When I spoke with Dick Zokol a few weeks ago I sensed that the Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club in B.C.'s Nicola Valley, which represents his vision of how a course should be designed and play, was at a crossroads. I also sensed that Zokol, the inspiration and designer of the course that sprawls high above a glistening lake, was also at a crossroads as far as his association with the club.
Zokol has now crossed that road, and is no longer associated with the club, which even has a new name. It's now called The Club at Sagebrush. I spoke with Zokol on Friday. He said he had come to a parting of the ways with the investors, and was moving on. Zokol preferred not to address publicly the reasons behind his split with a course and club, which, he acknowledged, has meant a great deal to him and his family. He was firm in his resolve to move on. It's not his nature to look back.
The 53-year-old former Canadian Amateur champion and two-time winner on the PGA Tour is disappointed that the situation has come to his departure. It's impossible to think of Sagebrush without Zokol's involvement, given that the club and certainly not the course wouldn't exist without his vision and determination. Only Zokol, a man who likes adventure, would have conceived of a course with greens that approach 20,000 square feet, whose fairways are as wide as football fields are long, and whose holes sit, effectively, on a mountaintop. The course rises 300-feet from the first tee.
But he got the course done, along with architect Rod Whitman and their associate Armen Suny, one of the sharpest people in the business of growing a course in. In fact, Zokol, Whitman, and Suny share equally in the architecture. The trio should be considered as co-architects, if that's possible for three people. Suny, by the way, is also no longer involved with Sagebrush. Whitman moved on to other projects, including the much-anticipated Cabot Links in Inverness on Cape Breton Island, which will open fully for play on June 29th.
"I'm very proud of what we accomplished," Zokol told me. "I believe it's where golf has to go."
The idea was to build a course that would be maintained with minimal amounts of water, and whose cultural practices would demonstrate the value, relevance, and viability of lean maintenance. I'd say that Zokol's proudest achievement at Sagebrush, aside from even getting the course built, is that the USGA and Golf Digest in 2010 cited it two years ago as one of five examples of courses using leading-edge agronomy for firm and fast playing conditions. ScoreGolf and Golf Digest ranked it the best new Canadian course in 2009.
Believe me, Sagebrush plays fast and firm and furious. I emphasize the word "plays." You have to think your way around the course and play with it. Every hole and every shot presents multiple options. I've played golf around the world—links, inland, parkland, heathland, clifftop, and on and on. Royal Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands is my favourite links, and the Devil's Paintbrush in Caledon, Ont. and Sagebrush are my favourite "inland' links in Canada. I refer to them as such because the playing corridors offer width, which means strategy if important, which means the golfer has to think.
All of that means fun and the opportunity to be creative. I don't know if Zokol will ever build another course; he's involved in the design business now with Suny and told me he plans to make an announcement within a week about his future plans. But I do know Sagebrush is one fun course. It will always be associated with Zokol, no matter what happens there.
Last July, after the RBC Canadian Open in Vancouver, I went with Zokol to Sagebrush. It's about a three-hour drive that goes through the awesome Coquihalla canyon and along the rushing river. You're out there, and the excitement builds as you get nearer to Sagebrush—at least it does, I imagine, for every golfer. I spent a couple of days at the course, and wrote much of the end of my new book Moe & Me while sitting alone in the yurt beside the 13th hole that Zokol called The Hideout. Zokol and I had played a six-club match; that's possible at Sagebrush, because of all those shot options. Zokol won, of course. The guy's a tour pro. We signed the scorecard and Zokol put it on the wall in the yurt.
I write in my book, "What freedom, what pleasure, to use a limited set on an immense, open landscape, to play with abandon. If I had limited the number of clubs I would use, I had expanded my scope in this big country, overlooking Nicola Lake, with mountains all around."
Zokol, at Sagebrush, expanded golf's scope while helping return it to its roots as a game and a source of deep pleasure. I'm sorry he's no longer associated with the course that he imagined, lived, and breathed for the last decade. I'm just happy that I got the chance to spend two memorable days with him there. Sagebrush without Zokol? Inconceivable, but there it is.
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein