EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - At time last year, most of the Vail golf course was covered in snow. Over the weekend, the course had all 18 holes open for play. That's about a month earlier than usual.
Vail is the last public course in the valley to open, but all of those courses started play weeks earlier than normal this year, thanks to a dry winter and warm spring.
As you'd expect, the Gypsum Creek golf course opened first on March 12. That early opening was a boon for business, too. In just more than two weeks, the course recorded 1,500 rounds of golf - an average of about 75 per day.
"A lot of people had come for a ski vacation but decided they wanted to play golf instead," said Susie Helmerich, course director.
The demand for rental gear was so great that Helmerich ended up buying several sets of clubs. At least one foursome from Vail rented gear and bought balls from the Vail club before heading west.
The Eagle Ranch golf course opened later in March, but course director Jeff Boyer said his course was swamped by frustrated skiers, too.
"We couldn't meet all the tee-time requests we had," Boyer said.
The course at Eagle-Vail has been busy, too, in the week or so that all 18 holes have been open.
That's the good news. The more difficult news is that all these courses have been hosting players while still working with skeleton crews.
In Gypsum, Helmerich and her course pro were the only people working the first few weeks. In fact, the course only now has started to build up to its usual summer staff.
Helmerich said she got by without some mowing or raking traps every day. Some of that early-season wear is starting to show, she said, but there's now enough people to do maintenance.
In Vail, Director of Golf Alice Plain used a bare-bones crew to open the course's pro shop and driving range in less than a week.
"The Nordic center moved out Sunday, and we were cleaning carpets Monday," Plain said. The driving range was open the following Saturday.
Those small crews have had to do a lot of work across the valley.
At Eagle Ranch, Boyer said the elk that winter on the course leave a lot of poo on the fairways and greens. All that has to be raked up before golfers are turned loose. There's other needed maintenance, too. Greens and tees have to be roped off, and crews try to mow a time or two.
"Even this winter was still pretty harsh on the course," Boyer said.
That adds up to a lot of work for a few people, since many of the courses' seasonal employees work winters at the ski resorts.
"And we don't have the budget to hire people this early," Plain said.
In Eagle-Vail, director of golf Ben Welsh said there are two people running the show right now. In the peak times, there are four. The good news, Welsh said, is that days are still short enough to manage the course with one shift of two people instead of two shifts of two.
But Plain said even the hard work and long hours have been worth the trouble at Vail.
"We've had a couple of challenging years before this one," she said, referring to early-season flooding that fouled up play at the course for big parts of the last two seasons.
"We're really looking forward to this season," she said.
Still, all the public courses opened early this season for a reason - lack of snow. That has course managers wary of what a dry summer could bring.
Eagle-Vail has its own water supply, but Welsh said there's a plan in place if dry conditions persist.
"I've never seen it like this before," Welsh said. "So we're going to be conserving water. We'll cut back on watering the rough, and if it gets bad enough, we'll just focus (watering) on the tees and greens."
For now, though, course managers, and golfers, are enjoying getting rounds in earlier than they have in a long time, if ever.
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.