Valley Country Club Changes Course

Inspired changes by architect Rick Phelps are invigorating a classic Colorado club.

Like the best of us, the members of Valley Country Club know what to do when life gives them lemons. But when metaphorical bushels of the fruit arrived in the form of last September’s epic floods, they decided not to make lemonade; instead, they ordered the lobster.

Long before the deluge, the club already was looking to add to both its membership roll and the enjoyment of those who already belonged. To that end, Valley’s board had approved a long-range master plan that involved making significant course enhancements. These included rerouting and lengthening several holes, upgrading the irrigation and adding a visual containment berm where the course abuts Arapahoe Avenue. However, the first phase of the plan “and our number- one priority,” according to Club President Tim Lucas, “was redoing the bunkers.” But, he says, “the rains accelerated the entire project.”

Did they ever. With the storm washing out and contaminating Valley’s bunkers, Lucas and Grounds Committee Chair Rob Bulthaup front-burnered approval on a host of improvements proposed in the master plan by architect Rick Phelps of Phelps-Atkinson Golf Course Design.

While still worthy of hosting seven Colorado Women’s Opens and numerous state championships, Valley’s 7,043- yard layout had become less challenging for big hitters who could outdrive the hazards. The remodel adds 270 yards, tipping the length at 7,313—“enough to get the attention of the 38- to 50-year-old club shopper,” says Phelps.

But the priority was “the bunkers, which were redone 10 years ago. They had evolved and didn’t drain well,” Phelps explains. “And bunkers are the artistic statements of the course.” And Phelps’ artistry—and that of former PGA Tour pro Forrest Fezler, who did the construction and bunker shaping— evinces itself throughout the front nine. The once-shallow sand saucers are deeper, shapelier and more strategically positioned. “You used to be able to pick it clean from many of the fairway bunkers,” Lucas says. “Not any more.”

Valley’s metamorphosis begins on the first tee, where Phelps turned the easiest hole on the course—a straightway 533-yard par-five—into a double-dogleg with bunkers angling across the fairways and around the green, menacing big hitters who also have to clear a stand of trees to get on in two.

On the long par-4 second, moving the tee box 50 yards back brings into play the bunkers 290 yards out. Removing a bunker on the 409-yard third provides a bailout for those unwilling to flirt with the landing-area bunkers. A new back tee on the par-3 fourth now requires a full water carry to reach a green that eventually will extend back to the water.

Pictured above: Valley Country Club, Hole #2

“Five’s my favorite change,” Valley’s PGA Head Professional Barry Milstead says of the 374-yard dogleg left. “At the elbow, you had trees growing behind the bunkers; it was double-jeopardy hazard. And if you were a shorter hitter, you couldn’t get past the dogleg and had no shot at the green. It was a three-shot hole.” Phelps removed the trees, reshaped the bunkers and reduced the mounding. “He’s gotten it back to where it’s supposed to be,” says Milstead.

Pictured above: Valley Country Club, Hole #5

Lucas has similar praise for No. 7, a short, dogleg-right par-4 with elbow problems that Phelps cured by building new sets of tees and expanding the size and shape of the bunkers. “Visually, it’s just a stunning hole,” says the club president. “Strategically, it gives you the option of stepping on the gas or easing up.”

The club kept its foot on the accelerator throughout the spring. Originally slated for future construction, the 18-foothigh visual containment berm running the length of hole No. 2 got fast-tracked after the flood. With CDOT and the Southeast Metro Stormwater Authority (SEMSWA) excavating next door to lower the streambed and build a bridge across Cherry Creek, the club agreed to take more than 75,000 cubic yards of dirt off their hands “and in the process save the club a half-million dollars,” says Bulthaup.

“Much of it is true to the original plans,” says Phelps, referring to the course design credited to architect William F. Bell (Torrey Pines), the son of the legendary William P. Bell (Bel-Air), who died shortly after receiving the commission for his only Colorado course. “The front nine was actually routed by Billy Sr.’s wife,” Phelps explains. “It opened five years before the back nine, which was Billy Jr.’s.”

Phelps’s renovations are following a similar pattern. Completion of the front nine happens this month, and the remainder of the back nine will wait until 2016.

“It’s already like a brand new course,” Lucas says. “It was important to get buy-in from the members, and they love it. It’s challenging for low handicap and enjoyable for the high.”

To pay for this enjoyment, Valley is assessing members $1,500 per year for the next few years, with a majority of funding coming from member initiations. Bulthaup says some members have offered to pay their entire assessment now to get the work done faster.

“The changes have already brought new members, and I expect to get more,” says Bulthaup. “After all the changes, we’ll have a slope from the tips in the low 140s and a 74.5 rating. We want to be among the top clubs around.”

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