On the road in Colorado: Golf the gems in the heart of the Western Slope

Driving the Rockies in search of Colorado's Western Slope golf gems is a scenic adventure.

It might be 90 degrees when you exit I-70 at DeBeque heading south to Cedaredge, in the heart of Colorado's Western Slope. Gnome-like spires of rock loom over a twisting country road before the terrain turns coniferous again, and you begin the climb to the top of Grand Mesa, North America's largest flat-topped mountain.

When you reach the summit at 10,000 feet, it's 58 degrees at the Grand Mesa Visitor's Center, and the lake adjacent is still mired in winter -- ice chunks bob in the near-freezing water. It's mid-June, but the drive has unveiled such massive snow fields that campgrounds aren't even open -- drifts still sweep over picnic tables.

Cedaredge Golf Club is just down the Grand Mesa slope in Cedaredge, and award-winning Devil's Thumb Golf Club is minutes away in Delta. In Montrose, look for the Bridges Golf and County Club, the Links at Cobble Creek and well-traversed municipal Black Canyon Golf Club.

Westward on Highway 50 in Grand Junction is the Golf Club at Redlands Mesa, one of the best courses in Colorado, and scenic municipal Tiara Rado Golf Course, with a back drop of the Colorado National Monument.

And what many travel golfers don't know is you can play these courses nine months or more out of the year.

Cedaredge is a scenic little town on the southern, sunny downslope of Grand Mesa, making it ideal for orchards and farms. Today's golfers might be surprised to find Bryan Coker's 1992-designed Cedaredge Golf Club to be scenic and fun.

The front nine, situated at 6,000 feet, makes you dodge ponds, streams and irrigation ditches along a flat, parkland routing. The back nine then gives you a bowling-lane, narrow, mountain feel with an up-and-down ride with long-range views of the San Juans and farms.

Delta, known for its orchards and farms, is next on your road trip, only 20 miles away. Spend an evening walking its historic downtown, where the Egyptian Theater still offers movies, and there's even a relic of the past -- the Tru Vu Drive In movie theater.

When you first see the moonscape that is known as Devil's Thumb Golf Club, with a backdrop of the Adobe Hills, you might envision a day when dinosaurs once roamed the Delta area at the Dry Mesa Quarry. And Rick Phelps' strategic design didn't stay hidden away for long. Golf Digest awarded it No. 2 Best New Affordable Public Golf Course in America in 2002.

Ask Phelps about the course, and he says golfers must think before immediately recognizing correct landing areas from the tees.

The ninth, a par 4 of 436 yards, shows you why. Two fairway bunkers protect the sides of this fairway that doglegs slightly to the right. Go too far right, and a pond is in play, but a fade will give you the best position to approach that must carry a stream fronting the green.

But the real fun here are the downhill tee shots that tease you to drive the green on a couple of par 4s.

Hook on to Highway 50 next, and head for Montrose, a growing regional airline transportation and commercial hub just 21 miles from Delta, and home to three golf courses.

The Bridges Golf & Country Club, a classy Nicklaus design, is the newest semi-private course to open on the Western Slope. This 7,207-yard par 71 features 10 lakes, various water features and 17 golf cart and covered bridges.

Members here will have every possible amenity available at today's finest country clubs -- including fishing, fitness center, general store, restaurant and guest suites in the 23,000-square-foot clubhouse. The view from my clubhouse suite deck was simply Rocky Mountain splendor.

The fourth hole is a 200-yard par 3 that plays along the historic Loutsenhizer Canal. This reverse Redan-styled hole has pin placement opportunities tucked behind bunkers on the right, but you don't have to fly the traps if you can scoot a shot through an opening to the green.

Early home owners at the Links at Cobble Creek waited 14 years for the back nine to open in 2003 with the unusual layout of three par 3s, three par 4s and three par 5s. The San Juans provide a backdrop with seven lakes and creeks giving this links layout some character minus an abundance of mature trees. Greens are large, and the sixth -- a short, 276-yard par 4 -- has water in front of the green and OB, making it a birdie hole or a bogey if your mind really wanders.

Montrose's municipal, originally named Montrose Golf Course, got a new name in 2002 -- now known as Black Canyon Golf Club. Its parkland back nine is hilly with mature trees, water and OB. The front nine has an old style with smaller greens guarded by bunkers.

Next, head for Grand Junction where the Golf Club at Redlands Mesa has been an award-winner since opening in 2001 as Golf Digest's No. 1 Best New Affordable Course in the USA. Today it still remains one of the top 100 layouts in America.

This Jim Engh-designed, par-72 layout plays at 7,007 yards from the Monument (back) tees where you see shades of green bordered by jagged sandstone boulders, ochre dirt and numerous formations of balanced rock.

Eleven holes dive downhill at an elevation of 4,600 feet. It's challenging but fair, and you won't soon forget the scenes of rolling mounds; deep, squiggly bunkers; and cart paths that give you a peek back to the green you just played, framing the pin between the sandstone rocks. But three putts might be common for the first-timer on this track with Stimp meter readings of 12 the norm.

The guys and gals that regularly play Tiara Rado Golf Course will tell you putts break away from the Colorado National Monument and are befuddling. But this short layout has been known as an ego-booster with great scenery. However, changes by Kevin Atkinson, of Phelps Golf Design, might give this municipal favorite more bite. No. 17 and No. 18 have been polished up, with 17 getting a big-time facelift with lots of water to avoid.

The heart of the Western Slope is mecca for outdoors enthusiasts and vacationers just wanting to experience Colorado scenery. Don't miss the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, or travel the Unaweep-Tabaguache Trail, which cuts through 133 miles of Uncompahgre Plateau and Canyon, divulging millions of years of geology, including dinosaur fossils. Fishing rules at the Curecanti National Recreation Area, or drive the San Juan Skyway or the 63-mile Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Highway.

Grand Junction's rugged landscape was carved by the mighty Colorado River creating a special place to grow fruit and grapes. Winemakers thrive in the area, and the peaches grown in next door Palisade are world class, as are the Honey Crisp apples.

The five-block North Seventh Avenue Historic Residential District area is lined with trees and is an exceptional stroll for those interested in 100-year-old architecture. Restaurants and shops abound in the historic downtown area.

Lodging suggestions on your golf trip include the clubhouse suites at the Bridges Golf & Country Club, the Comfort Inn in Delta and the Doubletree in Grand Junction.

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

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On the road in Colorado: Golf the gems in the heart of the Western Slope