Mountain Golf: Eagle Ranch Golf Course

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Mountain Golf 2002 Pic D

Eagle, Colo.

There's a golf building boom underway in the Vail Valley, but if you check the fine print, you'll notice that most of the new venues are ultra-expensive resorts and super-exclusive clubs. In fact, until Arnold Palmer, the old pro from Latrobe, rode in on his white horse last summer, there hadn't been a new public golf course built in the Vail area since 1975, a sorry statistic given the valley's rapid population growth. Enter Eagle Ranch. Unveiled last July, Eagle has already fulfilled its mandate to give locals and visitors alike a great new place to tee it up at reasonable rates.

Palmer is no stranger to the area. Following the 1968 PGA Championship in San Antonio, Texas, Arnie flew to Vail to conduct a clinic and open a golf academy. Back then, he remembers, "Vail was a very, very small community, hardly anything there." A strong public golf advocate, Palmer was delighted to return to one of his favorite mountain getaways to build a course open to everyone.

Located 30 miles west of Vail, Eagle is one of the prettiest and best-preserved small mountain towns in America. On a former cattle ranch on the outskirts of town, Palmer and design associates Vicki Martz and Eric Larson fashioned a roomy test of golf with five sets of tees per hole. At 6,600 feet above sea level (1,600 feet lower than Vail), the course gives experts all they can handle from the tips at 7,575 yards (par 72), yet from the forward tees, even the Happy Gilmores of the world can have a blast without getting flattened. Landing areas are wide¿Palmer loves to hit his driver and wants you to enjoy taking a rip with yours, too. Also, the subtly contoured greens are sizable, averaging well over 7,000 square feet. A fun course that accommodates all styles of play, Eagle Ranch also encourages creative "bump-and-run" shots around the greens.

Backdropped by craggy spires in the Sawatch Range as well as by New York Mountain, the Flat Tops and Castle Peak, the layout's gently rolling fairways, stretched across the floor of Brush Creek Valley, are staked out by large-scale bunkers, many of them dotted with grassy islands. Depleted wetlands have been restored, with drought-tolerant native grasses, perennials and wildflowers established along the banks of the river and elsewhere throughout the course. Water is a dominant theme at Eagle Ranch, coming into play on half the holes. Streams cascade through rock outcrops and feed many of the ponds on the course. According to Martz, "Mr. Palmer loves the sound of moving water." So will golfers¿if they can avoid it.

Among the highlights at Eagle Ranch are the finishing holes on each nine. Both are long, testing par fours routed alongside a common lake: The ninth has water on the left, the more menacing 18th has water on the right. A large, multi-fingered beach bunker¿the sand sloped down to the water's edge¿ties the two holes together.

Unlike higher-altitude courses in the area marked by sharper elevation changes, Eagle Ranch can be walked without fear of bumping into a bighorn sheep or expiring from lack of oxygen. The region enjoys a salubrious banana-belt climate¿Eagle's golf season is two months longer than Vail's, with play extending to early November.

More selling points: Golf carts at Eagle Ranch feature an Uplink GPS system that not only provides players with exact yardages, it allows them to order food from the ranch-style clubhouse. The superb practice complex features an oversize putting green and an expansive driving range with panoramic mountain views. Not bad for a course that one day may become a municipal facility. According to Director of Golf Jeff Boyer, "In a few years, the Town of Eagle will probably take over the debt of the golf course and oversee the operation. But that's down the road." The golf course is the centerpiece of a Norman Rockwell-inspired "traditional neighborhood community" (picket fences, front porches, lots of sidewalkks) designed to blend with the existing town.

Green fee $50 from opening to May 23, and from Sept. 30 to closing; $70 from May 24-June 27 and Sept. 3-29; $85 from June 28-Sept. 2 (Monday to Thursday); $90 from June 28-Sept. 2 (Friday to Sunday). Twilight rate (after 3:30 p.m.) ranges from $35 to $60. Carts are $17 per rider. Green fees are significantly reduced for Eagle County and Town of Eagle residents.

the deal Golf packages are available at the Holiday Inn Express in Eagle (five minutes from the course); and through East-West Resorts, which markets condos in Beaver Creek, 30 minutes east of the course.

contact Eagle Ranch Golf Course, 0050 P.O. Box 2210, Eagle, CO 81631; 866-328-3232;