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Golf is Twice as Nice in Keystone

By: Steve Habel


Just about 90 miles from Denver in the White River Forest and at an elevation of more than 9,000 feet are two great - and very different - golf courses in the tiny village of Keystone. These venues under the watchful eye of the Gore Mountain Range are joined together under the auspices of the Vail Resort.

Golf here feels like a Rocky Mountain high and, after teeing it up at Keystone Ranch Golf Course and The River Course at Keystone, one feels like they can reach out and the sky.

The two courses, which are so close to each other they're almost across-the-street neighbors, could not be more different. Opened in 1980 and designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., Keystone Ranch Course occupies a wide valley and at times plays like a links course bracketed by water and strands of pines.

Conversely, The River Course at Keystone was opened in 2000 after seven years of planning and three more of construction. Fashioned by Dr. Michael Hurzdan and Dana Fry, the track almost seems to skip from foothill to foothill with wide, green fairways lined by wetlands, trees, rocky hazards and water.

We played the two courses on consecutive days in mid-July and were welcomed by cool conditions before the noon hour and rain each afternoon, quite pleasant and welcome as a way to beat the summer heat. It would be hard to find two courses in the same small area that are better and more varied.

Keystone Ranch No. 5

Keystone Ranch

Keystone Ranch is reached after a drive deep into the piney woods and up and down foothills around the town. Here you will find a beautiful valley and a course that is the second-highest course in the U.S., with some holes at 9,300 feet above sea level.

Keystone Ranch, once a huge spinach farm and sheep ranch owned by the Ralston Purina Company, was built in one of Colorado's most picturesque settings. Some holes are lined by pine trees, while others are routed through sage meadows. Water hazards, most notably a nine-acre lake, come into play on seven holes.

The round begins with a downhill 528-yard par-5 that is reachable in two shots to set the table for a fine time. The 433-yard par-4 second also plays through the trees but back up the hill.

That's the last you will see of trees at Keystone Ranch as, beginning at the dogleg-right third, the course moves into the valley. Ranked as the No. 2 handicap hole on the course, the 190-yard par-3 fifth requires a precise mid- to long-iron, and the sixth (a 564-yard par-5) plays to a rolling, landing area pinched by native grasses and crossed by a creek near the green. The eighth descends left off the tee and then uphill to a peaked putting surface, making the 422-yard par-4 longer than its yardage.

Ninth Green at Keystone Ranch

The front side ends with a reachable (368-yard) par-4 where you must carry a drive about 270 yards from the tips to cross the lake that defines the hole. Play it safe with a long-iron off the tee and the receptive green will allow for an easy chance at birdie.

The back nine begins with Keystone Ranch's longest par-4, and its hardest hole by handicap (at 463 yards), and is followed by the 351-yard par-4 11th, which may be reached in a single blow under the right conditions and execution. The 552-yard par-5 13th has deep, native grass just left of the fairway along its entire length, and the downhill, 172-yard par-3 14th may be the easiest of the four one-shotters at Keystone Ranch.

No. 17 is a 414-yard par-4 that, due to its sloping fairway and bunkers guarding the front of the green on each side, plays very difficult. The closing hole (at 589 yards the longest par-5 on the track) is a "Reverse C" dogleg-left that sports a tee shot over the lake, a landing area lined by bunkers and a off-camber green that slants to the water.

Keystone Ranch follows the legendary links-style of a Scottish course on the front nine, while the back presents a traditional mountain-valley layout. Playing to a par of 72 and 7,090 yards from its back set of four tees, Keystone Ranch carries a rating of 72.5 and a slope of 137. This naturally-endowed layout has been ranked as the sixth best in Colorado by Golf Digest.

While perhaps not as sexy as its younger sister, Keystone Ranch is a lot of fun and allows a variety of shots without beating you over the head with elevation changes, a rarity among mountain tracks.

No. 2 at the River Course at Keystone

The River Course at Keystone

"Wow" shots are all the rage at the amazing River Course at Keystone, which was the plan when it was designed. "When Dana (Fry) and I were first looking at the land for this course," said Steve Corneillier, Keystone's general manager of golf, "I told him I wanted players to know immediately that they are playing on a mountain course and then I wanted that to be the last impression they had here. I think we have accomplished that and a lot more."

The par-35 front nine is oriented around a bend of the Snake River and the par-36 back side winds through a lodgepole pine forest. Hurdzan and Fry bring an element of drama to a round at the River Course right off the bat, thanks to a 551-yard par-5 that drops some 150 feet from tee to fairway and features a gorgeous view of the Snake River Valley and the upcoming holes below.

From that auspicious start, the track moves up and down and through the valley as the shadows from the snow-capped peaks of the Continental Divide and Keystone and Arapahoe Basin ski areas spread across its lush fairways.

The Snake River runs alongside the tough, 222-yard par-3 third (ranked as the No. 1 hole on the course by handicap, a rarity for a one-shotter) and the relatively flat 563-yard par-5 fifth turns hard to the right to a multi-level green. You turn back toward the clubhouse on the 363-yard sixth, but the tee shot here is a blind and over a vast area of native grass that obscures a pesky pond that runs to the left of the fairway and the green.

No. 16 at the River Course at Keystone

No. 7 at the River Course - a 195-yard par-3 with the Snake River running along the entire right side - is the track's signature hole. The front nine ends at a severely downhill, 221-yard par-3, a great place to take a photo or two and take a deep breath before teeing off.

The back side descends and then winds up and then down again, and its best holes are likely it final three. No. 16 (a 509-yard par-4) drops 200 feet from tee to fairway and then doglegs left (look past the green to see the entrance to the Keystone Ranch course). The 17th is a short (330 yards) but not drive-able par-4 that works downhill and then heads steeply back upwards to a challenging elevated green.

The finisher at the River Course at Keystone (another downhill tee shot to a fairway that slopes to the left) provides wonderful views of Lake Dillon, Buffalo Mountain and the Gore Range. Believe it or not, the 520-yard par-5 is now listed as the easiest hole by handicap despite that its green is back uphill and the hole houses 12 bunkers.

Impressive elevation changes, variable bunkers, water hazards and five sets of tees create quite a challenge at The River Course at Keystone. Add to that the magnificent views of snow-capped peaks and wildlife, and it's easy to see why this place is such an unforgettable golf experience.

The River Course at Keystone plays to 6,886 yards and carries a rating of 71.3 and a slope of 137 from its back tees. The venue is all about excitement, beauty and challenging shot-making - the holy trinity for many golfers.

The two Keystone courses have garnered numerous awards, including three consecutive Silver Medals as one of America's Best Golf Resorts by Golf Magazine 2002-2007. Golf Digest also ranked the Keystone Resort as one of American's Top 75 Golf Resorts.

With 36 incredible holes spread over two amazing golf courses, a trip to Keystone has to be placed on every golfer's mountain bucket list.

For more information about the courses, visit www.keystoneresort.com/golf/courses.aspx.

Fun off the Course

Lodging is easy to find in the Keystone area, with a plethora of condos, homes and hotels scattered at the foot of the mountains.

For a spectacular four-course meal, spend an evening - and I mean a whole evening - at the incomparable Ski Trip Lodge's restaurant. The lodge was built as a stagecoach stop in the 1880s and was refurbished in 1940 into Colorado's first ski lodge. Keystone Resort purchased the lodge in the 1970s and maintained its unique atmosphere while adding a gourmet restaurant that provides meals you'll never forget.

After golf, schedule a massage at the Keystone Lodge and Spa; it's a great way to relax and work out the kinks created by a round or two of up and down mountain golf.

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 Business District magazine in Austin 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.