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Golf, Vail-style

Eben Harrell

Like so much to do with the game of golf, the nature of what it means to be an elite golf club is changing.It used to be that prestigious golf clubs meant crusty old men in jacket and tie, third-generation members all, dribbling over their red snapper soup about how nice it is to have a golf course no one but their sons and nephews would ever get a chance to play.Castle Pines Golf Club notwithstanding, the old model doesn’t work so well out West. You go back three generations in Colorado and you find either a Ute chief or an immigrant miner, hardly patrician New England blue blood.So the elite golf courses have had to adapt. Leading the way is the new Red Sky Golf Club in the Vail Valley, an hour and half from Aspen, which has set up a partnership with the new Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch Hotel on Beaver Creek Mountain.It’s a new model for the elite golf club. Red Sky has two championship courses designed by Tom Fazio and Greg Norman. Both courses are open to Ritz-Carlton guests, but only on alternating days. On odd days of the month, the members play the Fazio course and the public plays the Norman course; on even days, it’s switched.This creative relationship means every day the members get a course to themselves while the club subsidizes its costs with business from The Ritz-Carlton.The partnership has earned Red Sky Golf Club two spots on Golf Magazine’s coveted “Top One Hundred Courses You Can Play” list, with the Fazio course ranked 90th and the Norman course ranked 25th.What you find at Red Sky is a club that has spared no expense. A total of $113 million was spent on the facility. Guests have their own 11,000-square-foot clubhouse, where they are attended to by a U.S. Open-sized gallery of eager and courteous staff (it’s mind boggling to think what the service must be like on the member side).The huge expense account has also assured two courses in PGA Tour condition. The greens at Red Sky routinely run above 12 on the stimpmeter, which is golfspeak for “if you miss a putt it’s no one’s fault but your own because these greens are as flawless as the ancient game itself.”Nearly 400 yards longer than the Fazio course, the Norman course will be the most enjoyable for the better golfer. Norman, who is currently making a name for himself as a course architect after a successful career as a player, was known for his strong, powerful play.In an era of balata-bound shotmakers, he was the first– see Course on page A7– continued from page A2modern player to develop the high, straight, overpowering style that now dominates the game (it’s no coincidence that he was the first of the modern pros to ditch balata for the straight-flying two-piece ball).Opened last year, the course celebrates all the characteristics of the game that made its designer famous. The fairways reward strong, penetrating drives and the greens are most receptive to high, straight approach shots. The aprons around the greens are a nod to the links of Scotland, where Norman won his only two major championships.He did an extraordinary job with the land he was given: The tight Vail Valley required that he literally build the course into the side of a mountain. Aspen golfers are probably familiar with the challenges such a location presents: Glenwood Springs’ nine-hole course, nicknamed “The Hill,” is built on a similar slope.Norman’s course is like “The Hill” after an appearance on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover.” The slope of the mountain can either be your friend or foe, depending on the precision of your ball striking, and there’s just enough mounding on the greens to make them unpredictable.An equal partner in the Red Sky experience is the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, which markets much of its summer business around its exclusive access to the Red Sky courses. Like the golf club, the 237-room hotel, which opened on Beaver Creek mountain two years ago, has also attempted to build a new model for excellence.In contrast with the massive marble monstrosities and stiff-collared staff of the old European hotels, the Ritz has taken a “relaxed yet refined” approach to first-class accommodation. Mirroring this philosophy, the hotel building itself was conceived as a rustic cabin blending seamlessly into the countryside.Don’t get the wrong idea, though. The hotel’s not exactly a cabin on the back of Aspen Mountain. It’s a massive, multifloored facility, sort of like what the Swiss Family Robinson’s cabin would look like after an intense steroid regimen.And while the ambiance may be relaxed, it includes all the absurd pampering expected of a first-class hotel. A “chocolate sommelier” to guide you through the daunting “what kind of hot chocolate do I want” decision and a Labrador rental program (Loan-a-Lab) to accompany you on hikes are just two of the laughably luxurious services offered.Perhaps the most appealing offer for the Aspen golfer is the Ritz’s golf-grotto offer, which combines a round at one of the Red Sky courses with a massage at the hotel’s award-winning spa (it’s the only Mobile four-star spa in Colorado). The program is aimed specifically at couples and can offer a great solution to the always tricky “you’re leaving me for a weekend to go play golf” complaint.Many Aspen golfers may complain that the pricey Red Sky green fees ($200 a round) plus a required stay at the Ritz doesn’t exactly make Red Sky a top 100 course the average golfer can play. But for those who can afford (are you listening Maroon Creek members?) a few days at the Ritz with a round at Red Sky, it will not disappoint.For more information, call 1-800-241-3333.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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