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Golfing in Aspen and Vail, Colorado

Top-flight golf courses have made these mountain retreats into summer destinations.

Colorado never used to be associated with golf—aside from Arnold Palmer’s come-from-behind victory in the 1960 U.S. Open Championship at Cherry Hills Country Club, outside Denver. Skiing? Obviously, once the sport caught on after World War II, when the area had served as a training ground for snow-bound troops. Cavorting? In the “Hotel California” days of the mid-seventies—absolutely. By 1976, when I first ventured through Aspen, Hunter S. Thompson had already established a foothold of considerable mischief in the nearby town of Woody Creek. Then, and during a subsequent visit in the mid-nineties, the only golf course I noticed was the Aspen municipal, which has apparently become so successful that it more than pays for all the other parks in town.

Wealth, though, has had its way, and these days between Aspen and Vail—the polestars of downhill Colorado—there is an array of courses designed by the best architects in golf: Pete Dye (Cotton Ranch), Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Beaver Creek), and Bob Cupp (Sonnenalp), to name a few. The season, generally April through October, can sometimes extend as long as nine months, and the mountainous topography provides stunning views and interesting play. In short, it’s an embarrassment of riches that forces the clubs-carrying visitor to make some hard choices. On a recent trip there, though, my first decision involved other factors: I needed help with my game. Up to this point the only coach I’d ever had was a fellow called Charlie Perkins, who taught me to play in the sixties. He’d pitched for the 1929 and 1930 World Series–winning Philadelphia Athletics, then caroused with Babe Ruth and Walter Hagen before ending up, decades later, running a little course near my Oregon home. His distinctly old-school instruction stayed with me even after my long hair and progressive politics cooled our mutual infatuation, and while competing at the junior and college levels I never once worked with another teacher. After taking the game up again in my forties, I was lately seeing my version of it falling apart.

Having scouted out the available remedies, I made my first stop at the Club at Cordillera, near Vail, where Dave Pelz, the coach of Phil Mickelson and other Tour pros, has one of his eight academies, as well as a short, ten-hole course all his own. Pelz can rattle off more statistics than any accountant—for example, at least 60 percent of the strokes the typical golfer takes are squandered on getting the ball into the hole from 100 yards or closer—and at Cordillera his very capable staff provided our little group with several facts that defied perceived wisdom, such as how many short and midrange putts Tour players miss. The various chipping, pitching, sand-play, and putting drills, which demonstrated how woefully inept the average player is, aimed to reduce the ugly mistakes that we all too commonly make. And while many Pelz principles initially struck me as oversimplified and counterintuitive, they have since served to correct some of my long-held bad ideas and have even started to make sense.

After a full day of instruction, I was ready to tee it up. Cordillera, a 20-year-old resort community, boasts courses by Tom Fazio (Valley) and Hale Irwin (Mountain), but my destination was Jack Nicklaus’s Summit, which opened in 2001. At 9,000 feet, the course has views of New York Mountain and the Gore and Sawatch ranges that take your breath away—if the altitude hasn’t already done so. Of all the Nicklaus designs I’ve played, I can’t think of another as striking. Or as brutish, from the sharply downhill par-four second that tears off to the right, to the straightaway sixth, where my drive from the tips at 482 yards was on the wrong line and didn’t even reach the fairway. At such heights shots can travel about a club and a half farther than at sea level, but don’t count on it.

Things got really stunning at the par-three 11th—which stretches 272 yards downhill and has traps and a ravine short and left and a hardly reassuring bailout to the right—and the 12th, which is as rigorous and attractive a par four as any I’ve ever played. You can either lay up or try to go around or carry the rock wall across the fairway, but even the latter route leaves you 200-plus yards out on this 504-yard hole; and the green, guarded short and left by water, is a humpbacked monster that’s scary to consider even with a wedge in your hand. The next hole, a par five, starts from a tee box surrounded by aspens that cast psychedelic shadows, and from here you climb higher and higher into the ozone.

Almost every green features great tiers, a few of the false-front variety, and from the wrong tees—especially if you’re playing with a young pro who can hit a five iron 250 yards—you will surely be gasping for breath. The trophy bucks poking around hither and yon serve as a lovely distraction, and the bright-red phone booths (an homage to the British owners) scattered across the course give a famished golfer the opportunity to order, for example, a Kobe-beef burger at the turn. And the course as a whole offers sheer beauty and a stern test of your best game.

