After almost three years of controversy and construction, one of Denver’s oldest courses reemerges with a completely new look.
By Jon Rizzi
IF ANYONE SHOULD have felt uneasy about the City of Denver’s renovation of City Park Golf Course as a stormwater-detention site, it was Tom Woodard. From the age of 10, the future member of both the Colorado Golf Hall of Fame and the National Black Golf Hall of Fame logged thousands of rounds as both a caddie and a player on the 1913 Tom Bendelow designed layout. After competing on the PGA TOUR, Woodard returned as City Park’s head PGA professional and, later, as director of golf for the City of Denver, where he established The First Tee of Denver at City Park before moving on to his current job running the golf operation at Foothills Park & Recreation District.
“I was initially apprehensive— like, ‘What do they want to do to City Park?’” the 64-year-old Woodard remembers upon hearing the news in 2016. A conversation with Happy Haynes, the Executive Director of Parks and Recreation for the City and County of Denver, assured him that the course—which lies in a flood plain and could help mitigate flooding to the north—would emerge as the flagship for the city’s golf program.
“And that’s exactly what happened,” Woodard enthused after a recent visit to the new City Park Golf Course, which on August 29 and 30 will host the Denver City Men’s Amateur Championship—the first rounds played there in 34 months.
“Time marches on,” he said when asked if he’ll mourn the old layout. “I will miss 18, one of the best finishing holes in state—the downhill, dogleg left par 4. That’s where I sank a 20-foot putt to tie the course record of 61.”
Woodard, among others, made more than putts on 18. “A lot of money changed hands on that hole,” he added with a laugh, referring to the many high-stakes matches for which the course had developed an almost mythic reputation.
Of course, many thought the biggest gamble concerning City Park came in 2016 when Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration made the political equivalent of an aloha press when it proposed utilizing the 135-acre golf course to capture and then release floodwaters. The plan, part of the $200 million “Platte to Park Hill” project, called for a drainage basin capable of holding 74 million gallons of stormwater and then releasing it within eight hours to keep the course playable. It also required the removal of hundreds of mature trees, relocation of the clubhouse, more than two years of earthmoving and the involvement of numerous city agencies.
Despite vocal opposition from neighborhood activists—who mainly objected to the mass arboricide, the potential health risks of stagnant water and the environmental impact on plants and wildlife—the City Park renovation began November 1, 2017. It ultimately cost $46.2 million and, combined with the subsequent closures of Park Hill Golf Club and Fitzsimons Golf Course, sent hundreds of displaced Denver golfers scrambling to find affordable tee times for nearly three full years.
When those golfers return to the new City Park Golf Course, they’ll find their patience richly rewarded.
The difference begins at the new entrance at 23rd Avenue between York Street and Colorado Boulevard. You’ll be tempted to head towards the clubhouse-looking structure to the immediate right, but that’s actually “one of the top three maintenance facilities I’ve ever seen,” says Todd Schoeder, the course architect responsible for the redesign.
To the left stands the clubhouse. Whereas City Park’s former clubhouse previously occupied the lowest point of the property—the corner of York Street and 26th Avenue—the new 11,000-square-foot structure now commands a lofty perch in the middle of the property above the first tee and 18th green.
Designed by the Denver-based firm of Johnson Nathan Strohe, the sleek modernist building—which also serves as an event space and operations center for The First Tee of Denver—combines metal, glass, stone and wood.
Its high, west-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows treat those in the bar and restaurant to a spectacular panorama of the course and Denver skyline set against the Rocky Mountains.
“It’s an unbelievable showcase for the City of Denver, not just City of Denver Golf,” Colorado Golf Association CEO and Executive Director Ed Mate says. “If someone hadn’t been to Colorado before, this is the first place I would take them.”
“So would I,” echoes City Park Head Golf Professional Susie Helmerich. “And I was the pro at Arrowhead,” she says, alluding to the Roxborough Park course famous for its photogenic geological grandeur.
Mate, a Denver native who calls City Park “my St. Andrews, my golf birthplace,” adds that he smiles when he thinks of “all the little Ed Mates” who’ll be playing the four-hole par-3 course adjacent to the clubhouse that’s dedicated to The First Tee program.
The First Tee formerly made use of some holes retrofitted within striking distance of the 16th hole and near a driving range that measured only 80 yards wide and 260 yards long. The range at the new City Park, which sprawls across seven acres to the east of the clubhouse, stretches 310 yards, and its 150-yard width can accommodate as many as 30 players at a time.
