Jack Nicklaus designed the course at Castle Pines Golf Club in 1981 and he carved it out of a scrub oak and pine forest in the heart of Colorado, not far from Denver.
Castle Pines is famous for the International tournament which is played under an unusual and unique scoring system which, in a similar way to Dr Frank Stableford’s system, awards points for birdies, eagles or better and subtracts for bogeys or worse. This is Colorado’s only PGA Tour event and naturally it provides for some genuine excitement contested on a thrilling course.
The ball travels about 10% further at altitude and Castle Pines is set some 6,500 feet above sea level so expect some flattering distances. Jack Nicklaus disturbed very little earth here to create his course here at Castle Pines and the holes wind their way through avenues of trees. A couple of holes are more open and it’s from these holes that you appreciate the scale and delight of being perched at Rocky Mountain high.
I first played Castle Pines Golf Club in July 2004. It was for a two-day member-guest with a practice round. I then reconnected with the course many years later being set up by Jay Sigel, the famous US amateur who later played and won on the Champions Tour. During lunch after the round, my host and I figured out that we had grown up 15 miles apart, although he is older. Isn’t that a wonderful aspect to golf? The world of golf can be very connected making it feel much smaller. The member had been to my home-town many times at the same events and places I had gone to before graduating high school before he made his way to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City and finally a house overlooking Castle Pines. Last year on May 15, 2019 two of my friends and I reconnected with him again. At this point in time the clubhouse was completely closed for remodeling but thankfully the course was open for play on a warm, sunny mid-Spring day.
In reading the previous reviews I think they captured the golf course rather well, although I have a slightly different opinion to some as to the overall quality of the course.
Unlike other courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, on this course there was not much earth moved. The construction emphasized the removal of trees and rock while working with the shape and slope of the land. The course basically spills down the hill from the clubhouse with the first and tenth tees on either side. Fourteen of the holes are in trees while the remaining four are essentially in the open. On twelve holes, much like Pine Valley and Augusta National you do not see any or much of the hole next to it. The green sites are wonderfully situated to the land and are varied as some are uphill, some are down, and some are flat. One could argue this is Mr. Nicklaus’ best routing although Mayacama and Kinloch come to mind.
The course sits at approximately 6600 feet of altitude so the ball goes about 11% farther here. There are magnificent views from many of the holes. The grandest view is from the veranda of the clubhouse which affords a view of Pike’s Peak some 75 miles away at an elevation of 14,115 feet. Regrettably, between the time I first played it in 2004 to last year, the highways to the west of the course have expanded with a lot of new construction so what was once a serene, unobstructed view from the fourth and fifth holes has now been replaced with clutter and road noise.
At this elevation the yardages on offer are 7700, 7400, 7100, 6700, 6100 and 5500 (all rounded). I have always played the combo tees at 7100. Due to the trees and the slope of the terrain, I do think Mr. Nicklaus did an excellent job with the routing beginning with that long look down the opening hole as you fall steeply down to the fairway below. I do think a driveable par 4 or a few shorter holes would have added variety to the course, but given the overall routing and land available, I do not think it would have added substantially more to the quality of golf. It could likely offer more “fun.” The fairway corridors and fairways felt natural to the land as opposed to manufactured. On other courses designed by Mr. Nicklaus, I sometimes rue the shaping he has done to his fairways. Some critics say that the holes lack continuity and flow. I tend to look at Castle Pines in the broader scope of the front nine cascading down, across and back up the hill to the clubhouse in a clockwise fashion while the back nine again cascades down, across and back up the hill in a counter-clockwise fashion.
This is a course both fun to play and beautiful to play due to the views and the landscaping. There are a few houses that are on ridges above the fairways on the back nine but they never intrude on the course. One could play this course over and over and be delighted with it much like Colorado Golf Club. For me, Castle Pines offers a bit more uniqueness in the holes and some stunning views while Colorado Golf Club offers the links-like feel on several holes with a bit more quirkiness to make it appear “natural.” Both are very good golf courses. When one thinks of golf in Colorado the four most highly rated courses include Castle Pines, Colorado Golf Club, Ballyneal and Cherry Hills and each of them is very different to the other. In many other states one will find a tighter similarity amongst the higher rated courses.
The course begins with that amazing view and tee shot on the first at 644/600 which drops steeply on this slight dogleg left with a green fronted by three bunkers. One simply must get their approach shot to the right side for the best look at the green.
