The Vail Valley's Toughest Holes

By Sam Flickinger, Contributor

They can be among the most beautiful holes on the course, but they can also produce some of the ugliest scores on the card.

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They're the holes that occupy golfers' dreams all night before that next morning's tee time. Play them well and it builds confidence. Play them poorly and a great round can quickly turn into a nightmare.

They're the most difficult holes on the golf course. And they almost always play a major role in the round of every golfer.

The Vail Valley is littered with awe-inspiring and challenging courses, each one showcasing a signature hole that often plays as the hardest on the course. Traveling from Vail to Gypsum, here's a look at which holes might take your breath away with their beauty, but may also leave you breathless with the effort needed to play them.

Vail Golf Club plays relatively short for long hitters from the back tees, but a low score requires precision approach shots and accurate drives. The par-4 14th demands this and more.

A slight dogleg left, the hole plays 416 yards from the back tees and features water on the left side the entire length of the fairway. The approach shot is uphill and over a waste area to a two-tiered green.

"You have to be in the right position off the tee to hit the green on the second shot," said Vail Golf Club head professional Drew Ekstrom. "The green slopes severely from back to front. Any ball hit in the front third of the green has a tendency to roll right back off and into the fairway."

Ekstrom's advice for the approach shot is simple: Stay left.

"There's a deep-faced bunker front right," he said. "Any mis-hit to the right will find the sand or end up below the cart path. You can't even see the top of the flagstick from there. You just have a prayer of putting it on the green. ... Most players end up on the right, and then they're in bogeyland."

It doesn't take long to reach a monster at Beaver Creek Golf Club. The third hole is a par-5 measuring 567 yards from the back. The tendency may be to immediately reach for the driver and launch it. But a creek crossing the fairway twice makes a shorter club a better choice.

"Players are forced to lay up off the tee," said Beaver Creek assistant professional Jeff Boyer. "Accuracy is the key off the tee. The fairway slopes to the right side and it ends at about 220 yards."

A creek also runs along the entire left side of the hole, and Boyer said good players keep their shots as far left as possible without finding the water. A pair of straight shots to open this hole will leave players in good shape for par.

"As long as you play your first two shots well, the rest of the hole is pretty docile," Boyer said. "The third shot is about a 150-yard pitch. The only way to play the hole is safe."

The Sonnenalp Golf Club in Edwards has been hailed as one of the top mountain courses in North America. It offers a number of tough par-4's, feast-or-famine par-3's where balls short or long may never be found and a few long par-5's. The 12th hole stands out, however.

A 423-yard par-4 from the back tees, the hole features a ditch running across a sloping fairway that will swallow long drives and heavy grass on both sides of the fairway. The tee is elevated and the hole doglegs right and uphill to a green well-protected on the right by tall trees.

"Because of the ditch, it's critical that you get your second shot over," said Sonnenalp head professional Doug Wall. "The ditch doesn't really affect the better player, but the trees on the right do."

Long hitters want to keep the driver in the bag here. Distance is not crucial. Keeping the ball in the fairway is.

The Cordillera Valley Course in Edwards is designed by legendary architect Tom Fazio. Fazio presents players with their biggest challenge on the par-4 fifth hole, measuring 464 yards from the back.

Designated the No. 1 handicap, the hole is uphill all the way and traditionally yields the fewest birdies on the course. The fairway narrows at the landing zone for tee shots, and a signature Fazio pot bunker is placed on the left side to swallow errant drives.

"The Fazio traps here are prohibitive," said Cordillera Valley Course assistant pro John McIntyre. "Any ball hit in there is an automatic penalty shot. The sand is so soft and the walls are so steep that it's hard to hit a good shot out.

"But even the best drivers are left with a long, difficult approach shot to a two-tiered green. And depending on where the pin is placed, the putt can be very difficult to almost impossible."

Just down the road and nearly 1,000 feet higher in elevation is the Cordillera Mountain Course. A Hale Irwin design, the course offers the most scenic views of any in the valley.

One of the most spectacular settings unfolds before players on the 18th hole. Visible from the tee is a spectacular panorama of the Gore Range and the clubhouse. Don't be lulled to sleep by the scenery though. The 18th is a par-4 measuring 518 yards from the back. It's a downhill dogleg left with water and sand on both sides of the fairway. It's a three-shot hole for all but the longest hitters, and even the big drivers must be careful of hitting through the fairway and into the water.

"It's a great finishing hole," said Mountain Course head professional Erica Narowetz. "It plays so much harder just because of the narrow landing area. You really need to be hitting the ball well off the tee when you get to it."

Players hoping to reach the green in two must hit a 200- to 220-yard shot off a downhill and sidehill lie in most cases. The green is heavily bunkered.

"You can turn a really good round into a poor round on this one hole," Narowetz said.

Another famed architect, Pete Dye, designed the valley's newest course outside Gypsum. Cotton Ranch Club has 14 holes cut into the valley floor and four atop a wooded mesa. The most challenging is the par-5 sixth, measuring an intimidating 568 yards from the back. The fairway is surrounded by sage, cedar and pinion trees, making straight shots a must. "It's a grown-up hole," said Cotton Ranch head professional Chris Woolery.

"There are three things golfers have problems with: distance, hitting the ball straight and dealing with the wind. This hole plays into the teeth of the wind. And you have to hit three solid shots and you have to hit it straight. Those three conditions make it difficult for any level of golfer."

To hit the green in two, players must carry a 300-yard shot off the fairway. Woolery said playing it safe in the fairway is key because the green is fairly flat and birdie putts can be holed.

"It's got every distracting element a golf hole could have," Woolery said.

"That's not to say it's a poor design. It's a great design. But if you come out of it with a par you've played it well because you could put up some big numbers there."

Sam Flickinger, Contributor

Sam Flickinger is a sports writer for the Vail Daily in Vail Colorado.

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