The Making of Morningstar
Celebrating 30 years of world-class golf on Vancouver Island
It began as a 400-acre parcel of land. Decaying stumps, logs and rocks mixed with dirt marked the old logging site. No hint yet of the swan it would become, and even classifying it as an ugly duckling seemed a stretch, but one man had a vision when he purchased it in 1962.
Enter Mladen Zorkin: a self-made man who emigrated from Croatia in 1947 with big dreams but no means. He arrived in Canada, built a successful career as a real estate developer and became a charismatic figure on the Vancouver Island business scene. Over the years as his fortunes grew, so did the scope of his dreams. The next one was a doozy.
His plan: transform the parcel into 600 residential homes built around an 18-hole championship golf course. Ambitious, considering that Zorkin was 70 years old when he came up with the concept, and surprising, in that Zorkin wasn’t a golfer himself.
“Dad was always way ahead of everybody,” says Zorkin’s daughter Deborah, who ultimately worked side by side with her father to develop the site. “He would envision things and sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t. I wasn’t sure which way this one would go. When I first walked the land, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the project.”
Fortunately the site, located 33 kilometres north of Nanaimo in Parksville, was not completely without its rough-edged attributes. Despite the scars of its logging past, it was situated smack dab in the midst of one of the most temperate climates in the world and was still home to towering trees and abundant wildlife. It was a start.
While Zorkin’s forte was development, crafting a championship golf course of the calibre he had in mind would require a particular set of skills. He called Les Furber, iconic golf designer and protégé of American architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. “Mladen asked me to come and take a look at his land,” recalls Furber. “It was a mess, but I loved the big tall trees and I knew we could use them to create an instant landscape. We had the forested land together with a mix of open land and I thought that these two different environments would make the course even more interesting.”
The goal was to create a big, bold course that was the ultimate tournament length of at least 7,000 yards. “The nice thing is you can always shorten a golf course, but you can’t lengthen it,” jokes Furber. So, in 1988, and making the most of what the natural landscape provided, Furber and his team began construction.
“I knew that we’d need to have some beautiful, challenging greens and very visual bunkers, some bold and some subtle, that were different heights. It had to have artistic appeal in that I wanted golfers to be able to see from the tee through to the green,” noted Furber.
With Zorkin planning to build the first homes behind what would become the 15th tee, Furber and his crew started on the back nine first. “We were working on making the 14th and 15th holes the showpieces for clients that Mladen wanted to sell houses to. We set up a temporary source of water and created our own pump station to grow green grass for a couple of years until he could sell some houses and find long term financing.”
OPENING THE COURSE
The back nine opened in July 1990 and the full 18 opened 12 months later. The reality of Morningstar International Golf Course surpassed even the grandness of the original dream. At 7,018 yards in length, the championship course features twelve tree-lined holes and six link-style holes, six strategically placed water hazards and large and undulating bent grass greens, all meandering around Morningstar Creek.
“We had enough land that we could create a park-like setting,” says Deborah Zorkin. “Each hole is its own ‘moment’ and was given sufficient property so you’re not crossing over onto other holes. With the eagles soaring overhead and the trees and the creek as the backdrop, it’s a serene almost spiritual feeling you get when you’re playing this course.”
Morningstar Qualifying School
In true prophetic fashion, Mladen Zorkin commented, “When you are producing something that is the best – people notice.” And people did – even the people at the Canadian Professional Golfing Tour. In 1992 and continuing for the next five years, the course hosted the Canadian Tour Qualifying School, attracting up-and-comers from Canada, the U.S., Australia, South Africa, Japan, Britain, South Korea and Hong Kong.
Several ‘graduates’ went on to play on the PGA, European and Japanese Tours. For those who witnessed ‘youngsters’ like Tim Herron and Scott McCarron on the PGA Tour in 1996, few were surprised to see them step into the winner’s circle. Both got their start on the Canadian Tour by qualifying at the Spring School at Morningstar International. McCarron won Q-School in 1993.
It became so routine to see Canadian Tour players on results lists from around the world, that Canadian Tour Commissioner Dick Grimm, commented, “Almost all the players on the Canadian Tour have the ability to play with the world’s best. At our level, the players are polishing their games and fine-tuning the mental aspect.”
That was certainly true for other future stars including Notah Begay, Chris DiMarco and Mike Weir. Begay won the 72-hole Morningstar tourney in 1996 finishing at 11 under par. He went on to become a successful PGA Tour golfer and is now a commentator on televised golf broadcasts. After qualifying at Morningstar, Mike Weir went on to a brilliant career on the PGA Tour. He is the first Canadian male golfer to win a Tour event, now successful on the Champions Tour. Scott McCarron also found success on the PGA Tour, now a great success on the Champions Tour.
