Vail’s Cordillera Resort
Close your eyes and think of Vail, Colo. Most likely, the image that comes to mind is snow-peaked mountains covered with a thick blanket of pines, their forest seams stitched together by threads of ski runs and winding streams.
Not surprising, since 19 14,000-foot peaks (a.k.a. 14ers) are within a 90-mile radius of Vail. Skiing is big business in this region of the country, long a winter playground for Texans looking to trade winter rains for fluffy snow.
Cordillera’s Mountain Course, originally designed by Hale Irwin but tweaked and prodded by others, is the first to open for play, followed by Tom Fazio’s Valley Course and Dave Pelz’s 10-hole, par-3 course. With only a four-month window for play, the Jack Nicklaus Summit Course opens latest and closes soonest.
The Mountain layout gets the most public play, and the par-3 17th could sell the course by itself. The green lies 174 feet from a tee box that lurks more than a hundred feet above the hole.
“Grab your pitching wedge or hit a soft 9-iron,” Tofferi suggests, but it seems like a taunt. Yet he’s right, given that the target is so far below us because of the drop in elevation. Whichever club is selected will fly an extra 10 to 15 yards.
The 18th hole, at 518 yards, is also reachable with a driver and a mid-iron.
Rod Buscher, a Cordillera resident who splits his time between his homes in Cordillera and Valderrama, Spain (where he also has a golf membership), believes that, “If you polled the members, each of the three courses here would be favored by an equal third.”
Buscher would probably be the person to know that information, too. As a former partner in John Elway’s car dealerships, he’s known many of the Cordillera residents for years.
“I’d have to give the popularity edge to the Mountain Course, though,” Buscher continues. “The younger players favor the Mountain. It’s tougher, with more elevation changes.”
Tom Stickney, director of instruction at Cordillera and ranked among the top three teachers in Colorado by Golf Digest, also favors the Mountain Course but thinks the view from the Summit is worth the effort to catch a sunrise. Picking up his 3-wood, Stickney nails his drive on No. 13 on the Mountain Course through a narrow ribbon of aspens to leave himself an easy wedge in.
Stickney is quick to point out that Cordillera regularly invests millions to improve its courses. Insiders say 14 of Irwin’s original 18 holes have been modified in some way, including bulldozing a few that the members deemed unplayable. Four greens and one fairway on the Summit Course are scheduled to receive surgery as well. With 15 courses in the Vail Valley, three more under construction and an additional course finishing the planning stage, no course operator can become complacent.
Not content to cede the warm season sports to competitors, Vail Resorts, Inc., has latched on to golf with the same grip it has applied to skiing. Vail Resorts built and operates Red Sky Golf Club at Red Sky Ranch.
Branden McCarthy heads Vail’s marketing effort for Red Sky Golf Club, a relative newcomer to the golf scene. It’s his mission to make Red Sky the golf equal of Cordillera, but he’d be delighted if it was even better. So far, he’s on target.
Because RockResorts, a resort management subsidiary of Vail Resorts, also operates the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera and its golf courses, Cordillera’s three 18s function as sisters to Red Sky’s Norman and Fazio layouts.
Like Cordillera, Red Sky is a private club. The 425 memberships ($175,000 each) and 87 lots and residences (phase one) lie 25 miles west of Vail Mountain on Interstate 70, but guests of Cordillera as well as a handful of Vail properties (including Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch and the Lodge at Vail, for example) have access to Red Sky.
Guest play alternates each day between the Fazio and the Norman tracks. Both offer dramatic summit views of the valley. It’s evident from the golf carts (one color for members, who have access to either course every day, and another color for guests) and the clubhouse entrance, a towering jigsaw puzzle of blond pine logs and cedar beams, that Vail Resorts is playing to win.
“What separates Red Sky from the rest of the Vail Valley courses is our attention to detail,” McCarthy explains, stopping our golf cart at the edge of the cart path. “It took 20 dye lots for us to find just the right color for the cart path cement so that it looks connected to the earth and matches the soil and the rock.”
