Highland Pacific: golf’s Garden City flower

Victoria, B.C., has always been a city with enough respectable golf courses and a long-enough season – playing 10 or 11 months out of the year isn’t unheard of in this temperate island habitat – to make it something of a Canadian golfer’s mecca.

The 12th fairway and 13th green on the Highland nine at Highland Pacific

On the road to Sidney, Cordova Bay offers the perfect low-impact, pay-as-you-play experience to golfers looking for a simple, strong layout. Down in Port Royal, Olympic View’s elevation changes and innovative design provide a sterner test. And despite its ongoing financial woes, Bear Mountain sets – for the moment, at least – the standard for high-end resort golf on Vancouver Island.

Nearby, however, another player has quietly emerged. Though Highland Pacific Golf Course had only nine holes when it first opened for play in 2008, the family of local artist and architect Herb Plasterer wanted to honour his dream of a full 18-hole golf course to ensure public access to the land, which he wanted to remain as much as possible a reflection of B.C.’s natural beauty.

And so it was that the Highland nine opened earlier this year to accompany the original Pacific nine (“Highland Pacific” – get it?), and Victoria’s newest full-service 18-hole golf course was born.

HP (not coincidentally, also the Plasterer patriarch’s initials) rests on a scant 190 acres and measures just 6,6o0 yards from the tips, but most of those yards are quite remarkable. The course itself is carved out of a mountainous, rocky tract of thick B.C. wilderness, where growing grass has got to be a challenge. Yet HP features lush, close-cropped fairways framed by dense forest, rough that can turn from wispy fescue to ball-gobbling wetlands in a heartbeat, and vexing, glassy greens that rival anything on offer at the Nicklaus-designed 36-hole resort down the road.

The treacherous risk-reward approach to the 516-yard par-5 4th green on the Pacific nine

Despite the close quarters, the course showcases some pretty savvy architectural thinking. The innocent-looking 518-yard par-5 4th turns into a fearsome channel of doom for anyone foolish enough to go for the green in two from 250 yards out. A deep, reedy water hazard lies in wait off the front edge of the green, while a huge rock face towers over the back of a slippery putting surface. Short is wet, long is a rock-ricochet disaster, and slightly long is one less-than-perfect chip away from joining short in the water. The only sensible play is to bail right, where there’s plenty of fairway to give you a look at the green. Get on, make two putts (careful!) and get out.

Here’s the savvy part: As golfers breathe a sigh of relief on the tee of the par-4 408-yard 5th (328 from the white tees), they’re comforted by a tantalizingly short downhill hole, with plenty of bailout room right and lots of sidehill to kick a stray tee shot back into play. Left is trouble, but there’s plenty of room to mitigate risk while still seeking a big reward with the driver – the perfect balm for the jangled nerves of the previous hole. Only the bowl-shaped putting surface – and all of HP’s greens are rock-hard and tough to hold – stands between the big hitter and an easy (and well-timed) birdie.

I three-putted the bastard, but that’s another story.

There are, of course, the “necessary” holes – the ones that always exist on shortish courses that are wedged onto slightly-too-small properties, or those where the terrain poses such a challenge – say, a rolling, rocky piece of wilderness at the foot of a mountain.

The 6th is an uphill hole with a loathsome 90-degree dogleg, but the approach is a demanding one – gently uphill to a firm green that’s again framed by a rock face and guarded in front by deep, challenging bunkers. The only major misfire on the whole course is a silly 266-yard par 4 that surges dramatically uphill like a staircase, culminating in a cliff-edge green that slopes so severely away from the front edge that holding it is all but impossible.

The new Highland nine plays much like its predecessor, but probably a handful of strokes easier. The two par 5s are well within striking distance in two, and both yielded the day’s only birdies (for me, at least).

My brother Dan escaping the bunker on the par-5 7th on the Highland nine

Of the two, the 510-yard 7th had the more interesting challenge, tempting players to thread the needle through a gauntlet of trees in order to get past the first of two doglegs and have a look at the green on the second shot. I dead-yanked my drive left through the gap, but got a friendly carom into the fairway that set up an easy 6-iron approach to a deep, firm green.

A number of the holes at Highland Pacific feature uphill approaches, which are challenging at the best of times – especially when the greens are fast and unreceptive, which – given the rocky landscape – is probably pretty much all the time. But HP’s most enduring feature is its downhill holes, particularly the par 3s. Along with its reachable par 5s, It’s on the shortest holes where the course gets a lot of its fun-to-play charm.

Downhill one-shotters are inherently fun to play, because the tee box offers the best seats in the house. Normally, a course that ends on a par-3 often loses points as a result. But with a group as large as this one, the short downhill par-3 closer (there’s water left and another rock face right) provided a fitting end to a terrific day of golf.

Highland Pacific bills itself as “Vancouver Island’s newest golf gem.” It’s an apt description that places it firmly on the must-play list whenever you find yourself in the Garden City.

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James McCarten

When James McCarten isn't at the Ottawa offices of The Canadian Press, where he works as parliamentary news editor, he's either on the golf course or putting off his latest freelance golf-writing gig to spend time with wife Lisa and school-age kids Claire and Lucas. With 20 years of experience in Canadian journalism, James also suffers from a financially crippling addiction to all things Scotty Cameron.

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