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Denver golf: Mixing venerable Cherry Hills and Colorado Golf Club with area munis

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DENVER, Colo. – Life sure is good inside the gates.

Never was the contrast between the club life and the public golfer so prevalent and revealing than during my recent visit to the Mile High City.

In a span of just over 48 hours, I played two of the best private courses in Colorado: Cherry Hills Country Club and Colorado Golf Club – followed by two rounds at city-owned municipal courses, Coyote Creek Golf Course in Fort Lupton and Park Hill Golf Club in Denver.

Talk about alternate universes. It was amazing to experience the difference between the course conditions, the layouts themselves, the settings around each and maybe most interesting, the way golfers acted during my rounds.

Modern minimalism at Colorado Golf Club

There are few signs of the early financial troubles of Colorado Golf Club (pictured above), a dynamic 7,602-yard Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw design that opened in 2007 in Parker, southeast of Denver. The club sparkles today with a stunning stone clubhouse that serves tremendous food (try the buffalo meat chili), a handful of luxury villas for members and their guests and a gorgeous golf course ranked fifth in the state by Golf Digest and No. 35 among the top 100 modern golf courses by Golfweek.

The minimalist tendencies of Coore and Crenshaw work particularly well on this rolling scrubland site. Their scruffy-edged bunkers visually pop against the firm green turf and stark high desert terrain. An endless parade of risk-reward shots on drivable par-4s and go-for-broke par-5s should play a role in who wins the 2013 Solheim Cup. The course certainly shined in the 2010 PGA Senior Championship when back-to-back final-round eagles on par-5s at No. 15 and No. 16 put Fred Couples into a playoff with eventual champion Tom Lehman.

“It’s a very strategic course,” Lehman said then. “One of the reasons why I like it so much, there’s so many options and decisions you have to make, and I really believe that it gives you the ability to really go for it as much as you want to or not.'

It was the kind of course that I could play every day and never tire of trying to solves its nuances.

History thrives at Cherry Hills Country Club

Cherry Hills

Cherry Hills Country Club

I’ve been lucky enough to walk into some historic clubhouses at Oakland Hills, Pebble Beach, Sahalee, Pinehurst, Crystal Downs, East Lake and elsewhere, but none gave me the sense of history and tradition like Cherry Hills.

The club’s new Hall of Champions is a profound tribute to its tournament lore. Just steps inside the doors, there’s a large mural, the iconic image of Arnold Palmer throwing his cap in the air to celebrate his come-from-behind win at the 1960 U.S. Open. Glass cases hanging on the wall showcase artifacts from each of the club’s major events, from Phil Mickelson’s U.S. Amateur win in 1990 to the 1993 U.S. Senior Open victory of Jack Nicklaus and more. One case holds clubs that played a key role in securing certain tournaments, like the sand wedge Birdie Kim used to hole a bunker shot at No. 18 to steal the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open.

Outside, there’s no better walk in golf than Cherry Hills, a traditional parkland layout ranked No. 67 among the top 100 courses in America by Golf Digest. Go ahead and try to drive the first green like Palmer did in 1960. Thick rough and subtle breaks on treacherously fast greens befuddled players at the 2012 U.S. Amateur. Next up is the 2014 BMW Championship. The drumbeat of history marches on at Cherry Hills.

Surviving 36 holes of 'Muni-mania'

Park Hill

Park Hill Golf Course

Privilege does come with a price at those clubs. Both the Colorado Golf Club and Cherry Hills have strict no cell phone policies. The Colorado Golf Club doesn’t allow hats to be worn inside the clubhouse. A strict pace-of-play regimen at Cherry Hills keeps members constantly on the prowl for slow-playing guests.

All those rules, obviously, go out the window in muni-land. One golfer I played with at Coyote Creek wore jeans. He also dared me to hit a tee shot out of bounds on the sixth tee, aiming at a huge water storage drum. I nailed it on my second attempt, completing what was essentially my initiation into their circle of friends in golf.

A twosome of buddies I was paired with at Park Hill blasted music from an IPOD inside their cart. The third member of our group was a beginner who would have never survived Cherry Hills’ pace-of-play requirements. I couldn’t help but wonder how quickly all these golfers would get tossed out of Cherry Hills or the Colorado Golf Club for such behavior.

The munis had none of the shot values or conditions of the private clubs. They both were relatively short, Coyote Creek at 6,412 yards and Park Hill at 6,592 yards. There were no truly memorable holes or magical moments, either. For various reasons, though, those rounds were almost as fun, thanks to the people I played with and the relaxing come-one, come-all atmospheres. They reminded me life outside the gates isn’t too shabby after all.