This year, it was the Rocky Mountains -- at least a large part of them. It was also the third consecutive summer that I've embarked with Nancy on our epic golf road trip, which means get in a car, drive, play golf, drive some more and discover lots of cool stuff doing it.
My biggest surprise this year? How incredibly beautiful Utah is. I knew Colorado would be scenic but had no idea that Utah was this stunning and diverse. What didn't surprise me was that I would get a break from the Houston's summer. There were days in Colorado where the highs were only in the low 60s, which is nearly 40 degrees cooler than it was back home.
In all, I wound up playing 17 rounds of golf on 16 different golf courses in a little more than three weeks. There was a lot of packing and unpacking the cozy Kia Soul we rented for the 5,000-mile trip (which began and ended in Houston), but it all worked out rather nicely. What follows are my top 10 discoveries on our epic road trip through New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, in order:
1. Dandy of a municipal golf course in Hobbs, N.M.: The golfers (and visitors, too) in Hobbs -- which sits on the New Mexico/Texas Panhandle border -- have to love the tax revenue that comes in from all the nearby oil field work. It helped fund a stellar new municipal course, Rockwind Community Links that belies the size of this 50,000-resident city out in the middle of nowhere.
Opened in late spring, locals can play this golf course for around $15, and visitors aren't paying a whole lot more than that. Terrifically conditioned and lots of interesting holes on a championship layout make this a great stop for any golfer traveling eastern New Mexico.
2. We found aliens in Roswell, N.M.: Well, maybe not from outer space, but our stopover in Roswell, which is where Nancy Lopez grew up playing golf, coincided with the annual UFO Festival there. Not only were there a small carnival, food trucks and vendors, but all sorts of international "experts" on weird phenomena were in town to speak at the UFO Museum and Research Center. We eventually met the family of a guy who supposedly saw those alien bodies back in 1946.
Anyway, there was also golf at the Spring Valley Golf Course, which is where Lopez grew up playing. It was nine holes back then, but now it's a fairly enjoyable 18-hole layout, especially on the back nine.
3. After all these years, I finally played Pinon Hills: And I wasn't disappointed. It had a reputation as being one of the finest municipals in the country and at a bargain price. It delivers on both accounts.
Ken Dye, of Finger, Dye & Spann, is the architect. He also did the original 18 holes at another New Mexico favorite, Paa-Ko Ridge Golf Club just north of Albuquerque. Pinon Hills Golf Course has great views, is conditioned like a $200 golf course (you can play it for about $35), and it's all the golf course you want from the back tees. (Read my review.)
4. A lot to like about Telluride, Colo. in the summer: The forecast was actually awful -- 90 percent chance of rain the whole time we were there. Fortunately, though, the thunderstorms were spotty, and we got in all the golf and splendor this uber-wealthy resort has to offer.
Known more for skiing than golf, Telluride Golf Club was a pleasant surprise. It isn't easy to design mountain courses, and although land constraints led the original architect, Tom Weiskopf, to take his name off the project, the course, which has evolved over the years, turned out well and is super enjoyable to play. And did I mention the views of Mountain Village and the town of Telluride? All first-rate, of course, highlighted by the hot tub on the roof on the Inn at Lost Creek.
5. Confirmation that St. George, Utah, is a great retirement spot: Unlike Telluride, it's pretty hot in St. George in the summertime, but that also means you can play year-round, which makes it a great retirement spot (see our article on best golf retirement communities).
It's only 100 miles or so from Las Vegas and 40 from Mesquite, Nev., so there's lots of golf in the area, and the city is just the right size. I played three courses there, including the Sand Hollow Championship Course, which is one of the best and most stunning layouts I've played in the last few years. (Coral Canyon Golf Course and The Ledges Golf Club are the other two.)
6. Getting high in Park City, Utah: We played two courses -- former Champions Tour venue Park Meadows Golf Club and the new Canyons Golf Course, which is really, really hard, especially the first four holes. The vistas, though, at Canyons, are incredible. You really do feel like you're on top of the world.
