1. The Sonenalp Club
This course is right across I-70 from Country Club of the Rockies, where for some reason, Jack Nicklaus put a paint by numbers links offering on the floor of the Vail Valley. Nicklaus knows links, and in a vacuum, you can do much worse than CCR, but with traffic, it’s threeish hours from Denver to Edwards. Mountain views or not, I was disappointed when I drove those three hours to play what was essentially Meridian. Or maybe in a more relatable comp, imagine driving from Orlando to Palm Beach for North Palm Beach Country Club.
All of this is to say I like the Sonenalp club better than CCR. If you’re driving to the mountains, you might as well play some mountain golf. From a club perspective, it looked like they were having a little more fun at Sonenalp too, awesome putting green, lively pool, a clubhouse that seemed to be chock full of character. This is important to note, because if your club search drives you to Sonenalp over CCR you’re gonna save about $120k in initiation.
Sonenalp hinges its identity upon its greens, which is an insane thing to do at 7,500 feet, but somehow, they’ve made it work. These are some of the fastest and nicest greens I’ve ever played, full stop. I was also fond of the layout, mountain golf, but nothing too hokey. The course conditions were primo, pace of play was fantastic.
On the negative side, parts of the front nine run a little close to 70. (This is also a problem you face on the other side of the highway. That $150k initiation fee doesn’t deaden the road noise.) This course is walkable, but there are some longish stretches between tee and green, and some of the gains in elevation are very steep.
The back nine of this course is on the north side of the clubhouse and it meanders thoughtfully away from I-70’s interstate roar. If you’re walking, the changes in elevation get a little more severe here, but these are nine GREAT golf holes. If nothing else, you’re strengthening your calves.
The biggest knock on this course, and this is what you will hear when you ask your pro, is that this is the least welcome I’ve ever felt as a visiting ClubCorp member. I’m not sure that I was officially disallowed from entering the clubhouse, but I was “greeted” as soon as I walked up and ushered aggressively to a window, where they took my payment as I stood outside. You’ve gotta take the good with the bad, especially when you’re knocking off a bucket list course for $35, please accept my gentle suggestion to brush off this lack of hospitality.
The bottom line is this course combines 360-degree mountain views, some of the best greens I’ve played, ANYWHERE, and what is maybe the top contiguous nine-hole stretch in all of Colorado on with its back nine. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but I understand why a club of this quality isn’t greeting me with a rose and an Alabama Slammer.
Play this course as often as you’re allowed anytime you’re in Vail.
2. Lake Valley:
Located just north of Boulder in Niwot, a tiny town that somehow clings to its agrarian roots as property values and property taxes SOAR, Lake Valley, an inland links offering, thrives miles below the radar of everyone but their membership.
Sixty-nine hundred yards is more than enough at a par of 70, and Press Maxwell dished out some width here too, leaving room for creativity in what amounts to a fun (though sometimes less than visually spectacular) and fair test of your ball striking ability. This is a walking layout, a good one, with coherent routing and no steep hills to stagger up.
Course conditioning is excellent, the greens, contoured severely but skillfully by Mr. Maxwell, run fast and true. Throw in Lake Valley’s unbeatable views of the Flatirons and you’ve got yourself a deal. Play here, but don’t tell anyone how good it is, the last thing we want to do is fuck up this course’s enviable pace.
If this write-up is a bit boring, then with a gun to my head, so is the course. Stellar routing, though. STELLAR routing…
3. Aspen Glen:
This is heartbreaking because Aspen Glen is a really nice club, and the staff was unbelievably hospitable. ClubCorp members can book tee times 30 days in advance, but members can only book out 14 days. A father’s day parent-child tournament was scheduled between when I booked my tee time and the actual day I came up to play. They built an entire 1-10 start tournament around my tee time.
The clubhouse and the surrounding neighborhood are not as nice as that absurd hospitality, but they are still VERY nice. The membership, as you would expect that close to Aspen, in this housing market, has surpassed retirement age. Although, because of the way our tee times were incorporated into the tournament, the only members I saw were a large group playing pickleball when I accidentally parked in the racquets parking lot. (The golf parking lot is up the hill.)
One last qualifier before I dive in, my expectations for this course were sky high. People tout this course as THE hidden gem in the ClubCorp network. I get it, spectacular location and top-notch hospitality tend to be either or propositions for ClubCorp tier courses. But you’re reading a review, I’ve gotta tell you that Aspen Glen is not ClubCorp’s hidden gem. But it does have some engaging and treacherous green complexes, the course conditions are primo, and the greens roll.
