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From runway to fairway at the Okanagan Golf Club

Joel ZuckermanBy Joel Zuckerman,

KELOWNA, BRITISH COLUMBIA - One day last fall, before heading to the practice range at the Okanagan Golf Club in western British Columbia, we watched, along with dozens of other rapt Canadians in the clubhouse, and tens of millions around the country, as Mike Weir attempted to win the Canadian Open.

He had world No. 1 Vijay Singh dead to rights during the second playoff hole, only needing to sink a six-foot putt to claim his national championship. Apparently knocking in a similar length putt to get in a Masters playoff is child's play in comparison to a Canadian winning his national Open, especially with the expectations of a nation weighing down your putting stroke. Weir's putt slipped by, and the 50-year drought of native-born winners of the Canadian Open stretched on for at least another year. Given unexpected new life, Vijay dispatched the lefty with ease on the succeeding hole.

Weir and his nation of golf fans were disappointed but the same could not be said for those of us who quickly headed to the first tee at the eccentrically memorable Quail Course at the Okanagan Golf Club. Vijay issomeone you don't give a second chance to, but be sure to take two chances on the Okanagan because each course on the property is deserving of close inspection.

The Les Furber-designed Quail Course is all about placement. Power is of secondary concern as, from the middle tee box, the distances on the par-4 holes are mostly in the 330-yard range. Even the championship markers at6,800 yards feature a quartet of par 4s that are 340 yards or less.

Power players will be rewarded by keeping the driver head-cover firmly in place throughout much of the round. Distance control is the watchword and landing a long iron or fairway metal at the appropriate spot on the fairway for a full shot approach is the cerebral choice. Some of the biggest blows are required on the par-3 holes, of all places. Three of four are in the190- to 200-yard range. The course is laid out in oblong fashion and theclockwise loop doesn't return to the clubhouse at the turn. In the finishing stretch the course lengthens and widens concurrently, particularly when it's adjacent to The Bear course midway through the inward nine.

Speaking of The Bear, one of the most endearing aspects of this 1999 design is the trio of distinct "looks" the golf course offers.

Designed by Bill O'Leary, Jack Nicklaus' son-in-law, this course is also routed predominantly through a wooded hillside and, in typical mountain golf fashion, tee shots need to find their way between imposing stands of hardwoods. But in addition to the woodsy flavor, there are also several holes that run on the ridgeline at the far eastern edge of the property. From the tee at the par-3 sixth, the green at the ninth, the length of holes 10 and 11, golfers have wonderful long vistas of the Okanagan valley below, with clouds hanging below the mountaintops in the distance. You're looking right down on the Kelowna Airport, just five minutes from the property. But this is no real distraction - call it the "anti-O'Hare" because planes lumbering down the runway or taking off in a deafening roar are just a very occasional experience at this efficiency airdrome serving a city with about 100,000 residents.

The third characteristic of the routing is a trio of lakeside holes midway through the inward nine, on the western edge of the property. Thethree-shot 13th, short 14th and par-4 15th make a horseshoe around El's Lake. There's some serious mounding surrounding several of the greens and a lineup of Tuscan-style villas with clay-tiled roofs that are part of thereal estate component of the golf course. "Those three holes offer a bit of a breather after playing a dozen holes with mostly tree-lined fairways,"says Kevin Isabey, director of sales and marketing for Golf BC, which markets the Okanagan region as a stand-alone golf destination. These holes are a nice complement to the woods and valley views, but the slightly extended cart journey to and from the trio, including the ubiquitous tunnel commute, preclude walking the golf course, which is always a shame.

Speaking of walking, the truth of the matter is that The Bear starts in pedestrian fashion. The first couple of holes are forgettable par 4s but the third is an eye-opener. It's a 420-yard par 4 that plunges downhill from a precipice tee box. Not only is the tee shot the most dramatic on the golf course, but the green is nestled seamlessly among the hardwoods, necessitating an approach shot of great accuracy. The accuracy theme continues on the sixth, a short hole of only 135 yards to a long, narrowgreen backed by a steep and shaggy hillside. Behind the tee box is the first look at the valley and airport but be sure not to airmail the green with the tee ball, or face an awkward downhill chip shot out of the hay.

"Both of our courses do an equal number of rounds," says Isabey, a Class A member in the Canadian PGA. "We do about 65,000 rounds between the two in total and that number is evenly divided."

The Bear course sees a bit more public play in large part because themembership got used to playing The Quail, which debuted in 1992, seven years before The Bear was born.

"Another reason is that The Bear is more of a resort-style track," Isabey says. "The Quail is a target course with some tighter holes, forced carries, a few double-dogleg par 5s, and large greens featuring plenty of movement. It's a bit more demanding from the tee."

The numbers don't lie: From the middle markers The Quail plays to a petite 6,250 yards but is sloped at 127. The Bear is bigger at 6,500 yards but the 122 slope hints at the more forgiving nature of the terrain.

"The majority of our corporate play comes at The Bear," Isabey says. "The slopes help funnel the ball back into play and the landing areas are wider. There's a bit more room to maneuver."

Of course everything is relative. Just because, strange as it sounds, The Bear is less ferocious than The Quail, it's not exactly Pop's Pitch & Putt. Trouble abounds if you can't steer it onto the short grass, and there are seemingly acres of sand surrounding many greens.

Either course at the Okanagan Golf Club makes for an eminently worthwhile afternoon on the links. But why play just one? Take the whole day, take them in tandem, and tour the whole "menagerie." These fraternal twins make a compelling argument for why the Kelowna region of British Columbia is one of North America's up-and-coming golf destinations.

Dining out

Dozens of worthwhile options exist. A small sampling would include Wild Apple Grill at the Manteo Resort for gourmet continental cuisine, Christopher's Steak & Seafood, The Teahouse for its orchard setting, Yamas Taverna for Greek specialties or The Vintage Room for seafood.

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

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

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