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Golf in Colorado

Like, we know what you're thinking. Golf in Colorado? Wouldn't it be better to bring along your skis or fly rod? Doesn't it snow in summertime there?

Actually, golf courses in the Denver area remain open year-round. That's not to say you can play every afternoon in winter and spring, since a blanket of snow could be covering the fairways. But wait a day or two and odds are the white stuff will disappear, burned off by a sun that shines more than 300 days a year upon Denver -- as the chamber of commerce is quick to point out.

If you think a spring shower does wonders for a golf course, wait until you see how fairways thicken when nourished by snow.

So go ahead and take your skis. But make room for the golf clubs, too. There's a good chance you can hit the slopes and your sticks in the same day.

In Denver, it's not uncommon for remnants of an overnight snowfall to melt away in time for an afternoon golf game. We're not kidding. That's a benefit of high elevation (exactly one mile above sea level), where the suns rays are especially bright.

Golf in Colorado has been around a lot longer than ski lifts. In 1900, Harry Vardon made a stop in the Mile High City while on a nationwide tour to promote the new Vardon Flyer golf ball.

He played an exhibition match at Overland Country Club, which had opened five years earlier with nine holes squeezed into the middle of a horse track.

Ever the showman, Vardon delighted spectators between sales pitches by setting a course record with a score of 34. Then, most likely after telling some jokes, he toured the nine holes again in 34. Word of a new golf craze along the Front Range spread faster than courses could be built.

Historically significant golf discovered Denver decades ago. At Cherry Hills Country Club, Ralph Guldahl claimed his second consecutive U.S. Open title in 1938.

The PGA Championship set up shop at Cherry Hills in 1941 and Vic Ghezzi needed 38 holes to upset defending-champion Byron Nelson in the final match.

Babe Didrickson Zaharias resided in the Denver area when she won the 1946 U.S. Women's Amateur and 1947 British Ladies Championship. She allowed Park Hill Golf Course to display both trophies on its bar.

Ben Hogan won the 1948 Denver Open at Wellshire Golf Course much to his surprise. Leaders did not necessarily tee off in the last groups in those days, and Hogan headed out of town early following his final round, figuring the lead held by Fred Haas was too big. It wasn't.

Hogan was declared the winner in absentia, much to the consternation of tournament officials who had to alter the formal trophy presentation, and to reporters who were without a champion to interview.

Jack Nicklaus, then 19, claimed his first national championship in 1959 by winning the U.S. Amateur at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.

Then he battled Arnold Palmer and Hogan down the stretch in the 1960 U.S. Open as three legends spanning different golf generations converged upon Cherry Hills. Each held the lead on the back nine before Palmer prevailed, rallying from seven strokes down with 18 holes to play. Claiming his third major, Palmer had completed a final-round charge that would become the bugle call for his burgeoning army.

The 1960 U.S. Open has been called the greatest golf championship of them all. While that's subject to debate, there's no denying that golf in Colorado will be forever defined by it. Palmer driving the green on the 346-yard first hole to begin his final round brought national attention to ego golf at high elevation, as does the PGA Tours International tournament held annually at Castle Pines. Tee it high and let it fly.

But enough of this history lesson. Lets go play. And there's no need to leave the metropolitan area.

Golfers flying into Denver International Airport (DIA) can be at the Homestead at Murphy Creek Golf Course in Aurora within minutes. Locals from elsewhere in the metro area will drive more than an hour to get on Ken Kavanaugh's prairie-links design that only opened last August, but already feels very much like an old friend.

The clubhouse, maintenance building and cart barn are grouped together to form a working complex that closely resembles a 1920s family farm.

A covered porch surrounds the clubhouse, providing a shady spot to settle up with your buddies and watch the golfers pass by. A walk up the ninth and 18th fairways with the clubhouse in sight gives the warm feeling of heading for home.

Kavanaugh set out to design a unique course that would provide players with a pleasing experience apart from the golf game. He has succeeded in achieving that goal.

Even the courtyard here is interesting, with life-sized sculptures of Babe Zaharias, Old Tom Morris, Bobby Jones, Hogan, Donald Ross and a caddie.

Thanks to a fun layout and the addition of Kavanaugh's little touches, a surprise lurks around almost every dogleg. Rusted, antique farm implements are scattered throughout the course. They're not in play, but they fall well within view to add character and perhaps cause a smile or two.

It may be easier to relax over your next shot on the 600-yard 15th hole after you spot the overturned, flat-bottomed boat that's beached in what could be a childhood swimming hole.

