VAIL — For as long as anyone can remember, balls from the driving range at the Vail Golf Club have dropped on the 18th fairway. For just as long, balls from the fairway have overshot the green and landed at the clubhouse. That’s going to change.
Starting Monday, the town of Vail, which owns the course, is starting work on a project to relocate the 18th green and install new nets at the driving range. The end result should be a safer course.
That safety will come at a price — more than $1 million. Less than half the total cost of the project will be spent on relocating the 18th green. Most of the money will go toward building new nets — some as tall as 130 feet, on the south side of the driving range. The current nets top out at 80 feet.
While many golfers have first-hand experience with “errant balls” in the area, the safety issue was brought into focus last year because of a study by the Tanner Consulting Group. That study was done as part of creating a new master plan for the golf course. The study put the clubhouse — both the existing structure and a proposed new structure — in the “errant ball zone” from the driving range.
The study put the town “on notice” about potential liability from mis-hit golf balls, said Greg Hall, Vail Public Works director. That notice, and subsequent conversations with the town’s insurance company, made the 18th hole project more of a priority.
While the money for the project was available, like just about everything at the course these days, getting started wasn’t easy.
A group of course neighbors filed suit to stop the project, claiming that work on the 18th hole and driving range was part of a broader plan to replace the clubhouse. The clubhouse plan is also being fought by neighbors, who claim the project as currently proposed will bring more noise, light and traffic to the neighborhood.
While the clubhouse suit is still being litigated, Senior District Judge Frank Plaut last month denied the neighbors’ request for an injunction to stop the 18th hole and driving range work. In his ruling, Plaut wrote that the current project is necessary to improve safety at the course.
Even that ruling didn’t stop complaints about the project.
Ken Wilson is the president of the Vail Recreation District board of directors. Before the Town Council voted to award the contract for the 18th green work, Wilson and other district board members asked the council to wait on the work, claiming the project will cost the district revenue over two golf seasons.
While the council voted to award the contract, Wilson continues to believe the work will cause the district some short-term pain, for both the remainder of this season and into the next one.
The course this year finished an alternate “19th” hole that players can finish their rounds with. But, Wilson said, that replacement hole isn’t a great finish to the course, which, depending on weather, could be open until late October.
“A par-69 course isn’t going to be on the top of anyone’s list,” he said.
While the contract for work on the green calls for the course to be playable by late June of 2014, Wilson said that timetable will require “perfect” weather. Sod for the 19th hole was laid in June and has just become playable in the past few weeks, he said.
Still, Wilson said, that part of the course will be safer in the long run. And, while some have wondered whether the safety issue is legitimate, Wilson said it’s a real problem at the course.
“I know people who have been hit by balls out there,” he said. “That was not an imagined issue.”