On a splendid site where the Ute and Arapaho indians once hunted buffalo, the design team of Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, known for their environmentally sensitive work, have given golfers a second reason to visit this gorgeous corner of Summit County. Keystone Resort's original Ranch Course, at 9,300 feet one of the highest-altitude layouts in the nation, was always well-regarded, but the new River Course, scheduled to open this summer, will surpass it.
Situated west of Keystone Village near Highway 6, the River Course offers dramatic elevation changes, top-of-the-world views and a longer playing season than the original. According to director of golf Steve Corneillier, the 7,000-yard, par-71 layout is a knockout. "From various locations on the course, golfers will have views of the Continental Divide, Ten Mile Range, Buffalo Mountain and the Gore Range," he said, noting that many of the taller peaks are snow-capped year-round.
And that's just the window dressing. Given a generous-sized parcel with no tight boundaries and very limited housing, Hurdzan and Fry were asked to create a more user-friendly design than the rigorous Ranch Course. They have succeeded magnificently. Landing corridors on the River are very wide, while the large bentgrass greens are the golfing equivalent of the broadside of a barn. Because of the short growing season, the entire course was sodded, which lends instant maturity to the River Course and provides superior playing surfaces. And while hardly a pushover from the back tees¿creative shotmaking and a strategic game plan are required to score from the tips¿the layout is loads of fun from the multiple sets of forward tees. An absence of penal hazards and only three modest carries over wetlands and a creek mean it's possible to play the River in a reasonable amount of time without losing a dozen balls. Oxygen is optional.
The front nine of the River Course is mostly flat, the fairways skirting the banks of the Snake River, though both the first and ninth holes drop 100 feet. The back nine bobs and weaves through lodgepole pines, with several precipitous drops from the topmost tees. The most memorable hole on the course is the 16th, a 496-yard par four that features a 200-foot vertical drop from tee to green. If you live to see your tee ball pinned against the sky for several heart-stopping seconds, you'll love the 16th on the River.
In addition to the high-altitude thrills, Keystone's new layout fits its alpine environment hand-in-glove. The designers improved some wildlife and wetland areas and also sought to reduce runoff and erosion. While the Ranch Course is open from the first week of June until early October, weather permitting, the sunnier, south-facing River Course should add two to three weeks to both ends of the season. The fall season, when the aspens turn gold, is spectacular, but note that Keystone's greenskeepers remove the pins in late afternoon because the resident elk have a habit of charging the flags. Call (970) 496-3510.
Brian McCallen is a senior editor at GOLF Magazine, SKI's sister publication, and author of "Top 100 Courses You Can Play" (Abrams).