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University Golf Club stands as an unexpected pleasure in Vancouver

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,

VANCOUVER - Trees greet you on all sides. And these aren't the scraggly trees of a manufactured golf course forest. This is real deep woods, practically the stuff of Little Red Riding Hood.

Standing here on the 14th tee at University Golf Club, it's hard to believe you're still in Vancouver, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in North America. For it feels like you're in some remote hinterland. Never mind that it really only takes 15 minutes of pure city driving to get here from the bustling harbor tourist area.

"It's so calm," said Greg Burr, an experienced Vancouver golfer.

That's University Golf Club. A calm, soothing haven of golf in the middle of a city that's proceeding breakneck speed ahead with preparations for the 2010 Winter Games. University Golf Club just celebrated its 75th anniversary and it bears the carriage of a dignified statesman who's more than comfortable in his own skin.

Leave the flash, dash and crushing shot tasks to others. At University, it's about a simple game for the people in surprisingly scenic settings.

On a backed up day, you can duck into the BC Golf Museum after sinking your putt on No. 16, get a good look around and still be back out on 17 in time to tee off in sequence. The museum occupies a small building just behind and to the left of the 16th green. In some ways, it's like stumbling upon a little cabin in the woods after a long journey.

How many other courses do you know where you can squeeze in a cultural experience mid-round? How many others do you know where you'd enjoy it?

At University, the museum fits right in though. This isn't a course designed to crush your spirits or test your manhood. It is a largely straight-forward, honest game of golf. With a 122 slope rating from the back tees, University carries just enough private strength to make it interesting while not feeling the need to flex cartoon muscles.

"It's really generous with its landing areas," General Manager Michael Mather said. "It's very inviting to young, old, male, female. We get a lot of beginners.

"It's more of a social game here. It's not that stuffy, not pretentious."

This is reflected in University's slogan: Non-members only. In a Vancouver area where 80 percent of the courses were private not that long ago, University Golf Club long stood as something of a local retreat for average guys who wanted to get in a good 18.

Fifteen minutes from the commerce of Robson Street and you're right there, paying greens fees that make golfers experienced in other West Coast hot spots smile before ever seeing the first tee. Golf in British Columbia is typically much cheaper than buzzword Left Coast U.S. destinations, thanks in part to the Canadian dollar and probably in still larger part to the Canadian attitude toward paying for golf. Yet even under these lower-ceiling standards, University is a good deal with its $60 average summer greens fee.

You're not getting Westwood Plateau Golf Club wonder or fawning service for that price. But you will get classic old school golf in a city escape that never takes you outside the city.

"I play here when I can't commit the whole day to getting to one of the other courses," said John Abbott, who lives and works downtown.

It's possible to tee off by 8 a.m. and be back having a cocktail in one of the city's ultra-hip lounges by 1 p.m. In theory, of course.

The golf theory here is pretty basic but sound. University gives you room to spray off the tees and tightens things up on your approach, making the short game key.

Some of the greens are downright weaselly tricky. If you don't land left of the pin on No. 12, its rolling far, far by. No. 16 looks like a cakewalk from the tee, a 145-yard straight forward par 3. Heck, it can look like a breeze when you're on the green. Then your putt starts breaking ways you never expected, because you didn't honor the subtle breaks.

This is how it goes at University Golf Club. Just when you think it's getting too easy, there's a surprise waiting at the next tee.

A suddenly shrunk fairway for instance. This is what greats you on the 13th, a 523-yard par 5. Following hole after hole of United Way-generous openings, 13 is scrunched like Shaq stuffed in a McDonald's Playland.

It would not be so startling if you hadn't become so used to being able to bomb away with impunity.

There's some mystery about who designed University Golf Club, with records having been lost from the 1920s. Whoever did it had a slightly wicked sense of humor. One that's been maintained through various renovations over the years, including a major one in the mid 1980s.

For University can confound when it appears its most benign. The bunkering on the pars 3 are a prime case.

On No. 7, a 185-yarder, you're liable to leave it short in a bunker much deeper and harder to escape from than you expect. Then on No. 16, there are two bunkers that look as harmless as a sleeping baby and yet can squash that career round without mercy.

The sand is relatively heavy and clumpy here, especially when it's wet. In Vancouver, that can pretty much mean anytime.

"It's got some character," Mather said, grinning.

The verdict on University Golf Club

In an area where public access to reasonable golf can still be a hot-button topic, University Golf remains a virtual godsend. This old track isn't going to blow you away or leave you with memories of specific holes for a lifetime. Or even a few months.

But University is going to provide an enjoyable day with a relaxed rhythm. One of the great things about having a course on government land is that it keeps the housing developments away.

University Golf Club really gets into its nature feel around the sixth hole. This is when the Douglas Firs and the cedars come out in tall force. For the next few hours, you'll forget anything about being in the city.

One of the great things about this 75-year-old old-schooler is its holes are close enough together to make walking the preferred easy way to play. There were no thoughts of car paths in 1929. You can get into nice conversations here (so make sure you play with someone you don't mind talking to). Maybe, you will even start to understand why they walk almost everything in Europe.

With no hole longer than 541 yards from the farthest back tee, the distance challenged will not be intimidated here. In fact, University is one of those too-rare golf courses where the welcome mat is unpretentiously shown to all.

The one annoying break from this philosophy is the dubbing of the 10, 11, 12 and 13th holes as University's "Amen Corner." No one was going to see Augusta National in this stretch even back when Hootie Johnson would not let all of Augusta be seen on TV. It's a nice run of holes, but it would be better off if left to subtly surprise on its own without that weighty "Amen" moniker.

Overall, University's still just about the least imposing setup in attitude you will ever find. University Golf Club is what munis were supposed to be: A good play in good condition with good service. Sounds simple. Sometimes simple done right needs to be celebrated.

Stay and play

The Fairmount Waterfront ((604) 691-1991) offers views of the heliplanes landing in the bay from the high rooms, plus it is a convenient walk to the shops of Robson Street and a quick drive to most other areas in the city. The staff is friendly and you might just bump into a celebrity or two. During this stay, Lenny Kravitz strolled through the lobby, casual as could be.

There's another Fairmont in an old building in the heart of the Robson Street area and just about every other major hotel chain you can name as well.

Dining Out

The restaurant choices are endless in Vancouver, but two of the best are C ((604) 681-1164) and West ((604) 738 8938). C serves great fresh seafood, just don't order the tasting menu unless you want to explode under the never-ending parade of food. Seriously, they can turn a tasting menu into more of an endurance test than a pleasure.

In contrast, the revamped West gets all the portions right and mostly hits with its new Canadian menu.

For a more casual, authentic experience just head down to the Robson Street area and pick up something from one of the little food stands. The pitas at the Middle Eastern shop are particularly tasty.

Fast Fact

University Golf Club is still on government land, but it's been leased by prominent local businessman Dr. David Ho and run as a private business since 1990.

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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