They write songs about this place. • Katharine Lee Bates penned the words “purple mountains majesty”. . . John Denver gave us “Rocky Mountain High” . . . Waylon Jennings spoke of “clear mountain mornings.’’ • Whether you believe the genesis of this land came from the wave of God’s hand or some mass geological accident, 333 a golf trip to the Colorado Rockies is a soul-touching experience. The folks at Rand McNally call the highway that reaches from the mile-high city of Denver deep into the heart of the Rocky Mountains I-70. For those who love to play golf in a majestic setting, it’s a four-lane cart path that reaches to heaven.
“From top to bottom this is the best golf you can find,” said Tom Underwood, head professional at the new Lakota Canyon Golf Club. “There are just so many great facilities – both public and private – to keep everyone happy.”
The darkness of the Eisenhower Tunnel (could it be coincidence that the gateway into Colorado’s Vail Valley is named after the same man who has a tree named for him at Augusta National?) offers a stark juxtaposition to the shining golf that lies on the other side.
Once back in the light, three hours from Denver, 100 miles of spectacular scenery lies ahead, and much of it includes golf that heightens your appreciation of the game and literally changes the way you play. In the elevation of the Colorado Rockies, short hitters’ jaws drop as they watch their newfound distance off the tee. Good putters, however, might go just a bit mad as they play 3 feet of break on what at home would appear to be nothing more than a straight putt (For those not in the know, putts fall away from the mountains). And don’t get upset if the call of the occasional elk, mountain lion or bear interrupts a backswing.
But don’t worry, it might be the only sound you hear all day.
“The whole mountain golf experience is about more than golf,” said George Kahrhoff, director of golf at Sonnenalp Resort. “It’s about getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and soaking in the atmosphere.”
Not only is there a unique quality about the golf courses, there is quantity as well. In the aforementioned 100-mile stretch, 19 golf courses dot the landscape.
The land of the grizzly bear also includes courses built by the Golden Bear. Cold, clear streams teeming with cutthroat trout wind through tracks constructed by the Great White Shark. And the royal peaks of Vail include the presence of the King.
A sampling of others who have helped reshape the land include master builders of golf such as Tom Fazio, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Pete Dye, Jay Morrish, Bob Cupp and Jim Engh.
As you drop away from the Eisenhower Tunnel into the town of Silverthorne, you’ll find the Raven at Three Peaks, a Michael Hurzdan/Dana Fry remake of the old Eagle’s Nest Golf Club.
Tom Lehman also did some consulting work at the course where flat lies are as uncommon as an albatross.
Next is Breckenridge Golf Club, an early Jack Nicklaus work recently expanded to 27 holes. The course is located at the junction of the Blue and Swan rivers and winds through the foothills of the Ten Mile Range.
At Keystone Ranch, the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Ranch Course (opened in 1980) partners well with the River Course (2000), designed by Hurzdan and Fry. The Snake River is no stranger. It comes to visit far too often for comfort, and might capture too many errant balls for your liking.
Copper Creek Golf Club is next on the way west. At 9,600 feet, it’s the highest 18-hole championship course in the country. The air is thin, and the drives are long. Designed by Pete and Perry Dye, the course is the poster child for the marriage of the ski and golf industries. Both flourish in a setting that is perfect for each. The 13th tee box is right next to the ski lift. Don’t worry, it doesn’t run during golf season.
Over the next pass lies Vail proper, the little town founded by many of the men who served with the famed 10th Mountain Division – a colorful outfit of skiers and mountain climbers who battled their way up the Italian boot and across the Alps during World War II.
Vail Golf Club, which opened in 1968, is the oldest course in the valley. The fact that it is just 37 years old offers a clue to just how new the grand old game is to these mountains.
It was the host club of the Gerald Ford Invitational, a party thrown by the former president in the years following his stay in the White House.
The PGA Tour event drew both from the worlds of golf and entertainment – much along the lines of the tournament once hosted by Ford’s friend, the late Bob Hope.
Speaking of entertainment, there is plenty of nongolf activity available in Vail. You might be in a strange town, but if that town is Vail, don’t worry. You’ll find something that strikes your post-golf fancy with very little trouble.
