Think Colorado, think great skiing and stunning views. Great golf doesn’t always come to mind in mountainous terrain and yet Judd Spicer finds there is much to love about golfing in the Rockies…
OUR GOLF CLUBS CLINKING in the deep recesses of the Mercedes Sprinter Van, the vessel climbs westward from the Mile High city of Denver, Colorado.
Gently weaving away from the airport, along the I-70, passing the towns of Golden, Idaho Springs and Gypsum, the shuttle ascends another 2,500-feet over the course of two hours until the bounty of Vail debuts beyond the windshield like something from an IMAX vista.
Traditionally known as one of the world’s premier ski destinations, and rightly so, my gal and I would soon learn that Vail’s unique marriage of opulence and activity never ceases.
Come the late spring/early summer melt of powder and moguls, the destination’s five-month golf scene befits a canvass painted as an outdoor haven.
“Move to Vail for the winter, stay for the summer,” is the city's age-old maxim. Yet, amid a burgeoning golf presence cast across 13 public, private and resort venues, that script could someday be flipped.
BAVARIAN-STYLE HOSPITALITY. Should Arnold Schwarzenegger ever have graduated from governor of my California home state to a seat in the nation’s biggest chair, the White House would probably resemble something akin to Vail’s venerable Sonnenalp Hotel.
Ideally perched in the bosom of the city’s Vail Village shop-dine-and-stroll nexus, the Sonnenalp’s brand of Bavarian hospitality has been greeting visitors for nearly four decades, a run which is long pre-dated by the family-owned Austrian hospitality roots.
There are chalet-style lodges from room to spa to indoor/outdoor pool, and the hotel’s Bully Ranch restaurant sports the area’s most lauded Mudslide cocktail – a mix of vodka, Kaluha and Baileys, which proves perfectly potent in any season.
Twenty miles away in neighboring Edwards, we placed tee-to-turf at the hotel’s Sonnenalp Golf Club, open to members and guests of the hotel. Here we fast learned the first lesson about mountain golf: altitude requires fortitude, and a well-struck ball will result in nearly two clubs of enhanced distance (put it this way, I don’t generally pop my 9-iron 170 yards!).
Playing at 7,400-feet of elevation and located on the sunny side of the Vail Valley, the Sonnenalp track opens up about a month earlier than some other areas, and proves a play less severe than most neighboring courses.
“The course was built in 1983, just when designers were starting to move tons of dirt,” says Pete Roach, director of golf at the Sonnenalp Club. “So there wasn’t a bunch of land moved here, which is nice for a mountain layout because while we are in the mountains, there aren’t crazy uphill and downhill, three-club elevation changes. The course sets up right in front of you, and it’s pretty generous off the tee. It’s not about tricky shots but rather the greens, and the tall native grasses are the course defenses.”
Sonnenalp’s natural undulations and ever-pleasing backdrops befit the Vail vibe. “It’s a mountain lifestyle, and many of the people who retired here, moved their work here or vacation here did so because of the high-quality of life,” Roach adds. “From pretty much any residence in our valley, you can jump on your bike and be in the middle of nowhere. It's a small town feel, but we have the big city amenities, especially with our dining scene.”
MOUNTAIN COURSES. Our Stay & Play trip took us to the more expansive, four-season grounds of The Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, a Belgian-inspired private mountaintop spread overlooking the valley and Sawatch and Gore Mountain Ranges.
The Club at Cordillera has four courses and is open to club and Troon Privé members, along with Lodge guests. It charts as one of the country’s largest exclusive golf communities. The club’s Tom Fazio-designed Valley Course offers the most rewarding layout for my money.
“At the Valley Course, you may feel like you’re in the Scottsdale (Arizona) area,” says Darren Szot, director of golf at The Club at Cordillera. “It’s very playable and the slopes play back toward the fairways, but you hit off-line and you’ll still be in brush.” Heightened challenges literally grow at Cordillera’s Summit and Mountain Courses.
“The Summit is a little bit of everything,” Szot says of the Jack Nicklaus design, where 9,000-feet of elevation has seen the course record stand at just 67. “The course is on top of a plateau, so you’re amidst the pine trees, the aspens and the oaks, and then you’re playing through the valley and over natural rock walls. And there are scenic, 360-degree views for 50 miles, but it’s one tough track. You’ll have fairway to work with, but the greens are very well-tiered.”
For our play day, we took on the taut demands of the Hale Irwin-designed Mountain Course, which proves a challenge of alpine golf, carved through meadows and forest on what was a one-time, working ranchland. There are stated elevation changes on the course, where the raw beauty of the place is often matched merciless shots.
