By DAVID DROSCHAK
Colorado has always been on my short-list of “must-visit” golf states. After having already picked off Arizona, California, Florida, and Hawaii — and of course North Carolina and South Carolina — I was anxious for my trip to Denver last summer to tackle some top-notch Rocky Mountain golf.
The visit began with a round at historic Cherry Hills Country Club, one of the more exclusive private clubs in the country and a facility that has hosted all five major USGA championships. If you have any connections in the Denver area, this layout, designed in 1922, is definitely worth using up a favor on.
After taking in a Colorado Rockies baseball game at their magnificent stadium on a crisp night (Is there any other kind of night in Denver?) I headed west the next morning on Interstate 70 toward the Colorado Front Range, passing old mine towns, whitewater rafting and fly-fishing before entering the famous Eisenhower Tunnel, which passes under the Continental Divide.
The 1.7 mile tunnel spills you out the other side near the town of Silverthorne, the home of one of golf’s truly memorable experiences — Raven Three Peaks.
My criterion for great golf is really quite rudimentary. If I’m walking off the 18th green and can’t wait to tee it up again on the same layout that qualifies for my five-star rating.
Well, I could spend two or three straight days playing Raven Three Peaks and be quite content, thank you!
Opened in 2000 after a redesign by PGA Tour player Tom Lehman, along with architects Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, the 7,413-yard course has a dramatic canvas, to say the least, coupled with a challenging and fair layout for a mountain course despite the 146 slope rating from the back tees (trust me, don’t go back there).
Many who golf Raven Three Peaks would agree that an official score on most days here is high on the irrelevant scale. The sheer beauty of the surrounding snow-capped mountains at 13,000 feet, the large groves of Aspens, the various wildflowers and glimpses of the Blue River can be more than distracting during your round.
“I played with one of my friends who came from Florida and there was a butterfly factor,” said Raven Three Peaks general manager Rhonda Boutelle. “When I taught young kids in golf they got distracted by the first butterfly that flew by, and let me tell you I was that little kid on this golf course the first time I played it. I was not paying attention to what I was doing, I really didn’t care. I just hit the ball and I was looking around everywhere.”
Boutelle is not alone.
“There was one lady who played the golf course for the first time and she said, ‘my gosh, this place kicked my butt.’ But she also said, ‘it’s gorgeous and I’m coming back to do it again.’ That was the first time she had been here, so we’ve got the distraction factor going on, we’ve got the yes, yes, yes factor going on here. She was a little bit distracted.”
Distracted by nature, not necessarily other golfers. Unless you are looking at the group in front of you or a group behind you there are no up-and-back holes on this beauty.
“Golf holes here are like little encapsulated pieces of the mountain,” Boutelle said. “Make sure you take time to turn around and look where you came from. That’s a little piece of time that is all yours.”
It’s hard picking out a few favorite holes since they’re all of such high quality. But the ones with major elevation drops – such as Nos. 8 and 9 on the front side and the 601-yard 16th hole on the back — draw a lot of comment, as well as the 468- and 448-yard closing holes.
The elevation change from the eighth tee to the ninth green is about 600 feet.
“When I hit my first-ever drive on the ninth hole I just had to giggle. I said ‘this is just way too much fun, I want this for my driving range,”’ Boutelle said. “You stand up on No. 9 and you have that big wide fairway and you’ve got that green sitting way down there, and literally your ball flies as high as the mountains on the other side of the range. That is cool.”
It costs $160 to play Raven Three Peaks, which is rated as the No. 1 mountain course in the state by Colorado Avid Golfer, and among the top tracks in the state by Golf Digest, Golfweek, Golf Magazine and ZAGAT.
“We tell people the course is in Silverthorne and they say, ‘Well, that’s not Breckenridge, that’s not Keystone, that’s not Vail,’ but none of those golf courses have the views of the three peaks and the mountains and the valley like we do,” said Elcio Silva of Escalante Golf, part of the ownership group that purchased the course in 2008. “Your senses get tugged in many different directions because of the views, the quality, and the attention to detail. All those things come together here.”
Colorado’s ever-changing weather can be a factor at 9,000 feet, so June, July and August are your best bets for a sunny, 75-degree retreat on Raven Three Peaks. Some days in September and October can be cool, but the artistry splash of color across the mountain range is worth an extra layer of clothing.
Technically, Raven Three Peaks is classified as “resort golf,” but the mold here is far from cookie-cutter.
“What golfers are expecting is a lot less than we deliver,” Boutelle said. “When you say ‘resort course’ we all think of Myrtle Beach, but by the same token we can all identify with Doral. That is a world-class resort course. That is the difference here. This is world-class. This is a special place.”
No argument here.