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Course Review: Tower Ranch Tops The Rise

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Course Review: Tower Ranch (Thomas McBroom – 2008 — pictured above) and The Rise (Gene Bates and Fred Couples — 2008)

Location: Kelowna, B.C. (Tower Ranch) and Vernon, B.C. (The Rise)

Not too long ago, one of the major golf publications posted a list of the best courses in the world and their relative elevation change. Augusta National had 175 feet, while the Old Course at St. Andrews had very little. But the truth was — across the best courses anywhere — they were all walkable and rarely had elevation changes that would be considered extreme.

Which leads me to the point that there is some land that simply should not be used for golf. Plunging, lurching land that is better suited to skiers may offer attractive vistas, but is rarely the best when it comes to golf. Slopes that are too steep for concessions in design and result in holes that may look spectacular, but actually play like a large-scale game of putt-putt.

That brings me to discussion of two of the country’s more anticipated designs, Gene Bates’ (with Fred Couples cutting the ribbon) The Rise on a mountainside overlooking Vernon, and Tower Ranch, on a similar hill overlooking Kelowna.

Both are cut out of extreme land. That’s apparent especially from The Rise, created by Gene Bates, with Fred Couples’ help in the cutting of ribbons and ceremonial first drives. The car ride to the course, well above Vernon, would make a Sherpa dizzy. I mean no one has been this high since Keith played Altamont or Syd left The Floyd.

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Tower Ranch, created by Thomas McBroom, is not of such epic heights, but it does drop hundreds of feet over the course of the round and has a couple of cart rides that only Sir Edmund Hillary would appreciate and which require a air sickness bag.

So there are similarities, but there are also significant differences in the way the two architects decided to use their extreme pieces of property. One (McBroom) made some gambles that work. Bates, on the other hand, isn’t so lucky.

McBroom’s Tower Ranch doesn’t start out strongly. Whereas designers on most courses built on extreme land have difficulty finding a way up the vast slopes, McBroom’s challenge is different. From the clubhouse, which is perched in a central spot between the high lands above and the lower lands below, he has to get golfers down off the hill to property bounded by an orchard on the north. He does it quickly, featuring two significantly downhill holes that are not among the course’s best.

Once he’s limited the elevation change, the course improves steadily. The short par-4 third looks to be all bunker (utilizing a similar style to that of Tobiano — not surprising considering it was the same construction crew that built Tower Ranch and McBroom’s course near Kamloops), and the 5th, a smart par-3 nestled at the base of the hillside, features some sharp green contours.

Interestingly, there are more similarities between Tobiano and Tower Ranch than one might immediately notice. Take the 6th at Tower Ranch, a long par-4 that plays into a valley, in a very similar way to the 5th hole at Tobiano. The strategies and greens are also similar. Thankfully, both are good holes, and I wonder if anyone else will notice the similarities.

The back nine is where Tower Ranch really excels, though it is the most extreme part of the property. Perhaps faced with the challenges of the elevation, McBroom has craftily constructed a routing that uses the best part of the elevation, and limits goofy holes through some lengthy cart rides. The 11th has a splendid natural-looking greensite, while the 13th, another par-4, emulates the 13th at Tobiano by having golfers hit across a chasm.

McBroom saves the best for last, with the 17th, a long par-5 with a breathtaking tee shot set between two large hills that climaxes in a green perched high over the valley.

[photopress:20190_the_rise_18.jpg,full,centered]Though one may be awed by the vistas of these sorts of courses, you still have to play the course — and that’s where The Rise falters, pretty much right out of the gate. The first hole, a downhill par-5 with a green perched on a cliff edge and surrounded by rock (which is a theme that runs throughout The Rise and is more aesthetically pleasing than playable), shows just how challenging a site The Rise is built on. The fairway is slight and surrounded by fescue (which is awfully thick now, but will surely thin in time), and the green requires an all-or-nothing approach.

But if the first hole is hard, the second, an uphill par-4 with a winding and narrow fairway and a partially blind green demonstrates the limits of the site. On a course with hundreds of feet of elevation, Bates has to occasionally have golfers play straight up hill. Thus is the case with the second hole, a slog designed to get you to one of the better holes at The Rise, the terrific par-4 third, with a beautiful tee shot to a natural landing area bounded by dense trees. The hole has a strong green, perched at the base of a hill with a marsh in front. At The Rise, the third is as good as it gets.

Some of the concepts just don’t work. The 4th, a short par-4, is awkward, playing over a rise to a hidden green, while the fifth, a par-4 with a blind tee shot and blind approach might be hazardous if golfers don’t pay careful attention. To Bates’ credit, the signs of where to hit the ball are there — namely a tree in the background — but I wonder if having a blind tee shot and approach isn’t too much for a resort course.

