Vail, Colo. offers thrill ride for golfers

Red Sky Golf Club remains the universal reference point for mountain golf in Vail, Colo.

Red Sky Golf Club remains the universal reference point for mountain golf in Vail, Colo.

VAIL, Colo. - Alice Plain arrives on the first tee at Vail Golf Club dressed in a pullover, vest and waterproof pants, a look more appropriate for a day of skiing than an afternoon on the links. On this unseasonably cold autumn day, locals are buzzing about the first weather advisory of the season. Snow, albeit unlikely to stick, was forecast for above 10,000 feet.

Plain, the director of golf at the municipal course located at the base of the Gore Mountain Range, epitomizes the golfing, skiing, outdoor-loving breed of local found in the breathtaking Vail Valley. Options for outdoor sport are as limitless here as vistas of the surrounding Rockies. Strike up a conversation with just about any cart attendant or assistant pro, and you’re likely to hear about a second life as a ski instructor or member of a mountain patrol.

Throughout the round, Plain pointed out popular ice-climbing cliffsides, threw in stories of her own outdoor adventures (such as the mountain biking trip that ended in an air evacuation a year ago) and grumbled about her game. The lean blonde played college golf at Oklahoma State from 1987 to ’90, and course marshals know her to be a natural talent and fierce competitor.

In the summer, Plain oversees a quaint layout that last year played host to 22,000 rounds in its six-month season. In the winter, the manicured yet atypically flat mountain course is transformed into a Nordic ski area.

“It’s very chill,” Plain says of the Vail winter lifestyle, though the same could be said of the summer months.

Vail Golf Club seamlessly blends the two. Tee markers display the same color-coded system as ski runs (the tips are black, followed by blue, then green), and a snow ski embedded in the ground symbolizes 150 yards to the green. The course’s real claim to fame, however, is its rigidly enforced 4-hour, 7-minute pace of play, a number recommended by consultants. A brisk round, Plain reasons, leaves time for other outdoor activities.

Leisure time has a different meaning in the mountains.

• • •

Vail Golf Club is located just down the road from the heart of Vail Village, where restaurants, cafes and high-end boutiques line winding, cobblestoned streets. A similar small-town existence can be found up the mountainside in nearby Beaver Creek Village. Life there revolves around the ice rink located in the heart of the village, and the surroundings scream ski mecca – from the chair lift that dangles above the entrance road to the outdoor escalators that accommodate stair treks in ski boots. Enjoy a hearty Italian dinner at Toscanini, or drop into the Coyote Cafe for a low-key bowl of chili and a game of pool on your way back to The Osprey at Beaver Creek, a beautifully modern retreat where cozy rooms lend credence to the resort’s tagline, “Not exactly roughing it.” Still, this hardly is a place where visitors log many hours indoors.

During warm-weather months, the ski runs that crisscross Beaver Creek make for ideal hiking. It feels funny at first as guides lead the way down trails that seemingly wind through the backyards of posh timeshares. Soon, the path leads up the side of the hill to an aspen grove that drowns out all noise from the village. You’ll be surprised when you briefly emerge from the trees – head spinning, lungs screaming, quads burning – to see the resort course in the distance far below.

“Elevation is the great equalizer out here,” said Alex Spaeth, who has been a guide at Beaver Creek for the past 10 years. That theme carries over to golf.

The first trick to playing Beaver Creek Golf Club, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design from the early ’80s that predates many of the surrounding mountain courses, is surviving the opening three holes (so listen up when the starter talks strategy). The real key is placement, but club selection on this high-altitude playground also is important.

Director of golf Dave Lopez, a Colorado native, calls Beaver Creek “the true mountain golf experience.” With a sly grin, Lopez explains that he’ll often wait for guests at the fourth tee and ask how the course’s easy holes played.

“The first three holes will just eat people’s lunch,” he says of a trio that’s full of elevation changes, ravines and other hazards.

Welcome to golf in the Rockies.

• • •

In a place where elevation determines everything from clout to climate, the Summit Course at The Club at Cordillera is among the most breathtaking of experiences. It utilizes the mountainside in a more expansive way than Beaver Creek.

From the very beginning, the Jack Nicklaus design makes the most of its 9,000-foot perch. Warming up on the south side of the practice range is like banging balls over the side of a cliff. During the round, you’ll

want a local to help make sense of the sometimes-deceiving breaks in greens and to offer yardage conversions on shots covering significant altitude drops – a favorite trick of the par 3s.

The elevation is most apparent as you peer off the back of the sixth green, directly over a thicket of aspens. Still, the back nine upstages the front as it winds among a much larger grove of aspens that stands stark white against the otherwise lush foliage.

So far removed from civilization, the Summit Course is unique in its almost oppressive silence. You won’t experience that in many other places throughout Vail Valley, where traffic from nearby Interstate 70 provides a constant humming backdrop.

The fourth and final track at Cordillera – that includes a nine-hole Dave Pelz short course – the Summit Course was completed in 2000. Staying at Cordillera is a must to gain access to these mountain gems, but that’s hardly an imposition. The 56-room resort sits majestically on the side of a hill and features breathtaking views of the Sawatch Range and New York Mountain to the west.

• • •

But for all of the beauty of these courses, Red Sky Golf Club remains the universal reference point for mountain golf here. The public-private facility, located about 25 miles west of Vail in Wolcott, features 18-hole courses designed by Tom Fazio and Greg Norman. They alternate daily between public and private play.

Red Sky’s greens are massive, slick and shifty, but so pure that well-struck putts hug the ground as they track straight at the hole. Complex greens are the calling card of the Fazio, No. 5 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Colorado. The enormous greens on the Norman Course are enhanced by cleverly designed bunkers and collection areas.

Few views are as astounding as the one found at the 16th tee of the Fazio Course, also known as the summit of Red Sky. The tee box sits at 7,950 feet, and a panoramic view of the Vail and Beaver Creek mountains serves as the backdrop for tee shots that disappear to the fairway below. Overall, the Fazio layout features 600 feet of elevation change from peak to base.

A week in Vail isn’t complete without taking in those views at a speed slightly faster than 18 holes. A zipline ride through the nearby Alkali Canyon ratchets up the pace considerably.

Zip Adventures is easy to miss driving north on shoulderless, two-lane State Highway 131. Swing a hard right at the 4 Eagle Ranch sign, duck into the barn at the end of the road, and you’ll be fitted with a harness before piling into a people mover that looks more like it’s delivering passengers to combat than a ziplining course.

There is little elevation change over the course of six zips, which sit at about 7,000 feet and have names ranging from the innocent (Bunny Hill) to the ominous (Widowmaker). It’s an entirely different experience from the canopy ziplines found in Costa Rica and other exotic locales. Here, the lack of undergrowth causes you to feel the elevation in the pit of your stomach.

Said one guide: “People who are scared of heights will be terrified until they go off the first one.”

Mustering the courage to overcome such fears? It’s a daily part of life here.

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