The devil has a reputation for temptation, and the Devil’s Thumb will certainly pull the trigger for many vacationing near the Gunnison Gorge. Rick Phelps has created several par fours that, at altitude, are more tantalizing than they might be closer to sea level.
The first comes early, at No. 3, where even at 342 yards, the downhill (or “down mountain,” if we’re being accurate) tee shot offers a go at the green. That said, common sense should still have some sway: Even if you’re getting help with the distance, you’ll need paramount accuracy to work the ball from right-to-left and around fronting bunkers.
The No. 13 par four seems even more ludicrous. There are two options from the tee: Play to the higher fairway and then face a blind approach (the result of a significant drop)...or simply go for the small strip of fairway that’s sticking out in front of the green. The distance seems absurd — 414 yards from the back tees — but the club insists it’s possible for big hitters.
Not sure...we may rather take our chances on the skydiving operation next door to the course than try to bomb these greens!
If there's one thing golf needs it's courses concentrating first and foremost on the main product -- without undue fixation on all the side elements that have simply driven the costs to play skyward. A friend of mine from the United Kingdom once told me he could define America by one word. I stared at him and asked what's the word. He simply said - "more." That concise assessment accurately reflects the conflagration that engulfed American course development throughout much of the 1990's. "More" golf was created - but whether that golf product was better or even needed was questionable.
The 18-holes that constitute a course are the central ingredient - not the grandiose size of one's clubhouse or if you spend considerable dollars and labor on providing for verdant conditions that go far beyond what's truly needed when playing.
Located at the base of Grand Mesa - the world's highest flat top mountain and featuring a layout situated among the Adobe Hills -- Devil's Thumb shows quality golf doesn't need all the extras in providing a fun layout of serious caliber. The layout is the handiwork of architect Rick Phelps - a former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA). The design provides a wide assortment of holes bolstered by a quality routing that constantly keeps changing. Adjusting to varying wind patterns is a must. Devil's Thumb is located on this planet but the overall scenery of the area gives off the sense of being on another planet.
The course is not exactly on the beaten trail -- located about an hour south of Grand Junction - the course is very affordable and free of any outside clutter that takes away from the experience. There is no gate house to pass through or other pomposity. The course is located near a small airfield but there's little that stands out as you approach by car.
Phelps did a marvelous job in creating holes that twist and turn -- sometimes in an abrupt manner -- other times with a gentle movement. Bunkers are placed well -- forcing the player to think carefully before executing. There are avenues for bold play -- in tandem with safer routes. The key is knowing when the risk is worth the effort. The sand texture is the only issue -- often times it's hard packed and much of that happens because of the way the wind whips through them. If I could change one quick thing at Devil's Thumb it's the depth of many of the bunkers -- deeper would keep more of the sand and add a bit more of a penalty for those finding themselves playing out of them.
One of the interesting aspects when playing Devil's Thumb is being able to gauge distances correctly. With little natural background elements the golfer must be able to flight one's ball as the wind and yardage dictate. Being able to access the more demanding pin placements is a major factor when playing because Phelps has created numerous areas where pin positions can be seriously tucked. For someone playing a second round the overall sense in knowing what to expect and what's needed can help shave strokes off the scorecard.
After a decent opening par-4 -- the next few holes are all opportunities to score well but not without being forced to hit quality shots. The 2nd is a long par-5 that plays shorter with the prevailing wind. Fairway bunkers on the hole need to be respected. At the downhill short par-4 3rd the temptation to go for the green is certainly present -- just be mindful that any misfire will have you working hard to escape with a par.
The par-5 5th is equally well done -- a possible birdie hole -- but only when played smartly and with sound execution. One of the best holes follows at the par-4 6th. The land here is quite attractive. The 6th plays slightly uphill and turns left with a key fairway bunker on that side. Players able to work the ball from right-to-left will gain additional yardage as the fairway goes downward once past the aforementioned bunker. The green is elevated and requires both sufficient height and spin to nestle near the hole location.
One of the other fascinating holes on the outward side is the par-4 9th. You must deal with water -- both on the tee shot and the approach. The key is avoiding two fairway bunkers that seem to call your ball to either of them. The green is on the other side of the hazard you crossed with the tee shot. Just a quality ending hole to the front side.
The inward nine starts with a powerful hole. The 10th is a long par-4 -- doglegging right with a massive pond that needs to be avoided. The more left you go the more distance is needed for the second. Even the strongest of players need to pay heed since the prevailing seasonal wind is often in one's face.
The 11th and 12th provide two par-4's under 400 yards which are nicely done, however, the real magic rises to the top of the charts with the par-4 13th. The hole provides two distinct choices -- play far right to a fairly open landing area on this 414-yard hole. The strongest of players can opt for the more daring of plays -- down the left side carrying a good bit of native area to a tiny narrow sliver area of fairway grass. It's akin to landing a 747 on a community airport runway. Yet, if the execution happens you are awarded with a very short direct approach angle to the green. Those who opt for the safer play to the right are forced to play an approach to a green situated below your location and at a more demanding angle. The green is also split with two distinct levels -- the front provides the easiest of situations. But, when the pin is placed in the rear third it will take your very best to escape with par. The hole is a testament to giving players plenty of options -- it shows clearly how players must summon up comiittment on whatever line of attack they choose.
The downhill short par-3 14th which follows is also special. At 141 yards it appears a simple par and likely birdie hole. Wind patterns fluctuate and two pesky bunkers are a must to avoid -- especially when the pin is cut on the far right side.
The par-5 15th is likely the most unimaginative of the holes at Devil's Thumb -- 626 yards and often into the prevailing wind but not of the caliber found throughout much of the round.
That changes with the final trio -- each well done and in concert with providing varying elements of choices to be made by the player. The dog-right 16th is a solid par-4 hole. Bunkers in the fairway play a role but they're angled and the only elevated green on the return nine adds magic to the hole. At the par-3 17th the card distance of 191 yards is not the true effective yardage as you again play back into the prevailing wind. When the pin is placed to the far left you have to summon up all of your skill to get near it.
For the final hole Phelps gives the golfer one last opportunity to end with a possible birdie. The wherewithal to get one's birdie is not provided on a silver platter. The tee shot is particularly impacted -- the deeper the tee shot the straighter it must be as the fairway tapers considerably. Even once you found the fairway you face a challenging decision -- do you attempt to fly over a menacing pond backed up by several bunkers to a green in the distance or do you opt for 100% safety with a play more towards the left. It's a fine way to end one's round at a course that offers an array of interesting and fun holes.
Devil's Thumb has had some turf issues in the past -- there's been an issue with the nearby salt invasion from the hillsides that bracket the course -- especially near the par-5 5th hole. I have not been back to the course in some time so I'm hoping that's been rectified. When I was there the need to overwater the hole in question in order to mitigate the salt impact made the hole unnecessarily too wet.
If one has time be sure to make visits to the nearby Gunnison Gorge National Park and Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area. Both are well worth seeing. If you head back to Grand Junction a visit to the Colorado National Monument is also worth seeing.
All in all, Devil's Thumb shows how affordable golf and interesting design can be merged together. No question getting to Delta can be difficult but it's location off highway 50 in western Colorado does provide a link to so many other interesting outdoor options.
Golf in America overdosed itself in so many ways during the heady years when courses of all types were popping up all over the landscape. Devil's Thumb is an elastic design -- fortified by an array of shots and holes that are fun to play again and again. In short this is one devil of a time that gets a big thumb's up -- no pun intended.
by M. James Ward