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Golf’s big impact

Tom Boyd

The first time Ben Krueger laid eyes on the Vail Golf Course, it was buried in snow. As a course designer and superintendent, Krueger knew he would be working to improve the course once the snow melted, but in the meantime there was little Krueger could do to improve Vail’s small, 9-hole course in East Vail.He took a quick look at the course, and then did what everyone else was doing in Vail in the winter of ’66-’67: he went skiing.But Krueger, along with many of Vail’s other early contributors, knew that the valley needed an alternative to skiing to anchor summertime tourism. With the encouragement of Vail founder Pete Seibert, Krueger came back to Vail in 1967 and began re-designing, re-building, and expanding the Vail golf course.”Pete Seibert and all those guys were great skiers, but they were also great golfers,” said Krueger, who now lives near Wolcott. “They knew that golf (and summer tourism) would be as big, if not bigger, than winter.”Vail’s 18-hole course became the keystone of Vail’s summer tourism and helped make Vail a year-round destination. Since the completion of Krueger’s course, 12 more golf courses have been built in the valley. In that time, the valley’s population has gone from around 5,000 year-round residents to more than 45,000. And there’s little doubt that golf has played a significant role in that growth.Golf, in many ways, has exploded. There are entire developments designed around golf courses, complete with real estate parcels and full-fledged marketing campaigns. The grand opening of Red Sky Ranch brought big names like John Elway, Dan Marino, Mike Shanahan and Greg Norman to the valley.Memberships at some of the valley’s private courses require initial payments of $200,000 and more, and yearly dues can cost upward of $7,700. Homes located on the fairway cost millions, and lots can change hands many times over before a live-in owner is ever found (if one is ever found at all). Like the mining-claim speculators who made money in Colorado’s early days without every actually mining, real estate speculators make millions by buying and selling golf-course homes without ever actually living in one.Arrowhead, for example, is a community designed specifically around the ski-and-golf concept. Access to Beaver Creek Mountain is only minutes away, and golf is provided at the highly exclusive Country Club of the Rockies. More than $18 million of real estate transactions took place in March of 2005, providing more than nine percent of the valley’s total volume for that month. The average sales price was well over $1 million.The money trend seems to follow private golf courses in particular. Not every high-priced neighborhood is located near a private golf course, but every private golf course is surrounded by high-priced real estate. Cordillera, another golf-centric community, and Red Sky Ranch in Wolcott, are prime examples.From Ford to FinchemGolf has brought big dollars to the valley, but it’s also helped bring star-power to Vail’s summers.The first, and perhaps biggest, name in Vail golf is Arnold Palmer. The golf legend began coming to Vail in 1967 for his Arnold Palmer Golf Academy. Dick Hauserman, an early Vail investor, played a critical role in getting Palmer to come to Vail.President Gerald Ford also played a large role. He is well known for helping Vail’s ski reputation get off its feet, but he also hosted the Jerry Ford Invitational golf tournament.The tournament began in 1981 and lasted 20 years. It raised $3.5 million for local charities, featured as many as 55 PGA players a year and was won the first year by Jack Nicklaus. Athletes like Michael Jordan came to town to participate.The late comedian Bob Hope, who also had a spring invitational in California, was friends with the President, and helped bring many famous names to the valley for the tournament.”(Ford) was instrumental at the time, specifically for golf,” remembered Krueger.It was a great success for early Vail, Krueger said, especially because the course had been built with such a small budget. Krueger remembers being allowed about $150,000 for the construction of the course when he re-built it in 1967.He also had to compete with the construction of I-70, which was going in at the time.”The Vail Golf Course land was about 200 yards wide and two miles long,” he said. “And with the highway going in at the time, that made it even more narrow.”The construction of the Vail Golf Course was also the first time that golf would have an environmental impact on the valley. Between highway construction and the building of the golf course, a large portion of East Vail was totally redesigned.Gore Creek, for example, once snaked through the area, pooling up and creating wetlands. The creek was straightened to make room for