Saddleback Golf Club in Firestone, Colorado: They don't make courses like this anymore
FIRESTONE, Colo. -- At first glance, Saddleback Golf Club seems to be another of the roaming, links-style courses that have come to define Front Range golf in Colorado.
The rural drive toward the golf course is along a common county road, a few homes situated sparsely on the way, the tops of wheat roiling alongside in the wind. From the highway, something green can be spotted through the airy expanse to the east: flagsticks and mounds, a golf course amid the hay. This is the prairie, and the course is located in its wide open on an old 250-acre alfalfa farm with clear views west to the Rocky Mountains and out to nothingness in the opposite direction.
First impressions can be misleading. Saddleback may not appear to be a "traditional" or "classic" style golf course right now, but give it 50 years.
To understand how architect Andy Johnson can describe Saddleback as "classic" and to compare it to "famous, old golf courses" one has to first use some imagination. This is, after all, Firestone, a farm, and a brand new layout.
Johnson is already thinking decades down the road, of what the course will become in addition to what it is already. Right now, on the surface, it appears to be contemporary but observant. Players will notice that Saddleback is distinctly not in the mold of a trendy "Scottish-links" style course. It's traditional in set-up and quite old school in routing.
To begin with, the site is square-ish and so necessitates a bandbox, or core, routing. The typical links-style courses of the area spread out broadly and back over separate and often distant zones of land. At Saddleback, the holes play toward internal points on the property and though they border each other, they're often hidden by a variety of creative features.
If there's ever to be housing at Saddleback, it will have to be around the edges of the course, and even that is uncertain because of potential instability in the foundation due to under-site coal mining. Thus, the fact that this would be a core routing with no housing restrictions came to significantly influence how Johnson approached it.
"I was dreaming of the kind of golf course that I remember (playing) as a kid," he says.
"As a kid playing golf I do not remember any housing along the perimeter of the courses nor ever crossing any roads," Johnson continues. "When we teed off (number one) we played golf straight through to number 18. No distractions. The golf course was a microenvironment onto itself. The Saddleback site rekindled my nostalgia for the good old days and I had the opportunity to create a core golf course."
Another reason a layman might confuse Saddleback for a prairie-style course rather than a classic course in the making is its lack of trees. When Johnson began working, only five mature trees existed on the entire site.
"My vision of re-creating any famous old golf courses unfortunately also includes the stately old trees," he says. "My hope is that someday, 50 years or so, the trees that we planted (3,000 oak, maple, cottonwood, spruce, pine and ash trees) will add more 'natural definition' to the course. If you look at old pictures of Cherry Hills or Denver (Country Club) they were nearly tree-less sites. In the meantime we needed to define the golf holes with as natural looking of features as man can create."
Some of those features, such as fairway bunkers cut into raised mounds and the barrancas that separate holes and support green complexes, hearken back to an older way of designing golf courses. The conspicuous barrancas, most evident between holes three, five, six, and seven, and between the ninth and eighteenth greens, are an uncommon sight today and add to the course's unique playability.
Johnson explains: "The barrancas came about for a similar reason as they were created years ago. Earth-moving equipment was not as powerful as it is today, [and] the architects needed to move the dirt as short of distance as possible. So they created down areas adjacent to where they needed the fill dirt. Our reason for creating them was (also) budget limitations-it cost more money to move dirt farther. Plus I like fairways that are "stepped" or "shelved" between a high area on one side and a low area on the other side. It creates a nice definition to the hole."
While the barrancas, the pending trees, the core routing, and molded, sloping greens may recall courses of yore, other features seem more modern including the island green at the 148-yard fourth and the 192 yards of carry over wetlands at the par three 11th. In addition, there is the split fairway at the 423 yard seventh (with both modern and classic aspects), the upper tier of which provides straight ahead access to the narrow green but requires a longer carry to achieve it, whereas the lower left fairway is wide and inviting but results in a longer approach blocked by a bunker short and left of the green.
The contrast between old and new modes is constant. The 524-yard 13th is a classic decision hole, a reachable par five confounded in the high old way of defense by a small, simple stream crossing in front of the green. Three holes later at the 16th, the decision is less subtle. This 322-yard ultimate risk/reward par four hooks strongly left around a lake, accessible in one way by two timid iron shots. The alternative is a flagrant, straightaway drive of 230 to 260 yards directly over the water that can lead to either an eagle putt or, of course, disaster.
Part of the allure of Saddleback Golf Club is its mixture of high aspiration and humble approach. Owners Vern Hamilton (the original farm owner), Jeff Wikre, Troy Weidner, and Tom O'Malley were attracted to Johnson because of his background as a golf professional and superintendent.
According to Johnson "they wanted a golfers' golf course and not a monument to the architect." They shared in Johnson's vision of creating a classically styled, golf only design and gave him the green light to "amp it up" in certain places.
"There has been a proliferation of 'cookie-cutter' designs on the Front Range, so we wanted to give the golfers something different to choose from and add variety to the mix. The easy way out when you see the tree-less prairie land around Denver is to think 'Scottish links' course. "
"The PGA Tour players enjoy a once a year trip to Scotland for the British Open, but they also get to play Pebble Beach, Winged Foot, Florida courses, desert courses, etc. At Saddleback we tried to create a golfer-friendly, classic style, pure golf layout."
"Someday I hope Saddleback will be thought of as one of the nation's traditional-style gems."
The uniqueness of the course is becoming more noticeable all the time, and slowly Saddleback is gaining on its reputation as a pure golf destination.
Johnson sums it up as such: "I like to use a saying from the ski industry. (The slogan for) Alta ski area in Utah is 'Alta is for Skiers.' Mine is 'Saddleback is for Golfers.'"
August 1, 2001