VIDEO: Northlands: growing up gracefullyA great golf course is like an enormous garden.
Over time, the greenery settles in and as players and management have a chance to see how it all unfolds, tweaks and adjustments can be made to enhance the experience for golfers of all levels.
Such is the case at Northlands Golf Course in North Vancouver. This 6,504-yard, Les Furber-designed course is without doubt one of the finest municipal golf facilities in the country.
Named by Golf Digest Magazine as one of the best new courses in North America when it opened in 1998, Northlands set the bar at a significant height for new courses that have opened since.
Since then, they've eked the bar up a little higher as the course has been shaped and nuanced over the last decade, each change enhancing play a little further.
In the past year, the course has been fine-tuned again. A recent visit gave us a first hand look.
On a beautiful Monday afternoon, Larry Verigin and Robbie Ohlhauser of the North Shore News joined friend Mark Unruh of RBC Financial and I for a spring test run.
The wind was up and fairways were dry and in good early spring health. Our horrific winter was particularly hard on the North Shore, and as recently as February, the fairways at Northlands were under a foot or so of snow.
We expected quite a lot of winter kill on the greens and fairways but were surprised at how well the course had weathered. You could almost watch the blades grow as the sun and soil worked their magic on the root systems of the grass.
The first hole at Northlands is a great introduction to what lies ahead.
From a lofty tee box near the clubhouse, you look down on a descending vale fairway that narrows hard by the landing area, where the water on the left pinches toward the giant fir and cedar trees that line the right edge of the short grass by the cart path.
Right away, one of the recent changes to the structure of the course makes your second shot choices a little less punitive. The great, ball-greedy bunker that fronted the elevated green has been grassed in. It doesn't affect either the look or the experience of the hole. Most golfers below a seven handicap or so will be on in two and won't notice anyway.
It simply gives you the option of a decent third stab at the putting surface if you land short.
That afternoon, with the wind swirling in all directions, tee shots were reduced to crude guesswork. Having the bunker grassed in was a blessing and allowed us to slink off to the second tee a little bruised, but not broken.
The second and third holes are a carefree stretch of play that lull you into a false sense of comfort before Furber springs the first of his many traps.
Number 2 is, at most, a 353-yard, dogleg-right par four. The green is hidden from the tee box by a large rock outcropping, and for many golfers, a fairway wood landing centre-left by the hundred-yard marker will give you a good view and angle of attack for the long thin green.
It's one of your best chances to score on the front nine.
The par-three third is a downhill flight of 177 yards from the elevated tips to a well bunkered green that's joined to the first putting surface. The problems here are long and wide. If you're fairly straight and even a little short, your dignity is preserved.
No, the problems begin on Number 4, at one of the farthest points away from the parking lot where it's truly too late to turn back.
The fourth at Northlands is a brawny uphill beast. At 558 yards from the back tees, a fairly flat landing area quickly becomes a massive uphill trek to a fiendish sloping green that can leave you bewildered and more than a little dizzy.
Once again the course managers have taken pity on the recreational golfer and grassed in a couple of the fairway bunkers between the 150-yard marker and the green. But there's difficulty aplenty still.
Holes 4 through 7 begin an assault on your senses that's a great test of your game. At par four, Number 5 is 434 yards. The landing area is flat, but most of the trouble is to the right side. If you slice, beware.
Holes 6 and 7 are a bookended yin-yang pair of uphill-downhill marvels. Number 6 is short-ish at 368 yards, but most second shots will be blind and the back of the green drops off right away down into the forest. If you're long, you're gone.
Number 7 is 401 yards, all uphill, to a multi-level green with a blind landing area from the tee.
It's a roller coaster ride up and down the benchlands of Mount Seymour, through ancient timber and spurs of weathered stone. It's just as well the rocks and trees can't talk as they would have seen some shots that would be hard for the most gifted orator to describe.
As you walk off the seventh green, the highest point on the course, you begin a descent back to the ninth green beside the clubhouse that leaves you wondering: "If we've been going uphill all the time, how did we get back to where we started?"
The tenth hole leads you down to the gently rolling back nine via a blind tee shot and green surrounded by water.
If the first nine hasn't beaten you up too badly, holes 11-14 give you a chance to gain ground. If you've had a few "others" on your way, this is a chance to get a few shots back.