The Vail Village has something for everyone.
Nearly every restaurant – and there are all kinds from veggie places to carnivore hangouts – has a patio that includes live music. Even if you walk down the street munching an ice cream cone or a hot dog, music is your companion. And there are shops galore.
Next on the trek through the valley comes an enclave of courses that not only offer outstanding golf, but also are places where guests get treated like royalty, whether golf, wining and dining, or a massage is the indulgence of choice.
Beaver Creek, Sonnenalp and the four courses at Cordillera are a picture of beauty and luxury.
Hyperbole knows no home here, for any adjective you use falls short of reality.
“Of course I’m very close to the situation, but there is such a climate for enjoyment here,” Kahrhoff said. “And all the courses are maintained so well. The greens here are just perfect.”
Even if that means your three putts might not be in succession – a la Tiger Woods at No. 13 during the first round of the Masters – when the first putt rolls down a slope off the green. Mountain three-putt: Putt, wedge back, putt, putt.
Beaver Creek is tucked hard against the base of the mountains and Sonnenalp is across the highway, playing more like a high-plains links course than a pure mountain layout. It also was the home of the Colorado Open, where Kevin Stadler made his professional debut in 2002 and won with his father, Craig, serving as his caddie.
Cordillera comes next, and this is the Vail Valley’s gem. All the Kobe Bryant publicity aside, moving into the Lodge at Cordillera is like stepping into the best golf dream you’ve ever had.
Fazio designed the Valley Course. Hale Irwin, the three-time U.S. Open champion who grew up in the foothills of Boulder, built the Mountain Course. Nicklaus did the Summit Course.
The three courses are distinct in their nature, but common in their experience.
The Valley Course is more desert than mountain as it plays out along the floor of the valley. The Mountain Course winds around, over and through the terrain. The Mountain is a bit gimmicky, and might be more enjoyed after a round or two.
The Summit Course lives up to its name just on the drive to the clubhouse. Along the way, you’ll pass though a series of security gates. After traversing the fourth gate and noticing that the car was still climbing one cynical player remarked, “The next gate is probably covered with pearls.”
OK, perhaps there is room for just a touch of hyperbole.
Along with the three championship courses at Cordillera, Dave Pelz designed a par-3 layout that is home to his short-game school here.
There is even a pub within walking distance from the lodge, but be careful, it’s uphill all the way back to your bed. And it’s best not to stay up too late at the pub, because the next morning your drive continues to Eagle Ranch Golf Club – Arnold Palmer’s contribution to the Valley. A clear head is necessary here, particularly if you play the tips – which measure 7,500 yards. There are five tee boxes, however, so if you’re feeling a little less stout, you’ll be OK.
After Eagle Ranch comes Eagle-Vail Golf Club – a place that starts off with a 150-foot drop from the first tee box to the fairway.
Then, you begin to break out of the Vail Valley at Red Sky Ranch Golf Club, which boasts 18 holes by Fazio and 18 by Norman. One day, one course is private and the other is open for resort guests. The next day, the two courses swap positions. There are even two clubhouses – one for members, the other for guests.
Pete Dye makes another appearance in the valley at the Cotton Ranch Golf Club and even brought a bit of the TPC at Sawgrass with him. The second shot on the par-5 fifth is to an island-like green.
Your journey is nearing an end, with the last stop coming at the newest course, Lakota Canyon. The Jim Engh design is located near the historic town of Glenwood Springs – the place where famed gunfighter Doc Holliday finally gave into the tuberculosis that had haunted him all his adult life.
Lakota Canyon crosses ridges, dives into canyons, climbs mountains and traverses ravines. The first and 10th tees are located 150 feet above the fairway.
We have now completed our trip through the Vail Valley, where golf and exhaustion converse if you’r not careful. Yes, you might be tired, but you know you’ve played yourself through a labyrinth of great golf.
It’s a maze of the game you won’t find anywhere else. You might be asking yourself why you never made this trip before.
And there might be one other question on your mind.
“When am I coming back?”
– Steve Trivett worked for 30 years as a sportswriter in Colorado Springs and Denver before retiring to Florida.