may have worsened the experience. For the less than perfect golfer, this course will require a years supply of golf balls…..and that will turn off most real golfers.

  • I played the course on August 27 and would go back in a flash. As we are all mid-teen handicappers, we played from what would be the white tees and all scored reasonably well. The wind was down on the front nine, but really picked up for the back nine, making the outward (and uphill holes play quite long). I personally only left one ball in a ravine on 13 (and with how fat I hit the shot, I deserved nothing less) and scored a respectable (for me) 88.

    The greens and fairways were in tremendous condition and while I agree that there are some tricky holes (like 2) the GPS carts were a big help. Overall a challenging course, but not unfair if played from the correct tees. The lengthy cart rides are an unfortunate but I am willing to accept them in exchange for the spectacular setting the course is on.

  • Tobiano is awesome. I havent met a player that hasn’t liked it. The trick is to play the shorter par 4s with 5 or 6 irons. This course is all about thinking your way thru. With some of the holes being downhill u can use 4,5,6 irons or 3 and 5 woods. It plays much easier than what the initial response is.

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