Number 11 has also changed in the past year. Once, a little pot bunker sat on the upslope right in front of the green, waiting to break your heart after a decent first shot. No longer. This too has been grassed in and the hole still offers plenty of challenge.
Holes 12, 13 and 14 include a pair of par-threes and 303-yard par-four.
Number 13, the par-four, is a really interesting risk-reward calculation. It's a slight dogleg left and you can't see the green from the tee. A cedar stump some 200 yards out gives you your line to the green, but it's a sucker's play -- even for big hitters.
The green is well guarded with bunkers and set hard against the course boundary. A shot that can look very promising from the tee box can disappear into the alders and thick brush just beyond the putting surface.
A nice fairway wood down the centre left will give you a clear shot at the green, then it's up to your putter.
Number 15 is ranked second most difficult, and would have been a toss-up for first with Number 4. At 547 yards from the championship tees, this has been the graveyard of many hopeful rounds.
A sprawling left-right double dogleg, if you have the nerve to go for the green in two, you have to draw the ball around the trees on the left to give you a peek at the green, still hundreds of yards away, uphill.
For recreational golfers, a decently long straight shot puts you up against the first of Northland's environmental hazards: a stump- and prickle-filled creek bed that's much farther across than it looks.
Fortunately, another course modification lies beyond: the bunker beside the cart path heading up to the green has been grassed in. If you manage to carry the hazard, a 100-yard uphill sand shot has been taken out of the equation.
It still adds up to plenty of swinging.
The final three holes, a par-three followed by two par-fives, are as satisfying a finish as you could ask for and remain unaltered. Number 17, at 491 yards from the black tees, gives recreational golfers a chance at a birdie. Just a chance, mind you, as the tee shot crosses the environmental hazard and there's water down the left.
Number 18 is a fun-house-mirror image of the first: a long sweeping fell rising up to an impossibly elevated pin, bisected again by the environmental hazard.
As you walk off the final green, it's hard to escape the feeling that you haven't just played golf, you've accomplished something. Even if it's just surviving.
Northlands is a public course and the recent modifications have made it just a little more playable for the public. It's still a great bear of a course and a challenge for everyone.
The people who run Northlands have always been very sensible and, having played it from its earliest years, I must say that the latest alterations make sense. A golf course is an organic thing, changing with the seasons. If abstract designs on drawing boards need occasional adjustments to improve real world use, then so be it. They have done the right thing.
Another sensible thing now available at Northlands has been implemented this season: booking privileges for single golfers. You can now book, by phone up to five days in advance, if you're a single and just want to get out for a round. It's the only course in the Lower Mainland I know that offers this service and it's a great idea.
If you needed more reasons to love our greatest local public course, now you have them.
Online video: This season all courses featured in Tee Time will also be available to see in online video taken the day we played. Northlands is the second for 2009. Go to nsnews.com and click on the link to the Tee Time section (link on the left margin index). Find the video of your choice and check it out.
BOOK YOUR TEE TIME AT NORTHLANDS
Singles may now reserve Saturday and Sunday tee times up to five days in advance (phone only) by calling 604-924-2950, ext. 1. For Saturday, call noon on Monday prior. For Sunday, call noon on Tuesday prior.
Adult green fees are $55.00 Monday-Thursday and $60.00 Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Junior green fees are $27.50 (under 18) Monday to Thursday and $30.00 Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Senior green fees are $40.00 Monday to Thursday and $60.00 Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
First Twilight $40.00 Monday to Thursday, $45.00 Friday Saturday and Sunday. Second Twilight $30.00 Monday to Thursday, $35 Friday Saturday and Sunday. Early Bird (Monday -Thursday before 8 am) $45.00 Fridays $50.00. Sunrise (Monday-Thursday before 7 am) $40.00, $45.00 on Friday.
Back Nine morning special: first hour of tee times, Monday-Thursday $25.00, Friday Saturday and Sunday $30.00.
Nine and Dine special: Adults $35.00, kids $20.00. Starts 5:30 pm. Includes green fee and meal voucher: $10.00 for adults, $7.00 for kids. Cart rental not included.
Tee times can be arranged online at www.golfnorthlands.com or by calling 604-280-1111 five days in advance, staring at noon. Proper golf attire is required.