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Staged within some of the most stunning landscape America has to offer, golf in the wild west state of Colorado is as close as you can get to teeing it up on another planet. Writer Joe Lancaster and photographer Darren Arthur enjoyed an unforgettable road trip

Shank. Shank. “No, no.. no…!”

Darren’s dismay echoes off the gargantuan red rocks of Arrowhead Golf Club as his first jetlagged drive of the day follows mine into oblivion. “It’s ok, take a breakfast ball,” says our new mate, Pocky, meaning a mulligan as he chucks us a couple of used Titleists. The sun has just risen over the Rockies to reveal our first glimpse of this incredible golf course and from the opening tee it’s clear that if we don’t get our act together we’ll be ordering two all-day breakfasts.

Colorado. One of only three US States with no natural borders, its perfect rectangle on the map makes it looks flat, maybe even man-made. It isn’t. Found in the Western United States, Colorado (meaning ‘colour red’) was named after the Colorado River, which early Spanish explorers noted for the red/brown silt it carried from the Rocky mountains. And it’s those mountains that this place is probably most famous for. Even if the closest you’ve been to here is merely the ubiquitous ‘runaway mine train’ ride at any theme park under the sun, there’s no doubt you’ve heard of the Rockies. But have you heard of Colorado golf? We didn’t know much about it until now, but if the first course of the trip is anything to go by, the place is a golfmine and we’ve hit paydirt.

Arrowhead is an unbelievable place. The course weaves through the massive red rocks that jut out of the ground like an alien landscape. If a Hollywood studio had commissioned my pitch to make Total Recall 2 – in which Schwarzenegger capitalizes on the breathable atmosphere he created on Mars by building a golf course – this is what it would look like. The club describe it as ‘300 million years in the making’ and you do half expect a T-rex to strut onto the tee box at any given time. “I don’t think we’ll see a Trex today, but we have a 350lb black bear that hangs around here and there’s a mountain lion that comes close to the course sometimes. It’s totally safe though, we just shoo ‘em away.” I’m glad that Pocky is confident of his ‘shooing’ abilities. The air is warming up, looks like it’s going to be one of the 310 days of sunshine that Denver enjoys each year.

Make that 311, because we’ve just met a ray of sunshine in Britney, the charming and beautiful beer cart girl. She giggles every time we open our mouths, “I just love the way you guys talk!” It seems that Colorado is one of the places in America where an English accent still carries some weight and from then on every time she appears Darren and I speak the Queen’s English and use words from our common vocabulary like ‘cheerio’.

THE MILE HIGH CITY

After Darren fails to make a dent in a plate of clubhouse nachos the size of a fourteener (the colloquial term for a mountain over 14,000 feet high – there are more than 50 in the state) and armed with Britney’s phone number, we shoot back into Colorado’s capital, Denver, where we landed last night.

Known as the Mile High City for its elevation precisely one mile above sea level, Denver sits in the South Platte River Valley on the High Plains where it was founded in 1858 as a mining town during the Pikes Peak gold rush. Its population just over 600,000 makes it the largest city within a 500-mile radius and it lies just 15 miles east of the Front Range of the Rockies. Denver is a fairly affluent place with unemployment below national average and downtown is quirky and cosmopolitan, with neighbourhoods such as the historic LoDo (lower downtown) packed with art galleries, restaurants and nightspots. This is why Denver is often voted best US city for singles, but Colorado having more breweries and microbreweries per capita than any other state might help.

Needless to say we visited a few last night. But there’s no time to hang around today because once we’ve grabbed our bags from the hotel we’re back in the car, heading west on I-70, an interstate highway that we’ll be getting to know well this week as it explores its way through the Rockies, connecting Denver to our final destination, Grand Junction. It’s a long trip but driving isn’t a chore with uninterrupted, jaw-dropping scenery like this. What a road.

DUFF AND DUFFER

The following morning we’re on the first tee of the Elk at Breckenridge Golf Club, wondering how on Earth they manage to grow lush grass at such a high altitude. The town of Breckenridge is a first-class ski resort that sits at an ear-popping 9,600 feet. It’s a quaint, homely place, which is surprising seeing as only 3000 people live here yet up to 30,000 tourists come at once during peak season. The majority of the action is on Main Street, which you may recognize from the scene in Dumb and Dumber when Harry and Lloyd cruise into what is supposedly Aspen, riding Ronnie Corbett’s scooter.

“I forgot my ball,” says Charlie, one half of the couple we’ve been partnered with. I offer him a Nike but his wife, Maryanne, politely refuses. “He’s a ball snob. He only plays Maxfli.” Darren and I conceal our sniggering. I’ve heard of people only using Pro V1s, but Maxfli? The joke is clearly on us though, as Charlie, who is probably 25 years my senior, steps up and rips one 380 yards. Forget the extra 10% distance provided by the lofty altitude’s thin air, he hits it like He-Man. “He had two double eagles (albatrosses) in one round last year.” Maryanne beams. “No kiddin’, love” mutters a bemused Darren.

