Duncan, TravelGolf.com Senior Writer
FIRESTONE, CO 12/19/2001
- At first glance Saddleback
be another of the roaming, links-style courses that have come to
define Front Range golf in Colorado. The rural drive toward the
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 (and for that matter,
one that isn't garnering the same attention as heavyweight Front
Range competition like Murphy's Creek and Green Valley Ranch).
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 eighteen. 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
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 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.'"
Saddleback Golf Club
8631 Frontier St.
Firestone, CO 80520
Championship length: 7,020 yards. Four subsequent tees at 6,550;
6,144; 5,539; and 4,935.
Par: 72 (36/36)
Opened: June, 2001
Take exit 235 (Firestone exit) off I-25 and turn east on Highway 52.
Go 2 miles and turn north on Road 13. Go 3 miles and turn east on
Road 20. The golf course entrance is on your right.
Green fees are $26 Monday through Thursday, $31 Friday through
Sunday. Juniors may be eligible for a rate of $13.
Saddleback is a wonderful course to walk and welcomes it. The tees
are nearly always just paces away from the greens.