“It was the first course here and it is a tough test,” says Szot. “You better have some un-level lie shots in your bag to find success. Play it more than once and you’ll start to understand more of the nuances of where to hit it, but the first time out there you’re going in blind.”
“You get the great views and the Aspens on the back nine,” Szot continues, “but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a level lie on the course.” He notes that the attractive grounds prove especially popular with the ladies, in part because forward tees are frequently placed beyond the tee trouble. “It’s just true mountain golf. It’s why people come to Vail, and it’s the course where our members most often take their guests because they want to see pure mountain golf.”
For all Cordillera players, a quick tune-up is highly recommended at the Dave Pelz-designed, nine-hole Short Course. “It’s just over 1,200 yards from the tips all the way up, to around 600 yards from the front tees,” describes Szot. “So you can work on every aspect of your iron game, everything from refining those up-and-down shots to working on chipping, wedges and lofted irons. You play it for a week straight and your irons will be all good.”
RANCH-STYLE. Our final scorecard chapter was 20 miles west of Vail at the stately Red Sky Ranch & Golf Club, a Wolcott-based, western spread of rustic regality at 8,000-feet. Here every turn looks like an Ansel Adams photograph. Open to members and guests of dozens of applicable Vail Resorts and RockResort properties, the club operates on an every-other-day rota for member and guest play.
In recent years, I've had the opportunity to take on Red Sky’s burly (if not beastly) Greg Norman Course, leaving me eager to return for a round at the more benign Fazio design. Such anticipation was well warranted, as we found the Fazio course a seamless blend of strategic-playability across the panoramic surrounds.
“It’s exciting here. You’ve got two great designers in Greg Norman and Tom Fazio, who have two very different approaches to a relatively equal piece of property,” says Brian Zeigler, assistant golf professional at the club. “The Fazio is more player-friendly; you can go lower and it’s a really good compilation of short par-4s, beautiful par-3s and scoreable par-5s, which combine to make it a really fun play.”
Workable from the tee with continually engaging green complexes, the Fazio is now counted in the top-20 plays of my golf life.
“I think it’s fun, but you do need to take on this course in sections,” describes Zeigler. “The ninth, despite being short on distance, is not an easy par-3. And ten is also a tough par-3, followed by a very tough par-4 on the 11th. So you get those birdie chances on most of the front, and then Fazio asks you to go make three tough pars. This course really mixes it up nicely.”
Open on the front side, the Fazio’s back nine winds up the mountain with more tree-lined terrain and beatific views.
“It can feel almost overwhelming, just how big the mountains are around you here,” Zeigler smiles. “To me, every time I look over a green and see the mountain backdrops, it’s beautiful. It’s amazing and you need to come experience it to describe it to yourself. I know now why people come here and never leave.”
ALPINE BOUNTY. Vail and its people rarely pause. Ever. These are active communities, readily engaged by outdoor play across the alpine bounty. And the Vail visitor is encouraged to be a part of the motion.
For the avid sportsperson, take a day off the turf and get wet with a wade or float trip with the folks at Gore Creek Fly Fisherman. The region’s most veteran fly company operates across the ample flow of the area’s myriad of rivers and streams, and has been pulling brown and rainbow trout from these waters for nearly four decades.
Proof of purchase: On our three-and-a-half hour wade trip along the rushing shores of the Eagle River, we netted ten trout in fine fashion, catching-and-releasing with ease with our veteran guide.
After your outdoors activities with rod, reel, club, kayak or hike, a Vail day needs a proper meal to sate the active body. And while restaurants dot the spread of the Vail Village, no trip is complete without a high-end/dressed-down night at Matsuhisa. The restaurant has an unparalleled ski-slope view coupled with the warm, rugged embrace of custom stone and woodwork. The environs are merely heightened to elevated levels with Matsuhisa’s special brand of Japanese flavors, which include a superb king crab with sweet ponzu and an incredibly-succulent black cod with miso that may well alter one’s taste buds eternally.
Should the evening allow, time your dine with a post-dinner stroll over to Vail’s idyllic Gerald R Ford Amphitheatre, where summertime brings in a full calendar of free concerts, family events and international dance and music, amid a serene and open-armed setting that echoes all the welcoming attitude of this comely mountain town.
Good to know
British Airways offers daily non-stop flights to Denver International Airport. Prior to departure, arrange a shuttle rental with Colorado Mountain Express and enjoy the scenic, two-hour drive to Vail.
Where to Stay and Golf
Sonnenalp Hotel and Sonnenalp Golf Club www.sonnenalp.com
The Lodge & Spa at Cordillera and The Club at Cordillera
Gore Creek Fly Fisherman www.gorecreekflyfisherman.com
Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater www.vail.com