The biggest knock on this course isn’t going to be something you haven’t heard before, Nicklaus, a master of building great, or at least visually spectacular holes, didn’t put together a coherent 18-hole routing. Honestly, this may have been glossed over if this course played green to tee, but for some terrible, horrible, no good, very bad reason, most of this course, I would say more than 15 holes, play away from Mt. Sopris. This absolutely baffling, none of the other courses in the Roaring Fork Valley, not the universally detested Snowmass Club, not even the Homestead Par 3 Course at River Valley Ranch have made this mistake.
Nicklaus undoubtedly thought that a better course could be built by facing a majority of the holes away from Sopris, but even if this is the case, when you lose yourself in a stretch of golf, even a stretch of spectacular golf (and there are some on the course) it is disappointing to turn around and see Mt. Sopris looming behind you.
Play this course if your care more for atmosphere than architecture, you love elevation change, or you can’t turn down the opportunity to tee it for $35 in Aspen (the city and the surrounding areas are subject to land use restrictions that require private courses to offer play to residents at the same rate as the municipal Aspen Golf Club. This has led to the adoption of a de facto universal guest rate at private clubs, $225 in 2022).
Don’t play this course if you have problems with Nicklaus as an architect or with The Nicklaus Group as a golf architecture corporation.
4. Interlocken Golf Club
My home club, but staying objective!! “The Omni” (It’s fucking hilarious that this place is named Interlocken Golf Club. No one calls it that. Denver also houses The Club at Inverness at a hotel across town, though the (humorless) members have not yet taken to calling that course “The Hilton.”) has 27 holes just south of Boulder on a big piece of cheap land abutting the Rocky Mountain Airport. It’s important to note the size and price of this land because these holes are MASSIVE.
They’re not that long, but without exception, they are very wide. Also, the routing of this course spreads out. I don’t have a problem with the stretched routing because you’re led from green to tee-box on every hole on all three nines. However, I wouldn’t, under any circumstances, walk this course.
The members prefer the severely graded Vista and Sunshine nines to the scenic and scorable Eldorado nine. I like Eldo because it combines a high probability of making birdies with an opportunity to gaze into Eldorado Canyon.
In resort course fashion, The Omni mixes up long (but not too long) and short (sometimes very short, especially with the par 4’s) holes on each nine. This is a fun way to do things, and not just when you’re in town for a conference or to watch your child graduate from CU (trying to think of why the fuck else you’d be in Broomfield). Go Buffs!
What I’m saying is this course doesn’t see a lot of resort play. Visiting ClubCorp members are few and far between as well. Their biggest stroke of genius at The Omni was to charge the general public an absurd rate (some of the most expensive golf in the city, $180 for 18 holes during peak season at press time). Selling memberships to a resort course that sees very few guests, then being open to, but pricing out, the general public is a strange but stellar recipe for success. From a membership perspective, this course is very fun.
A big part of that is the membership professional who genuinely cares for the course and its members. He upholds a sky-high standard of service. Another part of that is the course conditions. We’ve talked about this not being the most punishing layout. When the rough grows in, it gets harder. When they double cut the greens, hold on to your hat.
These greens are ginormous and epically contoured. They had these motherfuckers rolling last year – there are some TOUGH pins. I’m a five handicap, there was probably a 10-week stretch towards the end of last summer where I had no shot at breaking 80 from the forward tees.
My friends in the 15 – 20 handicap range were three and four and sometimes five putting on every green. They’re good sports, but if the pros hadn’t priced the unaccompanied public off the course, this could be a real problem.
It’s also a double edge sword because my friends on the right side of scratch absolutely dismantle The Omni. I’m talking about skilled amateurs who in a good round, will scrap and claw their way to scores in the high 60s. At the Omni, these guys routinely come in under 65.
I guess this isn’t rocket science. We’ve talked green size – if the touch is there and you’re managing misses, there aren’t many places that you can’t get up and down from. They can find the back of the cup because beyond being large and fast, the greens also roll true. I have no idea why, as they’ve shrugged off repeated requests for an explanation, but universally, they hate this fucking place. All of them were crestfallen when I joined, none of them will play with me, even at the SEVERLY discounted accompanied guest rate.
Generic but delicious, the Omni is the golf equivalent of ordering from a cook who has worked the griddle at a Waffle House for 30+ years. Your gourmand (low handicap) friends will tell you that it’s still a fucking Waffle House during post-round beers in the clubhouse. Your friends who eat to live (high handicap) will have no idea how lucky they are, this is their first time eating at a Waffle House. Play here if you’re into the upscale public/resort course experience.
Don’t play here if riding in a cart ruins a round of golf for you, if you routinely break par, or if you routinely shoot more than 15 strokes over par.
5. Black Bear Golf Club
I grew up playing this course when it was Canterberry Country Club and here I will try to give you some inside intel without being influenced by nostalgia. Let’s start with the bad, and that’s the routing.