golf and the highway, and most of the wetlands were lost.”Those were the days before all the rules and regs,” Krueger remembers.Golf courses like Country Club of the Rockies and Cordillera had far larger budgets and many more environmental rules to adhere to, Krueger points out. But he’s happy to know his course is still a favorite among visitors and locals.”It’s a very fun, wonderful resort course,” he said. “It’s easy to walk, pleasant to play, scenic and challenging. Most people still say, ‘Well, Vail is one of my favorites.'”Krueger, who was superintendent at the Vail Golf Course for 24 years, said he still likes to play whenever he can and he’s impressed with the quality of the valley’s courses.He’s not alone.Golf Magazine ranked the Greg Norman-designed course 25th in their “Top 100 You Can Play in the United States” edition. The Tom Fazio-designed course ranked 90th.Golf Digest also awarded the courses accolades. Both were ranked top 10 best in Colorado (Fazio was 5th, Norman was 9th).Both courses are less than three years old, something Red Sky Director of Golf Jeff Hanson said makes the rankings even more notable.Hanson, who recently qualified for the regional section of the U.S. Open qualifyers, said he often has people comment to him about the quality of his courses while he’s playing elsewhere in the country.”A lot of skiers are golfers, the two sports just seem to go well together,” he said. “People still know the valley for the skiing, but now they know us for the golf, too.”The next generation of golf courses have come to the foreground in the valley and with the courses come a new group of high-profile people.Tim Finchem, for example, commissioner of the PGA (Professional Golfer’s Association), has a membership at Red Sky and has told The Vail Trail that he wants to retire in the area and, “play everyday.””I think now with Red Sky there’s such a solid critical mass of golf courses that it’s a terrific golf environment comparatively with just about anywhere,” Finchem told The Vail Trail in July of 2002. “I think without question (the Vail Valley) is the best mountain golf golf at altitude of anywhere in the world.”Up nextThe valley’s next round is looking to be a good one. As the Jerry Ford Invitational lost steam, the valley seemed to go into a rare spell of golf obscurity. It was in the mid-’90s, says East-West Partners’ Harry Frampton, that the valley began to gain its momentum as a year-round resort.”In the early 1990s the valley really became a complete resort experience, of which golf was a major driver,” Frampton said.Although golf is important, Frampton said, it isn’t the only thing happening in the valley in the summertime.”Our great strength is in our diversity,” he said. “Golf’s a big part, but it’s not the only part. People buy in Vail because it’s a gathering place.”Frampton said about 15 20 percent of the residents in Beaver Creek, for example, are golfers. While the vast majority of people in Beaver Creek – and the valley – may not be golfers, the people who are golfers are often quite dedicated to the sport.”Not everybody plays it,” Krueger said, “but the ones who do play for their lifetime. It’s an unconquerable sport, and that’s why people are in it and stay with it.”Frampton, who has been in the valley since 1982, said he doesn’t see too much more room in the valley for more golf courses. Developer Fred Kummer has proposed, and received initial approval, for a course near Eagle, and a course has been approved to be built near Gypsum at Breakwater. Developer Bobby Ginn has also proposed building a course near Minturn.The valley has many courses, but it no longer has a major tournament. The Colorado Open came to the Sonnenalp Golf Course in 2001, but promptly ran out of funding and was cancelled two years later.Vail Valley Foundation President Ceil Folz told The Vail Trail, in November of 2003, that the Foundation was hoping to bring a PGA tour event to Red Sky. The Foundation was hoping that Finchem’s influence could help attract attention to the valley. PGA Tour members are eligible to play after age 50, which means legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Hale Irwin would be invited to come to the valley and play.But high altitude and mountainous terrain have long been a problem for those who wish to bring major tournaments to town. Nearly every golf course in the valley has one or two highly elevated holes, which are a far cry from PGA standards.In the meantime, however, local golfers like Hanson feel the valley’s reputation for high-quality courses has hit a new peak. The quality of the greens, fairways, atmosphere and service, he said, are a big reason why Vail, once again, is getting a national reputation for summertime golf. VT– Tom Boyd can be reached at tboyd@vailtrail.com.


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