Further cementing Morningstar’s reputation as an international championship course, the Canadian Tour held the first Morningstar Classic in June of 1994. More than 150 of some of the best golfers from around the world converged on Parksville vying for a first-place purse of $18,000 and a total of $100,000 in prize monies.
With 250 volunteers staffing the seven-day spectacle, visitors converged on the course and reveled in a front row seat to the exciting world of professional golf. The Classic continued its run for five years, becoming a well-loved and well-attended fixture on the tournament circuit.
“It was an exciting time,” recalls Deborah who took on the role of Tournament Director as well as serving as the General Manager of the course. “In addition to Q-School, we would bring in golf pros from the U.S. to do week-long workshops. Dad would always give a heartfelt speech about following your dream. He was 83 years old in 1996 and still pursuing his own.”
But to everything there is a season. In 1997, the Zorkins sold Morningstar to the Operating Engineers Pension Fund. “It was hard to walk away from something you’ve been so involved with and it was beautiful when we left it,” says Deborah.
Rise and Fall and Rise Again
Over the next 15 years, the fortunes of golf courses rose and fell in cyclical fashion and Morningstar was no exception. Once noted as one of the “Top 50 Golf Courses in Canada”, Morningstar Golf Course was sold to an Alberta company that subsequently was put into receivership for defaulting on the mortgage held by the IUOE Pension fund.
The receivers hired Wedgewood Golf Management, to improve the conditions of the course, return Morningstar to being a financially viable golf operation, and restore its reputation. Wedgewood Golf partners and seasoned professionals of the golf industry, Barrie McWha and Ray Riva, took on the project in November of 2019. Both men have deep golf roots on Vancouver Island. Ray, and his brother Mike, were former owner-operators of Eaglecrest Golf Club in Qualicum Beach. And McWha, a former National President of the PGA of Canada and an Honoured Member of the Manitoba Golf Hall of Fame, was a founding member of Golf Vancouver Island, and has managed both the Fairwinds and Pheasant Glen golf properties.
McWha who serves as General Manager at Morningstar, says the course was starting to recover when they arrived. “There were some maintenance and staffing issues but we were also fortunate in that some of the heavy lifting had already been done. Water systems that hadn’t been working for a long time had been recently repaired.”
The duo began tackling long overdue maintenance tasks, restructuring pricing and hiring more staff. The course and its followers responded. “When Wedgewood Golf arrived, we were down to 100 members a year and now we’re at capacity with a waiting list,” says McWha. “Word-of-mouth helped us enormously as people started coming out to play and they liked what they saw. And during the pandemic, many people recognized golf as being a safe and social form of exercise.”
A New Master Plan
Spurred on by their success, McWha and Riva reached out to Les Furber (pictured above) for help in refining their future master plan. Now with more than 80 global golf courses under his professional belt, Furber revisited Morningstar to provide guidance on how to further evolve the course and get it back into premiere shape.
“I think it’s remarkable how it has stood the test of time,” notes Furber. Even though golf has changed so much in the past 30 years with better equipment and people hitting it further, Morningstar is still there as a qualified championship course. It’s in really nice shape now but I’m working with their team to create a new master plan that will improve it even further on a hole-by-hole basis.”
Making the course both attractive and accessible to a wide range of golfers (including adding forward tee boxes which will appeal to juniors, seniors, women and high handicappers) is part of that plan. “Junior programs aren’t here right now but need to be,” says McWha. “
Retaining the challenging nature of the course is also a priority. “Golf courses need a certain resistance to scoring otherwise good golfers shoot very low scores and the golf market feels it’s not a good course if they’re shooting in the 60s”, says Furber. “That’s not happening at Morningstar. This course is very strategic and it has its own natural defences in the form of bunkers, water features and contours of the greens. Even young players with a long shot will love this!”
The lustre of Morningstar reignited the interest of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) pension fund which, on July 17, 2021, resumed ownership of the property as RealCor Golf Inc., retaining the successful golf management services of Wedgewood Golf Management.
Now with a sense of optimism and pride, Morningstar seems poised to resume its status as one of the premiere courses on Vancouver Island. “It’s highly regarded as a place golfers want to play,” says McWha. “It took some extraordinary vision to create the course and a lot of hard work to restore it and continue to update it for the future.”