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We could learn plenty from Canada's golf myth-making

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

KELOWNA, B.C. - It's amazing what a mythical green sea creature can do for a local economy. Or how an unplanned visit to a goat-cheese farm - has anyone ever made a planned visit to a goat-cheese farm? - can color your view of a golf vacation.

Roman arch at Okanagan Valley winery
The man behind Mike's Hard Lemonade built a Roman arch to greet visitors to his $37 million winery in the Okanagan Valley
Roman arch at Okanagan Valley wineryOgopogo - Okanagan Lake monsterTree on courseGiant Champagne Bottle

That's the kind of thing you think about when you're staring down a Roman oculus (a long cylinder in the ground with an eyelike lens) into a wine cellar that looks like an underground lair Indiana Jones might be breaking into. The oculus is just one of the extravagant touches the eccentric mega-millionaire behind Mike's Hard Lemonade came up with for his $37 million winery complex designed to make you forget he's behind Mike's Hard Lemonade.

"We don't mention that name here," the college-age tour guide says, flashing her best thanks for coming, but ix-nay on the emonade-lay smile.

Sea monsters, goat cheese, ocular views into a winery trying to go hard-lemonade incognito (not to be confused with the neighboring one with the pyramid to boost grape karma) ... this is a golf trip?

In Canada, yes.

U.S. golf could learn plenty from its neighbor to the north about how to market an obscure destination. And let's face it, the Okanagan Valley is out there.

This British Columbia enclave is four hours by car from Vancouver, six from Seattle. There are great lake and mountain views, and the more than 100 wineries have earned the region the sobriquets "Vino Valley" and "Napa North." But its largest city, Kelowna, comes in with a population around 100,000.

That's less than Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And when's the last time you've ever heard about anyone tempted to head to Cedar Rapids for their golf getaway?

The Okanagan Valley draws plenty of hackers, though. Canadians seem to understand that a little backstory boosts the bottom line, that a dash of mystique can mean more than a shiny Golf Digest plaque. The Okanagans work in part because of Ogopogo.

North America's answer to Nessie, Ogopogo is a big green beast that legendarily inhabits Okanagan Lake. This huge tarn goes down thousands of feet in parts (it's so deep there aren't even accurate measurements), which helps give rise to the notion that a monster lurks within.

There have been "sightings," of course. Unsolved Mysteries visited back in the day. Workers putting in the supports for the bridge that crosses the lake reportedly quit in droves when Ogopogo flashed past them in the dark water of the night.

"That story isn't true," Margot France of the Okanagan Golf Alliance says. She is disputing the bridge-worker tale, not the presence of Ogopogo itself.

Which is part of the point. The details don't matter. Just the fact that there are conflicting legends drives interest.

"I can't even tell you how many tourist golfers have asked me about that damn Ogopogo," local golfer John Williams says.

The stores in Kelowna sell Ogopogo magnets, coasters, stuffed animals and children's books. There's a statue of him in the park overlooking the lake. Ogopogo is a cottage industry all his own.

Imagine if some less-than-glittery U.S. destinations came up with their own fearsome creatures. Detroit could have the Rust Reaper - a creaky, peeling metal beast that breaks down before its Japanese counterpart. Salt Lake City could have a Giant Smiling Missionary who appears out of nowhere when anyone is having actual fun.

The possibilities are endless. And filled tour sheets are sure to follow.

Cooperation void

There is actual golf in the Okanagans too. The reliance on celebrity course architects so prevalent in U.S. hot spots is noticeably absent. (The British Columbians seem perfectly satisfied with Les Furber.) But there is a course that runs through fruit orchids and vineyards (Harvest Golf Club) and another that plays along a canyon (Gallagher's Canyon).

It's golf where the surroundings make an unforgettable impression. There's just something about clearing an apple tree on a dogleg then plucking a Fuji as you mosey past.

And the Okanagan courses recommend each other's wonders to visitors. Can you imagine that happening in stateside golf meccas? There, coming up with a golf trail is considered a stroke of marketing genius. Courses in Scottsdale and Las Vegas work together about as well as Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb.

"You do see a lot more cooperation around here than you do in, say, Arizona," says Keith Stoll, general manager at Empire Ranch Golf Course in Carson City, Nev. "In Arizona you'll get [course-management company] American Golf courses working together, but that's about it."

There's togetherness in Carson City because it's Carson City. But Canadian courses even trumpet each other in hot vacation spots like Whistler. They tout the off-course attractions and quirks as well.

This is how you end up at Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan out in the Okanagan countryside.

The goats mill about in the sun. The operation is run by a young, bronzed goat-cheese goddess who came here from Israel to escape the violence in the Middle East. It's pretty clear she could easily take any of the golfers she is leading on a tour in arm wrestling.

You can bet none of these golfers is going to forget their foray into the cheese-aging cellar, or the Robin Leach-worthy style of that lemonade guy's Mission Hill Family Estate winery.

"You think?" Okanagan developer Bill Eager laughs when asked if Mission Hill was built to be noticed.

Quick, can Dayton, Ohio, get an oculus?

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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