A Guide to Municipal Golf in Denver

With the city of Denver’s Come Play and Walk Pass, on sale in November for the 2020 golf season, you can play 20 nine, or ten 18 hole rounds at any of Denver’s municipally-owned golf course for $235. This goes without saying, but $23.50 is a smokin’ deal for eighteen holes on a regulation golf course. If you know how to use the pass, the deal goes from smokin’ to flaming hot. Here’s a bang for your buck guide to municipal golf in the Mile High City.

6. City Park

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Ranked as the worst course for the 2019 season, but only because it’s closed. I can’t speak to the course post-conversion, but until it closed for renovations at the end of the 2017 season, the course was fun, getable, and scenic. Great looks at birdie and eagle combined with great looks at our downtown skyline made for an exceptional golf experience. This wasn’t a secret, the course was almost always filled to capacity.

Architect Todd Schoeder is remaking the course into a hybrid golf course/water detention area, but this shouldn’t be a cause for worry. During his renovations, he can’t make changes to the views, and urban sightseeing has always been at least half of City Park’s fun. What’s more, the redesign at privately owned CommonGround, Denver’s other golf course cum golf course/water detention area has been a smashing success for both golf and flood mitigation. When it comes to the City Park rebuild, we have reason to be optimistic. 

5. Willis Case

Willis Case Picture

This course SUCKS! There are some good holes, and some bad holes and some god awful holes, like 15, a downhill par four with an honest to god drain dug into the center of the green. Outside of that, there are problems with the routing where you cross over holes to get from green to tee.

The biggest problem with Willis Case is the layout. The front nine measures 450 yards longer than the back nine, and while that doesn’t seem like much, it makes a world of difference. Take holes five through seven on the front, a 576-yard par-five, followed by two par-fours, the former tipping out at 437 yards, the later stretching to 441 yards from the back tees. These are real golf holes. Contrast that with holes 12 through 14 on the back, a 484-yard par-five, followed by two par-fours, 311 and 317 yards respectively, and you see the problem. The front nine has claws, the back nine has tickly kitten whiskers.

Even when you know this in advance, the stark difference in difficulty between the front nine and the back nine detracts from the overall experience. However, to judge from the slammed tee sheet, I’m in the minority with my negative opinion of the course. It is very difficult to get a tee time here. I’d say don’t bother. 

4. Evergreen

Evergreen Golf Course

The good – it’s cooler in Evergreen, and the course gets you to nature and great mountain views. The bad – this course is really fucking easy. The city of Denver lists Evergreen as an executive course, but it’s not a traditional four par-four and two par-five executive; Evergreen features three par fives and six par threes.

The holes are narrow, and amply to excessively treed, but they aren’t very long. The short holes mean that if your ball is in play you have a wedge in your hands, and if you have a wedge in your hands at Evergreen, you have a chance to knock it close, even from the deep, tree-studded rough, because the greens are DOG slow.

If scoring is the only thing that’s important to you, or if you want to know what it’s like to get home in two with a seven iron on a par five, this is your place. If you’re looking for a  challenge, look elsewhere. 

3. Kennedy

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Advertised as a golf hub, this massive complex contains 27 holes of regulation golf, the Babe nine, the Creek Nine, and the West Nine. Beyond regulation golf, they have a gargantuan driving range, a nine-hole par-three course, night golf, putt-putt, and footgolf. I haven’t tried the putt-putt or the footgolf, but I can tell you that the par-three is nothing to write home about. It’s certainly not worth the drive out to what can generously be called far southeast Denver (Kennedy is in Aurora).

This course ranks higher than scenic Evergreen because it presents you with a challenge. Kennedy’s favored eighteen-hole combination of the Babe nine followed by the Creek nine plays to 6900ish yards from the tips. 

There are some good holes at Kennedy. Amongst the 27 available holes, I will freely admit that a far better course than Overland, Denver’s pleasant but mind-numbingly boring parkland hay pasture, could be assembled from those 27 holes. The problem is that you can’t cherry-pick 18 of 27 holes during your round at Kennedy.

Kennedy’s adherence to the traditional routing is a shame because the course spreads way, WAY out anyways. A half-mile walk from green to tee doesn’t do anything for the often sluggish pace at Kennedy, and it encourages players to take carts, which at the risk of coming off as a stuffy golf purist, blows. Part of the appeal of munis are compact, walkable golf courses.

Here I’ll repeat myself because this is important, Kennedy is run by the city of Denver, but for all intents and purposes is in Aurora. Somehow, and this is going to sound crazy, but hear me out, Aurora is a bastion for municipal golf. No, seriously…

Aurora has (ranked from best to worst) Murphy Creek, Meadow Hills, Saddle Rock, Aurora Hills, and Spring Hill. Murphy Creek, the inland links gem that played host to the 2008 Public Links Championship, is one of the premier municipal facilities in the country. It is in the same conversation as Harding Park, Torrey Pines, and Bethpage State Park. Wellshire, advertised as the only public Donald Ross course west of the Mississippi, doesn’t come close to Murph in a statewide ranking of municipal golf.

If we ranked Kennedy geographically, instead of by the municipality that managed it, Kennedy’s sprawling, we have everything, but nothing is good, entry would bring it into a tie for the fourth-best muni in Aurora. Kennedy would rank behind Murphy Creek, Meadow Hills, and Saddle Rock. Aurora Hills, the other course tied for fourth place, has fast greens, and a coherent layout. If you’re willing to drive to Aurora to tee it up, the world is your oyster. If you have the Come Play and Walk Pass, and nothing else is available, by all means, play Kennedy.

