Father/Son Golf on Vancouver Island
Clinging to a precarious one-up lead with two holes to play, my Spidey senses told me I was in some trouble. The remaining holes – holes where length, not my forte, was a definite advantage - played right into my long-hitting foe’s hands. To top it off, after playing five rounds in five days on the Vancouver Island Golf Trail, there wasn’t much left in the tank. But, thankfully, I had already convinced myself of this: win, lose, or draw, everyone who pegs it up on Vancouver Island is already a champ.
Cheesy comments aside, playing golf in a gorgeous, lush-green setting – especially when the rest of the country is frozen hockey-puck solid! - is never a bad thing. Go ahead, look out your window. If the prevailing colours are brown, white, or an unappealing mix of the two, chances are you’re not on Vancouver Island. Sorry for the painful experiment, but Vancouver Island fairways and greens stay, well, green all year round. When most Canadians are swinging snow shovels, people on the island are swinging 7-irons and shooting golf balls at flags flickering in the moist Pacific breeze.
“Last year we played golf 350 days out of the year,” said Jordan Ray, the Director of Golf at Bear Mountain in Victoria, which boasts two Nicklaus-designed golf courses. “If you’re looking to play golf in the off-season in Canada, this is the place to do it.”
Obviously, my “foe” – or we can call him my 6’2, 18 year-old son, Jordan, who hits it to the moon - and I were tickled pink to leave the ice-coated streets of Calgary behind for four days in late November. The hour and twenty-minute flight to Comox was a piece of cake. Basically, it’s just enough time to be challenged to a game, or two, of Angry Birds. Sadly, he beat me at that too.
Located just five minutes from the airport in Comox, the Crown Isle Resort is about as convenient as it gets for a quick transition to the greens. A 7,000 yard Graham Cooke design that features plenty of sand and water, there’s definitely enough challenge here, especially when you’re plagued with a rusty golf swing. At any rate, it didn’t take long for me and Jordan to get the competitive juices – and the double-bogeys - flowing.
“I’ll give you four shots a side,” I naïvely quipped as we hit a few putts on the practice green. Unfortunately, my generous offering failed to take into consideration his recent growth spurt and subsequent power increase. “You got it, dad,” he winked. “I’ll try and go easy on you.” The little brat lied.
After trading blows for the majority of the round, he rolled in a 50-footer for birdie (honestly, who makes those?) on the postcard-pretty 16th – a brand new one-shotter with water guarding the green - that finished me off. However, the round at Crown Isle was a great start to the trip. The weather was fantastic, the company couldn’t have been better, and, bottom line, it felt great to be shooting golf balls…as opposed to hockey pucks. And, thankfully, I would have plenty of opportunity to make amends for my drubbing.
Just twenty minutes north of Comox, Campbell River is home to a fabulous golf course that’s one of my favourites on not just the island, but the entire country. Numerous courses claim “natural” settings and “tranquil” experiences, however, the Storey Creek Golf Club takes this to another level. The entire 6,696-yard course meanders through a pine, cedar, and birch-peppered forest with each hole snug in its own peaceful amphitheater. There are no highways, no houses, no distractions. It’s just you…and nature. And your 17-year-old son showing you no mercy.
Shockingly, “the old man” got off to a blazing start at Storey Creek. Perhaps it was the “in nature” aura of the place (or the fact I got beat like a rented mule the previous round), but I really could do no wrong on the first five or six holes. Of course, after a couple of nasty snap hooks into Never Never Land, the doubt started to creep back in and I opened the door for junior to go for the takedown. He obliged. On the beautiful finishing run - which features a gorgeous downhill par-4, a stunning par-3 with a green framed in towering pines, and a heroic par-5 defended by bunkers and a pond – he delivered the decisive blows. And I, well, I absorbed them. Score it a 2-up overall lead for the kid.
