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The Sanctuary Golf Club

A real estate sultan buys a patch of wilderness near Denver and tells architect Jim Engh to build the “most spectacular course” in the country. The resulting visual feast says that goal just may have been achieved.

By: Allen Allnoch

Appeared in January/February 2002 LINKS

As private playgrounds go, Sanctuary is pretty hard to top: 220 acres of Ponderosa pines, prairie grasses, waterfalls, wildlife and a roller-coaster of a golf course overlooking the front range of the Colorado Rockies.

Located 20 miles south of Denver, Sanctuary is the exclusive domain of RE/MAX International co-founders Dave and Gail Liniger. It’s modern in the sense that Denver-based course architect Jim Engh didn’t hesitate to move dirt and trees around to fit a golf course where skeptics said one couldn’t be accommodated. Yet the look is unspoiled: No homes clutter the surroundings and the course is flanked by 40,000 acres of protected open space.

In other words it’s … a sanctuary.

“I built the course because I fell in love with the land, not because I could come out here and play golf all the time,” says Dave Liniger, who originally hoped to raise Arabian horses on the property. “When the weather is good I’ll walk the course for an hour at daybreak. It’s not unusual to come around a corner and run into five or six wild turkeys. Or you might find some elk out there watching you. It’s a special experience.”

Fortunately, Liniger has made the experience available to the public—for a price, but also for a good cause. RE/MAX hosts 15 to 20 charity events at Sanctuary each year, most of them benefiting the arts, children, health care and crisis management. A typical event nets more than $100,000, and funds are also raised by auctioning tee times donated by the company.

The charitable souls who visit Sanctuary are rewarded with what Engh calls “the outer edge of the envelope, as far as the golf experience goes.” By that he means tee shots that fall 100-plus feet to ribbons of fairway below; dogleg par-5s with thought-provoking multiple routes to the hole; par-3s that cross chasms of water, rock and scrub brush. It’s a course befitting an adventurer like Liniger, whose other pursuits include stock car racing and high-altitude hot-air ballooning.

“The area around the first tee was the first thing I saw and I thought ‘Wow,’” says Engh, whose work at Sanctuary was his first project in America after ghost-designing courses overseas for Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and Isao Aoki. “I didn’t even know this place existed, and it was only about a mile from my house. You stand there and you’re justoverwhelmed by everything that’s out there.”

Engh wasn’t too overwhelmed to take on the job, however. When Liniger pronounced the terrain too harsh for horse-farming, he asked a handful of course architects about the possibilities for golf, a game he had taken up shortly before buying the property in 1994. Every architect labeled the project as either impossible to build or too expensive—except Engh, who had become friends with Liniger after the two partnered in a tournament at nearby Castle Pines.

“Without a doubt, it’s the most spectacular site I’ve seen,” says Engh. “But trying to situate a golf course here was not a simple task. It took some imagination and it took some problem-solving. There were some people within my business who, I heard, said it couldn’t be done, although nobody came and said that to me directly. But I think there’s a sense of, not so much, ‘Ha, I showed you,’ but a sense of satisfaction that my convictions were right.”

Engh’s challenge included flowing cart paths down grades as steep as 30 percent and routing holes through rock-strewn valleys while making the terrain look as though it hadn’t been altered. “Sometimes you have to move a little dirt to save natural features and actually make them look more natural,” he says.

The results certainly support the risks accepted by Liniger and Engh. Sanctuary earned “Best New Private Course” honors from Golf Digest in 1997 and has become a fixture among several publications’ “top-100” lists.

As it did for Engh, Sanctuary’s No. 1 tee gets a player’s attention right away. From the back (or “Rattlesnake”) markers, the 604-yard, par-5 opener begins 185 feet above the landing area. From there, the thrill ride is on. Framed by a thick stand of pines down the left side, the hole bends right to a plateau green skirted in front by a pond designed to aid with erosion and storm runoff—just another of the problem-solving tasks Engh faced.

The breathtaking plunge from the first tee is typical: Only four holes play uphill and the totaldownhill elevation change is 850 feet, facilitating plenty of those suspended-against-the-blue-sky tee shots every golfer so loves.

Another par-5, the 571-yard fourth, exemplifies the strategic challenges Engh likes to create. Two landing areas await the tee shot—one defining the “go for it” range—and two second-shot landing areas, marked by gaps between three successive trees, point the way to the green, should the player elect to lay up. Engh figures there are at least eight separate routes from tee to green, “so the whole combination of risk-reward, strategic thinking comes into play on one single hole.”

No slave to convention, the architect built back-to-back par-3s at Nos. 5 and 6, and a two-tiered green at the short par-4 eighth that slopes seven feet between the top and bottom shelves. “My objective is to bring variety to the golf experience,” he says. “If you can do unique things and justify it, that’s the most fun. It’s fun to play, it’s fun to learn and it’s fun to explore every time you’re out there.”

And so the escapade goes: a downhill par-3 opener on the back nine with sweeping views all the way to Pike’s Peak 40 miles to the south; the driveable-but-dangerous par-4 16th; the muscular par-4 18th, 438 yards along a fairway that ascends steadily to a plateau green barely visible from below.

 “It’s so much fun for people to play, particularly since most of them only get to play it once or twice a year,” says head pro Rudy Zupetz. “It’s just different and out of the ordinary. The holes don’t remind you of any you’ve played before.”

Underscoring Sanctuary’s uniqueness is the respect given the wildlife that roam the grounds: Essentially they have free rein of the place. With more than 150 elk residing on the property, it’s not unusual to find multiple sets of elk tracks crisscrossing the fairways, especially during mating season. Deer, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats and, yes, rattlesnakes also call Sanctuary home. Several ponds are maintained with aeration systems designed to support trophy-sized trout, should Liniger or his pals get the notion to drop a line. “The elk are welcome and the fish are pampered here,” Engh says with a laugh.

And about that name: It was inspired by “an R&R area” Liniger enjoyed while serving as an Air Force enlisted man during Vietnam. The area was dubbed “Sanctuary;” Liniger says when the golf course was built, “it fit that same mode—Sanctuary was just an absolutely beautiful word to describe it.”

No doubt the elk agree.

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