2. Overland Park

Overland Golf Course

With its convenient location just west of Santa Fe, the no-frills layout of Overland gets you exactly where you need to go. Overland is the golf course equivalent of a Hyundai Elantra. I play here all the time, and I’m not trashing Overland or Hyundai, I’m just saying that baring the titillating (at least to the eye) rebuild of the first hole into something longer and doglegged, there’s nothing special here.

If that review has you thinking that Overland is miscast as the second-best muni in the queen city, let’s take a quick second to review. Overland ranks ahead of City Park because it’s open for business. It ranks ahead of Willis Case because there are aren’t problems with the layout or the routing, the front nine and the back nine aren’t vastly different in length, and while none of the holes will leave you shriveled in ecstasy, none of them are laughably bad. The course ranks ahead of Evergreen because from the 6,700-yard tips, it puts up a bit of a fight. It ranks ahead of Kennedy because it’s in Denver and it’s easy to walk.

If you want to get a feel for Overland, imagine an eighteen-hole course on a golf simulator built by a computer programmer who studied golf, but has never played before. Better yet, imagine ordering a nice, warm bowl of oatmeal at a diner. Your meal comes, you inhale the steam, smile at the comfortable warmth radiating from the bowl, and ask the waitress for butter and brown sugar. She has neither. 

1. Wellshire

Wellshire

This is the top Denver muni in a landslide, and barring a visionary reworking of City Park, Wellshire will retain its position as the holy grail for a city of Denver owned golf course for eternity. Denver advertises Wellshire as the only public Donald Ross design west of the mighty Mississippi river. This is not true. Strictly speaking, Ross’ Broadmoor East in Colorado Springs is opened to the (monied) public. It’s exponentially more expensive than the $23.50 that will get you onto Wellshire, and worth the money, but I digress. 

Ross was never on site for Wellshire’s build, he drew the design on topo maps and the course was built to his specifications. According to golf forums, Ross’ original routing is fully intact, but the nines are reversed, meaning we play his front nine as our back nine. 

I believe this, Wellshire’s routing is a masterwork. I’ve also read that in the 92 years since the build was finished this course has lost some of the original bunkering. This is to be expected. Also predictable for a 92-year-old course, Wellshire would benefit from the removal of a few old-growth trees. However, all in all, Wellshire is a solid layout with exceptional routing and 17 memorable holes. In Wellshire, Denver has a great muni. Great not just for Denver, but a top-notch, municipal golf facility. 

This is not to say that the city of Denver can’t fuck up this course, too. In fact, they’ve fucked it up already. I noted 17 memorable holes in the previous paragraph because hole 10 at Wellshire is awful. Ten would not be out of place at Willis Case. 

The hole wasn’t always bad. Even five years ago, 10 was a short par five with a lake bisecting the fairway at a point where the hole changes from flat to uphill. The lake was reachable from the tee, meaning you had the option to lay-up and hit a three wood to wedge distance, or challenge the lake with your tee shot and possibly get home in two. The city of Denver, in their infinite goddamn wisdom, dredged the lake. They dredged the mother fucking lake, sodded it over, and turned the hole into a par four.

In theory, the new par four isn’t the worst idea. Golf equipment has improved immeasurably in the last 92 years, so I’d imagine that pre-dredge, more and more players were challenging the lake. By turning the hole into a long, uphill par four you add a bit of a challenge for the players who could play the hole under par, and you save a golf ball for the 99.9 percent of Denver muni players who think they have 260+ yards of carry, but don’t.

In practice, the dredged and sodded lake is a disaster, BECAUSE THE LAKE NEVER DRIED. Five plus years after the dredging, the sodded area is a soggy, muddy mess. And here’s the best part, Wellshire has acknowledged their complete and total failure by staking the dredged lake as ground under repair. 

At press time, we have muni hacks (I use the term lovingly) trudging through a swamp to find their balls, then taking relief from behind the hazard, with 230 uphill yards left. Beyond being an affront to the late Donald Ross, turning onto this hole decimates the pace for both nines. 

The whole debacle hurts even more when you remember that the original nines are reversed at Wellshire, meaning that Ross intended for what we play as hole nine to be hole one. The abomination of a par four would have significantly less impact on pace if players started on the hole instead of turned onto the hole. Lastly, the permanently moist muck field on 10 smells terrible. I think they dredged the lake because it smelled bad, but there’s no way it smelled as bad as the swamp. There’s your rotten cherry on top of this gross, inedible sundae. 

With Wellshire’s 100 year anniversary approaching, some people have asked if the course will undergo a restoration to the original specifications of Ross. The dredged lake and the full redesign of City Park tells us the course will not. This is especially hard to stomach with Harding Park, San Francisco’s recently restored municipal treasure, hosting the 2020 PGA Championship and Memorial Park undergoing a full redesign so that it can permanently host the Houston Open. 

Luckily, somehow the city of Denver can both not care about golf and manage a top-tier muni. They’ve fucked up a hole, and the pace at Wellshire is abysmal, but 17 holes of Donald Ross for $23.50 is one of the best deals in golf. I know the city of Denver would appreciate it if you did your best to remember this when there are five groups stacked on 14.

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