Summit golf course at Cordillera: Jack Nicklaus' Colorado creation reaches lofty perch

By David R. Holland, Contributor

EDWARDS, Colo. -- Jack Nicklaus has been to the summit of golf many times in his legendary career, but in August, when he opened his newest Colorado design perched at a lofty 9,200 feet with a 360-degree panorama of the Rocky Mountains, he was walking on air, accompanied by a former president to the first tee.

Summit golf course at Cordillera
The Summit golf course at Cordillera plays to nearly 7,600 yards from the tips.
Summit golf course at CordilleraCordillera - Summit golf course
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Cordillera Club - Summit Course

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190 Gore Trail
Eagle, Colorado 81631
Eagle County
Phone(s): (970) 926-5300
18 Holes | Private/Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 7518 yards | ... details »

Vail's premier resident, 88-year-old Gerald Ford, joined The Bear during opening ceremony festivities at Cordillera's fourth and final golf jewel -- The Summit at Cordillera -- and watched with a crowd of more than 500 as Nicklaus hit the first drive with a 1977 replica of a 9-degree, 43-inch persimmon driver he said he used to win "several" tournaments on the PGA Tour.

Nicklaus stroked it squarely into perfect position, then said: "That's why we don't use these clubs anymore." Although in great position it was behind the drive of Pentti Tofferi, Cordillera's director of golf.

It was Nicklaus' only drive of the day with the club. He autographed it and gave it to club officials for display in the clubhouse. Then he proceeded to fire a 4-under-par 68, registering an opening-day course record.

Nicklaus was visibly thrilled all day with his steady round of golf. "Not bad for an old man," he said with a grin. "Not bad for a young man, either. I made more putts today than I have in two months. This was a lot of fun. There are usually 10 days like this a year when we open a new golf course and these are the most enjoyable days of my year."

Toferri played the first nine holes with Nicklaus, who birdied Nos. 2, 3, 5 and 10, then finished the back nine after a lengthy rain and lightning delay, with Summit head pro Brock Sloan. Nicklaus bogeyed 13 and 14 then rallied with birdies on 17 and 18.

Perhaps most enjoyable part for the fans was the fact Nicklaus nixed any ideas about being surrounded by ropes walking the fairways. Any fan could walk with Nicklaus and chat with him.

"Shoot, I loved that," said Jim Peterson of Denver. "Since there was such a crowd, a lot of times you had to watch your step, and there was one moment where I was looking down to keep from tripping and someone brushed my shoulder. I looked over and it was Mr. Nicklaus. Wow, was I surprised. I asked him a question and he answered with a smile."

The golf course

When you tee off at the 18th, a 473-yard downhill-par 4, you are at The Summit, the highest point on the golf course with an unobstructed view of the New York Mountains, Bellyache Ridge and the Gore Range. Your view is thousands of acres of the White River National Forest on this slight dogleg left. Two bunkers in front and a stand of aspens in back protect the challenging small green.

"The first time I saw the property and how exposed it would be to wind and weather I asked Cordillera if they were sure they wanted to put a golf course up here, " Nicklaus said. "Then the longer we looked and the longer we thought, the more we knew that it would work."

Originally, Cordillera's owners tinkered with the idea of an 8,000-yard golf course, playing with a gift of 20-percent more carry in the rarefied air. Then they decided at more than 7,800 yards before landing on 7,595 yards from the tips.

"But we could make this into an 8,000-yard course in a matter of minutes," said Nicklaus. "All we would need is a weed eater."

The Summit Course used just 190 acres of Cordillera's massive area holdings, employing only 80 acres of turf, and the Nicklaus team disturbed much less of the land than it had originally thought.

"When we first started talking about moving dirt, we thought 600 tons would do it," Nicklaus said. "When we finished, we had moved less than 175. We wanted to do as little as possible and use the trees and the environment to our advantage."

When the golfer arrives at the eighth green he sees one of the more unique aspects of the golf course. A "punchbowl" green is waiting for your approach. The hole is a 592-yard par-5 beauty that cuts through a grove of aspens, defining the fairway boundary on the right and left. The punchbowl shape of the green is friendly. Some shots you think have missed the green, just might funnel down onto the putting surface.

"We really didn't do a whole lot of this hole," Nicklaus said from the tee. "We shaved a little off the hill to define it better and point you the right way, but the aspens define the fairway boundaries on both sides."

At the putting surface Tofferi said: "This is a great green." Nicklaus responded: "And it's fun, too."

No. 12 might be the most beautiful hole. It's a 504-yard par 4 from the Gold (back) tees and has the only water on the course, a lake paralleling the left side of the green. A native rock outcropping runs diagonally across the fairway and provides a cross hazard. From the middle tees one can carry the hazard easily, but you have to nail it from the back. The fairway is bowled giving you some friendly bounces if your ball is heading right or left.

"This is a spectacular golf course, just absolutely beautiful," Nicklaus said. "The Summit is one of the most unique sites I have ever worked with because of the dramatic elevation changes, the wetlands and the abundance of wildlife. You can seemingly see forever."

Many members feel the playing season might be much longer than some have thought because of the exposed nature of the site. Being exposed means sunlight can reach it and melt the snow in shoulder seasons. Weather was another thing on Nicklaus' mind.

"In every golf course I build, I want it to yield to good play when the conditions are perfect," Nicklaus said. "A course that plays hard under perfect conditions will be impossible to play when the conditions are less than perfect. I think Pebble Beach is like that. If the weather is perfect, it's an easy golf course. If the conditions are hard, the golf course is hard but not impossible. I think we have accomplished that here.

"I think the first 10 holes are fairly easy and even though the bunkers are very deep on some holes, a lot of times they are functional, defining the target and not penal," he said.

Located in the Vail Valley, Cordillera encompasses more than 6,500 acres, with more than 50 percent of the property is designated as open space. Cordillera's three other golf courses include the award-winning Valley Course by Tom Fazio, the Mountain Course by Hale Irwin and the Short Course by Dave Pelz.

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

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