Nicklaus offers something more soothing near Aspen at the Roaring Fork Club. Members at this ten-year-old private club—inspired by the great camps of the Adirondacks—scoff at the nosebleed elevation of the Summit, though their course, closed to nonmember play, is still more than a mile above sea level. The experience here ranges from rolling ranchland to something more watery, with the Roaring Fork River and Spring Creek in play, and it’s subtle, entrancing, and thoroughly engaging. Precision remains of utmost importance, if on a smaller scale (7,111 yards here versus 7,530 there), and without it I didn’t make a birdie until the 535-yard, par-five 14th. Throughout, Nicklaus gives only glimpses of hazards soon to emerge as vast and disastrous, and his greens speed down-valley, but these difficulties are so well integrated that they only register with the help of a good caddie.

After I shot an 85 here, though, something was clearly still out of whack, so I headed to the David Leadbetter Academy at Red Sky Ranch & Golf Club, a development west of Vail. With a few hours to spare before my lesson, I took a cart tour of the 7,580-yard Greg Norman course, which, with its severe 74.1 rating and 145 slope, is intimidating even to drive through. Non-member play here switches daily between this course and the lower-altitude one by Tom Fazio, where the academy is located. And that’s where, watching my own swing captured on digital video, I saw my worst nightmare come true: I wielded my club as if I were trying to kill lethal snakes coiled on the ground in front of me. A more heinous sight I could not imagine. Still, given the nonjudgmental patience and knowledge of the academy director, Scott Holden, I experienced a threefold epiphany: I had a poor grip, rotten posture, and virtually no wrist cock on the backswing. No matter that I’ve known the basics for 35 years, that I’ve endlessly studied the swing as understood by Ben Hogan and countless others, that I’ve published related books by Tom Watson and Nick Price—none of this had prevented my grotesque backsliding.

In the course of a full afternoon of analysis, Scott prescribed three or four things for me to focus on. Feeling chastened and embarrassed, I was wary of what my swing-in-progress would yield the next day on the Fazio course. Less punitive than the Norman 18 and a reasonable 7,113 yards, it nonetheless demands a repertoire of shots I wasn’t confident I had. But after a careless bogey on the first, I badly missed only one shot—a fat one iron on the par-five fifth, where I still made four. And then, on seven, which was playing 210 yards that day, into a club-and-a-half wind, I hit a flush two iron up into a slope that I figured would feed the ball down toward the hole. Nope, into the hole—my first ace in 40 years.

The back-nine scoring was far less dramatic, with three lip-out putts—only one for par—on a beautiful stretch of holes. I’d been hearing thunder for a while, and when the lightning siren sounded, the round was over, leaving me three under through 15 and regretting only that I hadn’t been able to play the fabulous three closing holes. Still, I’ll remember every shot in this round for a long time and have good reason to consider this superb Fazio course my sentimental favorite.

Needless to say, I soon e-mailed Scott to say he was the quickest repairman in the history of the game, and then to confess that my very next round was a more representative 81. None of that really matters, though. We owe it to ourselves to get good instruction, and my hat remains off to the Leadbetter organization and Scott in particular. After all, those hours with him on the range allowed me, for at least one afternoon, to play better than the awesome golf gods of Colorado would have thought possible.

Local Links: Top Courses In The Area

By Shannon Adducci

Beaver Creek Golf Club, originally opened in 1982, recently completed a four-year renovation of its Robert Trent Jones Jr. course. Greens fee, $185. At Avon; 970-754-5775; beavercreek.com.

The Club at Cordillera is home to three courses and, in addition to the Dave Pelz academy, has top-ranked instructor Tom Stickney as its staff pro. Greens fee, $125. At Edwards; 970-569-6480; cordillera-vail.com.

Cotton Ranch’s Pete Dye course is located 2,000 feet lower than Vail, giving it one of the area’s longest seasons, from March to December. Greens fee, $95. At Gypsum; 970-524-6200; cottonranchclub.com.

Lakota Canyon Ranch & Golf Club’s five-year-old James Engh course, open nine months a year, features elevated tees with long drops to the fairway. Greens fee, $95. At New Castle; 970-984-9700; lakotacanyonranch.com.

Red Sky Ranch & Golf Club’s Tom Fazio and Greg Norman courses, opened in 2002 and 2003 respectively, extend across 880 acres of former ranchland. Greens fee, $250. At Wolcott; 866-873-3759; redskygolfclub.com.

River Valley Ranch’s Jay Morrish course sits at the foot of Mount Sopris, one of the largest peaks in the state. Greens fee, $80. At Carbondale; 970-963-3625; rvrgolf.com.

Roaring Fork Club has eight trout ponds and a year-round fly-fishing program to accompany its Jack Nicklaus course. Members only. At Basalt; 970-927-2727; roaringforkclub.net.

Sonnenalp Golf Club, part of the Sonnenalp Resort since 1985, has twice hosted the Colorado Open on its Bob Cupp-designed course. Greens fee, $200. At Edwards; 970-477-5370; sonnenalp.com.

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