Travel editor Brandon Tucker spent a long weekend this August perusing the Rocky Mountain golf scene.
SILVERTHORNE, Colo. -- For golfers not used to how their ball flies at 9,000 feet of elevation, determining which club to hit on the par-3 8th hole at the Raven Golf Club at Three Peaks requires some high-level math.
184 yards. Downhill. Swirling wind. Back pin. Trouble deep. Add altitude. Wait, where was I?
Thankfully, the straightaway 9th hole, which plays over 500 yards and heads downhill 300 feet from tee to green, needs no such computation: just swing for the fences.
The ball sails forever and the air is brisk in Summit County, which hits the spot for anyone who lives down south. Staff at the Raven say Texans make up a good amount of their course's patrons, and that's evident in a hurry. In the parking lot, I spotted a couple cars with Texas Longhorns stickers, and I was eventually paired up with a father & son from Houston, staying in Vail for the week.
As a resident of Austin myself, you don't have to explain to me Colorado's allure. I've visited the state four times in the past last year, which has included cycling Lefthand Canyon, hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, white water rafting Glenwood Canyon and skiing Eldora and Beaver Creek at Christmas time.
Finally, on this brief trip, I fit in some time to play golf.
Summit County is the closest resort hub to Denver on the western slope, a little more than an hour's drive west of downtown. While the ski resorts here lamented terrible powder conditions all winter, area golf courses benefitted, opening in mid-May rather than the usual start well into June. This meant the county's courses had a bonus month to show off their layouts, which besides the Raven, also include 36 holes at the Keystone Resort and a Jack Nicklaus-designed municipal course in Breckenridge.
And while Texans can bask in the dry, August air, autumn is one of the best times to play golf in Summit County. Not only do the aspen trees lining the mountainsides change color, but courses like the Raven drop their rates, so pack a sweater and a camera (and for the 8th hole, maybe a scientific calculator).
Progressive city and classic golf collide at Flatirons in Boulder
Flatirons Golf Club, established in 1938.
On day two, I headed back over the pass to the front range city of Boulder. It's a cyclist's utopia, as more people bike to work here, about 10%, than any other city in the United States. Triathletes, runners, hikers, even cross-country skiers make it their year round base camp. So it's to be expected that the city's only public golf course, Flatirons, receives a hearty share of walkers on this classic, 1930s design. Unexpected is exactly who it is that tends to take a golf cart.
'We get world class triathletes who come out in the afternoon and take a cart,' said Doug Cook, Director of Golf at Flatirons. 'For them, golf isn't exercise.'
Flatirons is a municipal course, but it's roots are that of an old, private club. The course opened in 1938 as Boulder Country Club, and today, the course's firm greens and lush fairways wind through a scenic, 130-acre rectangle of mature parkland available to all. Boulder will never be known as a 'golf town,' but Flatirons hosts 45,000 rounds annually. Recent investment into the facility for both playability and environmental factors, show the game still has a soft spot among its active, eco-conscious residents.
Public standouts in Denver: Arrowhead Golf Club and The Ridge at Castle Pines North
The 18th tee of The Ridge Course at Castle Pines North: 'On the Rocks.'
Denver, despite a wealth of public golf, is better known for its private clubs, like 2012 U.S. Amateur host Cherry Hills, which was immortalized in 1960 by Arnold Palmer's U.S. Open win. It's remarkable to think that this city, a sports-mad, top-20 media market, hasn't hosted the PGA Tour since the final staging of The Sprint International in 2006 at Castle Pines, another prestigious private club ranked by some panels as the state's best.
While Denver itself is predominantly prairie land, the courses along the front range deliver the best topography without having to go over the pass. In the shadow of Castle Pines, The Ridge at Castle Pines North makes a strong statement as the town's top public facility. The Tom Weiskopf design dangles on high ground overlooking the surrounding hills, while back nine takes on a mountain tone, winding through tall pines and rock outcroppings. Finally, on the 18th tee, golfers tee off near the edge of a rocky cliff.
But Denver's most naturally spectacular course is in Littleton at Arrowhead Golf Club, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design opened in 1972. Jagged, sandstone formations along the foothills jut up into the sky, while other massive sandstone boulders frame the fairways.
The same week I played Arrowhead, Golf Digest named it a Top 50 Most Fun Course in the U.S.
'Do they actually play this course or just photograph it?' pondered Golf Digest. Rest assured, RTJ Jr. deserves praise for crafting plenty of fun holes within a setting suitable for a remote, national park, not a small community just south of a major metropolis. But the Denver area isn't your normal golf town.
Arrowhead Golf Club's dramatic 13th.