By: Steve Habel
Courtesy of Cybergolf
To paraphrase a statement heard from prospectors in Colorado’s Summit County 150 years ago, “there’s gold in them thar mountains.” These days, those few words can still sum up the region around and the town of Breckenridge, as treasures abound here about an hour and a half’s drive from Denver.
Thanks to the foresight of the Breckenridge residents, the design genius of Jack Nicklaus, and a piece of ground among the mountains that has few peers anywhere in the world, this small part of the valley in the shadow of the soaring Tenmile Range has been nurtured into one of the nation’s top municipal golf courses.
Long before white settlers from the East crossed the nearby Continental Divide, the area that would become Breckenridge was part of the summer hunting grounds of the nomadic White River and Middle Park Ute Native Americans. In 1859, the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush was on, and the town was developed out of America’s mid-19th-century rush to settle the West. Breckenridge’s growth was spurred by the discovery of gold, and miners and fortune seekers flocked to the region in droves.
These days part of the appeal of coming to Breckenridge is the municipality’s great opportunities for skiing in the winter; hiking, mountain biking, white-water rafting and fly-fishing in the summer; and shopping and great dining anytime there is a dollar or two burning a hole in your pocket. Beginning in 1985, Nicklaus added golf to the list of great things about this part of the Rocky Mountain State, as the Breckenridge Golf Club was born with the opening of the first of its three nine-hole layouts, each a par 36.
The Town of Breckenridge can boast that it is the only municipality in the world to own a Nicklaus-designed, 27-hole golf facility. National and regional honors have been bestowed on Breckenridge Golf Club, including being named Best Mountain Course and Toughest Mountain Course by Colorado Golfer, and a 4-½-star rating from Golf Digest as one of the magazine’s top “Upscale Places to Play” in the nation.
After starting with 18 holes in the mid-’80s another nine designed by Nicklaus was unveiled in the summer of 2001. The Elk nine as it is named, offers more elevation change than the original Bear and Beaver nines.
Situated in a beautiful valley, the clubhouse here sits at an elevation of 9,324 feet. Each nine at Breckenridge offers a mountain golf experience panoramic views of the snowcapped Colorado Rockies, and dense wooded areas that yield open native grassland and wetlands. It’s not uncommon to spot such wildlife as beaver, deer and elk, an occasional moose and bear, abundant red fox and red tail hawk.
The experience is indeed more than just golf, but the game here is plenty and more than a little challenging to even the savvy, low-handicap player.
The Beaver Nine
The second nine to open, in 1987, was Beaver. This side has the narrowest fairways of any of three nines and accurate drives, and not necessarily length, are needed to be successful.
The nine takes its name from the beaver ponds along holes 6, 8 and 9 that were fashioned by the little web-footed mammals and which Nicklaus left in place for our viewing pleasure. If you venture to the left of these holes, take notice of the rock piles – miners called them tailings – left over from the gold-mining days.
No. 2 on Beaver, a narrow, 562-yard par-5 with a deep green, gives you the first real chance to make birdie. The third is a 177-yard par-3 with a horseshoe-shaped bunker that winds around the front and sides of the green, and No. 4 is a dogleg-left 416-yard par-4 that calls for a drive over a deep ravine and three sand bunkers short and left of the fairway.
The fun at Beaver really begins at the 423-yard par-4 fifth, which plays downhill to a fairway guarded by tall grass left and a deep bunker right. If the hole is cut at the back-left, your approach much arc over a bunker and the edge of a large pond.
No. 6 plays to just 405 yards but winds back uphill with the snow-capped Mt. Baldy directly at the rear of the green. The seventh, a 409-yard par-4, is narrow and ends at a raised, two-tiered putting surface.
The beaver ponds on the 580-yard par-5 eighth seem to have a magnetic pull on a golf ball; don’t even think about going for this green in two unless you can carry at least 260 yards and drop such shots on a tablecloth. This is a gorgeous double-dogleg that crosses marshlands and beaver ponds twice.
Beaver finishes with a par-3, but – at 200 yards, buffeted by swirling breezes and toughened by a change in elevation – this hole involves one of the toughest tee shots on the nine.
The large, round peak that frames the ninth hole is Buffalo Mountain, part of the Gore Mountain Range. It was the last active volcano in the mountain range.
The Elk Nine
The success of the original 18 holes at Breckenridge Golf Club prompted town officials to ask Nicklaus for another nine holes. The “Golden Bear” did just that, and the Elk nine opened in 2001. This side offers the most radical elevation change of the three nines as well as the widest panoramas of the Tenmile Range.
Above all else – and even more than Bear and Beaver – Elk really requires some skilled shot-making. Accuracy is the only way to avoid getting beat up on Elk, thanks to its target fairways, punitive hazards, blind tee shots and approaches to greens with a lot of movement.
The rollercoaster ride begins at the 574-yard, par-5 second, which bends leftward around a bunker, moves to a bowling-lane-sized landing area for the second shot, and ends at a green where you could lose your approach in an environmentally protected area if off to the right.
No. 3 is a 204-yard, uphill par-3 that involves carry over high grasses; and the 441-yard par-4 fourth asks for a left-to-right shot around the corner to be in position to reach an uphill green guarded left by deep sand. It gets even tougher at No. 5, a 242-yard par-3 that looks like it plays downhill but really doesn’t.
Take advantage of Nicklaus’ generosity on the reachable 281-yard par-4 sixth (the shortest par-4 at the facility), but be aware of the bunker short and right that catches many tee shotsn and the upside-down-question mark-shaped bunker on the left that will turn birdies into bogeys.
The 409-yard, par-4 seventh on Elk is one tough son of a gun. The elevation of the tee is 9,445 feet, the highest point on the course, and the green is at 9,370 feet – a 75-foot drop from start to finish. The tee shot is played toward a large pine at the end of the fairway and the approach is played over a deep, grass-filled canyon.
The conclusion of Elk includes the narrow, uphill 576-yard par-5 eighth with a sand-engirded green, and the 425-yard ninth, with a bunker some 45 yards short of the putting surface that fools you into thinking the hole is closer than it really is.
After playing here, I was a bit frustrated with my score, as I played better than the total showed. That’s when I looked a little harder at the scorecard and discovered that from the Nicklaus (back) tees on the Elk/Beaver rotation, the course stretches 7,145 yards where it has a course rating of 73.5 and a slope of 151, giving this duo the second-toughest course rating in all of Colorado. The other combinations are no snap either, with the Beaver/Bear combo coming in at 73.9 and 147 and Bear/Elk at 74.0 and a 145 – all are a great challenge for even the best golfer.
Breckenridge Golf Club is walker-friendly, and its greens are every bit as good as could be expected in these high-altitude conditions. The fairways are near-perfect, even though the management finally dropped its carts-on-paths-only policy to the pleasure of many players visiting from lower elevations.
Fun off the Course as well
The Breckenridge area offers numerous forms of accommodations, and we were fortunate to spend a few nights at a premium condo at Highland Greens Lodge, just a 9-iron from the course and minutes from downtown.
Our new condominium featured vaulted ceilings, a washer and dryer, gas fireplace and gorgeous mountain views from a private balcony. The facility has meeting rooms, a fitness center, hot tubs and a sauna, and a private shuttle during ski season that takes you to the lifts.
At the Relish Restaurant on the main square downtown, I had a fine meal of grilled Colorado lamb sirloin with buttermilk mashed potatoes and summer squash, while my companion enjoyed the Capellini-wrapped Alaskan halibut with wilted pea shoots and grain mustard butter sauce. Both were out of this world, even in a place more than a mile and half high.