Canyons is open to the public, and the solid Nicklaus-designed Park Meadows is private but open to resort guests at the incredible Stein Eriksen Lodge Deer Valley. The Park City stop also included dinner and drinks at the really cool High West Distillery in Park City, where you can not only enjoy terrific Western-inspired food but great spirits as well. (They make a mean Old Fashioned there.) On the way out back to Colorado, we played what might have been the best course in Utah -- the Rees Jones-designed Victory Ranch Golf Club in Kamas. Again, stunning views and conditions.
7. May not be a prettier state than Utah: Maybe Hawaii or California can give it a run, and Colorado was certainly pretty close, but we were blown away with the scenery in Utah. From the national parks in southern Utah -- Bryce, Arches and Zion -- all along the drive up to Park City, it just seemed like there was one stunning landscape after another. I was constantly stopping the car to get pictures.
Also, shortly after we arrived in Utah, we came across the Hole-in-the-Rock, originally a 5,000-square-foot home built into the side of a cliff. This odd attraction set the scene for our week in Utah.
8. If you like soda and great golf, Steamboat Springs, Colo., will float your boat: First off, the municipal course in Steamboat Springs -- Haymaker -- is worth going to even if it's the only golf you play in the area. Keith Foster designs never disappoint me, and this valley course of a linksy nine and traditional nine was most enjoyable and walkable.
The town of Steamboat is also probably more affordable in the summer than most Colorado ski towns with plenty of terrific restaurants, river tubing, affordable souvenir shops and the coolest candy store I've ever seen. Actually part of larger chain, it was the first time I ever stepped into a Rocket Fizz Store, which not only has every candy imaginable but more than 500 varieties of soda.
9. Fossil Trace, a Denver-area gem and another great muni: We didn't spend much time in the Denver area, but our one day included a round at Fossil Trace Golf Club, a municipal in Golden. This excellent Jim Engh-designed course gets its names from the dinosaur fossils on holes 11 through 15.
Before the course opened in 2003, it was an old clay quarry site, and there are remnants of that operation, including some old digging equipment, still on the course. The par 5, with some interesting boulders in the fairway and surrounding the greens, is one of the most unique holes I've ever played.
10. On top of the world at Cordillera in Edwards, Colo.: Just west of Vail are the four golf courses at Cordillera. We played three of them, including the Jack Nicklaus-designed Summit Course at nearly 10,000 feet and Tom Fazio's Valley Course. Both are available to resort guests at the Cordillera Lodge & Spa, which has some pretty nice views as well from its pool deck and rooms.
I was told going in that I would like the design of the Valley Course better, but honestly, both designs were impressive. The Summit Course had more than views; it had memorable dogleg holes with changing scenery of the valley below that made you stop and pause several times during the round. The Valley Course was incredibly solid and didn't lack in the scenery department at all. But the biggest surprise might have been the third course we played, the Short Course at Cordillera. Designed by Dave Pelz, this par-3 course, which also includes the best short-game practice facilities I've ever seen, was perched high above the valley, offering vistas that might have been as good as any other course on the entire trip.
Courses played: Rockwind Golf Course in Hobbs, N.M; Spring River Golf Course in Roswell, N.M.; Pinon Hills Golf Course in Farmington, N.M.; Telluride (Colo.) Golf Club; Sand Hollow Golf Club in St. George, Utah; The Ledges Golf Club in St. George, Utah; Coral Canyon Golf Club in Washington, Utah; Park Meadows Golf Club in Park City, Utah; Canyons Golf Club in Park City, Utah; Victory Ranch Golf Club in Kamas, Utah; Haymaker Golf Course in Steamboat Springs, Colo.; Fossil Trace Golf Club in Golden, Colo.; Cordillera Summit Course in Edwards, Colo.; Cordillera Valley Course in Edwards, Colo.; and Cordillera Short Course in Edwards, Colo.