The 131-yard 17th at Red Sky Golf Club, designed by Tom Fazio.
Vail in June feels like an intimate European ski village eager to share its thawed-out offerings with summer enthusiasts. My golf agenda crossed creeks with an annual event called the Teva Mountain Games, so as the kayakers were cartwheeling in the ice-cold water to the crunchy crowd's delight, I was navigating mountain courses in short-sleeves and a cart.
I flew into Denver, and before I made my way to Vail, I played CommonGround, which is a former military course renovated by Tom Doak in 2009. One of the hottest shapers in golf received no fee from the course's owners, the Colorado Golf Association and the Colorado Women's Golf Association. At that time Doak was getting about $750,000 to design a layout. "We were looking for a project that would allow us to give something back to the community and that was accessible to the average golfer," Doak says. As a result, CommonGround is one of the best courses in the country for $55 or less, and it's one of two courses used for the stroke-play portion of this year's U.S. Amateur (Aug. 13-19). Only 20 minutes from the airport, it's a must-play if you're anywhere near Denver.
After a serving of afternoon winds and five tough finishing holes, it was in my best interest to make the two-hour drive from CommonGround to Vail's high ground.
Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser recently said, "I don't think anyone has created a true St. Andrews concept in the U.S." CommonGround feels a little like St. Andrews to me. It appeals to tourists, caters to locals with special rates ($40), encourages walking and is cultivating a caddie program. In addition to Doak's design, there are nine holes for kids. CommonGround says its philanthropic mission is "to represent, promote and serve the best interests of golf in the state of Colorado."
At 7,880 feet, the ball never went far enough to make the game feel easy at the swanky and semiprivate 36-hole Red Sky Golf Club. The 240 members have their own log-cabin clubhouse at the course designed by Greg Norman, but you'll check in at the course built by Tom Fazio. The general theme of the Norman courses I've played is long, narrow and unforgiving. Conversely Fazio assists the high-handicapper by building receptive saddle-shaped fairways. That's not the case here: Red Sky's Norman is more forgiving off the tee than the Fazio. Both were in Augusta National condition and featured Masters-fast greens. Each day, one course is open to members only. The walk-up rate for either course is $240, and you can play both (but not on the same day) for $300. You have four days to take advantage of that deal, which is more reasonable than the $85 breakfast ticket for two, including egg burritos, fruit smoothies, Bloody Marys and a $10 tip.
That meal was $30 more than a $55 twilight rate at Vail Golf Club, a perfect combination of setting, convenience, value and fun. You'll play shots along the highway, Gore Creek and at the base of 2.3 million acres of national forest. (Those 150-yard markers are ski tips.) I walked it with a friend and joined two locals, who brought beer in carry coolers provided by the course.
A little more pretentious, and a much more festive venue, the Vail Village is where you'll do most of your drinking, eating, shopping and spending. In what feels like a European epicenter of social activity, pedestrians, paddlers, climbers, bikers and golfers are wowed by excellent food, refreshing energy and live music. The best meal I had was at Sapphire Restaurant and Oyster Bar, which offered scenic outdoor seating overlooking the wild water sports. The menu is always subject to change, but I ordered a sampling of appetizers and couldn't name a favorite among the sesame-seared tuna nachos, tempura asparagus, fried artichokes and avocado pancakes.
I didn't spend a lot of time in my room—a sign of a great golf trip—but I regret not being able to sample more of what the recently renovated Arrabelle at Vail Square had to offer. The 36-room resort with 50 condo options and European-inspired façade would satisfy the highest of lodging expectations (rooms start at $189 per night). The rooftop pool and Jacuzzis with stunning mountain views are a fitting way to enjoy a day, or end an evening. The spa is as sweet as you'd expect, and the menu at Tavern On the Square is a bit gamey: buffalo meatloaf, grilled elk lettuce wraps and barbecue duck enchilada. The town is named after Charlie Vail, who was the engineer who built the original highway through the area in 1940. And as you're headed back to Denver, off Interstate 70, I'd suggest a getaway round at the Raven course at Three Peaks in Silverthorne ($165). It's more mountain golf with spectacular backdrops and a friendly staff. Almost as impressive as the view from the ninth tee is the all-terrain beverage mobile, which comes with a roll bar, no governor and two smiley servers.
"It goes fast, and I drive it fast," says Aly Whittaker, 24. "I get into a lot of trouble with the superintendent. There are a lot of tight corners and steep slopes."
Whittaker served cold drinks and an accurate assessment of golf in Colorado.
Vail's a winter and summer playground for professional and amateur athletes. During the Teva Mountain Games (June 6-9, 2013) you'll enjoy watching eight sports, including extreme kayaking and competitive slacklining, which take place in and around Vail Village.
ZIP IT UP!
If you want your own extreme sport, go zip-lining through 44 acres of trees and along the Arkansas River (coloradorafting.net). With seven lines (the longest is 900 feet), the half day away from golf is worth the 90-minute drive from Vail for the views and value ($79 for adults, $69 for children 10-12).
With its owner and membership locked in battle, Vail's high-end Cordillera development has suffered through court cases and course closures. But the Valley Course (one of four) will be open this summer to resort guests. The par-71, Tom Fazio design is a fun round of golf.