I remember the first time I asked Richard Zokol about the golf course he was planning on building. It was 2003, his last year in which he played with any regularity on the PGA Tour. He was on the range and we spoke about the golf club he was trying to raise money for. Five years later I walked the property of Zokol’s dream along with designer Rod Whitman. We wandered and spoke about the course and his ideas about design. It was very clear that Sagebrush reflected his concepts. The details were exactly as he wanted them and Zokol could take apart every hole and tell you about the different ways they could be played.
Yesterday I found out — accidentally it turns out (I went to the Sagebrush website to look something up and found a note about Zokol’s departure) — that Zokol is no longer involved with Sagebrush.
At the start, in order to fund the project he raised money through a group of men who made their fortunes developing cell phone towers. Initially Sagebrush had grand ambitions of selling real estate that was quite removed from the course; then 2008 hit and that vision fell apart, making it very difficult for the investors to get their money out of the project. I often thought that Sagebrush wouldn’t have opened in the first place had it been financed by a bank — it would have gone into receivership and there’s a chance no one would have played it at all. Anyway, it turns out there was a difference in opinion on how to move forward between Zokol and the investors, and since Richard didn’t have equity in the project any longer (at least that’s my understanding), he decided the situation was untenable and departed. The club will continue to run without him.
In my experience rarely is a golf course the vision of its creator. Far too often it is an afterthought of some real estate developer who brings in a designer to build something around the homes. The creators I’ve met who built something different — Ken Bakst at Friar’s Head in Long Island, or Ben Cowan-Dewar with Cabot Links in Cape Breton or Peter Schwartz with Oviinbyrd in Muskoka or the Demarais family with Memphremagog — had very singular visions of what they were trying to do in golf. It is about creating a golf course that matches that vision. Maybe you won’t like the final result, but you have to respect the developer was true to his vision. Far too often you get a watered down course that doesn’t reflect anyone’s perspective. I like bold concepts and Zokol’s Sagebrush was brash and unusual and intriguing, just like its creator.
I first played Sagebrush with Zokol in 2009. I’ve been back twice since — and my affection for the course increased over time. It wasn’t an ideal location — co-designer Rod Whitman once told Zokol not to build a course on the remote site, which is about an hour from Kamloops. Whit thought it was too hilly, too difficult. But they managed to find a routing that worked, one that wandered around the hillside without ever being overwhelmed by it. There were a number of great holes — #2, #3, #5, #11, #12 — and there wasn’t a dog among them, though the first was never my favourite. The course had big fairways full of contour and even bigger greens with more movement.
Playing with Zokol at the course wasn’t really playing golf — it was about hitting shot. He never actually let you play, at least not in the first few rounds I had with him there. Instead he was forever showing off different parts of the course, demonstrating what it would yield if approached a certain way. He’d hit low running hooks with a 3-wood from 180 yards to show how balls run into greens, how the ground game could be embraced. It was like links golf without the sea, and he worked with agronomist Armen Suny to get the right mix of firm and fast.
Since Sagebrush never really went fully private — the broken real estate model prevented that — it was accessible to the public in the past couple of years. People who played it either thought it was amazing, and represented how golf was meant to be played, or thought it was the opposite of the lush green courses they were used to and often came away shaking their heads. That’s fine. Sagebrush wouldn’t appeal to everyone — but those who enjoyed its whimsical nature were ready to play a second round as soon as they finished the first. As I said, it was a distinct vision — and either you bought in or you wouldn’t return. But it was a grand vision, and a hell of a lot of fun to play.
Apparently Zokol had a falling out with the course investors over how to move forward. There was hope to keep him involved, but that didn’t happen. It is hard to say how the club — now apparently called The Club at Sagebrush (as opposed to Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club) — will evolve. It is still a testament to Zokol’s concept of what makes a great golf course, but something will be missing, especially if he doesn’t have any connection to the project. But is still a great golf course — and they have a way of surviving.
Sagebrush without Zokol will still be a very good course, even great at times, but something is missing. As Vancouver sports writer Brad Ziemer wrote yesterday — Zokol was “the heart and soul” of Sagebrush.
I hope Sagebrush survives and thrives — it is a fascinating course. But my feeling is that Zokol’s presence will loom over the course for years.