Golf in Colorado

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.

Located just off U.S. 36, these relatively new venues are convenient for the business traveler with appointments in the northwest suburbs and Boulder.

Omni Interlocken is a first-rate resort in Broomfield, featuring an Omni hotel and the 27-hole golf course. It’s also home in July to the John Elway Celebrity Classic, an annual stop on the Celebrity Players Tour.

Elway, the legendary Denver Broncos quarterback, raved about the layout last summer after placing second to former major league pitcher Shane Rawley. John Brodie, an ex-NFL quarterback himself and a former Senior PGA Tour player, added that he had never played a course in better tournament condition.

Bring your camera or buy a disposable model before you head out to play here. The 565-yard fourth hole on the Vista Nine climbs uphill to a green that is regarded as the highest point between Denver and Boulder.

From there you can point out the three Fourteeners along the Front Range: Pikes Peak (14,110 feet), Mount Evans (14,260) and Long’s Peak (14,256).

Getting back to the business of golf, you’d expect a course designed by former PGA champion and U.S. Open winner David Graham to provide a good test. It does. But the fairways are generous, and a good score can be carded if you manage to avoid three-putting the undulating greens.

Don’t expect a birdie opportunity on the seventh hole of the Sunshine Nine, however. It’s a 470-yard par four that played the toughest last summer at Elway’s CPT event. A ravine cutting three-quarters across the fairway gobbles up big drives. But it hurts to lay up on such a long hole with a small green.

Just to the south in Westminster, on the other side of the ridge, sits The Heritage at Westmoor. With a greens fee of $35 for nonresidents on weekdays, it’s less than half the cost of many courses, yet it still provides a high-end golf experience.

Opened in 1999 and designed by the creative firm of Hurdzan and Fry, The Heritage at Westmoor is a delight. It features as many memorable holes as a quality country club and several more than your typical municipal course. The terrain is hilly and interesting, and water comes into play more often than you’d expect.

The front nine weaves along wetlands and cottonwood groves and includes one of the best par three holes in Colorado. The seventh hole plays 200 yards from the tips, with a carry over a picturesque pond with bunkers behind, and out-of-play areas designated as environmentally sensitive left and right.

The back nine is wide open and fun, although an errant shot can find ample trouble.

Although any number of holes here could be a candidate for signature status, the 595-yard 13th differs from any par five in the metro area. It’s uphill, often into the teeth of a head wind, and features split fairways with native grasses, sand and other demons between them. And, oh, yes, 10 bunkers on the hole provide a little something else to think about.

Some say its only fitting that the toughest hole on the course would be numbered 13. Others call it sheer joy. Either way, you won’t soon forget it.

If you haven’t played golf in Scotland or Ireland yet, Riverdale Dunes in Brighton provides a taste of old-country links golf featuring knee-high grasses, marshland, mounding, and pot bunkers. Designed by Pete and Perry Dye, this quality facility hosted the 1993 U.S. Public Links Championship and two Nike Tour events.

Quick Facts
  Murphy Creek
$28-$38 (303) 361-7300

  Saddle Rock Golf Course
$30-$40 (303) 699-3939

  The Ridge at Castle Pines North
$75-$120 (303) 688-0100

  Omni Interlocken Resort
$85 (303) 464-9000

  Heritage at Westmooor
$26-$41 (303) 469-2974

  Riverdale Dunes
$31-$33 (303) 659-6700

  Fox Hollow Golf Club
$30-$38 (303) 986-7888

  Arrowhead Golf Club
$75-$110 (303) 973-9614

  Wellshire Golf Course
$19-$22 (303) 757-1352

  Overland Park
$18-$20 (303) 777-7331

Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

The 426-yard 15th hole could be Riverdale Dunes’ ode to the finishing hole at Pebble Beach. The fairway bends to the left along a lake. Bite off as much water with your drive as you have the nerve for, and don’t be too cautious. A timid tee shot will result in a long approach to a shallow green that’s tucked against the shoreline.

While Riverdale Dunes isn’t exactly around the corner from business districts, there is a back-road route from DIA. Call and ask for directions. It’s a safe bet that you won’t be disappointed.

Fox Hollow Golf Course in Lakewood offers 27 holes in a frontier-like foothills setting. You’ll find hills, dales, ravines and arroyos spread throughout the course. Cottonwoods, pines and scrub oak lend additional character. There’s also an assortment of ponds and streams, wild flowers, thorny bushes and manicured fairways. And you may even spot a hawk hovering overhead.