The course is made up of three Jack Nicklaus-designed loops of nine, the Elk, Beaver and Bear. The Elk incorporates some near-vertical mountainside holes while the easier Beaver flows across the flatter terrain at their feet. “They say beavers are the second most destructive creatures to their own environment, after humans.” Says Charlie, admiring one of the amphibious critters making a racket with his massive tail. With that Darren accidentally tops a drive, sending it like a bullet from a gun into one of the countless ‘no-go’ eco areas surrounding the course that protect the bountiful wildlife, narrowly missing the beaver and proving Charlie’s point succinctly.

“Woah, woah, WOAH!” Is the only thing I manage to yelp in desperation as Champ, the 17-hands-high horse whose reins I’m clinging onto for dear life, breaks into a gallop (read brisk trot) and neighs manically as he charges the few hundred metres back to the paddock we’ve just left.

“It’s ok, he just wants to be with his buddies,” says Jaime, our wrangler. She calms Champ down and we head out into the mountains. At the height of summer her stables at Breckenridge have up to 100 horses available for rides and kids as young as four can ride solo because the horses are so tame. The trail feels like a real expedition into wilderness, not a gentle plod along Skegness Beach. This is a place cars can’t go. It makes you wonder how people conquered these lands on horseback, though they probably did it in more than 90 minutes.

VAIL OF A TIME

Let me tell you a story. In the 1960s a guy called Ben Kruger designed and built a beautiful golf course at the bottom of a valley. Now in his 70s, he still tees off every morning at 06.30. He plays 18 holes in two and a half hours and shoots his age. If that man isn’t an inspiration, I don’t know who is. Vail ski resort was founded in 1962 by two former Mountain Division soldiers who discovered the perfect skiing terrain whilst training in the area during World War II. It became an instant hit with locals and rapidly grew into one of the world’s premier winter sports destinations. Kruger chose Vail Valley to build his track.

“Practice your putting, not your driving!” Are the words of advice from Bob, the chirpy attendant who straps our clubs to the cart, pointing to the putting green. They prove to be words of wisdom.

Unlike the other tracks we’ve played so far, this is more of an English affair. Reasonably flat and comfortably short, the course still defends itself as fiercely as a Viking dwarf who’s been kicked in the shin. The greens are small and protected by a hump at the front making crisp, controlled approaches an important art. Once you’re dancing its still tricky, with breaks bigger than John Virgo’s.

The views from the bottom of the valley up to the surrounding mountains are staggering and with the sun beating down we have a whale of a time, aided by the friendly nature of the staff. “That was the best round of golf I’ve ever played,” remarks Darren in reference to the experience as well as his score on exiting the final green.

FULL STEAM AHEAD

A 90-mile detour north of I-70 through a landscape that looks like the cover of The Joshua Tree (minus three chancers and some bloke who thinks he’s God) and we arrive in Steamboat Springs. It’s a pretty big place, surprising considering it’s so in the middle of nowhere that it looks like a hurricane picked it up from somewhere else and dropped it off perfectly intact.

Nearby are the Strawberry Park Hot Springs where we’re hoping to meet Britney and some of her girlfriends for a late night dip…

Sadly Britney blew us out, the 300-mile trip from Denver and back proved too much for an evening in our Speedo-clad company. Can’t say I blame her. But if there’s one thing that makes our own 180-mile detour worthwhile, it’s a round of golf. We arrive early at Rolling Stone Ranch amid what is the closest we’ve come to bad weather so far. It’s a misty, chilly morning and there’s a thick layer of dew on the ground. Feeling right at home we set off on yet another voyage of discovery in the wilderness. A river flows through the course, coming into play a few times and it’s here that we first meet a marmot.

Presumably news of Darren’s beaverworrying tee shots has spread on the wildlife grapevine because the beaver-like groundhog sits safely on top of a rock at the side of the fairway. The course has more bunkers than Omaha Beach and once again the greens are subtler than the invisible man.

SPRING IN THE STEP

Glenwood Springs is a small town with a big reputation, made famous by presidents, gangsters and Mother Nature herself. Named after its hot pool, which is apparently the biggest in the world and is open to the public, Native Americans (who have inhabited Colorado for 13 millennia) used to heal wounds and ailments here and in 1887 infamous gunfighter Doc Hollywood came in an attempt to cure his ailing lungs (it didn’t work, he died and is buried here).

