Irwin. Nicklaus. Dye. Fazio. Norman. Morrish. Trent Jones, Jr. Palmer. Some of the world’s most acclaimed course designers have brought their “A” games to the Vail Valley. So many that, like the flavor menu on the wall of a Baskin-Robbins, our fair valley tempts visiting and resident golfers with a kaleidoscope of choices—11 in all, from Vail Golf Club on the east end to Gypsum Creek Golf Club 40 miles west. Whether you’re looking for vertiginous elevation changes, photo-worthy panoramas of the Gore Range, a relaxed outing with your favorite foursome, or a combination of all three, you’ll find ample reason to tee it up here again and again. So we spoke with the pros at every course and asked them to wax poetic about why their home turf deserves a spot on your “must play” list, as well as provide a few insider tips for club-wielding crusaders on the quest for a perfect round.
Vail Golf Club
In a valley where courses are defined largely by evident, dramatic elevation changes, Vail Golf Club is an anomaly in that it is virtually flat. But don’t let its Kansas-like topography or relatively short yardage fool you. With today’s golf club technology giving golfers more distance on their shots (fun fact: a ball travels at least 10 percent farther at this elevation than at sea level due to thinner air), Vail Golf Club amplifies the challenge by offering up small, undulating greens and bringing Gore Creek into play on seven holes.
“When you’re standing on the tee box on hole 11, Gore Creek is running down the right side,” says golf director Alice Plain. “It is a slight dogleg to the right, so if you leak your drive right it’s going in the creek.”
Another beguiling hole is number 15, a par 3 playing just 137 yards from the back tees (72 from the front). After first factoring in an elevation drop of around 300 feet, players have to carry over Gore Creek, where the prevailing alpine wind can quickly turn a birdie into a seven. No matter what your score, you’ll be rewarded by what is arguably the valley’s most “in-your-face” views of the Gore Range, so much so that many golfers opt to stroll from hole to hole to savor the vistas.
“A lot of the mountain courses here either require you to take a golf cart or are too challenging to walk,” adds Plain. “We’re right in the heart of the mountains, but we are a course where a lot of golfers like to walk.”
1778 Vail Valley Drive, Vail Village;970-479-2260; vailgolfclub.net
Eagle Vail Golf Club
For EagleVail Golf Club director Ben Welsh, there’s nothing more exhilarating than standing, club in hand, on the tee box of hole 1, a bench of cropped grass off of Eagle Drive perched 75 feet above the fairway, which stretches like a green carpet out to the western horizon.
“Some courses in the mountains are relatively flat, but offer scenic views; some mountain courses are so difficult that they aren’t fun for all players,” says Welsh. “EagleVail offers the best of all worlds.”
Before it was a golf course,
EagleVail was a working ranch homesteaded by the Oleson family. Then, for a time, it was the Colorado A&M High Altitude Agriculture Research Division, where horticulturalists investigated the effects of altitude on grains such as alfalfa, oats, wheat, and barley. Vestiges of the golf club’s hay-oriented heyday remain: the red barn near hole 2 dates from the early 1930s and served as feed and tack storage.
From the vertiginous first tee, play on the public course continues with copious elevation changes. The front nine runs along the valley floor, crossing the Eagle River twice on holes 4 and 5. The back nine meanders up the mountain into the Stone Creek drainage, a popular hiking and mountain biking trail that wends its way from Beaver Creek Resort. Golfers start their back nine on the crafty 10th hole, a par 3 playing 197 yards from the tips where players need to navigate a 185-foot drop in elevation.
Welsh believes that elevation changes, long carries over the Eagle River, and alpine scenery combine to challenge golfers of all abilities on this course, which doubles as a Nordic skiing venue in winter—when the cart path from the first tee box morphs into a sledding hill.
459 Eagle Drive, Eagle-Vail; 970-949-5267; eaglevailgolfclub.com
Beaver Creek Golf Club
Breathtaking natural beauty and attentive service create a perfect twosome on a quintessential course that doubles as a wildlife sanctuary. On any given summer day, golf director Kenny Thayer says players are likely to encounter bear, deer, elk, foxes, porcupines, marmots, and the resort’s namesake dam-building denizens, curious about the two-legged visitors. And at 1 p.m. during peak season, they’ll run across rangers handing out freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
“If you’re staying in Beaver Creek, you have great hotel accommodations, activities, restaurants, and golf,” he adds. “There is no other course in the valley with our level of customer service—everything you need is right outside your door at the base of a world-class ski resort.”
Thayer advises golfers to leave their driver in the bag on most holes, as this resort course is less about length and more about accuracy, especially when it comes to the extremely narrow fairways of the first three holes. Water hazards come into play on 14 of the 18 holes, with the middle of the course softening up a bit before the last seven. That’s where Beaver Creek’s “beauty hazard” comes into play: starting at hole 13 players stare straight up at a jaw-dropping vista of the mountain (and at the course’s signature hole 15, Holden’s barn, a landscape artist’s dream that stands as a testament to the resort’s ranching past), providing distractions that demand to be ogled yet should be ignored, given the concentration required to successfully negotiate the tight, demanding finish.
