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High Times in the Vail Valley

Skiing and golf go hand-in-hand at resorts around the world, but probably nowhere more so than in Colorado’s spectacular Vail Valley.

By: Jay Cowan

Appeared in May/June 2005 LINKS

Skiing and golf go hand-in-hand at resorts around the world, but probably nowhere more so than in Colorado’s spectacular Vail Valley. Here, a stretch of Interstate 70 less than 40 miles long passes by two of the world’s great ski resorts, Vail and Beaver Creek, and a dozen first-rate golf courses. The only real drawback here is scheduling: How do you squeeze in as much activity as possible on one vacation?

Two fine spots to bed down while pondering that question are the Lodge at Vail and the Ritz-Carlton at Bachelor Gulch, both of which grant you access to two of the area’s newest private courses at Red Sky Golf Club. But since Red Sky is a half-hour’s drive away, better to relax and get acclimated at nearby Vail Golf Club. The oldest course in the valley, it’s shoehorned between I-70, Gore Creek and the towering peaks of the Gore Range. Yes, it’s a little tight, but it’s well-maintained, and really, you’re unlikely to yank one straight onto the highway, as I once did.

In the morning, play the Red Sky course du jour, which rotates daily between Tom Fazio and Greg Norman tracks carved out of the rocky knolls and pastures of an historic sheep ranch, with high-definition mountain vistas in every direction. The dramatic first hole sets the tone for a wide-open front nine on the Fazio—it bends and descends past scattered juniper and sagebrush to a green as expansive and contoured as the views beyond. The back side climbs into a forest of aspens, where No. 16 showcases all the dramatic elements of the course on a 505-yard tumble out of the timber into long panoramas and onto another huge, rolling green.

Afterward, be sure to check out Vail must-stops such as the elegant Gorsuch Sports, and Pepi’s restaurant at Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer (try the wiener schnitzel), followed by a gondola ride to Adventure Ridge and the kind of rare air that inspires thoughts of greatness. Later you’ll want to feast like a ravenous king, and there’s no place better than the Lodge at Vail’s Wildflower restaurant, where the vanilla-spiced, mango-chutney crab cakes and pecan-crusted venison are superb.

Now you’re properly primed for a round at the infamous Norman Course at Red Sky, a slinky, 7,580-yard monster with a daunting 144 slope. With fearsome holes like the 283-yard, par-3 16th, five sets of tees are necessary. Alas, that’s of little help on the par-5 fourth, which has a narrow, nigh-unhittable fairway infested by a pox of white sand bunkers that look like impassable snowdrifts. With the sounds of hawk cries echoing off the hillsides, and the sight of deer and elk foraging along the big ridge that separates the Norman and Fazio courses, you’ll feel like Lewis and Clark of the links.

Depending on your glutton-for-punishment index, you may choose to either re-center your chakras while whitewater rafting in the afternoon or restore your swing at nearby Cotton Ranch. I like the hillside full of scrub oak and juniper at the heart of this Pete Dye layout, which includes a ravine-straddling dogleg par-4 and a big-air par-3.

For dinner, think pumpkin seed-crusted salmon at Larkspur, once called “perhaps the best restaurant in the Vail Valley” by Wine Spectator. The next morning, consider a move to Sonnenalp Resort of Vail and a round at the affiliated Sonnenalp Golf Club, located 13 miles to the west in Edwards. Mature trees present some real problems here, as do a few bunkers, creeks and ponds, and many greens are heavily tiered. The back nine takes you up into the hills, where views open onto gleaming peaks to the south, and holes such as the short-but-steep 12th turn treacherous.

Vail Valley afternoons offer great fly-fishing on Gore Creek and the Eagle and Colorado Rivers, but if you’d prefer to continue stalking birdies instead of trout, check out Eagle-Vail Golf Club. I’ve always loved the bombs-away par-3 10th here—its tee sits so high, the green appears to be shell-shocked from all the high-altitude assaults. By this time you will surely deserve a sports massage at the Sonnenalp Spa, followed by a hot-tub soak and a strawberry-mango smoothie at the juice bar (perhaps with a healthy splash of Grey Goose).

Next, I suggest you find accommodations in the quaint alpine village at Beaver Creek Resort and take a spin around Beaver Creek Golf Club. This Robert Trent Jones Jr. design showcases the namesake creek, expansive views of area ski slopes and slender (bordering on anorexic) fairways. The par-4 14th is a typically skinny swath of grass between groves of aspens, with a picturesque old cabin as a backdrop.

Beaver Creek is not so severe a test that you can’t ably tackle the newish and sparsely sublime Arnold Palmer Signature track at Eagle Ranch the same day. Nearly treeless and relatively flat (“mountain golf at its level best,” quippeth the King), the course is framed by tall native grasses and seemingly afloat in water hazards where it’s not adrift in sand. It rarely offers a flat lie, thus earning its lusty 141 slope.

If you’re looking for a top-shelf stay-and-play spot, you can’t beat the quiet, European-style Lodge & Spa at Cordillera and its four acclaimed courses. The hypoxic Jack Nicklaus Summit Course was built at such high altitude (9,000 feet), it doesn’t even open for the season until mid-June. This beauty is big, playable and grandly over-reaching, ranging from gape-mouthed, ridge-topping rippers (the par-5 eighth) to gulch-hugging downhill prayers (No. 12, a par-4). The requisite forecaddie is a dire necessity—mine was a 6-handicap local kid who saved me a dozen strokes.

After this mountain experience, give yourself a breather and bat a few balls around the Dave Pelz Short Course. Then try Hale Irwin’s Mountain Course the next day. This rollicking, 141-slope test left me muttering about my ride but still grateful for the trip. The perfect greens are windshield fast and every hole is smart and pretty, including a brutal-but-scenic downhill cascade through a forest at the third, and a big carry over wetland willows to a blind landing at No. 11. And so it goes throughout, beauty and pain alternating like an expensive catechism.

You can mull this lesson on the drive to Keystone Resort for your last two nights. Here, the Ranch Course’s links-style front is highlighted by the third, fourth and fifth turning out across a broad meadow framed by the big peaks of aptly named Summit County. A beautiful abandoned homestead makes No. 5 feel like it runs through a ghost town. The back nine arcs gracefully across pine-laden hillsides and valleys, closing with a short par-5 beside a long lake.

The River Course, centered around the bustling Snake River and laced through thick woods, is the resort’s showier layout. It starts with a skyscraping drive on the “oh, wow” first, where your tee shot plunges 100 feet to a roomy fairway bounded by sand and trees and backed by the Continental Divide. Another monster drop, this one some 200 feet, comes at the popular par-4 16th hole.

Keystone guests should also consider a high-mountain horseback ride, followed by loin of high-country venison and green-chile polenta at the AAA Four Diamond-rated Keystone Ranch restaurant. Sure, it’s a full schedule. But here in the Vail Valley, it’s the only way—there’s simply too much you don’t want to miss.    

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