I like the site of the green on the second hole, a par 4 of 408 yards as a dogleg right with the green against the pond. It is a nice somewhat crowned green.
The third hole, a par 4 of 462/436 has a split fairway with a large and deep ravine. The bold player will drive to the left over the ravine to shorten the hole. I do think the tree on the left side of the right fairway is unnecessary but I suppose it provides a bit of subliminal encouragement to go down that left side instead of the safer right side.
The fourth hole is a stout par 3 with a severe fall-off on the right side with two bunkers fronting the right side and two on the left. This is perhaps an overly difficult hole at 230/205.
The fifth hole is a dogleg right with a fairway bunker on the left turn to be avoided while one is tempted to cut the dogleg as much as possible. The green is elevated requiring another club. The green is sloped from back to front. It is a hole I do not favor as much as the next so this would have been an opportunity for a driveable par 4.
Six is almost a repeat of the fifth but with a long bunker on the right side of the fairway that catches a lot more balls than one might expect. The small pot bunker fronting the middle of the green is especially treacherous on this elevated, steeply sloped green. You cannot be long here and face a downhill putt.
Seven is perhaps the best defended par 3 guarded by bunkers playing downhill at 185/165 yards with a green with a spine in it.
Eight is a par 5 of 570/507 working its way gently up the hill with the green hidden off to the right and fronted by a bunker and another two on the left side. Trees come into play on this hole perhaps more than any hole on the front nine.
Nine is an impressive uphill par 4 of 458/431 bending right where one has to decide how much of the water on the right to carry. Three bunkers guard the left in the primary landing zone. There are two bunkers at the green. Other than the tee shot on one and the views on a clear day of Pike’s Peak on four, this is the best view on the front nine.
After circling around the clubhouse to the other side, the tenth is a long downhill of 521/496 with the fairway narrowing substantially. The green sits off to one’s right just a bit but the key concern is that pond that fronts it with a green sloped towards the water. For me, this is the most difficult hole on the golf course and even if I hit a great drive, I typically play only to the left side of the green.
Eleven is the prettiest hole on the course, a downhill par 3 of 197 yards with water fronting the green continuing to the left. The green slopes to the water with many undulations. It is a fine hole.
Twelve has a long waste area to carry on this slightly downhill par 4 of 439/394 where water and three bunkers guard the green. Protecting the fairway are trees on the right as well as two bunkers. If there is a place for the driveable par 4, then this is certainly one of them.
Thirteen is the farthest point from the clubhouse as you turn to make your way back. It is a par 4 of 439/394 going downhill and would have been another option for a driveable par 4. This is the least memorable hole for me.
Fourteen is a long par 5 of 623/550 that finishes with a water feature that cuts across the fairway about 60 yards short of the green. A pond finishes in front of the green which looks narrower than it is and has several depressions in it. It is actually a very large green. It is an okay par 5 that can result in birdie chances and double bogies.
Fifteen is one of the short “fun” holes, a par 4 of 403 yards that fishhooks to the right with the green sat against another pond on the right and three bunkers on the left. It is a simple approach shot if one has confidence in their swing but it is another hole where I have seen birdies up to triple bogies.
Sixteen is the final par 3 at 209/188 and this hole has changed considerably since I first played it. When first built, there were perhaps five holes where Mr. Nicklaus had “catch” bunkers where he sloped the greens towards bunkers. Those are all gone with perhaps the exception on six. The green on this hole has been reconfigured with a pond fronting the left side of this two-tiered green. The level hole has improved but I do not think it is yet the hole it could be.
Seventeen is the famous short, uphill par 5 of 533/492 that bends ever so slowly to the left. Trees guard both sides of the fairway. The green sits above you and has been re-graded and is no longer as severely sloped back to front as it used to be. Previously one aimed for the back of the green and let the ball come down the slope but now a ball hit to the back will stay there and release only a small amount. Nevertheless, I do like the hole despite the uphill steep walk.
Eighteen is a delight as a slight dogleg left with a blind tee shot. This green has also been sloped differently. There is a fairway bunker on either side with three bunkers at the large green which also has a spine/tier in it as well as little hollows. The view of the clubhouse for the approach shot is absolutely beautiful.