McCarthy sweeps his hand across the horizon and drops this bomb: “We greenhoused 2,500 sage plants during construction, then transplanted them back so the land would retain its natural look.” Here, where the sidehills are plastered with sage bushes everywhere – acres and acres of sage that stretch for miles – McCarthy is boasting that Red Sky even restored Nature’s trash to its proper place.
On Vail’s ski slopes, it’s not uncommon to run into an Olympic skier or someone famous enjoying the surroundings. Vail’s Red Sky has thought of that, too, recruiting the LPGA’s Nicole Cutler to spend her free time training and playing Red Sky’s Norman and Fazio courses.
Cutler isn’t bashful about her love of this place.
“Whether it’s winter or spring, summer or fall,” she said, “I’ll take whatever time I can spend up here.”
With Vail Mountain’s Game Creek Bowl and Beaver Creek’s Birds of Prey clearly visible on the near horizon, Cutler and McCarthy boast about Red Sky’s conditioning.
“If you think about how young these courses are, they’re in phenomenal shape,” Cutler adds, as she cards yet another birdie on our round together.
The 7,580-yard Norman course is surprisingly friendly, not the typical terrorist design most often associated with Greg Norman. Although it finishes with a 494-yard 17th and a 590-yard closer, there’s more than enough reward on this course to make the challenges worthwhile.
David Leadbetter has a teaching academy at Red Sky, but Dave Pelz’s school at Cordillera is the site of the largest golfing hajj. Pelz designed his own short-game course to reinforce the concepts he and his staff teach at their one- and three-day schools offered during the summer. Equal parts didactic and hands-on, Pelz’s methods can and will knock strokes off your game.
The 850 members of Cordillera’s Golf Club have open access to its three courses (Pelz’s is managed privately through the Pelz short-game school), while public play is a bit more limited and restricted mostly to guests staying at the Lodge. Unlike most resort communities, most of the members live full-time at Cordillera. As a group, they participate in local charities and fundraisers, including an annual Habitat for Humanity construction project.
Although Cordillera’s courses are separated by miles on the property’s 7,500 acres, each is within easy distance of the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, the 56-room flagship hotel.
The Belgian Chateau styling of the Lodge is casually elegant, with its leather chairs, overstuffed sofas, hardwood floors and flagstone patio areas. A huge new spa – offering nearly every type of treatment a golfer might desire – is regarded as the only destination spa in the area. A shiatsu therapist named Claudia is clearly on loan from heaven. And the Lodge’s premier restaurant, Mirador, offers well-prepared seasonal and local offerings, including game, fish and steaks, and has an extensive and well-chosen wine list.
No visit to Cordillera would be complete without at least a day at Pelz’s school, followed by a round on Cordillera’s Mountain Course and 18 on either of the Red Sky layouts. And the best time to play here is upon us now.
The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera
Red Sky Ranch and Golf Club
But somewhere between the last snowmelt and the first flake, Colorado transforms itself into a golfer’s dream. Crowds are thin, the air warms up and gentle mountain eddies blow the stars around at night. While the temperature will remain hot in Texas through October, it’s the golf that’s hot – right now – in Colorado’s mountains.
“When I first moved to Colorado, it was for the winter ski season,” says Pentti Tofferi, the director of golf at Cordillera, the premier golf resort around the Vail area. “But I quickly fell in love with the spring, summer and fall.”
Tofferi is a veteran ski instructor at Vail, but his true passion is clearly warmer weather sports, golf and kayaking specifically. Not only is he a single-digit handicap, but he’s also a respected river guide. You won’t find a nicer guy in all of Colorado, and he’s chosen to make his home in the community of Cordillera, about 25 minutes west of Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas.
“Here’s what I love most about Cordillera …” Tofferi pauses mid-sentence, his eyes fixated on a para-glider riding the thermal currents to our west, then continues. “Between our four courses, we’re playing golf – with full services – in April, while they’re still skiing on Vail Mountain.
“September is my favorite month in this valley. Nights are cool, days stay warm and sunny, and the air is crystal clear. And most importantly, the aspens have all turned into a rolling wave of golden yellow.”