Canada's winter golf: a battle at every hole

Who ever heard of going to Canada in the winter to play golf? A lot of people do. Nearly half of the 107 courses in this westernmost province stay open all the year round. You'll find them around the surprising mild-weather cities, Victoria and Vancouver.

An old favorite is the Victoria Golf Club out on Beach Drive. Bordering the Pacific Ocean, its 87-year-old links overlook the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Gulf Islands, and the impressively soaring Olympic Mountain range.

Mighty testy are the hazards there. The "natural" rough includes gorse and rock, steep grassy banks, tidal inlets, beaches strewn with driftwood.

Holes are a lesson in military history, each named for famous battles in which large numbers of Canadians fought. Gibraltar . . . Tipperary . . . San Juan . . . Tattendam . . . Waterloo . . . so goes the roll call. The connection , I was told, is simply that "It's a battle on every hole."

Perhaps so, but its peaceful diversions are calming. A lighthouse here, a sailboat there, a freighter passing by, boys fishing off the rocks, seagulls flapping overhead.

An idyllic place to stay is the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, just a block away. Small and old-fashioned, it's loaded with country charm, and rates are pleasantly moderate.

Other intriguing courses around Victoria include Royal Colwood Golf & Country Club -- 6,130 yeards, 85 sand traps, 7 water hazards, not to mention hundreds of gnarled oaks and grizzled fir trees -- and the Uplands Golf Course, 6,2787 yards , rated 70 for men, 74 for women, with many large trees and rock outcroppings to contend with. Green fees for all three, about $15.

Just a 20-minute drive from downtown Vancouver, a happy playing choice (if you can wangle reciprocal club privileges) is the Capilano Golf and Country Club. Be sure to take along a letter of introduction from your club manager to theirs. In a residential area over the Lion's Gate Bridge, its fairways sprawl along the slopes of handsome Hollyburn Mountain.

Holes there have names from the Capilano Indian language. "Hathstauwk," No. 1 hole, literally means "Beautiful View." It is, indeed. The whole of the course lies before you, thickly wooded with firs and cedars.City, mountains, harbor are all taken in with one glance. Green fees at Capilano are just about the highest in western Canada -- $25.

Other top courses in the Vancouver area, not so difficult to get on, are Point Grey Golf & Country Club on the banks of the Fraser River Delta -- lots of trees, 57 sand traps -- and the Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club, lush rolling fairways, 47 traps, 2 water hazards. Fees for both, about $20.

Ah, but all this traditional golf pales in comparison with "Snow Golf," a sport around which the community of Prince George has built its annual World Championship Snow Golf tournament. This year's dates are Feb. 8 to 18.

If you go there, be prepared for midwinter madcap madness -- hordes of foursomes garbed in the most outlandish costumes imaginable, flailing away in the snow at the required purple ball, only equipment allowed being one solitary club.

"I never laughed so hard in my life," Canadian friends will tell you.

Goofy as it is, it's one of Canada's most cheerful celebrations. For when snow golf begins, spring's not far behind.

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