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Best of Denver, Colorado: Your guide to the Mile High City's must-play public golf courses

David R. HollandBy David R. Holland,
Riverdale Dunes Golf Course
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The Pete Dye-designed Riverdale Dunes Golf Course combines a links style with stadium golf. (David R. Holland/TravelGolf)

DENVER -- The 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club brought together three modern golf legends: Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Palmer surged to victory, driving the first green en route to a final-round 65. But that final afternoon on the back nine, three generations shined. Hogan's final hope for a fifth U.S. Open title disappeared when his wedge to the 17th green spun back into a pond. And a burly amateur named Nicklaus showed glimpses of future greatness, even leading after 12. His hopes disappeared when he missed a 20-inch tap-in on 13 over an old ball mark he neglected to repair.

Here in Denver, where the plains meet the Rocky Mountains, a travel golfer can stage his own bit of Colorado golf glory at a multitude of daily-fee and municipal golf courses.

Most likely, you won't get on Cherry Hills, but nearby sits Wellshire Golf Club, where two greats made their mark on Colorado golf: Donald Ross charged a design fee of $1.50 per hole here in 1926, and Hogan won the Denver Open in 1948.

What golf historian wouldn't check out this place?

So make sure you research the many older municipal golf courses in Denver, but my first choice is to head for the golf-boom venues of the 1980s, '90s and early 2000s. There exist an abundance, spicing up the Denver golf scene. Here's a list of my favorites:

Riverdale Dunes Golf Course, Brighton

Pot bunkers, railroad ties, mounds, marshes, and the South Platte River. It might remind you of Lahinch in Ireland, but this is Brighton, just north of downtown Denver. Designed by Pete and Perry Dye, Riverdale Dunes Golf Course is a walkable golf course void of houses.

According to Riverdale Dunes, this is Pete Dye's first public golf course west of the Mississippi River, combining a links style with stadium golf. It hosted the 1993 U.S. Public Links Championship as well as the 1996 and 1997 Nike Colorado Classics. Riverdale Knolls, its sister course, is adjacent.

Green Valley Ranch Golf Club, Denver

Green Valley Ranch Golf Club, home of the Colorado Open, is a Perry Dye gem. Big, bold prairie golf at 7,241 yards, it includes an oasis -- old cottonwoods and wetlands -- to make things interesting. Six holes, sculpted around the protected, native areas, offer strategic shots. End your day with a monolithic, big-boy hole of 643 yards. If you par it, celebrate.

Dense growth encircles No. 10, a 417-yard par 4. Other holes present open prairie tests along a ridge. This is a true test of your approach shot with wide and inviting fairways, but you can find trouble if you're not on target.

Murphy Creek Golf Course, Aurora

Originally named The Homestead at Murphy Creek because of its farm-style clubhouse and the land's heritage, this Ken Kavanaugh layout provides a premium test for even today's long hitters. Murphy Creek Golf Course measures a brawny 7,456 from the black tees.

The prairie-links style, with generous fairways and more than 80 deep bunkers, features a huge sand-waste expanse on the par-3, 205-yard No. 5, which also includes lakes and a waterfall. Wiry, thick Canadian fescue, sometimes cut at five inches, surrounds the bunkers, and some of these hazards sit right in the middle of the wide fairways.

Be sure to spend some time in the clubhouse. Dine in Murphy's Tavern and view the other buildings. The 1920s farmhouse decor includes white siding with steep-pitched green roofs. The cart barn is a replica of a real barn, and you'll find the range-ball machine in a silo. Old, rusting farm equipment sits among former alfalfa fields, a horse-drawn wagon and an original barn.

Saddle Rock Golf Course, Aurora

Talk about a dynamic duo. When Saddle Rock Golf Course took Golf Digest honors in 1998 and Murphy Creek followed in 2000, it distinguished Aurora as the only city in the country with two facilities to make the elite list of best new golf courses.

Designed by Dick Phelps in 1997, Saddle Rock is another prairie-links style dotted by large, native areas and plenty of wildlife. Piney Creek and Saddle Rock Gulch move through the back nine with large, undulating greens, hilly terrain, cactus, yucca, wild grasses and some pines. A climb to the highest point of the front nine ranks as its highlight, providing a view of the entire Front Range -- from Pikes Peak to the south and Mount Evans to the north.

Fossil Trace Golf Club, Golden

Jim Engh designed Fossil Trace Golf Club in the shadows of Table Mountain, within sight of the Coors Brewery, and it only takes one stroke to notice the history of this land. The chimney of a brick kiln remains in the middle of the fairway on the par-5 first hole – right in the sightline of your second stroke.

Examine the 20-foot pillars of sandstone positioned in the fairway of the par-5 12th, and then determine how to clear them on your journey to the green. This hole serves as a reminder of the property's quarry history. Clay-mining equipment remains where, 64 million years ago, bird tracks, palm fronds and triceratops footprints froze into history. A split-rail fence near the green leads to a viewing area for the fossils.

Engh's 6,831-yard, par 72, provides another example of the top-shelf municipal golf courses built today. Keep your shots away from the 10-foot-deep squiggly bunkers, encircled with muscular mounds and thick rough.

The Heritage at Westmoor, Westminster

Audubon International was so impressed, it named the Heritage at Westmoor golf course as the second Certified Audubon International Signature Sanctuary in Colorado and the 40th in the world. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry designed this golf course as less intimidating than its sister course, The Legacy. But it retains the views, wetland bird sanctuaries, natural prairie grasses and groups of cottonwoods.

The Heritage has wide fairways, large greens and multiple tees, stretching to a hefty 7,345 yards. Open spaces adjacent to the golf course are sometimes abundant with three-foot high wheat. You'll face some tricky pin placements, forced carries or meadows in gently rolling terrain.

Even more impressive about this Best of Denver list, most are very affordable.

OK, what's missing from this inventory? The Ridge at Castle Pines North and Red Hawk Ridge in Castle Rock, for sure. Then there's CommonGround, Fox Hollow, Arrowhead Golf Club, plus many municipals.

President Eisenhower played at Fitzsimons Golf Course, next to the former Fitzsimons Army Hospital, as he recuperated from a heart attack suffered while playing Cherry Hills.

Where to stay

When you come to Denver to play golf, don't miss a night at its oldest hotel, The Oxford in Lower Downtown, within walking distance of Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies. For more information, visit www.theoxfordhotel.com or call (303) 628-5400.

When you head for the golf courses on the plains near Denver International Airport, try Hyatt Summerfield Suites Denver Airport. It offers complimentary wireless Internet, full kitchens, evening social with food and a full breakfast. This is a bargain. For more information, visit www.denverairport.summerfieldsuites.hyatt.com or call (303) 628-7777.

More photos

Saddle Rock Golf Course - hole 4Murphy Creek Golf Course - hole 2Green Valley Ranch Golf Club - hole 8

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

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  • Courses

    Brant wrote on: Sep 7, 2010

    I love your list, and I have played each course several times. In fact I'm a regular at Green Valley Ranch. Did you know that GVR hosts all 3 Colorado Open's (womens, mens, seniors)? Golf in Colorado is truly a "mile-high" experience!


      • Best of Denver

        Gerald wrote on: Sep 19, 2010

        I agree. I know purists like Tom Doak's CommonGround, but it is a busy place. Denver is loaded with great golf. You could play all summer and not play the same course. Great story. Thanks.