This course has the worst routing of any course I’ve ever played. When Canterbury became Black Bear, they tried to fix the routing by making hole three, hole seven, and vice versa. As you would imagine, that made the routing much worse. Us armchair architects can learn something here, if you’re thinking of fixing your routing by swapping hole three and hole seven, you have FUCKED up.
Now for the good, if you can stomach zig-zagging between golf holes in your cart for like 10 minutes between green and tee (I’m repeating myself, but I really feel that I can’t overemphasize how terrible this routing is) there’s some great golf to be found. The course winds around a massive arroyo that creates insane (sometimes literally unbelievable) angles on your approach shots.
Here the comp is the universally beloved bang-for-buck stalwart Rustic Canyon. That’s a generous comp as there are a million fucking houses on Black Bear, and the routing may as well have been laid out by a random number generator post-construction, but I’m making it because it’s the only other course where I’ve seen a yawning chasm used this masterfully.
You should play here if you would never, ever, not in your wildest dreams, walk a golf course. You’ll also get something from Black Bear if you study architecture.
Houses or not, this is a great piece of property, and it’s fun to think through what you would do with a full redesign. If you’re looking for inspiration and you have the connections, Coore and Crenshaw’s exceptional Colorado Golf Club is about five miles down the road on a piece of land that is similar topographically and (*much*) better utilized.
Another notable option for a 36 or, God help you, 54-hole day in the wildly under-appreciated golf mecca of Parker is Pradera, where you can see what happens when Jim Engh knocks off the horseplay and builds a real fucking golf course.
6. Blackstone Country Club:
You can’t miss this clubhouse, a feudal palace in (the nicest part of) DEEP Aurora, an astonishingly large and astonishingly diverse, both demographically and socioeconomically, city that abuts Denver’s eastern edge. An infinity pool starts on the rear patio and extends forever into suburban sprawl that from the clubhouse also appears never to end.
Before I trash the course, the hospitality did justice to the clubhouse. I was greeted by an assistant who knew my handicap and suggested tees for me to play. The director of golf followed me into the closed (COVID, early morning tee time) bar and filled up my (giant) water bottle. Some trivia here, this was the last course that Jay Morish designed before he retired.
A starter gave me some sound advice on the first tee, lay off your tee ball a little bit to keep everything in the fairway, putt to the back of the cup, nothing breaks.
Those are all things I’m capable of doing, but the fairways I was laying back to hit were often 15-20 yards wide. Sometimes they were surrounded by mowed but penal rough, sometimes by natural features of the lost ball variety. Often, and inexplicably, the fairway bisected two sections of mowed rough where each side was much wider than the fairway.
There’s a big problem in banging a good drive over an arroyo and into 12-yard wide strip of fairway, then hitting a 7 iron over a cottonwood tree onto the putting surface. Sure, the dead flat green will hold your ball, but after everything you’ve been through to get there, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to believe that the putt doesn’t break. As you would imagine, this doesn’t do much for pace.
This course is a target bonanza of the variety you don’t often see. Imagine Troon North, but replace every plant in the desert landscape with one, endlessly replicated suburban home.
Play here if you’re not in a rush, AND your interests skew more towards company and cocktails (bev cart has a primo selection). Bring PLENTY of golf balls.
7. Fort Collins Country Club
In my experience (I haven’t played Pine Valley) any time you see that a course was founded and designed by someone like a decorated amateur golfer and noted businessman, you can count on the track being a little wonky and VERY difficult. This course is no exception.
This course was redesigned by “The Dye Firm” (courses are starting to note Colorado-based Perry, so I’m guessing it was someone WAY down on the totem pole) in the early 90s. I can tell you that this wasn’t a complete overhaul because you still get one of the impossible tee shots that scratch golfer amateurs love to build – a hallway narrowing to window that’s five or six yards wide for your tee shot to travel through. At FCCC, that window gets you started on a long and penal par 5.
The Dye Group also didn’t blunt any of the contours in the wavy fairways, there are some wild bounces and you’re not guaranteed a flat lie, even if you dead center the short stuff (this is a parkland layout). From what I could tell, what the Dye group did do was to line the ample (sometimes gratuitous) water features with bunkers, so you’re sometimes in for a welcome surprise when to watch your ball bound across an entire fairway and into a lake, then find your ball in a sand trap. Do note that in this instance, the ball is going to be WAY below your fucking feet.
Some thought went into these green complexes, which is great, because the course is so challenging from tee to green. All of this amounts to a serviceable parkland layout, and to be perfectly honest, I haven’t played anywhere else in Fort Collins, so there’s nowhere else I can recommend.
Play here if you’re a low handicap curious about an architectural oddity or if you want to test your mental game. Don’t play here if the wheels have a tendency to come off when things don’t go your way. You’re going to catch some bad breaks…