Vail nestles on the floor of a mountain valley, bisected by the Eagle River, some 8,150 feet above sea level, more than half a mile higher than Denver, which lies one hundred miles to the east via Interstate 70. Back in the 1800s, Vail valley was home to itinerant bands of Utes and, later, gold prospectors and hunters like Lord Gore, the Irish baronet after whom one of the surrounding mountain ranges is named.
The village of Vail is an archetypal self-made resort established less than four decades ago by a band of real estate speculators. After serving as the site of former president Gerald Ford's "western White House," Vail blossomed into the biggest ski resort in North America. Often disdained by rival Aspenites as a prefab amusement park, the village is distinguished by its lack of stoplights (there are roundabouts instead), its Tyrolean-style pedestrian malls filled with fashion boutiques and restaurants, its outdoor concerts in the Gerald Ford Amphitheater, its outdoor activities ranging from skiing to parasailing, as well as one of the nation's largest hospitals specializing in sports injuries.
Golf first came to Vail in 1967, just five years after the birth of the village, with the opening of the municipally owned Vail Golf Club (now a public resort course), a 7,024-yard par-seventy-one course that once hosted the now defunct Gerry Ford Invitational charity pro-am. Vail Golf Club makes visiting flatlanders feel right at home while they are still adjusting to the altitude. The front and back nines are pinched on a shelf between the foothills of the northern face and Interstate 70, and there are only a handful of elevated tees and greens. As a result, the course is surprisingly easy to walk, even for those with high cardiovascular handicaps. But given the ambient noise from passing traffic on the interstate, both walking and golf cart riding can be less than tranquil exercises.
The threesome of resort courses at the Club at Cordillera offer sharp contrasts to Vail Golf Club and to one another. Opened in 1989, the Mountain course was the first venture in architecture for Hale Irwin, a native Coloradan. The flaws of Irwin's novice design efforts compound the travails of constantly hitting shots from uphill, downhill and sidehill lies. Happily these annoyances are mostly offset by the breathtaking views on the northern face of the mountains and by the redesign of several unduly punishing holes. One of these holes is the sleek 453-yard par-four thirteenth, whose narrow but now righteously resculpted, concave fairway slides downhill through a chute of aspen trees to a green roughly contoured like a gold nugget.
Cordillera's Valley course is far more user-friendly. Conceived as a symbiotic sibling to the Mountain layout, this 7,005-yard par-seventy-one course was laid out in 1997 by Tom Fazio, and its location on the lower reaches of the southern face gives it a desert feel reminiscent of Fazio's Raptor course at Grayhawk Golf Club, in Scottsdale. Here, the changes in elevation are not nearly as dramatic as on the Mountain course, and the bowled fairways help keep shots in play. Nonetheless, stern challenges abound. At the 464-yard par-four fifth, for example, your tee shot must avoid a creek on the left and a hump of rough protruding into the landing area on the right, and you must play your approach to an angled green bisected by an undulating saddle horn.
Although I enjoyed both big-sister courses, I must confide that my personal pick was the 1,252-yard par-twenty-seven Short course, designed by Dave Pelz, who has one of his trademark Scoring Game schools on the premises. The first seven holes of the Short course, which measure between 103 and 160 yards, afford an opportune occasion to adapt your wedge and short-iron play to high-altitude conditions. Then you come to the 174-yard eighth and 200-yard ninth holes, which offer what may be the most beautiful course-side views in the entire Vail valley.