A trend more than 150 years in the making, putting courses are fostering fun and community at golf facilities across the country—including four in Colorado.
By Jon Rizzi
Photographs by Chris Wheeler
PUTTING COURSES are nothing new. Better known as The Himalayas, the heaving, churning 140,000-square-foot St Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club at the Old Course in Scotland has convened members of both sexes since 1867. This has chiefly occurred on Sundays, when locals gather to putter around as the Old Course enjoys its day of rest.
Yet, the communal joy of playing 18 holes in less than an hour, with a putter and ball, somehow got redirected on American soil.
In 1916, shipping magnate James W. Barber decided to build his own putting course on his estate in Pinehurst, N.C. Upon completion, a satisfied Barber told his architect, “This’ll do,” which spawned the Scots- sounding course name, “Thisle Dhu.” The private, quirky 18-hole design entertained guests with its grass and wood bunkers, inspiring the miniature golf craze.
Six decades of populist putt-putt later, the private Desert Highlands Golf Club in Scotts- dale and Las Vegas’ Angel Park Golf Club opened with 18-hole putting courses. However, it wasn’t until 2013, as the golf industry looked for “new” ways to grow the game, that a pair of golf resorts turned to history for a solution.
Prior to hosting the 2014 U.S. Open, Pine- hurst unveiled a real Himalayas-like Thisle Dhu putting course as a guest amenity outside its clubhouse, and Oregon’s Bandon Dunes debuted The Punchbowl, a roiling 18-hole gathering spot by the first tee at Pacific Dunes.
Each occupies two acres and sparked a trend that has spread to Pebble Beach, Kohler, Streamsong, Big Cedar Lodge and beyond.
Denver’s Jim Urbina, the co-designer of The Punchbowl, isn’t surprised. “A putting course is economical to maintain and a fun way to introduce people to golf.” he says. “And there’s the social element—laughing with friends—which is what golf is all about.”
Urbina has yet to do a Colorado putting course, but at least four clubs here have added them, much to the delight of their members.
“THE SCHNEIDS” AT CASTLE PINES GOLF CLUB
Castle Pines Golf Club’s recent multimillion- dollar clubhouse overhaul extended to the creation of an firepit area downhill from the golf shop entrance. There, members can sip after-dinner drinks, then grab one of the many available Titleist demo putters and Pro-V1s and take on the 14,000-square-foot putting course designed by longtime Jack Nicklaus Design associate Jim Lipe. The tee markers double as cup holders and the pins glow under floodlights nested into the surrounding pines.
Called “The Schneids”—the nickname of longtime General Manager Keith Schneider, who originally proposed the idea—the putting course represents an expansion of an existing green. It stimps at the same 11.5 speed as the greens on the main course, but with considerably more movement.
“You can use it as a practice green or as a course,” Schneider explains. “We mow it and change the holes every day.” Putts break off a center ridge Lipe christened the “muffin top” in honor of Schneider’s father, a baker.
Since the club has a national membership, The Schneids offers another point of contact those who may not have otherwise met. It also gives members with families an activity in which they can all participate. “The kids have to play with parents, and they catch the golf bug,” Schneider says. “Some places have a par-3 course for that, but we don’t have the land to build one.”
Schneider says he’s been “pleasantly surprised at how popular the course is. The members love using it at night when it’s all lit up. We have events that include putting contests.” He shares a text featuring a photo of the illuminated course and a note from a member: “Congratulations! What a great addition to the club!”
“THE CRAGS” AT THE COUNTRY CLUB AT CASTLE PINES
In November of 2019, the members of The Country Club at Castle Pines approved a $17.1-million capital project that would deliver a clubhouse and patio renovation, cliffside infinity-edge pool, fitness center and a full complement of racket sports.
The plan did not include a gathering place for members while the clubhouse became a construction zone. So, Director of Agronomy Sean McCue—who’s currently in his 26th year at CCCP—proposed building a putting course like The Punchbowl at Bandon Dunes on land just below the clubhouse. He developed the budget and would oversee the design and construction.
The club didn’t own the land, but it swapped a parcel with the owner, Jack A. Vickers III. In December, McCue went to work clearing the steep, rocky promontory covered in scrub oak, pines and cedar.
“We had to remove all the vegetation to see what we had to work with,” he explains. “Then we started pushing dirt around, and the forms revealed themselves.” So did one-of-a-kind views of the mountains and Cherokee Ranch.
Rather than create an experience that would mimic putts on its Nicklaus- designed holes, McCue gave the course its own identity. He named it “The Crags”—a geological term for steep rock cliffs—and designed it to “maximize and accentuate the feeling behind that term.”
The Crags course tumbles 30 feet from its highest to lowest point, with some slopes graded as high as 20 percent. “The most extreme you typically find on a golf course is anything from 3 to 7 percent,” McCue says.
This leads to crazy contours and putts that can break as much 40 or 50 feet. McCue credits research into Alister MacKenzie’s tour de force at Sitwell Park, a trip to Bandon and conversations with The Punchbowl’s designer, Denver-based Jim Urbina, to determine how over-the-top he could design the green but still have it be playable.
