THE more things change, the more they stay the same?
In some cases, perhaps. The weather is a good example as this year's spring looked like a mirror image of the last - rain and more rain, the promise of sun going largely unfulfilled.
In the case of North Vancouver's Northlands Golf Course however, there have been changes over the past few years and all for the better.
Named by Golf Digest Magazine as one of North America's best new courses when it opened in 1998, Northlands has been quietly evolving over the past 14 years into a spectacular golf destination through a simple trick - engaging with the people who play it.
It seems natural that any business would want to listen to their customers and take their concerns to heart, yet too many golf courses have an, "If you don't like it go play somewhere else" attitude. It is a credit to the management that Northlands has always has always had the foresight to respond to the requirements of the playing public. Now that the golf market has become more competitive they are ahead of the curve, leaving other courses to play catch-up.
Since opening day in the late 1990s, Northlands has been gradually tweaked and nuanced. Some punitive bunkers have been removed, the dense coastal undergrowth that lined the verges of the fairways has been tamed and drainage, particularly on the front nine, has been dramatically improved.
This year Northlands has added new enhancements - on and off the course - that make it even more attractive and easier to play, and technology plays a role.
The Northlands App for mobile phones opens a whole new world of access, enjoyment and playability for golfers of all skill levels. Downloadable for free to use on iPhones and Android devices, it gives course information and allows you to book a tee time directly from your phone.
Once you arrive at the course, the Northlands App keeps score for you and your group and has a GPS function that gives you accurate distances from your ball to major hazards as well as the front, middle and back of the green.
We had a chance recently to experience Northlands 2.0 first hand.
It almost goes without saying that it had been wet and the forecast was for more of the same. Our tee time was mid-morning on a Saturday and the night before the heavens opened mightily. Phone calls were exchanged: doubt gave way to resolve and it was on rain or shine.
Though the deluge had abated by the next morning, we each harboured doubts. I looked wistfully at my sunglasses. No real point in taking them.
And yet, when we arrived the clouds began to slink quietly off one at a time, as if embarrassed at making a fool of the weatherman yet again. We couldn't believe our good fortune.
I was joined that day by friends Dan Rothenbush, Larry Verigin and Lance Olson. We were all great fans of Northlands and anxious to explore the upgrades we had heard about.
On the first tee I got the Northlands App up and running on my iPhone. Using the Start Round/ GPS function, I entered my name and called up the first hole. As well as listing the distance from each tee box, there was a tip on how to play the hole and starting the GPS function gave exact distance from that morning's tee placement.
Second shots were from between the 200-150 yard markers and again the GPS gave exact distances to the green for each of us to help with club selection. Northlands' fairways are generally well marked for distance, but if you're not near a sprinkler head, the new system eliminates guesswork.
Also new, Northlands will be demonstrating about 20 GPSequipped golf carts. When you book your tee time, see if you can get one put aside for you. They're a good alternative if you don't have a smartphone.
I want to say a word about course conditions. The miserable weather had managed to soak even the boulders to their core, yet Northlands' fairways and greens were in remarkable condition. Putting surfaces were bone dry and close cropped and the fairways were consistently lush and very playable.
Steve Haggard, Riley Hummelle and the rest of the Turfcare team are to be sincerely congratulated for their heroic efforts to keep this great course in tip-top shape, particularly given the grisly spring we endured.
I suppose you could excuse them if they backed off and surrendered to the elements, but they have risen to the challenge in spades. It's yet another example of Northlands' commitment to making sure that the paying public gets exceptional value for their golfing dollar.
If you have never played Northlands, it's a must. The 6,504yard Les Furber design takes you down, up, across and around some of the most undisturbed rainforest you'll find without hiking. It requires strength, stamina, patience and focus - like fighting a marlin without the aid of a boat.
The front nine is an exercise in controlled play, maintaining your discipline and trying to score on the more benign back half of the course. The three most difficult holes - numbers 4, 5 and 15 - represent serious challenges. Having the course in such good shape at least gives you a chance.