Castle Pines is a course one should certainly make an effort to play if one receives an invitation. It certainly deserves to be in the top four golf courses in the state of Colorado. Depending on one’s preferences, it could be the second best. For the average length hitter, one should be able to use every club. Having a good short game is key. There is a bit of “target golf” to it, but there is often a chance at redemption, other than if finding water. Other than five-six and twelve-thirteen, the holes feel unique and different. The views on the course and from the course are stunning. As pointed out, this type of golf course has fallen from favor, but I am fairly certain the pendulum will eventually swing the other way.
Castle Pines clearly benefited from the television exposure it received when hosting The International event on the PGA Tour from 1986 until 2006. The Stableford format also was a real plus because it showed that different formats -- rather than a predictable 72-hole event -- could work very well and clearly have audience interest.
The winners included such stars as Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Davis Love III, Jose Maria Olazabal, Greg Norman, Vijay Singh -- and a host of others.
Credit for the club's standing also has to go to founder Jack Vickers who wanted to create an "Augusta National experience" in the greater Denver area. The layout is always in pristine condition and the views of the front range is truly inspiring.
The course clearly has its moments and you begin the day with a rousing plunging downhill par-5. The backdrop when you stand on the tee for the opening hole is quite scenic and gets you into the round immediately.
The outward side works its way downhill before making its way back to the clubhouse for the turn. The holes at the start are fun to play -- but clearly shaped to the max so at times the holes given the appearance in being built on top of the land instead of blending into it.
The closing 9th is well done but a bit artificial in character with a pond on the right side of the drive zone seeking to catch any errant shot played in that direction. Nonetheless, it's a strong hole and requires a well-played tee shot and approach.
The inward side also begins in epic fashion. This time a downhill long par-4 of 521 yards. Keep in mind, the mile plus altitude will help propel one's ball but the key at the 10th is finding the fairway because if you don't a menacing frontal pond awaits the half-hearted approach. Arguably the 9th and 10th at Castle Pines are the two most challenging long par-4's one can play in The Centennial State.
The inward side has more scenic beauty as you work your way through a series of holes lined with stately ponderosa and fir trees. Similar to the front side -- the back nine works its ways downhill before moving back uphill for the rousing climax. The 17th is not particularly a classic hole but Jack's brilliance came in having a penultimate par-5 which often played a major role during The International event. The closing long par-4 18th concludes the round well with a stately clubhouse and epic tower bringing the round to an end.
The main missing ingredient at Castle Pines is the lack of a truly epic short par-4. The Nicklaus approach early on in his career often eschewed such inclusion and it's a pity because the layout would have really benefited from such a hole or two.
All in all, Castle Pines is striking for its overall presentation. There's housing but it's presence really does not interfere with one's play. In the years following the absence of the PGA Tour, it's hard to fathom how the layout has not been more rightly appreciated given the coming onto the scene of other high priced layouts in Colorado that truly do not have as much to offer as Castle Pines.
As the pendulum of design appreciation shifted towards the likes of Coore/Crenshaw, Hanse, Doak -- the Nicklaus efforts have often received lesser attention. Much of that likely tied to overall preference and the style of the 1980s clearly has changed a good bit since that time. Castle Pines clearly does not present riveting golf in all senses but the sum total of what is present still commands worthy attention given how its arrival clearly played a major role in the overall development of top tier golf in Colorado and what the club still provides to this day.
M. James Ward
At Castle Pines, Jack Nicklaus built a challenging course with elevation changes, mountain ponds, and babbling brooks strategically placed to gobble up your ball. Golf balls fly about 10 percent farther in the thin Colorado air. Number 10 is a 485-yard par 4 and almost as many yards down. Number 18 features another of Nicklaus’ signature concepts: the double fairway, with a riskier route for longer hitters and a safer route for shorter hitters. I didn’t do well on the back nine [we played the back nine first], but the front nine was another story.
Number 1 is a breathtaking downhill par 5 of 644 yards, then the longest hole on the PGA Tour. You could stand on that tee box all day just to drink in the fantastic vista. I hit a long sweeping drive that had a hang time over these mountains that would have made even an NFL punter proud. My 3-wood was equally well struck, and there I was 130 yards from the green and still more downhill to go. I hit a 9-iron to 20 feet and drained that 20-footer for birdie. “Yes! I birdied the longest hole on the PGA Tour. Take that Jack Nicklaus.” My partner joked, “Where were those shots on the other nine?” Larry Berle.