Canadians are clever. In an effort to confuse their southern neighbors and thus prevent us from discovering Vancouver Island, they’ve ingeniously named the largest mainland city in British Columbia “Vancouver.”
So when we hear how fabulous “Vancouver” is, and what great golf courses it has, we’re diverted to the city of Vancouver, thus leaving Vancouver Island for the sole delight of locals. But there’s enough good golf there to mandate a visit. If your first stop is Vancouver though, you’ll find a confident, multi-cultural metropolis blessed with tangy ethnic restaurants, chic shopping, and the bustle of, say, Hong Kong, with startling harbor and mountain views.
While there’s plenty to see and do in the city, you could spend your entire visit within the 1,000-acre confines of nearby Stanley Park, where locals retreat to bike and hike through old-growth forest, sail, and contemplate totem poles.
If you happen to venture outside the park, the Grouse Mountain aerial tram will lift your spirits, as will treks through Chinatown, Gastown, or along trendy Robson Street. And fans of urban architecture may require neck massages after examining Vancouver’s variegated skyline.
Less than an hour from downtown, Westwood Plateau Golf and Country Club gives new meaning to the word “service.” At Westwood it might mean the free continental breakfast for early weekday golfers, or the opportunity to have your car detailed while you’re out playing the course. Or how about a custom-stocked mini-bar on your cart? All evidence that someplace still cares not only about the obvious touches, but about creative service, as well.
The 6,770-yard Michael Hurdzan design serves up huge views, giant fir trees, ravines, massive granite faces, and greens clinging to precipices. Although Westwood opens gently, things toughen up after two short par fours. The par threes are all brutal, the third hole being no exception — 205 yards of uphill carry over a deep ravine full of stumps and the bodies of weaker golfers. Many of the par fours here are short but pumped full of trouble around the greens, and holes generally offer few flat lies if you miss the fairways.
The 10th hole offers long views to Surrey and the Olympic Peninsula, but don’t look now: you’re facing a tough driving hole with a green that seems to float on the rim of the known world. The 12th plays 162 yards (all carry) to a stone amphitheater green which you might reach by caroming off the rock face. Or not. The 17th points right at Mt. Baker, and the 18th streaks along the straightaway of the old auto racetrack the course was built upon.
An hour east of Vancouver-the-city lies the Swan-e-set Resort and Country Club, home to a rare pair of Lee Trevino designs that strongly favor a power fade. The property itself, with one private course, strongly favors members over resort guests, but the public course still provides a good walk of 7,000 yards. Though you’ll venture out through undeveloped countryside, the massive Scottish-style clubhouse pokes up through the trees every now and again, promising an exceptional lunch. Several water hazards and a small epidemic of faced, sodded bunkers protect the large, fast greens.
Swan-e-set opens with a narrow 535-yard dogleg lined by a dazzling variety of trees. A big hit might reach either water or the house where John Daly stayed during the West Coast Classic in 1995. The 611-yard 10th is one of British Columbia’s toughest holes. Lakes left and then right and some well-placed trees call for adroit shotmaking — or dumb luck. On the 18th kindly avoid hitting into the chef’s herb garden; stay left of the big tree in the fairway, dodge the bunkers right, and smooth your approach to a green surrounded by sand.
One of the joys of British Columbian travel is riding the ferries across spectacular inlets ringed by mountains. So when you figure out that Vancouver Island lies a short boat ride across from Vancouver-the-city, climb on board. Once you land in Swartz Bay, head straight south to Victoria, possibly the prettiest city in North America, full of tea shops and alleyways full of flowers and the fragrances of garlic, curry, and fresh baked goods. The place to stay in Victoria is the 100-year-old Empress Hotel, which exudes a level of luxury that is positively, well, Victorian. While cruise-ship tourists queue up for the famous afternoon tea service, you could spend about the same money for an unforgettable dinner in the formal dining room. Half an hour north, approximately a gazillion flowers bloom within the Butchart Gardens. And as if this weren’t enough, the 280-mile island is also home to some 45 golf courses and a man named Arthur Thompson, at 102 the oldest man to ever shoot his age.