After taking a dip I definitely feel younger, but I’m unsure if it’s the water’s effects or just because the average age of the other patrons also seems to be more easily measured in millennia. The place looks like a scene from Cocoon.

“I can’t believe you’re making me do this.” Sighs Darren as he straps on his laser gun and ‘body armour’ at the Wild West Laser Tag. But then he turns the corner, enters the battle with a commando roll and shouts something along the lines of; “You cover me while I go for their base!” If the hot pool doesn’t do it, an afternoon spent at Glenwood Caverns is enough to return anyone to their inner child. It’s a mountain-top theme park with loads of family fun and while none of the rides quite reach white knuckle status for us, there are a couple that you wouldn’t put your Nan on without checking her will was up to date first.

Feeling refreshed we hit a few bars in town and meet Vicky, who is interested to hear about our trip. When I tell her about the elusive bear at Arrowhead she’s not shocked. “I live just outside town. Last week I looked out of our patio window and there was a mountain lion in the back yard.” She’s completely trumped all of my ‘scary animals on golf course’ stories in one go. At Vicky’s advice we end up in the lobby of the Hotel Colorado. It’s a grand spot for a nightcap and apparently the place where the teddy bear was invented.

Legend has it that when President ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt stayed here the chamber maids left a stuffed bear in his room as a gift. Hence the cuddly toy was born.

The bar closes at midnight but we’re not done so we grab our putters from the hotel and head to the liquor store. We jump the fence of the crazy golf course opposite our hotel and, breaking at least seven laws, engage in a dramatic, beer-fuelled 18-hole shootout that Darren clinches on the final green. It’s the most crushing defeat I’ve suffered in golf.

With sore heads the following morning we arrive at River Valley Ranch. Another day, another gorgeous track. The first couple of holes are a mouth watering-appetizer for the incredible, sprawling main course that is to come. It’s a buffet of golf that would feed an army and Darren is hungry after last night’s victory. On one of the ubiquitous, massive and heavily-contoured greens he strikes a putt that breaks at least four times and travels a distance Wogan would be proud of. We pace it out at 102 feet. “That’s more feet than a centipede!” he screams.

JUNCTIONS OF GRANDEUR

The final leg of our epic road trip takes us to Grand Junction. It’s the biggest town we’ve encountered but is flat, due to its position at the western end of the Rockies. Nearly one third of the area of Colorado is flat or rolling land like this in stark contrast to the mountains we’ve been weaving through all week.

It’s far from boring though. The area is famous for its wine so we take a cycling tour through the vineyards. Perfect when you don’t want to drive home afterwards. I’m no Keith Floyd, but I know a nice drop when I taste it and this stuff is delicious, probably due to the local fruit, which includes peaches the size of basketballs.

Enquiring about the prairie oysters on the menu at dinner our waiter explains the local delicacy as tactfully as possible. “They aren’t actually seafood, sir. They’re bulls testes, sliced and deep-fried.” I’m a firm believer in giving things a go so we order a plate to share. I can’t say I enjoy or detest them, they don’t taste of much, but I wouldn’t hurry to order them again. Perhaps this is why we’ve hardly seen a fat person all week. It may sound cruel but it’s the truth, when you go to the States you expect to see them everywhere.

“Colorado is the thinnest state. People here grow up skiing, cycling, hiking…” says Jane, a slender lady who’s joined us for a drink. She’s right. There are more fast food joints than smoothie bars but there is a remarkable lack of the morbidly obese squeezing through their doors. Unlike other states, people here don’t stay trim to look good, they do it to feel healthy and because it comes with growing up in the great outdoors.

THE FINAL FRONTIER

I’ve seen some amazing golf courses, some quirky ones and some larger-than-life ones, but I’ve never seen anything like Redlands Mesa. I’m not sure if words or pictures can do this place justice, I suppose you just have to go and see it. But the place is quieter than a mouse’s funeral, which makes the experience all the more special. I guess a quiet day on the course is unsurprising in a state over twice the size of England with a population of only five million. It’s a perfectly maintained, green oasis in a rugged, parched, red/brown landscape. The views of the Grand Mesa (the world’s biggest flat topped mountain, an area of 500 square miles) are mesmerizing but so too are the views from tee to fairway on most holes, with elevation changes to give you a nose bleed.

Towards the end of the round the banter dies out and we play almost silently. The realisation is setting in. We’re going home. We’re gutted. But of all the places I’ve seen, Colorado is undoubtedly in the top bracket. We’ve played 99 holes of golf and they were 100 per cent thrilling. We’ve ridden through the Rockies like a couple of golfing cowboys, stick-slinging at every step of the way. We’ve lost balls, hit breakfast balls and even eaten bulls’ balls.

All in all, we’ve had a ball.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine








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