Courses and Travel

Golf in the Colorado Mountains

Tee it high and let it fly. Forever. That's mountain golf in Colorado. You won't even need one of those $500 drivers that looks bigger than a Volkswagen. Even a 5-wood can produce a career drive in the high country thanks to the rare air.

Is it any wonder that mountain golf has become so popular? And, oh, by the way: Chances are your day will be 75 sun-splashed degrees and pretty as a postcard. This isn't just a ski destination anymore.

A slew of new mountain layouts has sprouted throughout the state like wildflowers. They're terrific courses by top designers who, as much as anyone, enjoy watching a shot sail, and sail, and sail some more against a soaring backdrop of jagged peaks and alpine splendor. More enjoyable than watching an approach shot land near the pin on your home course is sticking a wedge from a manicured fairway carefully carved through towering pines and handsome aspen.

A tour of some of Colorado's new mountain courses can begin 90 minutes west of Denver in Winter Park, where you'll find the Pole Creek Golf Club in Winter Park. Set at 8,600 feet above sea level and nestled just north of the ski resort, Pole Creek opened its initial nine holes in 1982, and added a second nine in 1988. The newest holes, called the Ridge Nine, debuted in 1999. Denis Griffiths, who designed the entire layout, considers the Ridge to be the most spectacular. No argument here.

Whereas many of the original 18 holes (Meadow Nine and Ranch Nine) meander around and through a valley, the Ridge Nine is perched on higher, heavily forested land. Griffiths made sure, however, to feature roomy fairways. The woods are pretty, but nobody wants to spend all afternoon hunting for balls in them. Views of snow-topped mountain ranges forming the Continental Divide and Indian Peaks Wilderness provide a perfect perspective for golfers sizing up a hole. There are no distractions to interfere with this inspiration. On only two holes along the Ridge Nine can you even spot another part of the golf course.

Four or five of the holes on the Ridge are worthy of "signature'' status, but the ninth hole alone is worth the price of admission. It's a 561-yard par five that can play like a short par four. We're not kidding. There's an elevation drop of 110 feet. Ever hit a golf ball off an 11-story building? This is your chance. Clearing the bend in the dogleg right is no problem, even if it does stretch 311 yards from the tips. Then you might have as little as a six-iron into the green. Trees line both sides of the fairway and a large bunker guards the front of the green. But keep the ball on line and you may just bring this par five to its knees.

There was talk about stretching the 446-yard first hole from a par four to a par five, and then making the ninth a par four. That idea was vetoed. After all, everybody wants to feel like Tiger Woods. At least once in a while.

Our next stop is the Raven Golf Club at Three Peaks in Silverthorne, which opened in September 2000. It's a complete makeover of the former Eagle's Nest Golf Course, which was long considered a design disaster, most notably for fairways that sloped away from the bend of doglegs.

The original holes here were torn up, reshaped, rebuilt and rerouted. These days, the new-look Raven at Three Peaks, unlike its predecessor, makes sense. But you'd expect that from a collaborative effort of PGA touring pro Tom Lehman and the creative design team of Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry. Their work on this project is stunning. No two holes are alike and, somehow, no two views are alike. At 7,413 yards, the layout climbs up hillsides, drops down valleys and winds around and among pines, aspen groves, ponds, and streams.

This place doesn't take a back seat to other well-known Raven facilities in Arizona (Phoenix and Tucson) and Florida (Destin). The amoeba-shaped sand bunkers are especially memorable because they include more than sand. Inspired by the signature creations of Alister Mackenzie, best known for designing Augusta National and Cypress Point, the Raven features free-flowing grass and bushes in and around its bunkers.

Elevation drops can also make for a wild ride. The 514-yard ninth hole is a par four with the fairway dropping toward the Blue River Valley, with views of the dramatic Williams Fork Range serving as a backdrop. The required approach shot, still downhill, is to a deep green protected on the right side by a pond.

The 14th hole is already considered one of the best par threes in the state. Playing 213 yards from the back tees, it requires an aggressive tee shot over a pond guarding the front and right sections of the green. There's a bailout area right and short of the green, but one of those Mackenzie-style bunkers will swallow up shots that roll too far.

The Gore Mountain Range frames an awe-inspiring setting. In fact, much of the course borders U.S. Forest Service land.

The next stop is the River Course at Keystone , which opened in 2000 and joined the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Keystone Ranch Course that has been around since 1980.

The River Course features some of the most breathtaking tee shots from elevated tees to be found anywhere. This is mountain golf in its most classic form. If you have time to play only one round in the mountains, this is an excellent choice.

