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Come to the Okanagan for a REAL water hazard!

John GordonBy John Gordon,

KELOWNA, British Columbia - Lurking somewhere in Lake Okanagan, say the true believers, is Ogopogo, a sea monster whose first sighting by aboriginals goes back centuries.

But lately, even the scientists have gotten into the act, labeling the creature either a living relic of the dinosaur age, "Elasmosaurus," or a primitive whale, "Basilosaurus cetoides." Doubters must consider seriously that the creature or creatures (two to three have been sighted together) have been seen simultaneously by groups of people throughout the years, including priests and police officers.

Lake Okanagan, which stretches some 80 miles from Vernon in the south to Penticton in the north (Kelowna is about in the middle), is similar in many ways to Scotland's Loch Ness, which also claims a sea serpent of some renown - both are long, deep, narrow, and at about the same latitude.

And while disbelievers may point to Scotland's famous whiskey as the possible source of Nessie sightings, they can imagine a similar culprit in this glorious corner of Canada which is home to more than 40 VQA wineries and a number of cottage breweries.

Coincidentally, the region also lies on the same latitude as the northern German and French vineyards. Distinct microclimates occur throughout the Okanagan Valley, from the hot, sandy, desert soils in the south to the cooler vineyard sites in the north, with their deep topsoil and clay. Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir grow in the south, while Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gew├╝rztraminer are grown in the mid and northern regions, some left to freeze on the vine for the region's famed ice wines. Not quite California's Napa Valley, but close.

The same climate that gives birth to these succulent wines also provides sustenance for fruit orchards and great turf-growing conditions. As a result, the region, just four hours from the U.S.-Canada border or Vancouver, has experienced a golf boom.

The Harvest Golf Club combines a couple of those themes. The 7,100-yard Graham Cooke design is located on 287 acres in East Kelowna, 10 of which are dedicated to the growing of wine grapes. Eighty-seven more are planted with fruit trees such as apples, peaches and pears.

It has been named "best central Okanagan golf course" by Okanagan Life magazine five times, most recently last year, and has garnered a host of other kudos including a platinum award from Canada's Golf Course Ranking Magazine, Four Star Award from Golf Digest (Places to Play 2000-2002), and Golf Facility of the Year by the provincial PGA.

The Okanagan Life readers' choice list also included Gallagher's Canyon and Kelowna G&CC in the central region; Predator Ridge, Spallumcheen and Salmon Arm in the north; and Penticton, Fairview and Summerland in the south. While this is obviously a subjective list, let's allow the people to speak.

For years, Gallagher's Canyon was just about the only course whose named was recognizable to anyone from outside the region. Opened in 1980, the Bill Robinson design overlooks a spine-chilling ravine that cuts through massive sand hills and dunes, providing some exciting vistas.

The Kelowna Golf and Country Club, which recently underwent renovations by Cooke, is most notable as the place where Dave Barr learned the game. In February, Barr became the first Canadian to win on the Champions Tour (formerly Senior PGA Tour.)

In 2000, golf fans had a chance to appreciate the unique qualities of Predator Ridge during the Canadian Skins Game featuring Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Fred Couples. At the time of its opening in 1991, "target golf" was unheard of in this country and architect Les Furber of Canmore, Alberta, heard some mixed reviews. But those quickly died away, and the 27-hole facility eventually was rated 16th in the country according to ScoreGolf's Top 100 list in 2002. Golf Digest gave it 4 ┬Ż stars in its Places to Play listing. Each nine stretches from 2,600 to more than 3,500 yards, and the golf academy offers individual or group sessions, including multi-day packages.

Spallumcheen Golf and Country Club's 27 holes are located across the round from the historic O'Keefe Ranch (which Okanagan Life's readers rated as the best tourist attraction in the northern Okanagan, by the way). The nine-hole executive and the shortish but picturesque 18 main course were recently overhauled, with three new lakes, added bunkers and mounding framing the fairways.

"What sets the Salmon Arm Golf Club apart from others is that it's one of the most natural sites around," says Furber, who has done many courses in this part of Canada after working for the Robert Trent Jones organization. The course skirts the base of Mount Ida, an extinct volcano, which creates a gorgeous setting as fairways and greens follow the contours of the surrounding terrain. The main course ranges from 4,900 to 6,700 yards, and is supplemented by a nine-hole executive course and a teaching academy.

Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the Penticton G&CC has also been reworked by the ubiquitous Furber who brought water into play on more than half the holes and created some new tees. While he built some new greens, most remain in the traditional small dimension, and are notoriously quick. Although it plays just over 6,100 yards from the back, it is a true shotmaker's delight, with huge trees threatening errant balls.

Originally founded in 1925, Fairview Mountain GC in Oliver has been rated as high as No. 18 on ScoreGolf's listing of courses in Canada. Redesigned in 1990 by - who else? - Furber, the 6,600-yard layout offers widely varying elevations in an orchard setting. The roughs are alive with sagebrush and cacti, this region being the northernmost limit of the Sonora Desert.

Summerland G&CC is perched some 300 yards above Lake Okanagan - perhaps offering a chance peek at Ogopogo - with two very different nines. The front offers wide fairways and a smattering of trees while several holes on the back are lined with towering Ponderosa pines from tee to green. The 500-foot-deep Trout Creek Canyon comes into play on three holes here, most notably on 18. Summerland's rates are typical of many courses in the Okanagan: Cdn$45 with a five-round package available for $175.

There are many more courses (the provincial golf association lists 62 in the Thompson-Okanagan region on their Web site, bcga.org) to choose from, including the 36-hole facility named, appropriately, the Okanagan Golf Club. It features 18 holes designed by - wait for it! - Furber, called the Quail, and 18 built by Jack Nicklaus, called the Bear.

(More about those and other Okanagan courses in upcoming stories and course reviews on RockiesGolf.com, so stay tuned!)

In addition to sea monsters, wine and, lest we forget, golf, the Okanagan offers an extremely moderate climate with a golf season that stretches from early April into October. This provides the ideal situation for all kinds of water sports on Lake Okanagan, as well as other outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and birdwatching.

The lake provides a centerpiece for the Okanagan Valley with its sun-drenched beaches, orchards and vineyards nestled under the emerald tree-lined mountains which surround it. The region stretches from Osoyoos in the south, mere minutes away from the U.S. border, up to Salmon Arm.

The Okanagan, like Ogopogo, has been under the radar (sonar?) of most people for years. Unlike its mythical resident, however, this gorgeous sliver of British Columbia's southern interior is for real. Why not discover it yourself?

For more information on this region, visit hellobc.com or thompsonokanagan.com.

Details on the courses mentioned are available at:
www.kgcc.bc.ca (Kelowna G&CC)
www.tee-off.ca/courses/bc158.htm (Penticton G&CC)

John Gordon has been involved fulltime with golf since he became managing editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, in 1985. In 1991, he was recruited by the Royal Canadian Golf Association to create their Member Services and Communications departments, and to revive Golf Canada magazine, their national membersmagazine which had been defunct for a decade. After successfully relaunching Golf Canada and serving as its inaugural editor, he was named executive director of the Ontario Golf Association. He returned to fulltime writing in 1995.

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