The “members only” sign visitors see upon arriving at Victoria Golf Club might seem designed more to keep people out than encourage newcomers.
Yet the people who run this venerable institution – at age 120 Canada’s oldest golf course still on its original site – appear more interested in creating an inclusive environment than one of exclusivity and privilege.
Alistair Davies, an expatriate Brit and self-proclaimed “keen golfer” who was installed this year as the club’s first director of sales and marketing, has played some of the top courses around B.C., Canada and the U.K. Unlike some high-end clubs where people pay top dollar to join but seldom set foot on the property, he says, the majority of Victoria Golf Club members are keen players who love the game and enjoy the camaraderie that develops as a result.
“I think we have about 80 members from Calgary here now,” Davies says by way of example. “They come for the golf but they discover the social life.”
Joining the club isn’t inexpensive: the entry fee for an active adult membership is $35,000 – easily the highest in Greater Victoria – and monthly dues run $303.
At last count the club listed about 1,200 members, 940 of whom hold golf memberships. The rest carry social memberships, which come with an $850 entry fee and $82 a month dues.
“We like to call them ‘non-playing members,’” Davies says with a knowing grin. Members give up the game for various reasons, not least of which is failing physical health, but they are reluctant to give up the social aspect of membership.
Davies, sitting at a table in Macan’s Lounge in the clubhouse, describes a typical Monday afternoon scene: “There’s usually about 20 tables of four in here with people playing bridge.”
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Formed Nov. 7, 1893 by a small group of enthusiasts rounded up by Harvey Combe, during a meeting at the Temple Building on Fort Street, the club started to take shape the following year on a section of pasture land owned by the Pemberton family.
As described in the history book written by member Peter Corley-Smith for the club’s centennial in 1993, one of the early expanded layouts saw players hit balls back and forth across Mount Baker Avenue (later renamed Beach Drive) on two separate holes. While no major injuries appear to have been reported, the configuration was changed in 1923 to eliminate cross-road play and ease the fears of the many passersby.
Early club member A.V. Macan, who would go on to design what would become Royal Colwood Golf Club in 1913, came up with major changes to the Victoria layout that were instituted in the 1950s and largely remain today.
But the development of the course is ongoing, notes head golf professional Mike Parker, who joined the club as an assistant in 1969 and has spent the past 29 years as head pro.
“A golf course is a living thing,” he says, noting that every green and every tee has been tweaked during his days at the club.
Changes have been made over the years to make the course more challenging in some spots and less difficult in others.
More recently, a golf architect was contracted to help create a long-range plan for the course. Parker points out that such decisions come from the members, some of whom have played golf all over the world.
“We draw on the expertise of those folks,” he says, adding the bar is continually set higher to improve the course. “You can never go backward, you can only go slow and do it right the first time.”
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Victoria Golf Club has long been considered a trendsetter, from welcoming women players pretty much from the beginning, to offering a lower-priced intermediate membership for players 18 to 29, to raising major dollars for charities around the region.
“The club has a long history of being a very progressive organization,” Davies says.
It also looks at youth players as its future.
“Most weekends, the juniors lesson program is very busy. That’s good, because the club needs to have a healthy base moving forward.”
Over 120 years, members have come and gone, plenty of stories have been told and change has almost been a constant. One thing that will always remain, Davies says, is the colourful past, much of which can be found on the walls surrounding Macan’s.
“The history here is extraordinary. A lot of us members feel like we’re simply the custodians of the course and are just passing through.”