Word has traveled fast about this Denis Griffith creation since it opened in 1993, and available tee times can be scarce. But despite all the traffic, Fox Hollow remains in superb condition. If you only have enough time to play just one round on a trip to Denver, you wouldn’t go wrong by picking this one.

Elevation changes and an engaging piece of property allow for a variety of holes that you may not expect in a Denver suburb.

The fifth hole on the Canyon Nine plays 445 yards to a par four. Keep the head down because you won’t get away with a worm-burner. After hitting a lay-up fairway wood or long iron toward a target pole, you’re faced with a downhill approach shot over a canyon that will surely test your nerves.

The shady fifth hole on the Meadows Nine begins with a through-the-chute tee shot between two trees. A lake on the right and bunkers to the left keep things interesting.

Over in Littleton, the Arrowhead Golf Club boasts that the course was easy to design — it was the landscaping that took 300 million years. The Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout weaves in, around and sometimes through red sandstone formations that slant and tower majestically above the fairways.

This is classic golf with a Jurassic feel. There isn’t a more picturesque playground in all of Colorado. Trent Jones Jr. gets the credit, but you do get the impression that a higher power designed this course. It’s a one-of-a-kind golf experience, to be sure, providing the sensation of a relaxing golf getaway even though it’s just minutes away from the hustle and bustle of a major metropolis.

As with most Trent Jones Jr. courses, the fairways are relatively tight, the rough is thick and there is no lack of sand or scenery.

The par three 13th is listed at 174 yards, but the hole plays much shorter with a drop of 100 feet from tee to green. With oak trees, boulders and the radiant red rocks all around, it’s really quite easy to become distracted.

In fact, concentration on this course is a must. Keep in mind three tips while playing here: shots tend to lose distance when they ricochet off the sandstone; the greens break toward Denver; and you’ll kick yourself later if you don’t pause to take some photos.

For the golf history buff, the city of Denver offers two treats.

Wellshire Golf Course gives the public golfer a rare chance to play a Donald Ross design. Opened in 1926 as a country club, it’s not far from Cherry Hills and features similar terrain and tall trees for vintage golf.

Walk down these fairways and you can almost hear the echoes of a glorious and historic past. There was Hogan’s mail-me-the-check victory in the 1948 Denver Open. And in 1959, Seattle’s Bill Wright became the first African-American to win a USGA championship with his U.S. Public Links Championship victory here.

You won’t find railroad ties or artificial mounding at Wellshire. But you will find rolling, bending fairways that lead to small greens with subtle breaks.

You’d figure a Ross course would feature a demanding finishing hole, and Wellshire is no exception. The 496-yard No. 18 requires an intimidating tee shot that must carry at least 150 yards over a winding ditch. And you’ll probably have a gallery — motorists waiting for the light to change at a nearby intersection will be watching.

In true Ross style, however, the fairway narrows for your second shot. The third-shot approach likely will be off a sloped lie, and the green is tucked between a huge bunker front and right, and a deep trench behind. And, oh, yes, there’s plenty of tree trouble, including evergreens around the green.

Course builders couldn’t move a lot of dirt 75 years ago, but the natural obstacles that remain only enhance the course’s character. One example is on the 430-yard seventh hole, where the approach shot must clear a hill to an elevated green.

Denver’s Overland Park Golf Course, formerly Overland Country Club, has a friendly feud with Patty Jewett Golf Course in Colorado Springs about which course is the oldest in the state.

Overland began with nine holes in 1895, but the current 18-hole layout is not at the original site, although it is nearby. Patty Jewett opened in 1898 as the Town and Gown Club and can lay claim to being the oldest Colorado course in continuous use at one location.

Overland features an interesting variety of holes and is more challenging than you might expect of an inner-city course. Those who enjoy a tempting risk-reward will love the 501-yard third hole, which is reachable in two shots but has bunkers protecting the green, and the 318-yard fifth hole, a driveable par four.

Granted, you won’t find Overland Park mentioned on any best of Colorado lists anymore. But where else can you play a course that once entertained the legendary Harry Vardon?

With stunning views of the Denver skyline and mountain peaks. It’s a convenient hop from downtown, although you can’t arrive by carriage anymore, as Vardon may have done. And playing in a suit and tie is no longer required.

Tom Kensler is the golf writer for The Denver Post.

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