Denver hits the high life with a range of options

The beautiful Denver skyline as night falls.

The beautiful Denver skyline as night falls.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the August 16th issue of Golfweek, previewing the Solheim Cup.

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DENVER – Being a slightly fanatical runner and a transplant to Florida, I’m most interested in two things when I leave sea level for a trip to the mountains: terrain and thin air. On these fronts, Denver recently threw me for a loop.

My task was to explore the city in advance of the Solheim Cup, being played this week at Colorado Golf Club in Parker, a southeast suburb. But I got my introduction to Denver golf by double-knotting my shoelaces for a walk around CommonGround Golf Course, a Tom Doak design in Aurora, just east of downtown.

Having driven in from Vail the night before on a mountainous stretch of I-70, battling snow most of the way, I arrived on the first tee that morning dressed for a blizzard. It wasn’t long before I was shedding layers under the warm, high-desert sun.

That’s not to say that CommonGround is a strenuous walk – quite the contrary, in fact. Smooth green complexes, with inscrutable breaks, roll right into the next tee box. Though not far from the Front Range, the terrain here is more high plains.

Nearly half of CommonGround’s daily play consists of walkers, of all ages. I was joined by a retired gentleman, once the owner of a small liquor store, who didn’t take a labored breath in 18 holes. Actually, neither did I.

CommonGround, ranked No. 5 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Colorado, feels like an anomaly given the mile-high setting, not that anyone seems to mind. You’ll find it hidden off a road lined with car dealerships and smoothie chains, but I didn’t get the sense I was in a large subdivision. The layout has almost a prairie-style feel. The backdrop isn’t what one might expect, with occasional views of the Rockies, but also more than a few downtown office towers.

“It’s almost like a getaway in the heart of the city,” director of golf Dave Troyer said. “It’s very rare that you find a major city where you can slap down a brand-new golf course these days and not have it be surrounded by houses and buildings.”

CommonGround is home to Colorado’s men’s and women’s golf associations, and was the second course used for stroke-play qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Amateur.

Locals are proud of the course not just because of the attention it received from the U.S. Amateur (my partner eagerly pointed out every hole that was stretched to the limit to test the young bombers), but also because of Doak’s guiding hand.

The state golf associations acquired the course, formerly named Mira Vista, in 1995, and made it a place to grow the game. The course’s tagline reads, “A place for all and all the game teaches.” Doak signed on in 2007, and the course reopened in May 2009 as CommonGround, a public course that also extends annual passes.

“I don’t even call it a redesign,” Troyer said, “because he built a whole new golf course.”

Despite playing on foot at 8:30 a.m., I was in the parking lot by the start of the lunch hour, ready to scour the city.

Larimer Square in the heart of Denver caught our party’s attention, if only for the light-bulb canopy between 15th and 16th streets. Thick cords dropped oversized Christmas bulbs in a grid pattern above the street, which made the best seat in any restaurant the one that was on the patio, at least when there was no snow on the ground.

Throughout downtown trod a predictable procession of twentysomethings, usually clad casually in North Face, Columbia or some similar brand. They looked preternaturally healthy, as if they began each morning by running a half-marathon through the mountains, then spent their days consuming granola and green tea intravenously.

We dove into Denver’s underground in search of a more substantial feast, settling on Osteria Marco, a modern Italian restaurant serving unusually generous portions. My personal pizza could have fed our entire group, making the meat and cheese plate, heavenly though it was, a touch of overkill.

The next day I received a better introduction to the city’s perimeter, courtesy of The Inverness Hotel – a hulking, rectangular structure amid an industrial area in Englewood. The accompanying namesake golf course played host to this week’s Junior Solheim Cup as a prelude to the main event. When I visited, I was greeted in the lobby by a large cardboard cutout of Paula Creamer.

Natural light pours through Inverness’ hallways and guest rooms. The sight of the golf course spread out below induces a forehead-to-glass moment, though from the top floors, the view doesn’t do the course justice. Only from ground level could I appreciate the subtle rolls of the fairways and greens.

“There’s an urban myth that everything breaks away from the hotel,” head pro Dave Steinmetz said of Inverness’ greens.

I missed too many putts to be sure.

Highway noise and office buildings from the surrounding subdivision tend to intrude on the opening holes. More startling was the giant blue Ikea sign rising above the treeline as I stood on the second tee.

By No. 13, the course reaches land that is still relatively undeveloped. It gets noticeably more difficult back there, too, thanks to tighter fairways, more brush and far more water.

This must be what designer Preston Maxwell intended; the course was built in 1974 and predates the subdivision that has grown up around it.

By the time I played Colorado Golf Club on the last day of my visit, I was starving for a mountain and some change in elevation. (The club is private, but well worth trying to pull a few strings to secure a tee time.) I knew I had found what I was looking for when I was greeted on the first tee by the sight of Devil’s Head, a prominent peak in the distance.

The clubhouse – right behind that tee – sits at 6,100 feet, 900 feet higher than Denver, but the opening four holes work downhill. At times, the course has a distinctly Midwest feel, with wildflowers, tall grass and relatively flat fairways.

Scoring on this course is about choosing the correct yardage, because tees and skill level can change the hole. For example, No. 7 is a par 5 for members, but will be a par 4 during the Solheim Cup. The eighth is a short par 4, but a sprayed tee shot sets up an awkward pitch into a very difficult green. A club employee remembers when Doak walked this Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design, calling No. 8 the “drivable par 4 you couldn’t hit in two.”

The back nine looks and feels more mature. Several tall pine trees were relocated from elsewhere on the property and help frame the finishing stretch.

I suspect that the Solheim participants will find Colorado GC to be a lovely walk but a difficult test.

Denver is a city that doesn’t easily lend itself to categorization. The European players who are making their first extended trips to the city this week likely are learning as much. Maybe it’s the familiar moniker: the Mile High City. That phrase only hints at the diverse terrain: high-desert urban landscapes, prairie lands and mountainous outskirts. All of that and more is available in the city’s golf courses.

An aside: The schedule of my last visit was so hectic that I never had time to test myself with an extended run in the city’s thin air. This time around, I made sure to block off time for that while covering the Solheim Cup.

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