There are some exceptions. The 9th, a long, downhill par-5 has an interesting tee shot that allows golfers to tackle the green, despite its apparent length (590 yards from the tips). Similarly, the 15th, a par-4 where Bates has guarded the corner with bunker, uses subtle elevation changes without being overwhelming.

But the biggest problems are saved for last, namely the 17th and 18th holes. Dropping hundreds of feet over the last two holes, neither hole is much fun to play. The 17th, at 479 yards, is little more than a 3-wood and a flip wedge, given the extreme contours of the fairway. Once again, the tee shot is awkward, given the drop in the land and some blindness off the tee. so extreme is the land that I get the impression one might actually end up in the same spot as a good drive if you simply putted down the hill.

The 18th features a better tee shot — one to level ground — but the second shot is once again decidedly downhill. Shots going for the green have little chance of success — and will be blind — while a lay up will likely feature a downhill lie. Neither is a good option.

Two mountain courses, two approaches and two different results. I suspect the return play will come to Tower Ranch. It is, in a word, the more obvious course. The routing is straight-forward and the expectation level of the shots are clear. The Rise, on the other hand, may lead one’s blood to boil. And at these heights, it might just be high enough for that to lead to elevation sickness.

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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.

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • rt,

    is the bunkering at tower ranch as horrible looking as it is in photos (on their website)… i’m thinking of the photo of 3 in particular… mackenzie on acid, with bleached white sand. ughhhhhhhhhh…

    illed,
    phil.

  • Non-local white sand is really kind of an 80s look to me. A lady at my modest club was bitching the other day that we have ugly brown sand as opposed to “real” sand.

  • Golf courses in BC are being built more for the veiw than the actual golf course. Tobiano, Sagebrush, Tower Ranch, and The Rise are all built on sites which should NOT have golf courses. Sad but true.

  • Andrew – are you sure about Sagebrush? It is being promoted as “minimalist” – I was hoping for Ballyneal or Sand Hills inspired.

  • Golf courses are a “field on which a sport is played” and a piece of landscape art/architecture. From the technical sport side of things, it is understandable that people wish to play on the highest quality materials that can be used in construction. Typically the white (what the woman refers to as “real” sands) that are used in golf course construction are the highest quality sands from a playing standpoint. In other sports there is a never ending quest to find better quality materials and always improve the field of play, golf really is no different. White sand also provides a contrast in the golf course that can deliver a strong aesthetic that reinforces the designers intent. Local / off colour sands can be used to great effect on the right project but their characteristics should be suitable for golf. Most times local sands are chosen simply because they are cheaper. Often that means they don’t have the particle make up that is suitable for bunkers and can end up being a shifting, fried egg disaster for the superintendant. On the aesthetics side of things, it really comes down to personal preference, but while there are a few who enjoy the new trend in golf course design and off-colour sands, there still is a huge golfing public that see it exactly the way that lady at your modest club does.

  • I’ll be teeing off today at Tower Ranch for my third time in two weeks. I love the course, and right now we are having to play the front nine only, as the back nine doesn’t open until July 11.

    As a 12 handicap that has played all the Okangan courses for the past 30 years, i think Tower Ranch is a lot of fun.
    The holes make you think, and they certainly are challenging.
    The par 3 5th hole, depending on the wind and tee box you use can be anything froma 9 iron to a 5 iron.
    One thing that will occur over time is a diminshing of some of the tall, thick fescue along the fairways. They could trim in back in a few places.
    Good shots are rewarded, but so is good planning. I put this right up there with one of my favorites , Predator Ridge.

  • A somewhat unfair take on the rise. i agree, it is not a fun course, especially the first time you play it. Lots of blind tee shots. Lots of tricky, narrow greens. But, the second time you play it, the interest increases. Some local knowledge makes it a bit more interesting. I find the downhill vistas on 17 and 18 rather impressive and off target disasterous!
    If golf is an experience of the local area and elements, the rise gives a very good example of the Okanagan landscape and wildlife. We even had a deer and fawn watching us on the tricky (and of course blind approach) 5th hole!

  • Have not played The Rise but Tower Ranch remains my all-time favorite course. If someone wants an easy course with simple holes there are plenty of those courses in Kelowna and elsewhere. Most good golfers want a challenge. I am a 9-handicap, so by all means not someone that focuses on scoring all the time. I would far rather shoot an 80 on Tower Ranch than a 72 on the easier flat valley courses. Each to his own, but I love the sand at Tower Ranch, above all other courses, even Predator Ridge in Vernon. This is simply a great course in my opinion. Many of those that slam the course either have not played it or don’t like losing the occassional ball. It is not a ‘slash and gouge’ course where you hit the driver as far as you can and go look for your ball, it requires you to properly manage your game around the course. The last time I played it I lost one ball…one, so those people that lost a lot of balls there either don’t hit it too straight or don’t plan their club selection well enough to avoid that rough.

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