Course Review: Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club
Designers: Rod Whitman, Richard Zokol, Armen Suny
Few courses in Canada have been so widely anticipated “ and viewed as such precarious ventures “ as Richard Zokols Sagebrush. Okay, maybe Tom Fazios Coppinwood had more hype, and I think most people heard Tobiano would be special, and clearly Cabot Links in Cape Breton has the mantle of the most anticipated course in Canada at the moment. But for a number of years “ even before construction started “ Sagebrush was the centre of much discussion within those in the know in the golf course business. Would its proposed high-end fee structure work? Could Zokol and Whitman replicate the minimalist playing experience on the side of a hill? Would the course be a gigantic success or a remarkable failure?
I wont be the first one to suggest Sagebrush, at least from an architectural and artistic perspective, is an overwhelming success. Sure it isnt an easy site, and I doubt few will ever try to walk it and therefore frustrate some of the games purists, but the course is both strategic and fun, a real thinking mans golf course. This isnt a bombers paradise nor is it some sort of tricked-up target golf course. It is, as Zokol regularly says, a place where there are different ways to play every hole, each with its own special considerations, risks and rewards, and inevitably its own payment or punishment. It is also one of the most intriguing and fun courses Ive experienced in Canada.
My perspective on the course might have changed had the first hole been anywhere on the course other than the opener. A dull uphill par-5 with a cool green, it isnt exactly the type of hole that one might embrace. Instead it is a bit plodding, a connector hole right out of the gate with a tee shot over the entrance road whose only purpose is to get you up a hill to the second hole. It might have been seen as less of a problem had it been found mid-round, but it is a bit glaring right out of the gate. This isnt a bad hole “ just an awkward one, and lots of terrific courses have one hole that isnt quite up to snuff (think #18 at Cypress Point, for instance.)
Thankfully the second hole is a better example of the minimalist style Zokol likes to discuss, both from a design and playability perspective. The truth appears to be that more earth was moved in creating Sagebrush than a purist would like. Minimalism suggests a limited amount of earth moving, though thats not always the case on courses attributed to minimalist designers like Tom Doak or Bill Coore. Sometimes earth is moved to create the impression little dirt was moved. In some instances it is an illusion created by an exceptionally talented shaper who nails all the details of the natural surroundings.
Apparently that wasnt the case with the second hole, a downhill par-4 that dips to the right and slides down a slope. That means though the hole is more than 400 yards long, one can play for position with an iron, leaving a short iron approach, hit a 3-wood to run the ball down the slope, or bomb a driver and hope to pitch the ball into the green. Zokol points out almost no ground was moved on the second hole “ making it one of the least expensive to build on the course. From the story I’ve been told, it sounds like the hole is comparable to the second at Redtail, where essentially no ground was moved in construction (if thats what youd call it) of the hole.
From there you start a run of stunningly good golf holes, ranging from the slightly uphill par-4 third, with a fairway that pitches hard to the left, through to the fifth, a magnificent par-4 with an angled fairway that allows players to take a risk or safely play to the left. The third hole also offers the tremendous aesthetic appeal of the gnarly, unkempt bunkers at Sagebrush, a look already established at courses like Sand Hills, but one that fits naturally into this courses mix of desert/links golf. Sure there are no rakes (a steal from Pine Valley, but one that works well here given the fact the winds quickly blow the bunkers back in shape), but the bunkers I was in remained playable. However, one has to wonder if this could change with more play.
Interestingly I found the seventh and eighth holes to be gently out of character with the rest of the course. Generally Sagebrush plays out in front of you. Sure there are feeder slopes and shot options, but the danger in the holes is largely clear. The seventh, with its plunge down a hillside to a massive green, and the eighth, a par-4 that is partially blind off the tee, offer a counterpoint to the more obvious holes. Both work well, largely because on the seventh the massive green and feeder slope on the right offer alternatives, while the distraction on the eighth (where a lot of land was moved to create the hole, apparently) is basically in the tee shot, which opens up to a wide fairway and open, on-grade green. This sort of shot is repeated on the par-5 16th, where the tee shot must be played further to the right over a hillside in order to gain access to the expanse of fairway that remains unseen off the tee.
