Tom Lehman Moves Mountains

By “softening” Ironbridge Golf Club’s layout, the player-architect helps forge a new identity for the Glenwood Springs community

When last we saw Tom Lehman in Colorado, he was besting David Frost and Fred Couples in a playoff to win the 2010 Senior PGA Championship at Colorado Golf Club.

But hoisting that 3.5-foot, 30-pound silver trophy may require less effort than the task that has brought him to Glenwood Springs these past six months: “softening” the 7,224-yard Arthur Hills layout at Ironbridge Golf Club.

Ironically, Lehman’s involvement with the course starts with the beleaguered financial firm that happens to share his surname. Lehman Brothers (no relation to Tom) owned Ironbridge for most of the development’s 11-year existence, including the five after the company declared bankruptcy in 2008. At auction last August, a group of investors purchased the course assets and the 111 lots on the 533-acre property for $4.82 million. Among those investors: longtime Roaring Fork Valley residents Jim Light, John Schneider and John Young; and Ironbridge member Ken Kendrick, who is managing partner of Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks and a close friend and one-time sponsor of Tom Lehman.

Lehman, who started designing courses the same year he won the 1996 British Open, worked with Dana Fry and Michael Hurdzan on creating The Raven at Three Peaks in Silverthorne and teamed with John Fought on a number of courses in Arizona and Minnesota before going solo 10 years ago. His Dunes course at Nebraska’s Prairie Club ranks among the best U.S. courses to open in the last decade.

He got the Ironbridge gig last October. He saw the picturesque layout clearly targeted the lowhandicap player with its forced carries, long approaches to hard-to-hold greens and more opportunities to get in trouble than South Padre Island during Spring Break. “Augusta has 40 bunkers; you have 70,” Lehman told Light and Young on their first walk-through. “They’re catching the average player, not the good players.”

Working with Superintendent Eric Foerster, Lehman advised removing roughly half the bunkers, regrading a number of holes, and changing the grasslines. Three greens “should probably be rebuilt,” he said, but that could wait.

“GOLF IS A LIFESTYLE”

Although Ironbridge will be billed as an “Arthur Hills Course Refined by Tom Lehman,” softening is the word everyone uses, including Lehman. “It will still play difficult for better players,” Foerster says, “but the higher handicapper will be able to navigate and negotiate it much better.”

Those higher handicappers include most juniors and women, as well as their dads and husbands from the Ironbridge subdivision and nearby Glenwood Springs and Carbondale. “Young, working families make up most of the residents,” says Light, whose development group, Chaffin/Light, has produced a dozen communities across the country, including Colorado’s Snowmass Village and Roaring Fork Club. “We are a kid-oriented subdivision. We’re in th community-building business.”

So is Tom Lehman. Before his most recent tour of the property, he speaks not of shot values but of community values. “Golf is a lifestyle,” he says, recalling his youth at Minnesota’s Alexandria Country Club. “Golf was huge. It helped us live like a community should, with kids learning values, passion, motivation and goals. We had amenities that let people have fun—lawn bowling, a putting course instead of a chipping area. We’d putt outside the clubhouse until the mosquitoes carried us away.”

So convincing is Lehman on this day that before it ends, Ironbridge’s plans for a chipping area will become plans for a 10,000-square foot putting course. Moreover, the reconfigured practice areas will allow players to work on all the shots—including uphill and downhill chips—they will encounter on the course. There’ll be a teaching area, as well as places where golfers can practice and kids can learn.

In addition to a more welcoming golf experience, Ironbridge residents benefit from a Recreation Center comprised of a swimming pool complex, climbing wall, tennis and basketball courts. The new owners turned the pool house into a state-of-the-art fitness center, and, steps away from the golf shop, built the Ironbridge Grill, where Stacey Baldock, the chef-owner of Carbondale favorite The Goat, can serve as many as 124 people inside the restaurant and on the covered, heated porch.

The restaurant and course welcomes non-residents. “We’d die on the vine if we relied only on members,” says Young, who says Lehman’s changes should result in a jump in the 11,000 rounds the course saw last year. “We are currently in a membership drive,” he adds. “There’s no initiation.”

Golf club membership and access to the rec center come with the purchase of a home or lot at Ironbridge. 1,400- to 2,500-squarefoot patio homes start in the low $400s. Homes on ¾ of an acre run in the mid-$700s and riverfront lots just shy of an acre go for $300,000 to $400,000.

Young knows there exists strong civic spirit at Ironbridge, one born from the uncertainty of the last five years. He and his partners experienced this spirit firsthand. Forming an LLC called Blue Heron Properties, they intended to rename the development after the birds that live by the course. “But the residents let us know, emphatically, they wanted to keep ‘Ironbridge,’” says Young. “They are very proud of it. And as Ken Kendrick said,‘You have ten years of branding as Ironbridge; good or bad, people are going to know it.’”

