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Mile-High Clubs

Majestic peace is not a feeling I associated with golf courses--not until I came to the Club at Cordillera, near Vail, Colorado. Like so many of my fellow hookers and slicers, I had always regarded golf as a form of warfare: a battle against par, a battle against the elements and, most of all, a battle against myself. Along with the French playwright Jean Giraudoux, I believed that "A golf course is the epitome of all that is purely transitory in the universe, a space not to dwell in, but to get over as quickly as possible."

All that changed when I strode onto the vertiginously elevated tee box of the par-three seventeenth hole on Cordillera's Mountain course. "I think we should go with apitching wedge here," my caddie advised as he peered downward at the seventeenth green, 174 yards away. "Nine-iron's going to be too much."

I smacked my lips and leered maniacally at the thought of walloping a 174-yard pitching wedge. One of the many ego-boosting joys of golf in the high altitudes of the Rockies is that you can experience what it must be like to have the strength of a Tiger Woods or a John Daly. Golf balls carry at least ten to fifteen percent farther in the thin air than they do at sea level, and up to twenty percent farther for high ball hitters. The elevation of Cordillera's 7,413-yard Mountain course climbs to more than eighty-nine hundred feet, or more than a mile and a half above sea level. At the seventeenth, your carrying power is exponentially increased by the fact that the putting surface lies more than one hundred feet below the tee box.

Just as my caddie had predicted, my pitching-wedge shot plopped right down onto the center of the green. After recording a routine two-putt par, I proceeded to the similarly elevated tee of the eighteenth hole, a par four that measures a seemingly incomprehensible 518 yards. I reached the green in regulation with a driver and a seven-iron. My maniacal leer gave way to a blissful smile. In such altitude-enhanced strength, there is zenlike serenity.

A weeklong trip in midsummer took me to both Vail and Aspen, best known as the winter-sports capitals of the nation. I discovered that even though the ski industry may continue to slush through economic doldrums, ski-country golf is booming. In fact Vail and Aspen are welcoming at least half a dozen new first-rate resort and daily-fee courses.

I also discovered ski-country golf courses to be spaces I did wish to dwell in. The altitude clearly contributed to the attitude but not merely because my tee shots were throttled up. At some point you simply give in to the incredible scenery you find virtually everywhere you play: the peaks that tower more than two and a half miles high, the verdant stands of trees on their northern faces, their desertlike southern slopes dotted with fiery-red cliffs. As Theodore Roosevelt once noted, this scenery is the kind that "bankrupts the English language." How can you describe a gigantic double rainbow spanning a valley laced with roaring rivers, creeks and streams full of rainbow trout?

At best, I can only provide an account of what the golf courses of the Colorado ski country are like from a flatlander's point of view. In a word, they are, like the peace that I found here, majestic.


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