By the time you reach the 10th, a drop-shot par-3 with an ingenious green, and the short, drivable par-4 11th, youll have captured the great variety of holes at Sagebrush. There are massive par-3s (the sixth, which plays more than 240-yards off the back tees), long par-5s (the 7th), and tough par-4s (2 and 9). Youll probably also recognize there are about six different ways to play each hole, depending on your game. If youre lucky enough to play with Zokol, hell undoubtedly demonstrate at least four of those alternatives.
The best holes at Sagebrush capture all of the elements that make the course intriguing “ the great vistas, wide expanses of uneven turf, the bold, wild bunkering, and greens that often have knolls, bumps and other nuances to keep them interesting. There is the odd bit of quirky architecture, like the left back pin position on the ninth (apparently Whitman’s idea), which is accessible through the feeder slope at the back of the green, or can be approached with a chip off the front of the green (Zokol says thats okay with him). I generally think such elements border on the ridiculous, but the slopes make it work in the instance of the ninth “ it is playable even if your eyes tell you it isnt.
Thats generally a theme at Sagebrush “ there are risks worth taking that one might not understand on the first time around the course. Take, for instance, the par-5 16th, with its odd, slightly blind tee shot. Though it plays well over 500 yards, it can be reached with two smart long irons “ or a 3-wood off the tee that starts well right of where one might be comfortable. The genius of the hole is in the roll in front of the green, which is well below the landing area for the tee shot, will propel a ball forward and onto the massive putting surface if struck appropriately. One likely wouldnt recognize that the first time, but Zokol convinced me a solid 4-iron would reach the green, even though I was nearly 300-yards away.
Now there are some things I think dont work at Sagebrush, but they have little to do with the golf course. Some of the notions of purity of the game “ i.e. not having yardages on the scorecards or sprinkler heads that are marked “ seem kind of strange, especially considering Zokol had me laser a lot of shots when we played. Thats not to say he played them conventionally, but having accurate yardages certainly allows you to confidently try some creative shots without guessing at where you need to hit them (this will likely be taken care of with a yardage book that is forthcoming). I also wonder about the lack of yardages on the scorecard “ a notion that has gained a modicum of popularity in recent years, most notably at Friars Head on Long Island. I dont get this one “ and those who point to Scotland as an example are off base; practically all of Scotlands best courses now have lasered sprinkler heads and cards with actual yardages. Frankly I think these sorts of conceits are pretentious, and though Zokols aim is to have less medal play and more match play, I wonder if that will ever be a reality of golf in North America.
These issues are probably just nitpicking. Sagebrush is a terrific course “ one of the best modern courses to be built in Canada. It is an artistic success without doubt. Once conceived as a private, very exclusive course, it is essentially open to the public for $700 for a foursome (including a meal and all the golf you have time to play) or $1000 over two days (note: these visits have to be cleared with the club). That sounds expensive to some, but there is no more intriguing golf course in all of Canada, one that must be experienced firsthand, rather than observed through photos or writing. Zokol calls this “inclusively exclusive.”
There is no doubt that Sagebrush is an overwhelming artistic success. It is a tremendously fun and engaging golf course. Will it become a business success to match? Thats the last question that remains unanswered.
For perspective, and for those that might miss it in the comments, here is Richard Zokol’s response:
One of our fundamental solutions to routing challenges at Sagebrush was to immediately deal with the elevation changes on our massive property. It made great sense to start out with a gentle opening 3-shot hole, to get a large portion of elevation out of the way, right out of the blocks. Having said this, even with an 85-yeard wide fairway by no means is it easy or should it be considered for a 2-shot hole. A player needs to be in full engagement with their ability to assess and execute to play the 1st hole effectively. Whitman did an excellent job in routing this as the opening hole. Our philosophy was to make the opening hole very inviting as well as forgiving for the golfer.
Sagebrush is a private club now. Membership and guest of Sagebrush are by invitation only. Invitations to play 1 or 2 day experiences need to go through Terry Donald or myself. If any interested party makes an inquiry we would be pleased to invite them under our non member policy.
The Sagebrush membership policy is an annual Posse Invitation structure similar to Redtails Roundtable. This ensures the type of culture that is already established. This form of membership removes an element that is constantly problematic at most all private clubs.
The design collaboration between Whitman, Suny and myself produced Sagebrush to be the special course that we believe it is. The design process of 3 unique individuals, each with different perspectives, formed the style, features and playability that make Sagebrush completely unique to Canada.