Foerster says residents take such pride in the course that each spring he holds a “member appreciation day.” Ironbridge attracts hundreds of deer and elk in winter; so, with food and drink as a reward, dozens of members go around the course and fill in the tracks, clear “elk duds” and accomplish in hours what it would take a smaller work crew a week to get done. Even with $250,000 in new equipment, Foerster says the tradition will continue: “It’s like the halftime divot stomp during polo matches, a social event that keeps the field of play in shape.”

THE REFINEMENTS

The softening of Ironbridge predated Lehman’s arrival when the course “de-genderfied” its tees last season. Instead of reds, whites, blues and blacks, they use ski designations. “The double-black diamond extremes—the tips—are for 0- to 4-handicaps and the blues and greens are for double-digit players,” explains Foerster. “This removes the stigma of ‘ladies tees’ and ‘old man tees.’ People play suitable distances and have more fun.”

Lehman, an avid skier, embraces the concept, and proceeds to lead a caravan of carts carrying Foerster, PGA Head Professional Doug Rohrbaugh, the Blue Heron triumvirate and Greg Martin of Modern Golf Construction along the nine miles of concrete connecting the course’s 18 holes. The trip takes about six hours, with the changes designed to tempt good players into taking risks and to give higher handicaps a shot at scoring.

On the 637-yard par-5 second, for example, two bunkers once pinched the fairway and a monstrous one ran up the left side. The right pincer is gone, and the Gobi is greatly reduced. Lehman also eliminated the bunker fronting the green and the hidden one behind it. “The idea here is to be able to take a more direct line to the hole and give golfers a chance to get there in three,” he says.

Lehman believes rough should play as big a role in strategy as bunkers do. “Depending on the lie, you can have a half-shot penalty for being off the fairway,” he explains.

That philosophy comes into play on the drivable par-4 third, which big hitters can attack now that no bunker guards the green. The hole hugs the river, which Lehman exposed by removing trees along the water’s edge. He then “grubbed out” the area with rough, penalizing shots short and right.

Lehman believes Ironbridge will also benefit from more “playable native,” a specialty of Brian Horgan, a Ph.D. in turfgrass management whom Lehman has enlisted as a consultant.

Removing bunkers fronting the greens allows for a ground game, as does shaving the grass around the green complexes. Lehman’s done this on the 438-yard fifth. The following hole, a 206-yard par 3 with water left, no longer has a bunker behind the green, waiting to serve as launching pad for a blade into the drink. On the 481-yard eighth, “a really good hole that sets up beautifully,” he suggests women and higher handicaps should play it from the double black extremes as a par-5.

(He later takes back that shot on the par-5 13th, a 621-yard hole with brutal forced carries that make it “unplayable for the average golfer,” he says. “Let’s put a tee box on the fairway; higher handicaps can play it as a par 4.”)

The longest discussions come after the milelong journey from the ninth green to the tenth tee. Holes 10-13 are breathtaking—and breathtakingly difficult. The run starts with the number- one handicap 10th (pictured below), where a roiling putting surface sits atop a steep upslope with a deep bunker hugging its right front; the middle and left approaches pitch severely back down the fairway or into a grassy chasm left of the green.

“This green repels shots,” Lehman says, looking as though it repels him as well.

After deliberation about whether to raise the front portion of the green, Lehman decides to leave the putting surface alone. Martin will fill in and grass over the bunker and extend the rough line across the fairway fronting the green so short shots won’t dribble back down.

Lehman also gives a bold boost to the 435-yard 12th (pictured below), the tee box for which sits at the highest point on the course. A dramatic right dogleg that whistles downhill towards green fronted by a ravine and yawning bunker, the hole doesn’t reward hitting it deep down the fairway because the ball will just roll into the abyss. He proposes growing the rough halfway up the downslope leading to the ravine and removing the bunker fronting the green.

Back down the hill, Lehman approves the now bunker-free 14th and puzzles over the wee green on the par-3 15th, which falls off in every direction, especially the “valley of tears” on its left. Instead of rebuilding the green, Lehman opts to raise the “valley,” making it more of a “cup.” Fewer tears, more pars.

Lehman also grassed in most of the sandpits along the 16th fairway and has revealed the stream running the length of the par-5 17th. The 413-yard dogleg left finisher stays as is.

It’s about the only thing at Ironbridge that will. When the club opened in 2003, it was private and members took pride in the course’s difficulty. The economic trends of the last decade destroyed that model, and Tom Lehman knows it. “The difficulty is still there,” he says, “but let’s not forget about everyone else.”

Ironbridge still bites hard from the Extreme Double Blacks, but now there are bunny slopes too—officially rated junior tees will sit 100-150 yards out on every hole. The CGA and CWGA will also be re-rating Ironbridge’s overall slope.

“Golf is a lifestyle; that’s what Tom says,” says Foerster. “We’re going full bore with that program.”

For more information: 970-384-0630; ironbridgeclub.com.

Colorado AvidGolfer is the state’s leading resource for golf and the lifestyle that surrounds it. It publishes eight issues annually and proudly delivers daily content via www.coloradoavidgolfer.comJon Rizzi is the founding editor and co-owner of this regional golf-related media company producing magazines, web content, tournaments, events and the Golf Passport.

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