103 Offerson Road, Avon; 970-754-5775; beavercreek.com/golf
The Sonnenalp Club
What makes the Sonnenalp unique in the valley, says golf director Pete Roach, is the way the course sets up beautifully right in front of the golfer.
“So many courses in the mountains have blind shots, extreme uphill and downhill lies, and other irregularities that come from the topography,” explains Roach. “The Sonnenalp is laid out to take advantage of the natural landscape, but not let it dominate the experience.”
Unlike some neighboring courses, where golfers encounter more deliberate elevation drops, this course is more moderate or, as Roach describes it, “traditional.” Most holes don’t require long carries or huge tee shots in order to post a good score. What is required, Roach stresses, is proper placement of tee shots and staying in the fairway. While not long, the native grass of the rough here is always healthy and penalizing, forcing players to chip shots back to the fairway.
And speaking of grass: every year members and guests rate Sonnenalp’s putting surfaces as the best in the Vail Valley. Fast and true, the slopes and breaks put every stroke to the test. Roach advises golfers to keep their approach shot below the hole, even if that means being short of the green and having to chip.
The course, which is owned by Vail’s Sonnenalp Hotel, extends the same gemütlichkeit to hotel guests choosing to tee up during their stay.
“We make our guests feel very welcome in what I would characterize as being a member for a day,” says Roach. After one game here, you may end up being a member for life.
1265 Berry Creek Road, Edwards; 970-477-5372; sonnenalpgolfclub.com
The Club at Cordillera
Teeing up at the Summit Course, says Darren Szot, is like playing on top of the world. And that, he adds, is what distinguishes Cordillera from all other courses in the valley—and pretty much everywhere else.
“The first few holes are in the pines; then you’re out in the open; and then it gets back into the aspens,” he explains. “You’re playing at over 9,000 feet, and you take in 360-degree views of New York Mountain, the Gore Range, and Flattop Mountain. It is like nothing our guests have ever seen.”
Hole 5 on the front nine captures the essence of the high-altitude challenge presented here, giving the optical illusion that your second and third shots appear to be falling off the earth as the green drops off on three sides. Don’t miss right with your tee shot on hole 7, a par 3 playing just 135 yards, cautions Szot, as the bunkers are some 20 feet deep. Course designer Jack Nicklaus, Szot observes, likes to give golfers a lot of room off the tee boxes, but toughens things up around the greens with bunkering and different levels.
In the autumn, Cordillera’s co-director of golf (who teaches skiing in the winter) recommends playing the Summit Course, which he says is particularly gorgeous when the aspen leaves are turning. He steers novices to the club’s Valley Course, with a forgiving design that funnels most shots back into the fairways and a high-desert aesthetic resembling courses in and around Scottsdale. For those seeking a challenge, the Mountain Course, with its uphill, downhill, and uneven lies, has the most teeth of Cordillera’s three 18-hole layouts and a back nine that provides one of Colorado golf’s best tests. And besides teeth, notes Szot, the Mountain Course also has claws: a paw print in the concrete on the cart path near hole 16 was left by a meandering bear.
655 Clubhouse Drive, Edwards;
Red Sky Golf Club
If you haven’t played Red Sky’s Norman and Fazio courses, golf director Jeff Hanson says you’re really missing out.
“Playing Red Sky’s courses should be on every golfer’s bucket list,” he stresses. “It’s a unique opportunity to be able to experience two championship courses in two days in the mountains.”
Rated first and second on Zagat’s ranking of the top Rocky Mountain courses, Fazio’s and Norman’s layouts, says Hanson, are as different from one another as they are formidable. On the Norman course golfers face more length, while the Fazio course requires more shot-making strategies.
“Hole 4 is my favorite on the Norman course, with its wonderful long-range mountain and valley views,” says Hanson, who likewise favors hole 2 on the Fazio course for its vistas of Vail and Beaver Creek. “Greg Norman almost made a two on this par five in our grand opening event with John Elway, Dan Marino, and Mike Shanahan.”
Playing here is truly wild. Separated by a significant natural ridge that serves as a migration corridor for elk and deer, both courses, like Eagle Ranch, are certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries; more than 25,000 native plants were transplanted during construction to blend the courses into the surrounding landscape. What also distinguishes Red Sky from other area courses is the Red Sky Golf Academy. Housed in a building that resembles a rustic log cabin, the facility includes a Trackman Launch Monitor (which uses radar to measure the speed and trajectory of every shot), video analysis, a golf-specific fitness facility, and a staff of nine golf professionals, including director Larry Rinker, a 26-year PGA Tour veteran who, Hanson says, has become one of the most sought-after short-game coaches among Tour professionals and high-level collegiate players.
