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It's hard to imagine anyone putting on a better show than Les Furber gives at Christina Lake Golf Club.
It's hard to imagine anyone putting on a better show than Les Furber gives at Christina Lake Golf Club. (Courtesy photo)

Bunkers in black: Christina Lake Golf Club presents a unique Kootenay take on the ordinary obstacles

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,

CHRISTINA LAKE, British Columbia -- Aiming for the center of the bunker turns out to be an underrated golf strategy. At least, if you're playing Christina Lake Golf Club, one of the collection of marvelously under-priced and largely undiscovered golf courses in British Columbia's Kootenays region.

A first-timer cannot help but shoot for bunkers here, consciously or not. For Christina Lake's bunkers are a striking black. Copper slag black to be precise. This fine sand used in mining operations - the Kootenays went on the map because of mining -- stands up as a perfect golf ball launching pad. You actually get truer, surer shots blasting out of the black.

Of course, you'll never know that unless you try. And with Christina Lake one of only four courses in North America that use black copper slag bunkers, this figures to be your best chance to take your sand wedge into the unknown.

Hence, all the golfers finding their approach shots dropping short into the black. Somehow even when you could swear you hit the perfect shot on the perfect line, your white ball's burrowing into that black slag. As this Christina Lake rookie discovered on the first hole played.

"You might as well get it out of your system now," Head Professional Kevin Maffioli said, laughing. "Otherwise, you'll be wondering about it all day."

Walking up and finding your ball in the black carries more impact than a regular sandy bunker. It's ridiculous, of course. It's only a color.

But, "they look pretty ominous in that color," John Reed, another Christina Lake newbie, said.

Architect Les Furber decided to incorporate the cooper slag into his design just because there was so much of it around. It's funny how sometimes choices of convenience can define a golf course.

Plenty of Christina Lake members remain more perturbed than wowed by Furber's unconventional bunkering. In fact, there's so much low-level grumbling by the regulars over the copper slag bunkers, you'd think Furber had put psychedelic lights out on the course or something truly crazy.

"It's sometimes hard on the golf balls," said Peter Popoff, who's lived in nearby Grand Forks for 65 years. "You try getting that stuff off your ball."

Sometimes theater outweighs convenience. Golf is supposed to be entertaining after all, and it's hard to imagine anyone putting on a better show than Furber gives at Christina Lake for greens fees that top off around $50 Canadian.

The black bunkers are only the attention-grabbing teaser in this performance. Furber incorporates the tall thin-trunked ponderosa pines and fir trees to frame the holes. There's just something about hitting down a fairway with all those old trees bearing witness.

If the scene itself doesn't humble you, a few encounters with those tree trunks will. Furber makes the fairways seem much more wide open than they truly are. He dares long hitters to bomb away and then brings them to their knees.

One fairly good golfer in our group knocked his ball off five different trees on the long 17th hole alone. Another even better hacker landed his tee shot within 80 feet of the pin on the par-4 18th and ended up throwing up his arms and walking off the course without finishing. He couldn't navigate those last 80 yards once one shot shanked into the trees.

Christina Lake doesn't give you a few stray trees along its fairways. It drops you in the middle of a forest.

This is actually one of the most populated, well visited areas in the entire Kootenays region. Christina Lake is a summer vacation hot spot. It draws Canadians who rent lodges and cabins, or simply set up home in their RVs for weeks or months at time. Legend has it that the lake itself holds the warmest water in all of British Columbia.

"It's the place a lot of people go for water sports," said Ian Thomas, the manager of Community Futures of Greater Trail, an organization dedicated to building business in the Kootenays. "The waters are pretty calm.

"The golf scene used to be even calmer. Built in 1962 as a nine-hole course, Christina Lake Golf Club offered the bare minimum in golf opportunities for more than 20 years. It wasn't until 1986 that it was expanded into a full 18, measuring 6,685 yards. Now, it's a virtual golf complex.

There's a par-3 course adjacent to the course owned by two members as family business.

"When parents want to go golfing, they can drop their kids off to play at the par 3 (course)," Maffioli said. "It's worked out well.

"There are also plans to add another full nine to Christina Lake's existing 18. This new nine would be more mountainous, taking advantage of land already owned by the community course.

"As a non-profit, you've got to keep the money somewhere," Maffioli said.

It's easy to see that plenty of cash goes into maintenance at Christina Lake. Just weeks after opening following a typically tough winter, the fairways offer great lies and the putts roll true on the greens. Running along the Kettle River, Christina Lake offers plenty of up and downs on the opening nine and a flatter, tree-tightened close.

Ask three different regulars and you're apt to get three different favorite holes. This is not one of those courses that relies on one or two wows.

There's No. 9, a 215-yard par 3 where you shoot down to a green with a huge pond along the left side and two monster sand traps on the right. There's No. 16, in which landing in one of those copper slag black bunkers is the betting man's proposition.

Popoff, who plays 100 rounds a year, prefers No. 14, however. For simpler reasons.

"You see the mountain looking down on you and it's just beautiful," Popoff said.

Christina Lake isn't determined to exact a pound of flesh for that beauty like many modern resort courses. Its slope rating comes in at 119 from the back tees. If you keep it straight here and don't carom too many shots off the tree trunks, you'll have a chance to put up a decent number.

"It reminds me more of a European course," said local golfer Harry Lazoff, who plays 150 rounds a year here. "Except for those bunkers."Well, yes. When you go with the black copper slag, you tend to stick out from any crowd, defying definition.

Christina Lake Golf Club: The verdict

Christina Lake is one of the more distinct golf courses in a Kootenays region that specializes in distinct courses. It's anything but cookie cutter and you'll likely remember a round here for a long time.

Furber does a good job of using the tall trees to set the scene and penalize wayward shots. For all the well-deserved fuss over the copper slag black bunkers, Furber doesn't rely too much on them.

Instead, he incorporates them judiciously into the course, making their appearance even more striking.

Even when the town of Christina Lake gets into its summer scene, there are usually tee times available. Crowded is a relative term in the Kootenays. Throw in the fact that many vacationers here have not discovered golf yet and you have the recipe for a satisfying high-season round.

If Furber pulled off this same design in a flat middle America track, it might not be much of anything. But here with all the trees, the river and the mountains overhead, it more than holds up.

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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