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Tee Time VIDEO: Squamish is superb

Don't drive by on the Sea to Sky

Once known mainly as the industrial and service hub of the Howe Sound corridor, Squamish -- with its spectacular setting -- has emerged as a recreation destination in its own right.

While Whistler gets most of the press, Squamish quietly goes about its business and gets it done. Perhaps it's the vastly improved Sea to Sky highway, perhaps it's the accolades they received from the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, but whatever the cause there is a new sense of confidence and community pride in Squamish that's visible if you know where to look.

Take, for instance, the Squamish Valley Golf Club. Like many long time Squamish establishments, there's a sensible utility at work here. As well as the golf club, it's home to the Howe Sound Curling Club and the Squamish Squash Club. It has a friendly, unpretentious atmosphere where members and visitors alike are treated to a warm welcome, even if you're just dropping in to the restaurant for a meal.

The Squamish Valley Golf Club is also a valuable community partner. Home to the annual Squamish Health Care Foundation's Charity Golf Classic, the club has helped raise over $500,000 for local health care and supports the Howe Sound Women's Shelter and the United Way as well as local schools and sports organizations.

While the community participation is laudable, what makes Squamish worth a visit for those of us on the North Shore is the condition of the course. Since opening in 1964, Squamish has become one of the best conditioned public courses available to golfers. Combine that with breathtaking scenery, and you've got a day of golf that's tough to top.

We recently had the pleasure of playing Squamish and it was outstanding. I was joined on what was one of the nicest Saturdays to date in a cold, wet 2011 by friends Dan Rothenbush of Lady Jane Landscaping, Rob Stuart of Zoom Tee golf management software and Bob Overgaard, former principal of West Vancouver's Sentinel secondary.

Given that you don't play golf to relax, you must relax in order to play golf, the drive to Squamish is a great way to begin. The easy pace and beautiful views ensure that you arrive unstressed and ready to play.

Once we got there, while the others chose to warm up on the practice range, I opted for a nice breakfast in the dining room.

If you've never played Squamish, it's a 6,463-yard "horseshoe within a horseshoe" layout, with water on seven holes.

From the opening tee, the 539-yard, Par-5 first hole looks pastoral, almost benign. Once your ball lands, however, you're in the middle of a minefield of small furrows and ridges that make stance and club selection ticklish.

Even with the miserable spring we have endured, the course was well-drained and dry. Greens here are always meticulously maintained and that day were in good early season form. In a few weeks they'll be slick and lightning fast.

One of the most challenging holes on the front nine is the 286-yard, Par-4 third. It's a hard dogleg left and from the tee the green is hidden by a grove of trees. Out of sight in front of the green is a cavernous crescent-shaped, sod-walled bunker. For those laying up -- a good decision by the way -- there are the remains of an old irrigation channel that has been grassed over. You really need to pick your landing spot.

An accurate first shot: result, happiness. A careless ball off the tee will land you in a world of grief.

My tee shot here was a little left. I was too close to the trees to go over, and couldn't see the putting surface.

Did I go for it? Of course I did. And that large bunker in front of the green that I mentioned? Lovely at this time of year, thank you.

With the calamitous third behind us, we moved on to three of the course's longer holes: the 440-yard, Par-4 fourth; the 199-yard, Par-3 fifth; and the 472-yard, Par-5 sixth.

Here, in the geographic heart of the course, we paused a moment to soak in the glory of that spring day. Snow on the nearby mountains dazzled and the sky was sapphire blue. In the quiet of the fairways, birdsong and wind rustling in new-sprouted leaves provided a sound track that was almost medicinal.

A successful round of golf comes down to managing distractions: bunkers, water hazards and more. At Squamish the distractions have a natural feel to them, they fit the landscape.

Take, for example, the Par-3 11th. At 189 yards from the back tees, it's not the longest of the short holes, but there is a large pond running centre left all the way to the green. The trees and mountains reflect from its tranquil surface and it looks as if it had been there since the dawn of time.

Yet it's easy to shift your focus to where you don't want your ball to go. From there, a damp ending awaits.

Bunkers too can confound. I mentioned my adventure on No. 3. On the 12th hole, I took a lesson in concentration from Overgaard. His ball landed in the first of two bunkers that guard the right side of the green. With a calmness born from years of managing teenagers, his next shot was up, over the second bunker and on to the green. That, as they say, is how you do that.

I think my favourite stretch of the course is the 15th and 16th holes. If you haven't played Squamish in a few years, they have added a large pond that runs to the right of the 15th green and fronts the 140-yard, Par-3 16th.

After putting out on the 356-yard 15th, the 16th tee box gives you a great view of the Stawamus Chief and the rugged peaks to the east. It's not a long hole by any means, but the water . . . oh, the water.

I watched as, one by one, my companions dutifully put their tee shots in the drink. Overgaard liked it so much he did it twice.

We were all having such a great time that it really didn't matter.

That is part of the charm of the Squamish Valley Golf Club. Even if you're having a less than stellar round, it's difficult not to have a good time. From the staff in the club house to the condition of the course and the majestic surroundings, it's one of the most enjoyable outings you can find in the Lower Mainland.

It's no surprise that the course is attracting a growing number of tournaments. On May 17-18, the CN Canadian Women's Golf tour will be there, with Canada's top female golfers competing for $60 thousand in prizes.

On June 18-19, it's the Squamish Men's Amateur tournament which many use as a tune up for the BCGA Men's Amateur, and from August 8-11 it's the BCGA Senior Provincial Championship.

A few years back, I played Squamish shortly after the women's tour had been through and it was in incredible shape. With the tournaments they've lined up for 2011, it will be like that all year.

It really is worth the drive.