The River Course
Many years back, I visited a sports trade show and met Steve Corneillier, an impressive young guy representing the Keystone Ski area. We got to talking about their award-winning Keystone Ranch Golf Course. Like most ski areas, Keystone had recognized that adding golf to its summer amenity package would foster the image of a four-season resort, not just a winter vacation spot. Vacation housing that sits idle during the summer makes no sense or cents. However if you can offer summer activities, people will rent the condos in June and July. Keystone offered horseback riding, hiking, biking, climbing, canoeing, fishing, and lots of other fun things to do, but they figured out it's golf that attracts the affluent buyer. So they built Keystone Ranch in the late 1970s.
Over the years, Steve and I would run into one another, but I never thought we'd someday work together developing another course at Keystone. But in 1996, after a rigorous selection process, we found ourselves doing our first ski area golf course, The River Course at Keystone. It came with a whole new set of challenges to make it interesting. To begin with, the site was bounded on one side by State Highway 6 (which runs to Keystone from Interstate 70), on another by a horse meadow (which became a major public relations nightmare), on another by a housing development (which became a legal nightmare), and on the final side by a mountain range (which became an earthmoving nightmare). Through the middle of the site flowed the open-access, but very protected, trout stream called the Snake River, along with a giant steel-tower electric transmission line and an ancient winter migration corridor for elk.
The Keystone real estate developers which owned the land, had development rights for housing units in the middle of the parcel, on the most gentle land (worth about 50 million dollars). To further complicate things, the local fire chief set an elevation limit at which he could provide fire protection. That severely restricted the location of a clubhouse. So the land we were given for the golf course was mostly very steep terrain.
Permitting was complicated, public hearings were both numerous and contentious, and public scrutiny was intense. With so many problems, I doubted if the project would ever get permitted. But it did, and in spite of all the compromises that had to be made, the golf course turned out to be outstanding.
Golf course design is a complex process. I remember several winter visits, on snowshoes, in the bitter cold, trying to confirm an engineering detail or observe the elk migration.
Despite all its problems, the site for The River Course at Keystone had lots of assets, especially in the eye and mind of a golf course designer. We saw a wonderfully diverse landscape of high hills, awe-inspiring mountain views, great trees, huge boulders, a rippling mountain stream and decent soils. It also helped that we were working with a strong planning and development team that knew how to set reasonable budgets and spend money wisely. Another plus was that the housing would be placed in a core area, rather than spread throughout the golf course.
Finally (and I mean, finally), a routing plan was conceived that satisfied almost everyone’s' objectives and objections, and construction was approved. At the 9,500-foot elevation, the construction and growing season is short, so enormous efforts were made during that narrow window of time to complete the course on time and on budget. Construction actually began in the early spring, with the clearing of trees while the snow base was still several feet deep. Mountain summer temperatures range from 25˚ to 85˚, depending on the month and time of day, but with little rainfall, most every day is a good working day for golf course construction.
During the first year of construction, our bosses at Keystone Real Estate Development said that whatever else we did, we must have the eighth hole complete and looking like a golf hole by early July 1998 for a big real estate sales weekend. We succeeded in turning a rock quarry into a golf hole in 45 days by sodding the entire hole. As predicted, it was a busy weekend. House lots were sold by lottery, with each buyer securing a spot in the lottery by posting a $5,000 security. When a buyer's turn arose, he'd get 30 minutes to select a lot from what remained.
I was later told that lot sales for the weekend were over 40 million dollars. And buyers were basically seeing just one golf hole of the entire course.
Working with Steve, his first assistant Craig Belcher (later to become the first course superintendent), and the rest of the team was pure pleasure. There were problems and squabbles, but none overshadowed the enjoyment of working in that environment with experienced and savvy people. The golf course is a testament to that cooperation.
From the drive off the first tee to a fairway 90 feet below, with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, to the last drive, which drops about 140 feet to the fairway, and has Lake Dillon and The Gore Range as the setting, The River Course at Keystone is an exciting and stimulating round of golf. The holes play up and down changes in elevation, but the course is surprisingly walkable for a fairly fit golfer. The routing takes us beside the Snake River and across it, through stands of beautiful old Douglas fir and birch, past boulders, rock walls and to vantage points that offer great views. In the winter, the course is used by cross-country skiers and snow shoe enthusiasts. And the elk happily play through. Just as they've done for centuries.