Twenty miles from Victoria the Bill Robinson-designed Olympic View Golf Club presents a slightly gimmicky routing with perhaps the best scenery ever gathered around the sport. The course encompasses two waterfalls, 16 lakes, arbutus trees and garry oaks, and mountain, glacier, and water views up the wazoo. There’s not a straight putt of more than 10 feet on the whole layout. The holes are brutal around the putting surfaces, with steep pot bunkers and severe, fun-house slopes.
Start thinking early on this short target venue. The second hole pleads for accuracy off the tee to avoid a rocky slope left. You’re okay if you carry 200 yards, but don’t slice it, or a lake will swallow your ball. At 330 yards, the hole is almost too easy with a good drive. Holes like the eighth, with its four-tiered green beside a waterfall, will lead you to forgive some of the design’s trickery because of it’s sheer, feel-good beauty. The 10th might actually elicit weeping as you contemplate the tranquil purity of three pot bunkers cut into the shelf fronting the green, beside a rock wall. And the 17th has enough beauty for an entire course. A huge, Hawaiianesque waterfall behind the green is visible from the tee 417 yards away. The hole plays through a steep, narrow valley past a huge rock column and a Japanese garden reached by crossing a bridge to an island in a still pond.
Also close to Victoria is the subtly stupendous Cordova Bay Golf Course, featuring views of Mt. Baker, the San Juan Islands, and the Haro Strait. This Bill Robinson design boasts sublime shot values and neat, classic looks, not to mention 217 varieties of flora. The course is good enough to have hosted two Payless Opens, in 1994 and 1998. Cordova also has one of the best yardage books of all time, which includes such etiquette tips as: “leave the bunker a better place than you found it,” and, “if we see you plumb bobbing we will ask you to explain how plumb bobbing actually works.” There’s also, “if you drag your pull-cart over tees and greens we reserve the right to drive all over your lawn.”
Five holes on the front side of this well-marshaled course move from right to left. The first dogs in that direction between mounds that reflect distant hills. Deep framing and pot bunkers surround a huge double green that may require dialing an area code for your putt. The second calls for a carry over Burnham Creek; as the yardage book says, “if you are faint of heart and your playing partners are not looking, go ahead — carry your ball over Burnham Creek.”
The back side at Cordova Bay is noticeably tougher, with more forced carries, trees, and heavily bunkered greens. The 10th plays beside a full 420-yard compliment of water on the left, and requires two forced carries to reach a small two-tiered green also protected by liquid assets.
North and west of Victoria, much of Vancouver Island is given over to tracts of wilderness filled with bears, remote peaks, and possibly billions of lost golf balls — they have to go somewhere. There’s also a few outstanding golf venues, starting with the Fairwinds Golf and Country Club at the Schooner Cove Resort in Nanoose Bay.
Overlooking the blue bay and the Georgia Strait, Fairwinds features water on 17 holes, more than 70 bunkers, and countless retirees plying the links. The Les Furber design plays 6,151 yards from the tips to the oversized greens. Locals here speak with an accent that is enticingly Scottish-sounding.
Fairwinds opens with a tight 310-yarder with a tough green complex. Hit long and right for a clear approach between bunkers that nuzzle this tiered, curvy putting surface. The fourth hole is the number one handicap; 418 yards long with a creek fronting the severely tiered green and sand wrapped around it. At 296 yards, the ninth will tempt you to swing out of your shoes, but two ponds flank the fairway; why not be sensible, hit an iron, and settle for an easy par? Besides, who wants to finish the round without their shoes?
The back nine contains more huge greens may of which you’ll likely reach in regulation but then face long, swingy putts upon. Most holes also feature bunker complexes to the left, where they’re less likely to be in play. The tenth presents a shortish par three — easy only if you land on the correct of three green tiers. Watch for an eagle’s nest high in a tree on 13, and don’t forget to admire the huge mountain views looking back from the 15th green. Fairwinds finishes nicely with a 518-yarder with lakes right.