Another new benefit to golfers is City Park’s returning nines. Having the front and back nines begin and end at the clubhouse allows Helmerich’s staff the ability to start groups on holes one and 10 to get more golfers on the course during peak times.
SPEAKING OF THE COURSE…
The Tetris-like challenge of puzzling together the above elements—including a massive stormwater basin and 6,800 yards of championship golf—fell to Todd Schoeder, a Broomfield-based course designer whose experience includes collaborations with Phil Mickelson, Tom Lehman, Bob Cupp and Colorado’s own Hale Irwin.
Schoeder had teamed up with Irwin on the new Mountain Course at Durango’s Glacier Club and he had recently completed a similar stormwater detention project at the municipal Legion Memorial Golf Course in Everett, Wash.
That combination, coupled with a plan that honored the character of the original Bendelow layout, won him the bid to redesign City Park. With Irwin as a design consultant, Schoeder’s GrassRoots Golf Design worked hand-in-glove with lead general contractor Saunders Construction, engineers from Martin/Martin and representatives from multiple Denver agencies to solve the stormwater issue while producing a golf experience that’s democratically challenging, highly memorable and enjoyable.
“I like ‘sporty,’” the architect said during a tour of the course in June. “That’s a term Tom Bendelow used to describe his courses. He defined sporty as ‘good, solid, enjoyable courses’ that could test the better players but could also promote participation by as many people as possible and be maintained at a reasonable expense.”
Schoeder’s respect for Bendelow’s philosophy manifests itself throughout the layout.
Low-handicap players, who can stretch the course to 6,809 yards, have to make strategic decisions to find the best angle to the greens, while beginners or mixed-skilled foursomes can play the 4,195-yard “Family Fun” tees.
Players of all levels will welcome the increased fairway widths—which will appear even wider when “striped” to create a checkerboard pattern. “It adds about three minutes of maintenance a hole to stripe the fairways,” Schoeder admits. “But Hale and I believe it makes the holes look more expansive and accessible.”
The fairways may be broad but are no longer the boards they were. Dramatic grading has undulated the flat lies players previously enjoyed. The closely mown green surrounds yield tight lies and roll-offs but also the opportunity for creative shot-making from off the green with clubs other than a wedge.
The 23 greenside bunkers are a mix of oldschool pots, coffins and kidneys without any wash-out-prone flashing or great depth. Nor will you see the fingers, lobes, tongues and “other fun shapes that require hand-mowing and drive up the cost of maintenance,” Schoeder explains. “We wanted to stick to the charm and character that existed, and we’re proud of that.”
While many loved the back-to-front predictability of City Park’s small greens, each of the new putting surfaces has its own personality. Appearing in numerous styles, with multiple tiers and occasional false fronts, they measure an average of 5,558 square feet, 30 percent larger than before, providing bigger targets and myriad pin placements.
DIGGING THE NEW HOLES
The day the city closed City Park Golf Course for reconstruction happened to be El Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which prompted hundreds of protesters to hold a candlelight requiem for the soon-to-be “murdered” trees. In the end, however, fewer than one-third of the property’s 825 trees got the axe, and the city planted more than 700 new ones for a net gain of more than 500.
Two clusters of those survivors pinch the fairway on the 430-yard par-4 opener, which shares the same spectacular cityscape view as the clubhouse. “The hole looks much more intimidating from the tee than it actually is,” Schoeder says. “A normal drive will carry those trees, and there’s a ton of width beyond.”
The first hole finishes on a Biarritz green, its center swale serving notice that the old City Park greens are a distant memory.
The greatest distance between green and tee comes after the par-3 second hole, but the trip rewards veteran City Park players with a whiff of nostalgia on the third tee. “Holes three, four, five and six are the old two, three, four and five,” says Mate. “It’s like memory lane, but with nice upgrades.” Those upgrades include nearly doubling the green sizes and the optical illusion of a greenside bunker on the Redan-style par-3 5th that in reality is 40 yards shy of the green.
Another illusion awaits on the closing hole of the par-34 front nine—a 558-yard par 5 with the fairway curling around a large irrigation pond fronting the green. From the back tee, what appears to be a sliver of short grass is actually the course’s widest fairway.
When told the hole has the risk-reward earmarks of a classic finishing hole, Schoeder admits, “There was a lot of debate between which nine should be the front and which should be the back. You can interchange them. There are pluses and minuses to both.”
Having the current par-4 18th play uphill towards rear of the clubhouse—where the bar and restaurant are located—is certainly a plus. Schoeder, a big believer in the community aspect of muni golf, foresees players holing out in front of informal galleries watching on and taking selfies from the green with one of the best views in Colorado behind them.
