Is Mount Massive, Colorado’s oldest mountain course, really turning 75?
They say numbers don’t lie. But the “459” that the scorecard has as the black-tee yardage on the sixth hole at Mount Massive Golf Course shortchanges this Par 5 by 76 yards. Not that it much matters. At 9,640 feet above sea level—more than 500 feet lower than downtown Leadville, just four miles east—even a 3-wood can get you on in two from the elevated teeing area. Besides, watching your tee shot hover against the snow-shrouded fourteener from which the course takes its name amounts to a transcendent experience.
They say numbers don’t lie. But the “1939” published as the nine-hole course’s birthdate is a “stretch,” says General Manager Craig Stuller, who has also served as Mount Massive’s superintendent since 1989. “It’s a fuzzy number,” he says. “People had been playing here on sagebrush and sand greens since the early Thirties.”
So even though it’s easily Colorado’s oldest mountain course, there’ll be no 75th Anniversary Gala at the course designed by Adolph Kuss?
“Actually,” Stuller says, “We credit Kuss because he was an important Lake County commissioner for 12 years and was a Leadville City Councilman and a member at Mount Massive forever. The reality is, a lot of people have their fingerprints on this course. Really, nobody designed it. It just happened.
This means no two greens were built by the same person. “Some are rather plain and some have double tiers and breaks,” Stuller says, adding that a number of teeing areas are bigger than some greens, which average a scant 2,000 square feet and are protected by a grand total of 13 bunkers. The entire nine-hole par-36 tips out at 3,043 yards.
But small putting surfaces, minimal sand and short holes do not make for a cupcake course. With less ground to maintain than most superintendents, Stuller keeps the course—especially the greens—in spectacular shape. “I have high maintenance standards,” he says. “Just ask my crew.”
And those conditions come into play more often than not. The course, which opens with a wide open 400-yarder before winding for six holes through stands of lodgepole pine spared by the dreaded beetle kill, favors the ground game more than the usual aerial attack. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust your distance on the blind 148-yard second, or try to cut the corner on the No. 1 handicap third—a 390-yard dogleg left. But if you don’t drive the wee greens, bumping it on often affords a better chance at birdie than a high flop does.
Mount Massive further distinguishes itself from other mountain courses by having no homes lining the fairways. A nonprofit organization owns the course, which mandates “low-cost recreation for locals while promoting economic diversity by providing an attractive amenity for tourists.”
Lake County residents pay $325 per year for unlimited golf, seniors $310. “We live on tourist play,” says Stuller, who reports a prime time (9-3) ninehole round costs a mere $22; 18 is $40. If you insist on riding, add $7 per nine holes. However, the course’s lack of elevation change and distance between greens and tees precludes the need for a cart—yet another point of distinction between it and other mountain layouts.
Whether its age is 75, 80 or 13 (the course finally installed state of the art irrigation in 2001) doesn’t amount to much. Neither does its quasifeud with Copper Creek over which is North America’s highest course. (“There used to be a gentleman’s agreement,” jokes Stuller, who previously worked there. “Now the gloves are off!”)
The number that certainly doesn’t lie is 20,000—that’s how many rounds the course sees during a season that lasts from mid-May to mid-October. The appeal lies in Mount Massive’s affordability and accessibility. As Stuller puts it, “We’re the difference between Ski Copper and Vail Mountain.”