Close by to Fairwinds, between Parksville and Qualicum Beach lies Morningstar International, site of the Canadian Tour’s Morningstar Classic from 1994-1996. Scott McCarron and Notah Begay both won the Canadian Tour’s spring qualifier here before moving on to bigger things. Designed by ubiquitous Alberta native Les Furber, it plays to 7,018 yards with a whopping slope rating of 144. The links-style track shows off target landing areas, huge rolling greens, fairway moundings, and expansive bunkers and lakes.
Westwood Plateau Golf And Country Club
Swan-E-Set Bay Resort And Country Club
Olympic View Golf Club
Cordova Bay Golf Course
Fairwinds Golf And Country Club
Crown Isle Resort And Golf Community
Storey Creek Golf Club
The first couple of holes play easily in the open, though mounds rough up the rough on the second, and four bunkers loiter around the tiered green. The third moves gently into the trees.
Furber generally provides good green entrances, but not always toward the pin, which often requires more risk and skill. The 190-yard eighth is a fine example of that, requiring left to right movement to set up a makeable birdie putt.
According to my playing partner, a two-handicap who referred to himself as “the plumber,” the 12th hole has caused more club breaking than any other on Morningstar. He recommended hitting an iron to the “moose pasture,” a landing area fronting a marsh.
The 404-yard hole exhibits a duet of water and sand by the green. The 16th claims a beautiful (unless you’re in it) pot bunker fronting the green of a 398-yard jaunt requiring a creek crossing on the drive.
The 18th makes for a long finish: a 474-yarder with a giant waste bunker in front and creek and bunkers right of the tiered green.
Further up-island, in Courtenay, lies the peppy and gorgeous Crown Isle Resort and Golf Community, whose golf course is only surpassed by some of the best rooms in Canada, replete with fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs, and starlight ceilings. The clubhouse also elicits superlatives; where else could you smoke a Cuban stogie overlooking a celebrity antique car museum, and then emerge beneath a three-story tower of light shining upon a grand spiral staircase? A deluxe 8,000-square-foot spa and 16 additional villas are currently in the works.
Graham Cook, from Montreal, designed the 7,024-yard links style course with views of the Comox Glacier and The Forbidden Plateau — a name which might apply to some of the greens here. Cook whips up some tasty bunker placements and delectable shot angles. The course design and service are two steps above that of most other tracks on the island.
On the 359-yard second hole, hit enough to clear the water but not so much to reach four comely bunkers that are angled to welcome fades. Great visuals also characterize the third hole, a 425-yard left dogleg barking for a shot over bunkers but short of water. The layout requires thinking about where particular landing sites will move the ball. The fifth’s scythe blade of a green bent around water is the perfect example; many of the surrounding mounds will kick balls toward the lake.
The back side contains more housing but also such great holes as the double-dogleg 15th, a mere 551 yards of puzzlement. The 16th is only 183 yards, but they’re all good yards, over water, bunkers, and green swales.
The mid-island locale of Campbell River is most famous for its world-class fishing. Russ Lim, a guide with the rustically cozy Painter’s Lodge, can practically catch salmon by holding out a bagel with cream cheese.
The Lodge makes for a good base camp for a round at nearby Storey Creek Golf Club. Les Furber carved the track out of dense mixed forest and routed it along a creek that’s home to spawning coho, further connecting the sports of fishing and golf.
The eminently walkable 6,697-yard course includes five par threes and five par fives (holes three through eight play par 3-5-3-5-3-5), and possibly too many doglegs to the left.
The holes here are generally friendly and exude a kind of home-made feel. In fact, the club president and other local golfers cleared stumps on many of the fairways themselves. The 11th, which plays 281-yards around a sharp corner guarded by water and a tall pine, will have you tempting fate. The 14th is also a fine hole, requiring a 185-yard pop to clear the water, and a lovely green complex waiting at the 367-yard mark.
The exchange rate for the US dollar throughout Canada provides one more convincing reason to visit our neighbors on a golf holiday. And if you apply that same exchange rate to your golf score, you should have no trouble shooting in the 70s.
Jeff Wallach is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.