“We use the same championship T-1 Bentgrass we use on the main course, but we don’t mow it as low,” McCue responds when asked what prevents downhill putts from rolling into the abyss below. “We embrace a classic Golden Age green stimp of 7.5 to 8,” he says. “Any faster, it becomes too much.” In another nod to Bandon, small, landscaped islands of vegetation and stone unify the green with its environment.
The Crags, which opened last fall, changes its tee placements daily and its pin placements weekly. Members are predictably over the moon about the layout, as evidenced by the laughter and lighthearted badinage between members of the Wednesday women’s club.
“Uphill lies, sidehill lies—people are seeing putts they’ve never seen in their life,” McCue laughs. “They make up their own routings. They bring out their kids to introduce them to the game. It’s entertaining and gets people to stick around the club.”
At night, a trio of firepits and landscape lighting illuminate the green. Come fall, a 15-foot-high, gas-powered torch inspired by European fire beacons will illuminate “The Crags,” its blazing basket providing a symbol that’s as imaginative as the course it represents.
“THE COMMONS” AT BALLYNEAL GOLF AND HUNT CLUB
Balls have rolled on the great lawn at Ballyneal ever since the celebrated walking-only club’s 2006 debut in the chop hills of Colorado’s Eastern Plains. But before 2016, most of those orbs weighed two pounds and left dents in the turf. A bocce pitch—ringed by the clubhouse, golf shop, restaurant and a growing number of lodging options—occupied the upper part of the grassed expanse, while a practice putting green near the first tee of the Tom Doak-designed golf course occupied the lower part.
All that changed when new owner John Curlander enlisted Doak and his associate, Denver-based Eric Iverson, to transform the entire area into a giant putting surface. “The Commons” encompasses enough space—more than an acre—to route a full 18-hole putting course that traverses every combination of back and forth, and up and down, inspiring the creativity required to play links-style golf.
The bentgrass greens run at the same speed as those on the regular course. The team cuts new holes once a week and the caddiemaster changes the routing daily, marking tees with statues of native box turtles facing the pins. “You can play the course setup or play it as you wish,” General Manager Dave Hensley says.
“It’s the centerpiece of the village now,” he reports. “The camaraderie has increased a bunch. We have national, even international members, and it’s definitely a point of gathering. That’s why we call it The Commons. The way it’s contoured, you can’t avoid meeting someone. Every afternoon and evening, there’s a lot of matches, a lot of bet-settling and a lot of drinking and laughter.”
The action often goes well into the night, with balls glowing in different colors racing to illuminated pins (see page 72). Music pumps through speakers, as the waitstaff pours the club’s signature transfusion cocktail and private-label Bunker Beer.
“Even during our club-sanctioned events, we’ll have The Commons Putting Challenge,” Hensley says. “It’s the perfect counterpart to golf on the main course and The Mulligan,” he adds, referring to the 12-hole par-3 course that Doak and Iverson built at the same time as The Commons. Both additions complement the brilliance of the layout Golf Digest ranks 44th on its latest list of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses—the highest in Colorado.
“We will always be a haven for golf purists who love the game,” owner Curlander says. And if you ever tire of golf, there’s still bocce and skeet-shooting elsewhere on property.
“THE PUNCH BOWL” AT COAL CREEK GOLF COURSE
After the floods of 2013 forced Louisville’s Coal Creek Golf Course to close, repair and renovate, architect Kevin Norby proposed converting the modest putting practice area into a 20,600-square-foot putting course when the course reopened in 2015. “It makes the facility more of a community asset when people can bring their families,” he says. Bandon had recently opened The Punchbowl, and the concept was just catching on among architects and course owners.
Coal Creek’s Punch Bowl plays foil to the course’s “regular” practice green, which the facility maintains at the same height and speed as the 18 greens on the course. “The Punch Bowl is a different animal,” PGA Head Professional David Baril says. “It’s a great place for you and your friends or your family to putt over hills and through valleys.”
“We use things like the Punch Bowl to create a community-driven environment,” 2nd Assistant PGA Golf Professional Austin Miller elaborates. “Kids can be kids on the Punch Bowl. Juniors are a priority at Coal Creek.”
Miller says this as Coal Creek’s PGA Junior League Putting Championship fills the early evening air with joyful families that the course has invited to compete against each other. Wider holes minimize frustration and keep things moving. “The Punch Bowl is the perfect venue for a family outing,” says, Megan Corey from Superior, whose happy foursome consists of her husband, Jeremy, and sons Preston and Ethan.
The nine-hole layout also stages men’s, women’s and mixed tournaments; and invites lively versions of H-O-R-S-E. Kids can play while their parents chat as the sun dips behind the Flatirons.
Jon Rizzi is Colorado AvidGolfer’s editor. Chris Wheeler has created documentary films for more than 30 years. Many of his award-winning works tell the stories of our National Parks.
This article was also featured in the August/September 2021 Issue of Colorado AvidGolfer.