Colorado's Grand County Offers Quartet of Mountain Links

By: Steve Habel


Some 80 miles to the northwest of Denver in Grand County, time moves a lot slower and nature's wonders abound, so much so that the seal for the county shows mountains and snow.

No. 16 at Grand Elk

Here, in an area ringed by snow-capped mountains that seem to scrape the sky, sits a valley known for its inviting vistas, stunning sunsets, endless opportunity for outdoor recreation and friendly locals.

Thanks to the county's four excellent golf courses, a warm-weather day on the links carries as much weight these days as the super ski runs and winter sports for which Grand County is famous.

During the past decade, courses fashioned by the pairing of Tripp Davis and Craig Stadler and the Nicklaus Design team have augmented tracks designed by the likes of Denis Griffith and Dick Phelps. All have helped Grand County establish itself as a golf destination off the beaten path - and all at an elevation of more than a mile and a half above sea level.

With its diversified course offerings all within a short drive of each other, Grand County serves up mountain golfing at its best. Winding through high alpine peaks between Grand Lake and Winter Park, the Grand Links - as the four courses banded together are being marketed - could be the Rocky Mountain State's best kept golf secret.

Grand Lake Golf Course

First up, the Mountain Courses

Two of Grand County's quartet of courses - Grand Lake Golf Course and Pole Creek Golf Club - are true up-and-down mountain layouts. Cut out of forests of pines, the pair features a bevy of drives off of elevated tees, astounding drops to demanding greens complexes and all the other aspects of high-altitude golf.

Grand Lake, the county's first course, was designed by Phelps, who has fashioned more than 300 tracks in his 40-year career. Its original nine holes opened in 1964, carved out of the lodge pole pines at an elevation of 8,420 feet bordering Rocky Mountain National Park. Grand Lake's narrow, rolling fairways surround well-tended, subtle greens, and the majestic mountains, some capped by the snows that never melt, tower high above golfers while offering exclusive and unique panoramic views.

The golf course sits on the north side of the town of Grand Lake, near the southeast entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved highway in the world.

In 1974, Phelps added nine more holes, removing thousands of pines were removed and placing the holes amongst the steep-cliffed canyons. At times, 50-foot walls of pine border either side of each narrowly rolling fairway. Many of the fairways are wide and generous, with only a light, thin strip of rough to differentiate the fairway from the trees.

Grand Lake plays to a par of 72 and, at just 6,570 from its back set of three tees, and thanks to the thin air at elevation, the course can feel even shorter. It carries a rating of 70.5 and a slope of 119.

Accuracy is at an extreme premium, and thanks to the narrow corridors, numerous doglegs and the occasional blind shot, Grand Lake is more than just a worth test. Ten holes bend one way or another, some slightly and some severely, making the course a true shot-to-shot experience.

The round at Grand Lake starts with a downhill, dogleg-right 528-yard par-5 that is reachable in two. The front side is capped by the 402-yard par-4 sixth, which sharply doglegs to the left and can be shortened with a brave shot over the corner.

No. 10 (a 353-yard par-4) plays downhill to a confoundedly mounded fairway then bends dead left over a swale to a plateau green. Picking the most advantageous line off the tee is critical.

The 11th is a demanding, 192-yard one-shotter that plays over a pond at the bottom of a deep valley. The wide, shallow green is almost straight uphill from the pond below so anything short will yield a nearly blind chip. From the slope above the hole it is nearly impossible to keep the ball on the putting surface.

The 163-yard 16th is a par-3 that plays downhill out of a chute into a large and open green - is best to keep the ball below the hole.

Golf at Grand Lake is as much a nature hike as it is a game - don't be surprised to see your approach shot checked out by a curious moose, elk, deer or fox.

Golf at Grand Lake is as much a nature hike as it is a game - don't be surprised to see your approach shot checked out by a curious moose, elk, deer or fox. For more information, visit www.grandlakerecreation.com.

Pole Creek Golf Course

On the southern edge of the county, near the famous ski village of Winter Park, is Pole Creek, a 27-hole treasure designed by Griffith. When it opened in 1985 the course's original 18 holes (Griffith was among the team that included Gary Player and Ron Kirby) were named the Best New Public Golf Course in America by Golf Digest Magazine. The appeal of the course work was augmented by the debut of another nine holes - the Ridge nine - in 1999.

Tucked in an alpine valley with spectacular views of the Continental Divide and more than 25 years of perfecting its 27 holes, Pole Creek bills itself as the "classic" mountain golf course. The 7,107-yard track meanders through lush fields replete with native wildflowers, drastic elevation changes, vast bent grass greens and shots over two ponds and five lakes. The Ridge nine challenges experts to a rigorous game with 3,603-yard shots and tree-lined holes, while the mellower Meadow and Ranch nines indulge all playing levels. All three courses play to par 36, and none are easy.

The Meadow nine (3,394 yards) is a blend of tree-lined and open holes that cross Pole Creek and two lakes several times. It includes a killer final stretch, punctuated by the 584-yard par-5 seventh.

No. 7 starts in the pines where golfers are tempted to loft a drive over the trees and rough to reach a landing area that will gently roll the ball just in front of a pond. The safe play, however, is a 250- yard drive parallel to the pines with a second shot precisely placed into a narrow slot between the pond and the meandering creek. Then there is still a troublesome shot over the water to a very elevated green with steep sloping sides protected by bunkers.

The Ranch nine (3,501) has a variety of terrain, with Pole Creek meandering through the course, and is the most open nine at Pole Creek. While some of the holes are tree-lined, others are surrounded by natural grasses and sage. The real tests on this nine are its final pair - the 381-yard eighth is a hard dogleg-right that rises to a demanding green, and the closer is a narrow, uphill 532-yard par-5.

