Cartoonish Hues, Vertiginous Views on The Plateau

The nose bleed-inducing black tee on the par-3 17th hole at Redlands Mesa in Grand Junction, Colorado.

About 10 miles outside Delta, Colorado, the road heading southwest turns a rough grade of gravel and, about the same time, the scenery on either side goes Technicolor. In the fall, cottonwood trees here in the rugged Umcompaghre Reserve turn an unreal, Tweetie Bird yellow. Come spring, wild flowers blanket the mile-high cow pastures in every other conceivable hue. There’s plenty of time drink in this wondrous detail as no sane person would drive more than 45 mph on gravel this serious, on a byway this narrow and cambered, this secluded — though the odds are good there’s no one else on the road to Nucla but you and a few adventurous steer.

It’s a good three hours from Devil’s Thumb GC in Delta, through the Umcompaghre, to The Hideout GC in Monticello, Utah. It’s another two from the swanky Tamarron Resort above Durango, Colorado, to the superb Pinon Hills GC in Farmington, New Mexico. But if indeed golf is a journey (as the New Agers keep telling us) then this is just the place to get your bliss on. For here is a starkly beautiful, mesa-strewn wonderland where the sky is big, where the next turnoff is liable to mean another national park, where the rides between courses are as inviting as the golfing outposts themselves.

This is the Colorado Plateau, a hunk of arid landscape stretching southwest from The Rockies’ Western Slope to the highlands northwest of Phoenix. One reaches this golf-rich region through Salt Lake City or Denver, connecting to places like Durango or Grand Junction, Colorado, where the mountains end and the desert sage takes over.

Grand Junction is a logical place to start (or finish) as it’s home to what is arguably region’s best course, The Golf Club at Redlands Mesa. This Jim Engh design has earned a raft of national plaudits and it’s not difficult to understand why: The setting here is at once startling and exhilarating, a dither of canyons, random rock formations and high-desert heaths. At the par-3 17th, the black tee is nestled on a peak so tall and acute, you half expect the Grinch to show up with his sleigh-full of stolen toys. I’m not joking; it’s looks and feels like the freakin’ Matterhorn. Watching your ball fall the 100-odd feet to earth is like watching Wile E. Coyote resignedly plunge off a cliff to the canyon floor below (there’s even a bail-out bunker right of the green to serve up an appropriate “poof” at impact).

Forgive all the animated allusions, but the scenery out here honestly does border on the cartoonish. It’s bloody spectacular and the rides between venues — i.e., the ascetically magnificent terrain one must pass through — make golfers appreciate each layout’s physical attributes all the more. Devils’ Thumb, an hour south of Grand Junction, is clearly a product of its inimitable landscape. Imagine a honest-to-goodness links laid out in the Sea of Contentment, and one begins to envision what architect Rick Phelps has created here. Opened in 2001, Devil’s Thumb careens around a veritable moonscape with alarming originality. Like Redlands Mesa, this course is difficult if not impossible to negotiate on foot. So take a cart. And some Dramamine.

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