Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in Denver is among Colorado's premier prairie venues
Green Valley Ranch Golf Club, out in Denver International Airport territory, is a design of sweeping scale, but there is something almost regal about it. Though its set-up is long (7,241 yards from the tips) and suited to a muscular game, there is a nevertheless a graceful quality in the manner it is presented, in the way it expands greenly out away from the lush environs surrounding the old frontier-like clubhouse.
DENVER -- Look eastward from Denver and you will see the future of Colorado golf. Virtually every year a new golf course or two opens on the flat end of the Front Range, each one seemingly nearer to Kansas, and each one possessing a similar look: a sprawling, verdant carpet rolled out through the high native grasses. These courses are often bold and as big as the prairies they sit on, and they make it easy to assume that this is the direction that Colorado golf is heading, both geographically and stylistically.
Golf land inside the Denver metro area is basically used up, and it is increasingly difficult to build near the foothills. A handful of prestige courses such as Jim Engh's Sanctuary and Red Hawk Ridge have recently highlighted spots on the action-packed terrain south of the city, but they are rare. To the east, however, into that endless farmscape, the land is simply waiting.
So it is there where you find the golf that will define Denver for the next decade, most notably in the form of Buffalo Run and Murphy's Creek. At their best, these eastern courses capture the essence of the vast Colorado plains, and along with the mountain courses, offer the best reflection of what natural golf in this state is about.
Green Valley Ranch Golf Club, out in Denver International Airport territory, is the newest among Colorado's premier prairie venues. Like its compatriot courses, Green Valley Ranch is a design of sweeping scale, but there is something almost regal about it.
Though its set-up is long (7,241 yards from the tips) and suited to a muscular game, there is a nevertheless a graceful quality in the manner it is presented, in the way it expands greenly out away from the lush environs surrounding the old frontier-like clubhouse and large practice facilities. There is balance in the design and a joyous interplay between each hole and the land. It exudes a type of permanence rarely found in infant golf courses, a self-possession that certainly is born from the rhythmic routing that explores and consumes every aspect of this richly endowed site. Opened for play only in July of 2001, Green Valley has already found its way to the top of Denver golf's A-list, logging between 175 and 250 round a day, despite its off-the-beaten-path location.
The design came from the boards of Dye International, the nationally recognized firm of Perry Dye. The Denver-based Dye was given the commission by owner and builder Joe Niebur when Niebur stepped in less than two years ago to make this long-promised course a reality. Though the architectural and engineering credit belongs to Dye, Niebur was on site during the majority of the construction period and tweaked the course to his specifications. He was not afraid to get his boots dirty.
"Joe would get up on a bulldozer if he needed to," says John Gallup, general manager and head golf professional at Green Valley Ranch.
Green Valley Ranch Golf Club serves up a surprise
Green Valley both typifies and contradicts the "golf on the plains" ideal. It is prairie golf but it is also a course that ventures through a dense mass of vegetation that would be expected in the South, but not necessarily out here on the Midwestern plains.
"People don't expect it," Gallup says of the vegetation. "They're driving out here and they see nothing but prairie land, and they turn left down Himalaya Road and then there's this wall of trees that's down where the wetlands are. It's a surprise." Niebur's vision was to have this wildness at the heart of the property, be the soul of the course.
"What he wanted him (Dye) to do," Gallup continues, "was utilize the wetlands and the existing trees to their maximum potential. Our goal was to take out as few trees as possible and have the wetlands be an integral part of the golf course."
The results are a success, as Green Valley's reputation will undoubtedly be anchored around a core group of holes that get quite intimate with the wetlands and ancient cottonwoods. Six holes are situated almost lovingly in and around the protected native areas and offer some tricky, almost diabolical shots. The 10th, a 417-yard par 4, is completely encapsulated by the impenetrable flora, while several more holes skirt the wetlands on one side or another.
Yet lost beyond the literal jungle of the 10th and the other most photogenic holes (Nos. 1, 8, 16-18) are a series of open prairie holes that run along a ridge at the far extremes of the property. They may not be as widely recognized or beloved, but these stark and masculine holes offer golf at the highest level.
"It's nice to have a mix if you have the type of terrain that allows you to do that. Luckily enough we have that here," Gallup says.
Parallel holes Nos. 3 and 6 are two of the more powerful two-shotters Colorado golfers are likely to see. These holes, at 490 and 483 yards, respectively, from the rear markers, are true high plains holes that hug the rough land in uphill and downhill directions.
Sandwiched between them in this far corner of the site is the fourth, a dainty 327-yard par 4 that offers glory to those who wish to consume the majority of the ravine on the inside of this dogleg left with their drive. Of course, there is enough fairway to play the hole conventionally, but real birdie opportunity is there for the brave.
Green Valley Ranch Golf Club: Greens are key
Gallup believes that the key to scoring at Green Valley is the approach shots into some severely tight greens.
"It's a second shot golf course. You've got to be able to hit your irons accurately. Our golf course doesn't penalize the guy who can't hit it perfectly straight off the tee. I think there are more penalties on the second shot than there are off the tee." There is almost never room to miss long.
To make those approach shots easier, players must drive the ball strongly at Green Valley and the course is set-up to encourage big hitters. Most holes bend to some degree or have the tees set off at an angle against a lateral hazard or wetland and at least nine holes provide an angle from the tee that gives players a chance to choose an aggressive or passive line. In this way, the course constantly challenges the players bravado. Big, bold swingers clearly have an advantage.
The closing trio of holes has already made quite an impression, mainly because the 18th measures 643 yards and if you par, the clubhouse will buy you a beverage, but no three holes sum up the style and diversity of Green Valley better than 10, 11, and 12.
All three give the player a chance to bite off as much with the drive as he or she dares. The 10th, surrounded with peril, contains one of the most fearful second shots of the round into a highly contoured thumb of a green that falls off into the scrub in all directions. The 446-yard 11th plays along a rise and begins with a significant carry over the wetlands that border the hole all the way on the right. Its second shot is a fickle one to a well-protected, nearly blind green guarded by severe mounds on the left and certain death on the right. The 12th epitomizes the highland holes, a tree-less and monolithic 536-yard par 5 up an exposed hill. The tee shot plays diagonally over a lake and again directly tests the player's machismo. The plateau green, sitting above the player, is a bald, difficult target.
Dye made an interesting decision when he chose to let stand two giant cottonwoods in the centerline of the 580-yard second. Second shots must play clearly wide right or left of the first tree, and the second tree resides directly in front of the green at the 80-yard mark so it is possible to be in the middle of the fairway and absolutely stymied. The author normally encourages cross hazards because they generally accelerate the strategy of any given hole, it's just that usually they aren't so tall. Some like the trees, while they infuriate others. Count Gallup among the former. "I think they're great. You just have to play around them." As for controversy? He doesn't mind. "If nothing else, it gets people talking about the golf course."
Green Valley Ranch Golf Club: The facilities
Plains, prairie, wetlands, trees -- Green Valley is all of this, with a top-rate practice facility to boot. There is an excellent short-game area and the grass-only driving range is expansive. The custom club-fitting program is the largest green grass club-fitting facility in the state, featuring 11 different club manufacturers and full instructional staff. The rate for a fitting and corresponding lesson begins at $75.
"Nowadays you've got to have your clubs fitted," Gallup insists. "(Buying clubs off the rack) is like buying a suit that isn't tailored. It doesn't look good and it doesn't work well. That program is one of the best things we do. We offer the instruction to accompany the clubs you were just fitted with so you know how to use them correctly."
May 7, 2002