Hurdzan and Fry designed the River Course and seemingly defied the laws of gravity -- almost every hole begins with an elevated tee leading to a fairway sloping downhill. The tradeoff is a lot of switch-back riding back up hills in golf carts. This is not a walkers' golf course. But you'll feel as if you're hitting off mountain tops.

Take the 16th for example. It's a 509-yard par four that certainly doesn't play long. That's because the elevation drop is 194 feet from tee to green. It's a dogleg left and you'll want to use no more than a 4-wood or 3-iron off the tee so as not to hit through the fairway where it bends at about 350 yards.

The finishing hole offers a panoramic view of Lake Dillon in the distance and ought to be a postcard. Pause and take a snapshot before your golf shot. The hole offers another welcomed drop to a relatively wide fairway below. And at 520 yards it's generously listed as a par five. You won't want the round to end, but beware and pay attention. Those 12 bunkers can bite you.

Sagebrush, native grasses and at least a dozen different mountain wildflowers are incorporated into the layout. And in order to accommodate the movement of elk herds and other wildlife, Hurdzan and Fry preserved wetlands and passage corridors. The duo no doubt realized quickly that they weren't on the flatlands anymore.

And so will those who play it. In fact, the River Course may offer the best first-tee vista in the state, with a 100-foot drop from the tee box of the par five opener allowing for an unobstructed view of the Continental Divide.

Next up is the five-year old Haymaker Golf Course in Steamboat Springs. offering a taste of Scotland. That's right, Scotland. Keith Foster transformed this Yampa Valley ranch land into one of the most unusual courses in high-country Colorado.

We're talking rolling fairways, meandering streams, deep bunkers, mounding, rock walls, grass "eyelashes" in the fairways, and native grasses that bring back thoughts of the feel-good traditions of the game.

Modern course designers like to call their creations "links-style" layouts, but too many snake their way through residential developments, canceling out a large part of a true links experience. Haymaker is different because it covers a 230-acre site without any residential development. And, like many courses in Scotland, there are no trees.

Feel in a gambling mood? The par-four eighth hole measures just 347 yards from the back tees. But it's all carry over wetlands for those bold enough to pull out the driver and go for the green. Come up just 10 yards short and the ball is dead and gone. The safer route is to lay up in the fairway left of the green with a wood or mid-iron, and then get up and down for birdie with a 100-yard approach. In any case, the green is demanding, especially with a front-left pin placement. Two-putting from anywhere can be a challenge.

And be sure to ring the bell on the tee box before trying to drive the green. After all, your chances of hitting a career-best blast are infinitely better up here in the mountains.

The 163-yard 12th hole, a picturesque par three, requires a water carry for the length of the hole. The tiered green is built up with a rock wall fronted by the pond. The inclination is to use an additional club and aim long. But long can spell trouble on this hole. Those shots will settle in a collection area behind the green, leaving a testy chip shot from a downhill lie to a green sloping toward the water. Low-trajectory chips won't hold.

Haymaker is unusual among mountain courses in Colorado, but similar to its Scottish counterparts, in that it allows walking.

You must be a guest at the Cordillera resort lodge to secure a tee time for the Summit Course at Cordillera , but those who can then fork out the $195 green fee to play the new Jack Nicklaus course say it's all a bargain.

The most dramatic and last of Cordillera's four golf facilities, the 7,596-yard Summit Course is laid out over mountain ridges that tower above the Vail Valley. It opened last summer with an inaugural round by Nicklaus, who happened to shoot a 4-under-par 68. He called the Summit Course "one of the most dramatic sites I've ever seen." Elevation: 9,000 feet. And seemingly on top of the world.

Tee shots on the 592-yard, par five eighth hole cut through a grove of aspen trees. A native rock outcropping on the 504-yard, par four 12th hole runs diagonally across the fairway to create a natural cross hazard. The 208-yard 16th, a downhill par three, wows with panoramic views across thousands of acres of national forest. The tee box on the 18th reaches the highest point on the course, and this downhill par four will reward the big hitter and everyone who takes in the scenery. "The Summit Course is the only golf course I've seen on which you can seemingly see forever from each hole," Nicklaus said.

Next up is the Eagle Ranch Golf Course in Eagle, which made its debut last year and became the first new public course to open in the Vail area since 1975. Designed by Arnold Palmer and his design company, Eagle Ranch is a prairie links-style layout that lies at the foot of the Sawatch Mountains in the Brush Creek Valley.

Palmer has never concerned himself with trying to design the world's most difficult golf courses, especially when creating daily-fee facilities that cater to local players and vacationing tourists. Eagle Ranch can play as long as 7,575 yards for tournaments, but a minimum of five tees per hole provides an appropriate challenge for golfers of all abilities. Eagle Ranch is a classic Palmer design according to head pro Jeff Boyer.

