In some ways driving up the laneway to Sagebrush is very familiar. After all, I’ve been to the course numerous times, first when it was in construction, and later to test my game against its devilishly large greens, firm fairways and the ever-present wind that whips across the exposed property.
But every time I was there I was the guest of its founder, Richard Zokol. It was Zokol’s vision to create Sagebrush as a western version of Redtail, the exclusive private club outside of London, Ont. It was Zokol (and his partner Armen Suny) who worked with designer Rod Whitman to create the course. It was Zokol’s ambition that led to the development of Sagebrush, and it was that ambition – coupled with some bad luck – that eventually saw the project taken over by the money men who backed the club.
Last year Zokol was out – he’s now employed at Predator Ridge, arguably the best golf resort in Canada. Frankly I couldn’t imagine Sagebrush without Zokol. The two were intrinsically linked for much of the past six or seven years. The whole project received a further setback when Terry Donald, who ran the course after Zokol left, died suddenly last year.
That said, I always had a fondness for Sagebrush, so I ventured back to see what happened with the project since Zokol’s departure and Donald’s death. The pair epitomized the spirit of Sagebrush. Would it continue without them?
Interestingly, there are a lot of good things continuing at one of the best modern courses created in Canada in the last 25 years. Some is obvious as soon as you make the drive up the hill from the car park. Yes, you still check in at a yurt at the top of the hill, but down below are several cottages that finally give you the option of staying on site. Sagebrush isn’t really near anything – and I don’t consider the rundown charm of nearby Merritt much of an option unless you are a connoisseur of Super 8s. So the cottages – smartly furnished and comfortable and overlooking the new putting course – are a perfect option.
The second thing that’s changed is Sagebrush is starting to openly accept public play. It always has in some ways – Zokol used to allow players access if they reached out to him – but now that policy is being made more clear. Golfers can play Sagebrush for $300 – which includes all the golf you want, as well as a meal – which isn’t unreasonable if you find your way around the course at least twice.
Finally, there’s also a new putting course called the Badlands. I’d have rather had a range to warm up on — but considering there isn’t a lot of traffic at Sagebrush, you can readily use the first few holes to warm up and then start your round over again.
The course also hasn’t changed since Zokol’s departure – it is still firm (you won’t find ball marks on the greens) and a well hit tee shot will run like a cat with sore feet on its fescue fairways. The uphill opening hole is still a dog – maybe one of the worst on any of Whitman’s designs (and he’s a man with a penchant for uphill holes) – but the rest of the course is a delight to play. It is easy to imagine staying in the cottages and grabbing a handful of balls and deciphering the mysteries of one hole at Sagebrush as the evening sun heads down behind the hills.
I do wonder what the future will hold. Sagebrush isn’t in receivership because its finances are in the hands of one owner – not a bank. The current management is trying to run it lean and mean, with staff holding multiple gigs.
All the same, housing – which was intended to pay for the project – has yet to be developed. Without that it is hard to envision who the current owner would ever recoup anything close to his investment. With that hanging over Sagebrush, there will always be questions about its future.
Yes, Zokol’s whimsical presence is missing from the course he created. But even without Zoke on site, Sagebrush has a lot of his quirks.
Will it survive?
I hope so – Canadian golf could use more quirky, engaging and smart designs. That’s what Sagebrush is – and with any luck others will also discover that.