Escape to Vail: The Colorado Rockies make for a breathtaking summer golf adventure
Many domestic destinations in mid-summer mean stifling heat with a side of strength-sapping humidity. Then there’s Vail. At 8,200 feet, with daytime temperatures peaking in the 70s, Vail, Colorado, and its surroundings offer sweet relief and a surprisingly strong roster of golf courses. If you’re looking to both cool off and heat up — by hitting the longest drives of your life in the thin air — it’s high time to vamoose to Vail.
Launching Tee Shots in the Vail Valley
Vail and its surrounding eight communities — Avon, Beaver Creek, Eagle, EagleVail, Edwards, Gypsum, Minturn and Red Cliff — roll out nine courses within a 15-mile radius of Vail and 17 championship layouts with a 38-mile radius. Amid a smattering of private courses, such as The Club at Cordillera and Country Club of the Rockies in Edwards, the majority of trophy tracks are open to outside play.
First up are the shiniest trophies in the region: Red Sky GC’s Fazio and Norman courses in Wolcott, 15 miles west of Vail. Technically both courses are private, but each is open to resort guests every other day. More than three dozen hotels in Beaver Creek and Vail provide access to stay and plays. Visitors even have their own clubhouse, which overlooks the Fazio 18. It’s sufficiently plush to make you feel like a member, right down to its Summer Thyme Restaurant.
Which course to play? Easy answer: both — they’re that good and that highly ranked. The 7,116-yard, par-72 Fazio hairpins through sagebrush and aspen forests, its forgiving fairways traversing precipitous peaks and valleys next to an alpine lake. The journey also yields stunning vistas of Vail’s Back Bowls for those who appreciate world-class skiing.
The savage but gorgeous Norman holes soar higher in the hills than those on its Fazio sibling, amid mountain peaks and ski runs, with dry gulches, hardy scrub oaks and clusters of Alister MacKenzie-style bunkers along for the 7,580-yard ride.
If following in famous footsteps appeals, the 563-yard, par-5 fourth on the Norman course should suffice. From a tee perched halfway to heaven, the hole plunges to an angled fairway, followed eventually by an approach to a closely bunkered green. The hangtime you’ll achieve on the drive is mountain golf at its most thrilling. Accompanied by John Elway, Dan Marino and Mike Shanahan at the 2003 grand opening, Norman lipped out his second for what would have been a double eagle.
Beaver Creek GC in Avon is a 1982 Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that embodies old-timey mountain golf values, with slender fairways and a compact layout that measures just 6,642 yards, par 70 from the Double Black tees. At 8,500 feet and traversed by Beaver Creek, this is a course that asks for finesse, not power. It will also take finesse to finagle a tee time. The course is open to all from May 19 to June 14 and again from September 25 to October 8. In between, it’s members only, along with Beaver Creek, Bachelor Gulch and Arrowhead resort guests who are staying at select hotels.
For superb value and location, it’s impossible to beat Vail GC. Situated practically in the heart of Vail, the course is run by the Vail Recreation District, which also offers top-notch tennis, an art studio and ice skating, among other attractions. A longtime favorite of President Gerald Ford, Vail is a walkable (but remember, you’re at more than 8,100 feet), 6,739-yard, par-71 spread that ambles gracefully along the flattish valley floor with a full in-your-face view of the Gore Range. Rocky Mountain streams and wildflowers further spice the play.
Just west of Vail is EagleVail GC in Avon. Opened in 1975, this Robert Von Hagge-Bruce Devlin design at 7,650 feet entices from start to finish with elevated tees, mountain panoramas and holes that skirt the Eagle River. You might wear out your sand wedge during the round, but you came to be entertained and you’ll leave satisfied. And if you crave bonus holes, or a great family spot, check out EagleVail’s nine-hole, walking-only par-3 layout, Willow Creek GC, which also offers Fling Golf and Kick Golf options.
Another once-public course with limited access these days is Sonnenalp. Situated 15 minutes west of Vail in Edwards, this 42-year-old, 7,074-yard, par-71 Jay Morrish/Bob Cupp creation exudes a ranch feel, with sagebrush roughs and split-rail fences. The flattish front nine yields to serious elevation change and broken ground on the back, and throughout the round is a collection of some seriously slick greens. Sonnenalp is strictly private; however, it reserves three tee times per day for guests of Vail’s Sonnenalp Hotel.
Once private and known then as Cotton Ranch, the Pete Dye-designed Gypsum Creek GC is an affordable, yet challenging option in Gypsum, at the western edge of the Vail Valley. At 6,951 yards, par 72, this isn’t Dye’s sternest test, but it’s draped atop a sage-covered mesa and breezes, ponds, the twisting Gypsum Creek and views of the Red Table Mountains are your companions for the day.
One final Vail Valley layout to sample is Eagle Ranch GC in Eagle. This 2001 Arnold Palmer design stretches 7,461 yards, but Arnie kept it quite playable for vacationers. You might not think so after dueling with the 490-yard ninth and 474-yard 18th, par 4s that finish on either side of a lake, but on the whole, it’s a fun layout peppered with signature moments.
East of Vail
Within a one-hour drive along I-70 back towards Denver is a fistful of superb courses. For the ultimate high-altitude adventure, Copper Creek is a bucket-lister. Laid out by Pete and Perry Dye at the Copper Mountain Ski Resort in 1986, the course measures just over 6,000 yards — not a Top 100 experience by any means — but the reason to play it is for the nosebleed novelty. The first tee sits at 9,700 feet, and the course eventually climbs to 9,863 feet, making it the highest in America.
Not much lower — at 9,324 feet — but of very different character is the town-owned 27-hole layout at Breckenridge. Jack Nicklaus crafted all three nines, which sport bold bunkers and sloping fairways that skirt beaver ponds. The Bear and Beaver nines appeared in the 1980s. The Elk nine is a 2001 addition. It features the biggest elevation changes and terrific views of the Tenmile Range.
In nearby Silverthorne, Tom Lehman teamed with Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry to design the Raven GC at Three Peaks in 2000. The 7,413-yard, par-72 Raven soars with fingered bunkers, mountain streams and aspen copses, along with a pair of dizzying plunges at the par-3 eighth and par-4 ninth.
A final Vail-area favorite — but near the top of any must-play list — is Keystone Resort, whose two courses, the Robert Trent Jr.-designed Ranch and the Hurdzan/Fry-authored River course, entertain from start to finish. The 43-year-old, 7,017-yard, par-72 Ranch begins with a couple of tightly forested thrillers, then moves into meadowland. Sitting in the Soda Creek Valley at 9,300 feet, the Ranch pairs lakes, streams and bunkers with dazzling vistas of the Gore Range to produce a memorable test. The newer and slightly lower-elevation River features 6,886 yards of top-of-the- world tee shots, mounds topped by wildflowers and a handful of holes that hopscotch the Snake River.