DELTA, Colo. -- Award-winning Devil's Thumb Golf Club is one of the more distinctive layouts on the Western Slope of Colorado.
Devil's Thumb, situated on a plateau with panoramic distant views of Grand Mesa, the San Juan Mountains and the West Elk Mountains, was built on an ashen clay backdrop named the Adobe Hills -- a stark contrast from the mountain, coniferous golf you find on the I-70 golf corridor in Keystone, Breckenridge or Silverthorne.
"This is such an odd place for Colorado, but it is beautiful," golf course architect Rick Phelps said. "The northeast view brings in the Adobe Hills, which reminds me of the surface of the moon but is just a combination of the terrain that made it interesting to me. It's one of the truest desert-style courses you will find in Colorado."
Devil's Thumb Golf Club is the essence of a hidden gem, a diamond in the rough. Because of its wasteland location, a distant 41 miles down U.S. 50 from Grand Junction and Interstate 70, it remains a golf course many travelers haven't checked off their bucket list.
"The strength of Devil's Thumb is the site itself," said Phelps, whose 7,176-yard, par-72 moonscape was No. 2 on Golf Digest's Best New Affordable Public Golf Course in America list in 2002.
Devil's Thumb Golf Club: The layout
Phelps calls Devil's Thumb Golf Club a "prairie links" layout, with 60 bunkers and two lakes surrounded by the stunning panorama. Since it sits at 5,100 feet it can be open 365 days a year, depending on the occasional snowfall. Rarely does snow stay for more than one day.
Strategy is paramount at Devil's Thumb, owned by the city of Delta. Purists love it because it is sheer golf -- no housing, no country club atmosphere with swimming and tennis. It is just isolated golf with beautiful views, and challenging golf that demands thought off the tees.
It has fun greens complexes, contours, bunkering and some impressive, dazzling downhill holes, where you will be tempted to drive the green on a couple of par 4s.
Devil's Thumb Golf Club: Favorite holes
One of those downhill holes is No. 13, a 414-yard par 4. From an elevated tee you see a lay-up fairway to the right, but the expert golfer only sees the green and bunkers. You can't see the barren desert straight in front and below the tee complex.
"We hardly moved any dirt here," Phelps said. "It was just there."
Four bunkers guard a small entrance to the green that is a figure-eight shape with an exaggerated two tiers -- the back is much higher and slopes down to the lower tier. Just nail a drive toward the green and you might get a great bounce on to the putting surface.
The next hole is a fun par 3, a 141-yarder which has a no-man's desert slope to the right and in back. Actually if you look at the hole's drawing there is a big mound in the middle of the green and two bunkers front the green.
"High from the tee the green looks flat," Phelps said. "It takes playing the hole a few times so you will know what the best line is. It is easy to get on the wrong side of the mound -- and that can present you with a crazy downhill putt. Going over the green is another bad outcome."
Another downhill par 3 is No. 7, a 155-yard shot that plays back into a hillside with a huge drop-off to the left. "The tee shot looks benign, but there are multiple pin locations where you have to decide to play a fade or a draw," Phelps said.
With a draw a different slope takes your ball and feeds it to any hole location on the left side of the green and it may take you several rounds to recognize and remember those contours. For those who go too long a bunker is stationed behind the hole.
Phelps has always liked No. 18, a gentle dogleg-right par 5 at 557 yards.
"It has changed a little over the years, but it is a classic risk-reward hole," Phelps said. "First you must nail one off the tee, but the wind is predominately behind you. Then there's a decision to go over a pond and strip bunker that runs down the right to reach the green in two. If you aren't so bold there's plenty of layup room to the left of the green."
Devil's Thumb Golf Club: The verdict
Devil's Thumb Golf Club is bizarrely beautiful, with solitude and pure boondocks golf. Schedule your tee time early morning. The winds howl in the afternoon.
There's an excellent practice area with a putting green, driving range and short-game area. Expert instruction is also available.
"I was a little bit surprised by the award," Phelps said. "You never know how many Golf Digest raters got to play the golf course, especially since it is out of the way. I really didn't have an idea, but I was hopeful it would be honored. You hear a lot of architects say awards aren't a big deal that they are political, but I think awards have become a big deal."
The Comfort Inn in Delta is an ideal place to base your travel golf visit to Devil's Thumb.