The bunker rakes here are wooden, and oak barrels contain trashcans and flower pots. Signs for tee boxes are simply rusted metal disks fastened to old fence posts. Don't drink the water from that wooden bucket - it's for scrubbing your clubs.

The ball dispenser for the driving range is built into a towering white silo. You almost expect to hear a dinner bell ring any minute.

The course itself is equally as memorable. With five tee boxes per hole, the course can play 5,335 yards from the red tees to 7,456 yards from the tips.

But whatever you do, don't hit into the furry, Canadian blue fescue that outlines the 80 bunkers. It doesn't matter if "world's worst sand player" is stamped on your cap, you'll probably find it easier to execute an explosion shot from a fried-egg lie in the bunker than trying to hack out from that club-grabbing fescue.

Locals joke that fescue is really French for something else. Don't be a hero -- just take a rip with a steep downstroke and hope to at least advance the ball to the short stuff.

It's estimated that a golf ball is supposed to travel as much as 8 to 10 percent farther at an elevation of 5,000 feet. But unless you're a low handicapper, and a real low one at that, don't even think about playing the 506-yard 12th hole from the back tees. That requires a tee-shot carry of 260 yards over a ravine and into a prevailing wind. Yes, it really is a par four

But don't be frightened away because Murphy Creek accommodates all skill levels. Beginners will be delighted to discover that no carry is required when playing holes from the forward tees.

Murphy Creek's cousin down the E-470 outerbelt is Saddle Rock Golf Course. Aurora city officials challenged Kavanaugh to give Murphy Creek a special character because Saddle Rock was already a gem.

After opening in 1997 to rave reviews, Saddle Rock quickly gained the nationally prestigious Colorado Open for a three-year run. Every club in the bag will get some use at Saddle Rock, a links-style layout that traverses a rolling terrain topped by natural grasses, yucca, cactus, pines and cottonwoods.

With Piney Creek and Saddle Rock Gulch guarding the fairways and greens, you must think your way around this course.

Awaiting your arrival are several ego-driving holes with elevated tee boxes and wide fairways. Pick out a mountain peak in the distance as your target, and then go for the gusto. You may want to pace off that booming drive when it finally returns to land, then get a buddy to attest the distance in writing. Otherwise, nobody back home will believe it.

While it may be next to impossible to get on the private Castle Pines Golf Club, which hosts The International in August, you do have another attractive option. That is to play a round at The Ridge at Castle Pines North, which is built on the same wooded highlands south of Denver.

Of all the public courses in the metro area, The Ridge feels most like true mountain golf. There's nothing like watching that shiny ball framed in flight against the backdrop of an alpine forest.

Take the 12th hole for example. It's a postcard perfect par three that plays 245 yards from the back tees. Don't be fazed by the distance -- the tee box sits 100 feet above the green. Hit a solid shot off the tee and you'll be amazed at the hang time. The green is guarded by a bunker on the front left and by ponderosa pines on the rear and right sides, with the Rocky Mountains rising from the background. It's a framed enlargement of a snapshot waiting to happen.

The Ridge sits at well over 6,000 feet in elevation, so your tee shot will undoubtedly pick up more distance here in this rarefied air.

The par four ninth hole provides the best opportunity to unleash a long drive. Measuring 476 yards from the back tees, the hole travels dramatically downhill. The tee shot offers almost everyone a chance at a 300-yard drive. Don't pat yourself on the back too long. There's still work to be done, trying to finesse an approach shot to an undulated green that is surrounded by cavernous bunkers.

A round at The Ridge feels like playing two courses in one. The front nine has a high-desert, links-style layout, while the back nine is forested. Also evident here is designer Tom Weiskopf's signature antiquing of the crowns surrounding the bunkers.

The Ridge opened in 1997, but most holes already have a rounded, mature feel. Also, none of the holes are parallel, so you may go long stretches without encountering other golfers.

But don't worry about getting lost because a yardage book, pin placement sheet and tips on how to play the course are included with the green fee.

Golf courses in the Denver area can be quite crowded, so a brief delay on the tee box is not unusual. But look at it this way -- any wait you may encounter just provides more time to soak in the stunning scenery you'll see in virtually every direction.

The Ridge offers some of the area's best views, ranging from Pikes Peak to the south, Devils Head and other mountains to the west, and Denver to the north. On a clear day you can't quite see forever, but you may be able to spot the canvas-topped terminal at DIA almost 50 miles away.

Views also are spectacular from the Omni Interlocken Resort course and The Heritage Golf Course at Westmoor.

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