For Tweed Magazine
The 100 years of Uplands Golf Club in Oak Bay is a social-history story extending over a period of great change. It was a new golf club on an island on the western edge of a country only 65 years into independent nationhood: a club created out of Hudson Bay Company (HBC) grazing land only four years on from the end of the Great War, on the brink of a world-wide economic depression and with the storm clouds of war soon looming again.
It is a story of a piece of land and of those who created it into a scenically beautiful park-land course full of glorious trees and wildlife. In particular, it is about those who built a club and fostered its friendly Uplands family-style over time. Traditions made and continued, challenges accepted and met. Many friendships developed and many, many rounds of the old game played.
The club had its origins close to Macaulay Point Park in Esquimalt on the southern side of the rapidly growing township. Land by the sea near Esquimalt Harbour, with spectacular views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, was already occupied by the military and the navy. The arrival of the Royal Marine Artillery in Esquimalt in May of 1893 was significant, as two of the senior officers were golfers and such was their enthusiasm that construction was set to begin before the end of the year.
In a very short period of time, the United Service Golf Club (later to be re-named United Services Club) was in active play, albeit at times interrupted by wandering cattle and sheep. Eventually and perhaps inevitably, an influential number of regular-playing members began to look elsewhere in the hope of finding a location for a full 18-hole course.
Land on the former Uplands Farm became available for the development of a private course when an original scheme by the Oak Bay Council to create a municipal facility did not receive sufficient public support. Agreement was reached with the HBC to lease 120.75 acres (49 hectares) in the Uplands area of Oak Bay for 15 years at $3,000 per annum.
On June 17, 1922 at a specially-called meeting of the United Services Club, held at Sprott Shaw College Victoria, it was agreed to change the name of the club to Uplands. The first ball was struck from the first tee at the brand new Uplands Golf Club on a bright and sunny July 1, 1922. The club was officially opened on Labour Day of the same year, when the construction of the clubhouse was almost complete.
Looking back from 2022, where we can now see traffic lights from the back of the 18th tee box and housing on all four sides of the course, it is not easy to imagine the rural, even agricultural nature of the area a century ago. This was enhanced by a picket fence to the north, east and south sides of the property, which remained for many years. Until the time when automobiles became more numerous, many members travelled to the club by bicycle. Those who used the No. 9 street car to the terminus walked up through the fields to the club.
After significant financial concerns during the Great Depression and the war-time years, the members took on a major commitment to purchase the land in 1947. The mid-1950s saw the beginning of significant course alteration and development, with the most significant change occurring in 1969 when four of the last six holes were re-constructed to add more length and complexity to the course. Later, additional bunkers were added and two attractive water features were developed.
The family nature of Uplands has been greatly enhanced by staff continuity. Over the century there have been just four club professionals—Walter Gravlin (who started at Macaulay Point in 1919), Johnny Wren, Don Billsborough and the current incumbent Ian Stone.
Brian Youell, the master grounds superintendent, joined the club in 1981 and succeeded ex-hockey player Bill Shvetz (who was appointed in 1971) as top man in 1994. Brian’s right hand man for almost 40 years has been his brother, Dennis. Many members of the grounds crew have worked a great portion of their working lives at the club, and the same applies to a number of the clubhouse food and beverage staff.
The course is characterized by dramatic sweeping fairways bounded by mature stands of Garry oak and Douglas fir. Approximately 28 per cent of the total course area is made up of trees and associated open and naturalized land. Of the approximately 2020 trees, 82 per cent are native species. With its abundance of wildlife and naturalized areas, it has been certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary since 2011. Well over 100 types of birds have been recorded on the course, and the habitat has been enhanced by the provision of bird boxes and nesting platforms, as well as natural maintenance of the vegetation adjacent to the water features.
Starting with Walter Hagen in 1926, followed only a few years later by Archie Compston and Aubrey Boomer, many international golfing celebrities—including 1982 Masters Champion Craig Stadler—have visited Uplands.
In more recent years, following the Carling Cup BC Open in 1969 (when Uplands product Bill Wakeham edged out the great Moe Norman), the quality of the course has been recognized over and over again as suitable for high prestige tournaments. This was especially true when Uplands became the Vancouver Island home for the PGA Canadian Tour, which has come to Uplands 20 times, with more years to come.
Many who met the challenge of the Uplands course have gone on to play on the Nationwide (now Korn Ferry) and full PGA tours. This includes local boy Jim Rutledge, who formulated an illustrious tour professional career as a boy at his home club. A number of other Uplands members have gone on to bring honour to the club alongside personal success. These include Joan Lawson, Diane Phillips Rands and Megan Woodland, who are among the many girls and women who have always featured significantly in the club’s active membership.
Over all the eventful years of much change on and off the course, Uplands has provided “walk in the park” enjoyment for thousands of members. Good fellowship in a beautiful environment with a welcoming clubhouse does not always make that missed putt or errant drive hiding behind a tree more palatable—but it does help.
Victoria-based poet and author Frank Wilson plays golf at Uplands when he is not writing, gardening or singing. He is the author of the club’s centenary book, A Walk in the Park – Uplands Golf Club 1922-2022. The 150-page book, published by Tusitala Victoria, is designed by Phil Robbie. Lavishly illustrated, it includes many commissioned photographs from Leo Mah. It is available from Uplands Pro Shop or (for a signed copy) from the author via his website frankwilson.ca.
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