Why this is golf heaven: The skinny on High Country golf courses
June 24, 2014
Hey, there's a reason we live here and it's not what most would expect.
For some reason, the High Country is known for skiing and snowboarding. It's best-kept secret is golf.
We're not being the chamber of commerce here. The thing is that it's not just the altitude — which is still awesome and greatly appreciated when we play elsewhere. ("You mean my 7-iron doesn't go 180 yards at sea level?)
What makes High Country golf terrific is the variety of courses in Eagle and Summit counties. Playing here is not like going to Scottsdale, Ariz. (Make no mistake that we love Scottsdale. We love it even more in the winter when we can't play here.) But if you're playing in Arizona, you're playing desert golf almost exclusively.
Drive down Interstate 70, in Eagle County for about 15 minutes from Vail to Edwards, and you've hit golf courses that are traditional (Vail), have elevation change (Eagle-Vail), one that is designed by Robert Trent Jones (Beaver Creek), one that is traditional with a mountain twist (Sonnenalp) and the rejuvenated Cordillera complex with courses drawn up by Fazio, Hale Irwin and Jack Nicklaus.
That's only a sampling of the diversity of golf in style from the Raven in Summit County to Gypsum Creek at the west end of Eagle County.
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Here's a rundown of High Country golf and why you should play each track:
Vail Golf Club
In one of life's great ironies, Vail is not mountain golf. It's straight-away, what-you see-is-what-you-get. That said, the views are tremendous — especially the stretch from Nos. 7-13 as you play toward the majestic Gore Range. (I hate the word majestic because it's often overused. This is majestic, nonetheless.) It's also the most walkable 18 in the High Country. Public.
Hello, elevation change. The course starts and ends with par-5s that start off cliffs, and there's plenty of up and down in between. The course underwent a makeover to increase the pace of play, and it's worked. (Disclaimer: This is the author's home course, and 5-hour rounds are down on the weekends, in particular.) The talkers are Nos. 9 and 10. The first is a blind-tee-shot par-4 — leave the driver in the bag. And the latter is cliff-shot par-3. (Even if you are playing the white tees, take a drive up to the tips. Trust us.) Public.
The first three holes provide some serious "holy cow" factor, playing through the woods and along Beaver Creek, but the other 15 are not pushovers by any means. Robert Trent Jones, Jr. did a number here with tremendous green complexes. If you're serious about your score, make hay on the front and hang on during the final nine. This course loops down and then back up toward the resort, playing much longer on the back. Whatever your approach, this is a tough test of golf, but a very scenic one. Public play during shoulder season. Open to Beaver Creek guests only during the summer.
The site of several Colorado Opens, this is a gem. This is a bit of a links course with some mountain thrown in. Whatever style you call it, there are great views across the valley at Beaver Creek. The par-4 12th is a great risk-reward hole with a downhill tee shot and a daunting uphill approach. No. 15 is bombs-away downhill par-4, always a memorable shot. We also love the par-3 17th, a green completely surrounded by sand. Good luck with that. Sonnenalp is always in primo condition. Semi-private, but public tee times available.
This 54-hole — 64, if you include the Short Course — complex offers a little bit of everything. The Valley Course is true Tom Fazio, messing with your mind off the tee. Is there a fairway out there? (Yes there is. Really). The bunkers are penal. (Stay out of them — helpful advice, we know.) Hale Irwin grew up in Colorado, so he knew how to do the Mountain Course. One of the unique facets of Irwin's creation is the uphill hole. As strange as it sounds, there are plenty of holes in the High Country that do downhill or slightly uphill, but the Cordillera Mountain course does real uphill. Good fun. Jack Nicklaus' Summit Course is golfing on top of the world. If it's in your budget, this is must-play Eagle County golf. Semi-private.
Probably the best of premium golf in Eagle County. The Fazio and Norman courses rotate daily for private and public (meaning staying at a Rock Resorts property) play. So if you're planning on playing here, book two nights, so you can play both. Both courses are simply immaculate golf. There's a reason both courses are on just about every "top 100" list you see. No holes run side-by-side, so it does seem like you're the only group on the course. Absolutely pristine golf. Like Cordillera, these two courses are pricey, but you won't be sorry. Semi-private.
Arnold Palmer in Eagle County and, as is typical with The King, this 18 is very playable for all types of golfers with five sets of tees ranging from 5,400-7,500 yards. The postcard shot is what we call "The Twins," long side-by-side par-4s in Nos. 9 and 18. And, trust us, you'll remember the back nine. Staring with then fiendish par-3 11th, which locals call "the shortest par-5 in the county," Eagle Ranch's back is tremendous. And if you can play hole Nos. 16-18 without a big number, you've earned your beverage of choice at the 19th.
Welcome to Pete Dye links golf with one little twist. OK, it's not so little. It's called the mesa. Since Gypsum Creek flipped its nines this year, you get to warm up for 12 holes before you hit the mesa. No. 13 is a long, uphill par-5 that starts the stretch. Nos. 14-16 are surrounded by sagebrush. (By the way, if you find any Precepts or Noodles, they're the author's.) The good news is that you get to come down off the mesa on No. 17, a stunner of a dropping par-3. Public.
Like altitude? Welcome to the highest 18-hole golf course in North America. This is a Pete Dye course, but it's not one of his killer designs. We still remember the Par-5 sixth, which had a water carry off the tee and water right. (Don't go there.) The back nine is really fun. You work your way past an old mining site and then you're hitting alongside a ski lift. (Fear not, it would take a really bad shot, even by the author's lowly standards to hit it.) How cool is that? Public.
Welcome to the only municipally-owned Jack Nicklaus design in the country. You've got the Bear, Beaver and Elk nines, which ought to keep you busy. Whatever nine you pick, Jack made this course very playable for players of all abilities. The Elk had some really fun carries. The Bear nine has plenty of moments that will make you think how to attack the course, including the dogleg par-4 third with all too inviting water. No. 8 on the Beaver might be one of the toughest holes anywhere. Public.
This is a beaut. The course meanders through the valley floor as well up into the mountains. The views are exquisite. There are a lot of postcard moments. Here are a few of our favorites. Please do club down on No. 8. It is a drop to the green guarded by water in front and bunkers left and right. The par-5s on the back are epic. No. 12 had multiple landing areas and a carry over water to the green. No. 16? Bring your camera for that one. Semi-private.
As Ernie Banks said, "It's a beautiful day. Let's play two." OK, wrong sport, but Keystone has two spectacular courses — the River and Ranch. It's always a debate as to which one's "better." Our response is that we'd like to play it more in the interests of research. A few highlights: No. 16 at the River is a 509-yard par 4. Gravity is your ally here, though. Let the big dog eat. Meanwhile, the Ranch is Robert Trent Jones, Jr. with a links front nine and a mountain-style back. Public.