A decade of CommonGround

Tom Doak's suburban Denver design is a model for affordable public golf.
An aerial view of the 11th (right) and sixth (left) holes at CommonGround, with the Denver skyline on the horizon.

AURORA, Colo. - It was 51 degrees and clear, a mild early November day in Colorado: decent enough weather for roughly a group per hole on this very public golf course eight miles east of downtown Denver.

Out on the par-4 16th hole, a threesome of seniors was undaunted by the conditions. Rich Lesch, Conrad Ziegler and John Sopack told me they are among the regulars who come out whenever they can – as long as the course is not snowed in or iced over. “It’s the best-conditioned, best quality golf course for the price in the area,” said Lesch, who added that he’s grateful for his annual pass. “I’m retired. It gives me something to do.”

Rich Lesch (left), Conrad Ziegler (center) and John Sopack (right) enjoy a brisk fall day at their beloved CommonGround.

CommonGround was designed and built by Tom Doak and his team from Renaissance Golf – Eric Iverson, Don Placek and Jim Urbina, along with Kye Goalby, Jonathan Reisetter and Brian Schneider. The course is owned and operated by the Colorado Golf Association and is a model for accessible golf. The layout occupies the ground of what used to be Mira Vista Golf Course, a bare-bones public course that the CGA bought with the intent of converting it to a premier affordable layout.

Design and construction cost all of $4 million in an era when most public courses a decade ago cost two to three times that price. And that included a range and six-hole short course at CommonGround. The modest little clubhouse, all of 2,500 square feet, came in at another $800,000 and is perfectly suited to the task, with a light-fare restaurant and bar, pro shop and office space all neatly packaged together.

Economy like that has its payoff: green fees can be kept at the low end of the market. The rate structure is pretty varied, with 18-hole rates starting at $18 for juniors (18 years and under) and maxing out at $65. Individual season passes for adults run $1,400 to $2,500, with juniors able to get on for $250 for the year. Carts are extra. Half of the the course's 36,000 annual rounds involve walking.

The site is open and gently rolling, with about 40 feet of elevation change from the clubhouse on the north side down to the wetlands and meadow over on the west side along the front nine. A light smattering of trees is starting to grow, but it will always retain its character as open land. Doak and Co. did not softball the contours, with the bentgrass greens running 4,500-5,000 square feet and slopes of 3-4 percent common. The bunkering is steep at times – surprisingly so.

This is not a place that coddles the everyday golfer. At 5,543 yards from the front (red) markers, this par-71 layout is a little too long for players from those tees. The normal elevation bonus of golf at a mile high does not benefit players with slow swing speeds like it does those in the range of 90+ miles per hour, who can choose from tees at 6,365 (white), 6,721 (gold) and 7,229 (black).

There are some neat, telltale signs of classic architecture. The 144-yard, par-3 second hole is very much out of the Seth Raynor mold, with a steep-walled platform green and a characteristic thumbprint in the front of the putting surface.

The third hole at CommonGround shows off architect Tom Doak's classic influences.

Mowing lines are kept simple, with no intermediate rough around the fairways and lots of low-mow green surrounds. Classic ground game setup is also part of maintenance efficiency. Superintendent Bobby Martin is able to keep a consistent playing surface of bluegrass/rye on tees and fairways at a budget of around $700,000 annually.

The golf course occupies storm water flood ground created by the Army Corps of Engineers designed to keep downtown Denver from getting inundated. General manager/director of golf Dave Troyer recalls with some trepidation a major flood (“a 500-year storm,” he calls it) back in 2013 that saw Westerly Creek back up into the wetlands and leave parts of the golf course under 30 feet of water. Four holes had to be rebuilt entirely.

Nature presents other challenges as well. A family of beavers has been active of late in that wetlands, snipping a dozen or so trees and creating their own version of engineered dams.

But that’s what makes golf out here fascinating. The property starts and ends on the edge of a suburban community and brings golfers in touch with a bare gravel retention dam as well as extensive wildlife areas.

Six years ago, CommonGround developed a training program designed to provide inspiration for at-need Metro Denver 7th and 8th graders. The Solich Caddie and Leadership Academy is named for its chief benefactor, energy magnate George Solich, who found his life turned around and set aright through his own youthful caddying.

Today, the Solich Academy includes three-dozen teenagers who collectively loop 1,000 rounds – at no base fee to golfers, though tips are welcome, and commonplace. Already, the program has seen 17 caddie alumni go on to earn free rides to college through the Western Golf Association’s Evans Scholarship Program.

All that, from a public golf course. A decade after its opening, CommonGround is a model for affordable golf, thoughtful design, classical maintenance and service to the community.

Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Follow Brad on Twitter
Commented on

During a work trip a few yrs ago I had the chance to shoe-horn a day of golf in, and after some research (ratings, cost, proximity) I settled on CG - just wow, I chose wisely... I regret that my first 18h went slow, so I was unable to run 36, but the course is fantastic. A very fair blend of challenge and forgiveness, I had a blast. On my second loop I ran into a wall of slow play - but the course was open behind me. Doak had recently completed The Loop in Michigan and I could see how CG was somewhat set-up for a reversible flow. I killed time by playing a few holes forward and backward (thank you laser for yardage). It's easily one of the more memorable days in my golf-life. I finished up with a couple beers and the 18h putting green as daylight faded.

I can't imagine a more successful renovation project in municipal golf. I only wish it was in my backyard instead of 4 states away.

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Commented on

Unfortunately the 65 dollar price range may seem affordable, but where golf is really suffering all across the globe, is the 20s and 30s demographic. I’m seeing less and less golfers of this demographic when I go play. Weekend rates get dominated by the usual public muni goers. It’s an economic issue and an interest issue. I hope that the game can remain affordable and interesting enough to keep these type of courses from dying off.

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I play at CommonGround regularly. Thank you for bringing this wonderful golf facility to a broader audience. In addition to the Solich Caddie and Leadership Academy, CommonGround, through its owner/operator, the Colorado Golf Association, hosts many golf-related programs, especially for juniors.

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A decade of CommonGround