For us, the sun came out by the time we reached the first green and the rest of the round was a beautifully warm earlysummer outing. The breeze swirled and what could have been a hot day was balmy and idyllic.
As we moved though the front nine, the fairways remained well-drained and the greens reliably readable. From the steep rise of the fourth fairway, the deep swale of Number 6 and the descent to the green of the par-3 eighth hole, if you were in the rough or better, you had a decent shot.
While future plans include upgrading drainage on the back nine, on that day it too was in good form. Drainage has been improved on the 10th hole and any risk of plugging off the tee has largely been eliminated.
From there, the generally level layout of the next five holes really removes damp fairways from the equation.
On the 303-yard par-4 13th hole, another upgrade is definitely worth mentioning. The angle of the original tee box layout tended to bring the left side of the fairway, and the bushes and townhouses beyond, into play as golfers tried to maximize distance on their tee shots.
Now, the tee box faces straight down the middle of the fairway, effectively removing the left side from shot calculation. It's a big improvement and will likely help your score as you end up with a better path to the heavily bunkered green for your second shot.
I noticed another thing on the back nine: the GPS system on the Northlands App actually improves your pace of play. A quick consult gives you distance and spares you and your group the time and bother of scoping out a yardage marker. You get the distance, pick your club and make your shot.
We aren't talking a huge amount of time, but it probably speeds up the average round by about 10 minutes and anything that improves pace of play is a godsend.
Another benefit of the course's location is that beyond the northern boundary of the course, it's wilderness and wildlife encounters in the woods and fairways are almost commonplace.
On the tee box of the 491yard par-5 17th hole, Lance, Dan and I had each hit our tee shots. Larry was getting ready to follow suit when a pair of inquisitive young deer stepped out of the westward bushes. They were clear-eyed and healthy, the first blush of new antlers budding from their foreheads. We waited and they waited until they finally decided to saunter over to the 16th green and see what was happening there.
That too is part of the magic of Northlands. Deer, eagles, coyotes and the occasional bear are no strangers to the course. Once I saw a pair of river otters having a grand time in the water hazard between the 14th green and 15th tee. It's really quite extraordinary.
As we ascended the summit of the 18th hole, the clouds began to return - again, slowly, inconspicuously. A day of a few good shots had one left in it. From about 120 yards out, down the slope and out of sight of the pin, Lance put his third shot to within 6 inches of the cup to end his round with a birdie.
It was cause for celebration and we retired to the patio of the Northlands Bar and Grill in the clubhouse.
Here too there have been changes.
Under the guidance of new head chef Ian McIntosh, Northlands is putting serious effort into upgrading the food, service and overall customer experience at their restaurant. Late of the Irish Heather in Gastown, McIntosh's mandate is to bring the people back, and there are new menus for lunch, dinner and Saturday and Sunday brunch to start the process. With its gorgeous setting Northlands' dining room and patio should be packed - particularly in the summer for weekend brunch. New brunch items include Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, a daily scramble and a Croque Madam as well as omelets, Bennys and traditional favourites.
Lance and Larry gave the Croque Madam a whirl. The grilled sandwich is composed of an absolute mountain of ham and Swiss cheese on sourdough in a rich mornay sauce, topped with a fried egg and served with salad or fries for only $11.50. They raved about it so much I had to go back a few days later and try it myself. It was worth the trip.
Other innovations include moving the dinner menu to more seasonal selections with an emphasis on fresh local products. McIntosh will also be working with the grounds crew to grow fresh herbs and vegetables in the gardens around the course for use in their own kitchen. Again, a simple idea, but it takes advantage of one of the course's strengths - superb horticultural stewardship.
By the fall, they hope to offer weekly fixed price menus on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings for the non-golfing public looking for a great night out in a beautiful setting.
Northlands wants you to come back. If the dedication and focus they bring to the course are any indication of what to expect in the dining room, better book your table soon. It's going to be in demand.