"Arnold's courses are known for very rounded-off features without anything sharp or angular in the designs,'' Boyer said, "His fairway bunkers are designed to be more difficult to get into and somewhat less difficult to recover from.''

That's not to say this course is easy. The ninth (490 yards) and 18th (460 yards) are demanding par fours that play together, on either side of a lake, and finish at sister greens separated by a beach bunker with sand washing into the water. One of the most picturesque holes is the 182-yard fifth, a par three that drops from an elevated tee box built into the side of a hill. The green borders a lake, front and right, and a bunker awaits behind the green to catch thinly struck shots. Be aware of the wind. You may not be able to feel it from the tee box.

Our tour of new Colorado mountain courses takes us back to the Front Range and the Jim Engh-designed Red Hawk Ridge Golf Course at Castle Rock. Located less than an hour south of Denver International Airport, Red Hawk Ridge opened in 1999 with great anticipation. It did not disappoint.

Engh, best known for The Sanctuary , a dazzling but private course nearby, is a modern thinker who incorporates centuries-old design principles. Engh will tell you that builders of ancient Greece discovered that a pleasing relationship from a grand edifice and a smaller structure could be found in a 3-to-1 ratio of horizontal proportions. That's one reason he designed the serpentine bunker on the signature hole -- the par-three 14th -- to be roughly a third the size of the green and fringe area it protects.

Quick Facts

  Pole Creek Golf Club
(970) 726-8847 $55-$80

  Raven Golf Club At Three Peaks
(970) 262-3636 $74-$119

  The River Course At Keystone
(970) 496-4444 $95-$140

  Haymaker Golf Course
(970) 879-5420 $79-$95

  Summit Course At Cordillera
(303) 970-5300 $195

  Eagle Ranch Golf Club
(970) 328-2882 $30-$85

  Red Hawk Ridge Golf Club
(303) 663-7150 $51-$71

  Golf Club At Bear Dance
(303) 681-4653 $55-$75

Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

Red Hawk Ridge does not sit in an alpine setting, but the course is picturesque and interesting, with a lot of variety to the holes. You'll probably remember each one. Take the back nine, for example. It includes three par threes, three par fours and three par fives. The 12th heads uphill and is called by Engh "the bunker hole from hell.'' He changes things up by not putting any bunkers on the par-five 13th. The 14th is the signature hole, a 216-yard par three that plays from an elevation of 6,550 feet and then drops to the green 75 feet below.

Engh lets players catch their breath on the next two holes, which are rather basic. But the 17th is a par three that requires accuracy and finesse to avoid nine pot bunkers. And the finishing hole, a downhill, 533-yard par five, is a thought-provoking, risk/reward test that is reachable in two -- that is, for those bold enough to clear the pond and bunker that could come into play.

Engh believes that a daily-fee course need not produce four hours of headaches. Each hole includes five sets of tees, and the mounding that brackets the fairways will often kick mishits back into play.

The Golf Club at Bear Dance in Larkspur makes its debut this spring, and next year, the finished clubhouse will become the new home of the Colorado PGA Section offices. That speaks volumes about the quality of this alpine course just minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown Denver. Bear Dance plays to 7,661 yards from the back tees and 5,175 yards from the forward tees. Five sets of tee boxes on each hole provide challenges for players of all levels. The views remain the same for everybody -- spectacular.

One of the most scenic holes, the 443-yard fourth, is a par four that doglegs left. With a backdrop of Hunt Mountain, the tee box gives the feel of hitting through a chute. The mid-iron approach shot (remember, we're talking 6,000 feet of elevation here) requires a carry over a native wash area to a green set against a hill of ponderosa pines. Plus there's a cavernous bunker set to the front right of the green. It was inspired by the menacing Cardinal bunker on the third hole at Prestwick in Scotland.

The 353-yard sixth hole is a gambling par four that could become the signature hole, or at least the most photographed. Its green is protected by bunkers situated in the shape of a bear claw. Big hitters may want to pull out the driver, but the safer strategy is to knock a 2-iron or 3-wood up the left side of the fairway for the best angle into the green.

Nobody will complain that most of the long holes play downhill. That includes the 11th, a 508-yard par four that will give even average players at least 25-30 yards of additional roll. Views of white-capped peaks along the Front Range provide another treat. With an introductory rate of $55-75 for 2002, Bear Dance figures to be one of the best values for mountain golf in the state.

Some would say all mountain golf courses are a value, no matter what the price. "These are great courses. They're not gimmick courses," the Colorado Golf Associaton's Ed Mate said. "Mountain golf in Colorado is not just a novelty. It's championship golf at its highest level." Highest in more ways than one.

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