So he’s probably good enough for you.
376 Red Sky Road, Wolcott; 970-754-8425;
Eagle Ranch Golf Club
What’s one reason golfers flock to Eagle Ranch? The course does double duty as an Audubon-certified sanctuary, where players may spy red-tail hawks, golden eagles, bluebirds, starlings, great horned owls, and geese as they strive to card a birdie. Environmentally minded players can even get a workout as they pedal low-impact golf bikes from hole to hole.
“Last year we also started a beehive,” adds general manager Jeff Boyer, noting that one of the first two 17-jar batches of the proceeds, which went on sale last summer, were snatched up in under an hour. “The honey is delicious.”
And the views are gorgeous, particularly on the course’s signature hole 12, fronted by Abrams Creek and framed by sagebrush-shrouded foothills with Hardscrabble Mountain as a backdrop. Native grass–covered mounds border each hole, which gives Eagle Ranch a links-type feel, and though the fairways are wide and forgiving and elevation changes aren’t as severe as at other valley courses, players landing stray shots in the long rough can be penalized. Since Eagle Ranch’s greens have subtle undulations, golfers are rarely faced with a putt that breaks much more than a foot. And they’re aided by the Visage GPS system on golf carts, which is helpful with yardage, monitoring pace of play, and even ordering lunch from the ninth tee. And text messages? Those are sent by carrier pigeon.
0050 Lime Park Drive, Eagle; 970-328-2882; eagleranchgolf.com
Gypsum Creek Golf Course
When a hole drops 120 feet from tee to green and plays only 164 yards, that, general manager Tom Buzbee points out, is one heck of a golf hole. Buzbee’s talking about Gypsum Creek’s par 3 17th, a hole where even nongolfers gather around the tee box to spectate and snap selfies.
“You have to remember that people come here from around the world,” says Buzbee. “Many have never seen anything like it.”
At a more temperate elevation of around 6,300 feet, this Pete Dye Signature Course enjoys the longest golf season in Eagle County, last season opening in early February and closing on December 6. Spread over a steep, sage-covered mesa, its rolling fairways, flanked by native piñon and gnarled juniper trees, combine with yucca and prickly pear cactus to create a high-alpine desert layout. Yet with water in play on 15 of the 18 holes, staying in the fairway is key, particularly on holes 2 (which crosses water twice) and 9 (with an approach shot over the course’s namesake creek).
“Gypsum Creek almost has that Moab or St. George, Utah, feel,” Buzbee observes. “Because of the dry, balmy climate, the Ute Indians called this area the blue hole in the sky.”
A blue hole hovering over a heavenly green.
530 Cotton Ranch Road, Gypsum; 970-524-6200; gypsumcreekgolf.com
Membership at the Vail Valley’s private courses includes a plethora of amenities and choices.
Beaver Creek Golf Club
Key amenities: Use of Beaver Creek Golf Course during nonpreferred tee times at member rates, exclusive summer access to the BCGC members lounge, access to Beaver Creek Tennis Center, two unrestricted ski passes, and exclusive winter use of Beano’s Cabin and Allie’s Cabin for lunch. 970-754-4250; discovermembership.com
The Club at Cordillera
Key amenities: Unlimited golf at Cordillera’s courses, reciprocity at more than 56 private Troon courses through Troon Privé for just a cart fee, discounted rates at all Troon resort courses, Nordic skiing, fitness classes, and indoor golf lessons. 970-569-6460; cordillera-vail.com
Country Club of the Rockies
Key amenities: Access to the club’s Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, access to a high-tech indoor/outdoor learning center, and dining at Vista Restaurant.0676 Sawatch Drive, Edwards; 970-926-3080; countrycluboftherockies.com
Eagle Springs Golf Club
Key amenities: Access to the club’s Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf–designed golf course, walk-on play (no tee times required), organized program of caddies and forecaddies, use of sophisticated swing studio, private fly-fishing on the Eagle River. 28521 U.S. Hwy 6, Wolcott; 970-926-4400;eaglesprings.org
Frost Creek (formerly Adam’s Rib Ranch)
Key amenities: Access to the community’s Tom Weiskopf–designed golf course, access to clubhouse, members’ lounge, spa and fitness center, Olympic-size swimming pool, tennis courts, and fly-fishing on Brush Creek.1094 Frost Creek Drive, Eagle; 970-328-7503; frostcreek.com
Red Sky Golf Club
Key amenities: Access to member clubhouse, private dining at Silver Sage Restaurant, swimming pool, tennis courts, and fitness center; preferred rate at Red Sky Golf Academy.970-754-4250;redskygolfclub.com
The Sonnenalp Club
Key amenities: Unlimited play seven days a week and tee times up to 60 days in advance, outdoor swimming pool with pool deck, year-round 25-yard lap pool, children’s wading pool, outdoor tennis courts, and fitness facility. 970-477-5375; sonnenalpgolfclub.com