The Ridge nine offers a true mountain golf experience, climbing uphill right from the clubhouse. The newest nine's signature hole is its last, a long, plunging par-5. The tee shot soars toward the mountain peaks and seemingly rolls forever if on the right line. Behind the green is a line of bunkers built in the same shape as the mountains visible from the tee box.

Pole Creek has also been named the #1 Place to Play in Colorado by Golf Digest and belongs on anyone's short list of great mountain golf courses. For further details, visit www.polecreekgolf.com.

Headwaters Golf Club

Valley Courses are Newest Draws

In 2001 and '02 - with Grand County angling for continued leverage as a year-round tourist destination - the valleys between the mountains were targets for the area's course growth. First came nine holes designed by Mike Asmundson in June 2001 as part of the SolVista Golf & Ski Ranch and called Silver Creek GC. The original front nine is routed through and around wetlands and native vegetation and even runs alongside a train track.

Later, in 2003, Asmundson opened another nine holes that moves up toward the ski slopes and has more elevation changes. When it opened, the course wowed golfers, who found playing through meadows and along sections of the Fraser River irresistible.

But as the development matured as a community, the decision was made to bring Nicklaus Design into the picture and ideas began to percolate about how to enhance the course.

Now called Headwaters Golf Course, the Nicklaus team incorporated extensive back-nine renovations, adding two new holes - Nos. 11 and 14, making Headwaters a 20-hole track, reducing the distance between some holes and refining the golf experience while bringing more of the wetlands and the Fraser River into the design.

As a result, the two nines at Headwaters are like different courses. The back nine is very versatile, and the holes can be played a lot of different ways.

The massive (463-yard) par-4 sixth will test your mettle and your length, while the 597-yard par-5 seventh asks for three good shots and to stay away from water on the left. The front-side closer is a 421-yard uphill par-4 with an undulating green that slopes way on three sides.

But the fun really begins with the 466-yard par-4 10th, which moves right to left and uphill to the putting surface. The closing trio makes you long for more, especially the 455-yard 16th, another dogleg-left that plays over a creek, and the 546-yard par-5 18th, where your drive must carry a large area of native grass before heading uphill to a green protected on right front by sand.

There are no surprises at Headwaters, which measures 7,196 yards at a par of 72. It carries a rating of 72.9 and a slope of 127 from the back set of four tees. The putting surfaces have subtle breaks, which make them tricky to read, but overall this is a friendly layout you can score on. Just note the wind, which seems to always blow, and take the proper club - and never bite off more than you can chew. For more information, visit www.granbyranch.com/golf/index_golf.asp.

Across Highway 40 from Headwaters is Grand Elk Ranch and Club. Derived from the heathland style of the British Isles, the track is as close to Scottish-style golf as you will find in the mountains of Colorado.

Designed by Davis and Stadler, the course features open grasslands along the valley wetlands and Ten Mile Creek and has huge mountain backdrops. The front nine goes up into the hills while the back nine travels along wetlands.

Grand Elk sits in the Fraser River valley at 8,000 feet in elevation but the land is relatively flat. "The entire back nine is in a river valley, so it is low-profile," Davis said. "There are not a lot of trees and there is a lot of scrub out there."

Stadler, who visited the course numerous times and met regularly with Davis to discuss the design, said the resulting layout offers a good test of golf. "Grand Elk's 17th and 18th holes may be the two finest finishing holes in Colorado," the "Walrus" said.

"The front nine is more like a ranch-style course and the back nine is shot-to-shot, point-to-point nine with lots of wetlands," he added. "It plays fair, but when the wind comes up the course is damn near impossible from the back tees."

The course has some massive par-4s, including the 450-yard fifth, the 464-yard seventh, the 463-yard ninth, the 441-yard 10th and the aforementioned 474-yard closer.

Grand Elk is a real shot-makers track, with a lot of chipping areas around greens. The resort-style venue also features bunkers that are backed off the greens, and all par-5s are reachable in two. "You will have to hit a very good shot to make eagle though," Davis said. "The greens on the par-5s are smaller and have more movement."

The course plays at a par of 71 and at 7,144 yards from its back set of five tees, where it carries a rating of 72.5 and a slope of 130. Davis said the variations in tees provide a test for the low-handicapper or a fun round for the recreational golfer. The greens vary in size and pitch, and the course tends to give the visual impression that a shot will play difficult - that's more of a perception than a reality.

Davis and Stadler inherited a number of environmental issues from a previous developer and were asked to restore 25 acres of wetlands. The work they did was notable - Grand Elk was named one of the top new courses in Colorado by Avid Golfer's Reader Poll in 2002. For further details, visit www.grandelk.com.

Horseback Riding at Bar Lazy J

I want to be a Cowboy

If you really want to make memories on a trip to Grand County, stay a few days (or even a week) at one of the area's fine dude ranches. We bunked down at the Bar Lazy J Guest Ranch, located about 15 minutes west of Granby.

At 7,500 feet elevation, the Bar Lazy J is considered the oldest continuously operating guest ranch in Colorado. The family-friendly ranch is nestled in a peaceful valley along the banks of the Colorado River and offers guests a turn-back-the clock, informal atmosphere with a true western experience.

Guests can choose to stay in one of the ranch's 12 log cabins (most located on the bank of the Colorado River), or the extremely roomy Ranch House. Either way you will enjoy clean rooms, comfortable beds, and modern amenities.

The all-inclusive dude ranch vacation includes your meals for the entire week, including the bottomless cookie box, and many activities including horseback riding, "Gold Medal" fly-fishing and fishing, programs for children, hayrides, campfires, mountain biking, Jeep rides, evening entertainment and more.

For more information, check out the Bar Lazy J at www.barlazyj.com.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Texas CEO Magazine and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.


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