With a couple of memorable North Island golf experiences under our belt, it was time to head south 264 kilometers on the Island Highway to Victoria to visit another key section of the Vancouver Island Golf Trail. Our plan was to play three more courses - Bear Mountain, Highland Pacific, and Olympic View – before heading home.
Now nearly ten years old, the Vancouver Island Golf Trail features ten golf courses and four distinct regions. Each offers its own distinct island experience. Due to time constraints, we bypassed the by-the-sea beauty of the Parksville and Qualicum Beach region and the rural charm of the Cowichan Valley. Courses such as Morningstar, Fairwinds, Arbutus Ridge, and Pheasant Glen – all great courses to play anytime of year – would have to wait for next time.
High on our list of courses to play in Victoria was Bear Mountain. A 36-hole fortress for the upscale golfer, Bear Mountain is also one of the best courses to play in the off-season. “The golf courses here drain exceptionally well,” says Ray. “The name says it all. Not only were the golf courses built with a comprehensive drainage system, but we’re situated on the side of the mountain. Gravity is our friend. The water just doesn’t stick around.”
What was sticking around was Jordan’s solid approach shots and hot putter. On Bear Mountain’s Valley Course – a par-71 layout that tumbles and rolls through rugged mountainous terrain – he strung together another solid round and forced me to come up with some last minute heroics to eke out a much-needed victory. On the 17th hole, an outstanding par-4 that swoops down the hill, I stuffed my 7-iron approach to three-feet (the best shot I hit all week?) and sealed a much-needed victory. Score one for the grizzled vet.
Routed through exposed rock outcroppings and a beautiful forest, Highland Pacific is another gem in Victoria that offers a memorable golf experience. With an awesome two-tier driving range and a beautiful patio overlooking the action, Highland Pacific is the full-meal-deal. And, thanks to its dramatic cliff-side greens, beautiful conditioning (even in winter!), and its exceptional value, it continues to grow in stature.
Like most people who play it for the first time, I walked away thoroughly impressed with Highland Pacific. The layout is chock-full of one-of-a-kind holes that are anything but boring. Of course, the fact that I scored an easy victory here (Junior lost his focus and spent too much time texting his girlfriend) further warmed my sentiments towards Highland Pacific.
Of course, now all that remained was the rubber match; an epic, sudden-death dash to the 18th green to see who would be crowned the champion. (Of what, exactly, I’m not sure). At any rate, the chosen site for our grand finale was the venerable Olympic View Golf Club. Another local favourite in Victoria, Olympic View is a player-friendly facility that evokes a pleasant and pastoral vibe. The course, while not overly long, is walkable and seems to have just the right amount of challenge to make it accessible and enjoyable for everyone.
Interestingly, in 1994 Tiger Woods played Olympic View as an amateur competing for Stanford in an invitational event. Not surprisingly, he obliterated the field and made Olympic View look rather, well, easy. Jordan and I did no such thing. Call it golf overload or the “intense” pressure of our competition, but our play was suspect from the get go. Balls were bouncing off trees, ricocheting off ball washers, and zinging through the underbrush with reckless abandon.
Up by the slimmest of margins on the famous 17th, which is framed with a stunning waterfall behind the green, and the long par-5 18th looming, I felt incredibly beatable. Call me a mental midget, but I had an overwhelming sense that I was about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. With his length, Jordan had a huge advantage. And, sure enough, “the kid” bombed it down the middle on the 17th while I hacked my way through the rough to score a double. Match all square.
On the 18th Jordan blasted another tee ball into the stratosphere and I, with much fear and trembling, hit a head-high hook that went half the distance of his “moonshot.” With a gravity-defying five-iron that landed in the middle of the green, Jordan delivered the final blow in style. But, funny enough, as we walked off the final green my “loss” was not stinging. Not even close. I had just spent four days golfing on Vancouver Island with my son. I was, by the most important measurements, a winner. At least, that’s what I told myself.
Andrew Penner is a golf writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. He contributes regularly to many of the top golf and lifestyle publications in North America. You can visit him at www.andrewpenner.com.