But what he says he “devilishly” likes about the 18th is the illusion of “having the glass façade of the clubhouse appear so close to the green. That can scare some golfers who think, ‘I’m going to hit it thin and blade it and it’s going to go through that.’”
The building stands about 100 yards from the putting surface, and from research he conducted, he estimates the furthest a skulled shot would travel is about 50 yards. “But,” he says, “it’s not going to be unheard of that somebody hits it one day.”
That would presumably be a minus.
SWINGING IN THE BATHTUB
Stormwater detention, the reason for the entire renovation project, comes into focus as you cross from the front nine, which culminates on the property’s higher east side, to the back nine on the much lower western half.
After negotiating the shortish par-4 10th, you begin the descent towards what Schoeder calls “the bathtub holes.”
“Everything in the area we’re about to enter is in the bathtub,” he says, looking from the elevated tee on the par-4 11th. “Right now we’re on the rim of the tub.”
The “tub” comprises the 20 acres west of the 11th tee. In the case of a 100-year flood event, “the entire area we’re about to come to will fill up like a bathtub, literally, up to 12 feet deep—with greens and most tees set above that level,” Schoeder explains. “The course is designed to drain within eight hours of the event.”
The course drains through a subterranean network of pipes leading either to the irrigation pond back on the ninth hole or the vast concrete basin (or “forebay”) to the right of the 11th fairway. Protected by a guardrail, the forebay also receives storm-water from the surrounding watershed via a 102-inch-diameter pipe.
This forebay fills with stormwater and then releases it into a stream that snakes between holes 11, 13 and 14. The stream— technically a 2,000-linear-foot “natural treatment channel”—“daylights” the water, according to Nancy Kuhn of Denver Water. Rather than running it through pipes, the daylighting process filters the water before it outflows between the 16th green and 17th tee, eventually making its way to the Platte River. That channel has already attracted egrets, herons and other waterfowl and become a wildlife corridor for foxes and deer.
“When the course drains, you will pick up some debris and trash, and then it’s playable again,” Schoeder says. “That’s how it works. We have had 10-year events out here already, where the stream crests at the top of the bank, and it’s been fine.”
For the best angle into the 11th green, golfers need to hit their tee shot as close as they comfortably can to the forebay guardrail. “It’s an intimidating shot,” the architect admits.
An even more intimidating one comes on the 13th—a short (472 yards from the tips) par 5 cape hole with the stream and OB (to prevent players from taking a shortcut via the adjacent 14th fairway) running along the left side, and the forebay encroaching from the right. Again, flirting with the forebay affords the best approach, but with a fairway that necks from 40 to 18 yards, you need to control your length. “Aim for the outflow for the stormwater,” Schoeder advises. “And then lay up.”
The opposite of the 13th is the 15th, a deceptively straightforward par 4 with tournament tees that stretch it to 503 yards. Its successor, the right-dogleg par-5 16th, clocks in at 601 yards, making it the longest hole on the course.
(Then again, the original 1913 layout included a 633-yard par 5, designed to be played—107 years ago—with a brassie and guttie.)
TESTING THE WATERS
“When you start cutting into an old golf course, you risk sucking the charm right out of it,” the architect Jim Engh once said.
At City Park, the charm not only remains; it’s enhanced. A redesign prompted by controlling floodwater has yielded a par-70 layout that Tom Bendelow himself might well have considered “sporty,” and that Tom Woodard now calls “a real championship course in the middle of a landlocked city.”
It’s easy to see why, even before the course opened, Schoeder’s effort received the American Society of Golf Course Architects’ (ASGCA) 2018 Design Excellence Award and 2019 ASGCA Environmental Excellence Award.
“It’s no longer just ‘hit it down the middle, hope you’re in between the trees and hit it to the green,’” Schoeder says. “I think it’s completely different. Whether or not people feel that, that’s what I’m anxious to see.”
He won’t need to wait long. After hosting the Denver Amateur and an Aug. 31 fundraiser for The First Tee of Denver, the course will open only for limited rounds this fall to protect the turf. A thousand-player deluge could cause more damage than a 100-year flood.
In the meantime, “the People’s Course,” as one of the many displays in the clubhouse calls it, already benefits golfers and nongolfers who live upstream and downstream. And those neighborhood residents who objected to the renovation? They now have more trees, an improved facility, better viewsheds and higher home values.
Jon Rizzi is the founding editor of Colorado AvidGolfer. After September 1, visit cityofdenvergolf.com/city_park for tee time information.
This article was also featured in the August/September 2020 issue of Colorado AvidGolfer.