Almost as spacious as the wild blue yonder, the United States Air Force Academy spans more than 18,000 acres of the Razorback Foothills in the Rampart Range just north of Colorado Springs. Elevations climb to 7,100 feet with ponderosa pines and scrub oak dotting a rugged landscape that’s home to deer, elk, black squirrels, bears, mountain lions and wild turkeys as well as cadets earning the right to be the next generation of Air Force officers.
But like any college campus, sports are key to providing a competitive spirit, a camaraderie amongst classmates, a break from the rigorous schedule of academia and a haven for relaxation. That was the idea 100 private citizens had when they formed the Air Force Academy Foundation back in the late 1950s and donated money to build the Eisenhower Blue Golf Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr.
Many believe it is the best golf course in the Department of Defense. And last year the popular course opened a new clubhouse.
Ranked No. 5 in Colorado by Golf Digest, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, dedicated the course on July 8, 1963, with a ceremonial tee shot at No. 1. When Ike’s drive went woefully crooked, someone from the galley shouted, “mulligan”, so our 34th president obliged with a second, down-the-middle drive. The persimmon driver he used is displayed in the Eisenhower Room on the second floor of the clubhouse.
Former Colorado Governor Dan Thornton, Randolph Scott and J.E. Manning, chairman of the foundation, first met with Pres. Eisenhower in 1958 at the White House to discuss the course and ask Ike’s permission to use his name.
Today, there are two golf courses on the campus, the Eisenhower Blue and Silver layouts, and there’s a history many haven’t heard. Tiger Woods played here in an East-West Junior match when he was 16, and it was also host to Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret in a 1966 Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match. Shell has only revisited Colorado once since then, when Phil Mickelson took on Colin Montgomerie at Cordillera in 1997.
Hale Irwin, Dale Douglass, Jonathan Kaye, Steve Jones, Tom Watson, Tim Herron, J.C. Snead, Tom Kite, Johnny Miller, Andy North, Mike Reid, Bobby Clampett, Jay Don Blake, and Fuzzy Zoeller are other pros who have played here. And legendary North Carolina hoops coach, Lieutenant Dean Smith, was the very first golf coach at The Air Force Academy. Back in those days it was an “additional duty” to his assistant basketball coaching job.
No one knows the history of golf here better than Gene Miranda, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, who served as golf coach for 28 seasons — 14 as an Air Force officer and 14 as a civilian. He also served as the AFA’s PGA Master Professional and Director of Instruction. Every year he showed the cadet golf team the video of the Snead-Demaret Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match, getting to know it well and collecting stories about those two days, which Miranda says were so cold they had to pay locals $5 to become the gallery. Even though it went down in the record books as a Snead win, shooting 74 to Demaret’s 76, Miranda’s keen eye caught something from watching the film so many times.
“Snead knocked a drive in the lateral water hazard at No. 17 (now No. 8), a 453-yard par four,” Miranda said. “On this day there was just a little water in the hazard, with loose rocks on the bottom. The film shows Snead moving the rocks around with his feet getting a stance. That’s a rules violation. You can’t move loose impediments in a water hazard — it should have been a two-stroke penalty.”
Snead must not have been too happy about his score, because Miranda said he gave his local caddy, Sgt. Clarence Tomlinson, a nasty attitude both days. When they reached No. 18, a 577-yard par five, with a 90-degree dogleg left, Snead asked Tomlinson if he could carry the corner over a huge bunker. “I don’t know if you can, Mr. Snead,” Tomlinson answered, “but I can.”
What Snead and Demaret discovered on their visit to the AFA was foothills terrain very much like land where The Broadmoor is situated. And putting is paramount to scoring.
“In the early days of the Eisenhower Blue Course, putting was probably harder than at The Broadmoor,” said Miranda, who also served as general manager at Colorado Springs’ Gleneagle Golf Club. “Putts never turned into the mountains, always away. But there has been so much verti-cutting over the years, it took away much of the grain. Still, there are few straight putts on the property and it causes problems for the AFA’s golf team — when they go on the road they want to read too much break into putts.”
Another Miranda memory concerns the Pikes Peak Intercollegiate. From the late 1960s through 1971, 18 holes were played on the Blue Course and 36 at The Broadmoor the first week of May. “The weather was always iffy bringing rain, sleet, snow and wind. The records show one year Hale Irwin shot an 86, probably in snow,” said Miranda, who is in the Golf Coaches Hall of Fame. “The Air Force Academy also co-hosted the 1969 NCAA Championships at The Broadmoor and he remembers a freshman from Stanford named Tom Watson winning the long drive trophy with a 320-yarder off the East Course’s No. 1 with a persimmon driver and balata ball.
In 1995 when the Falcon Invitational, now named the Gene Miranda Falcon Invitational, was played on Blue Course, Miranda recalled a day when the greens turned to surfaces as quick as the hood of a Dodge pickup.
“It was October and the water had already been turned off for the winter,” he recalled. “Well, that night before the tournament there was a frost. That dehydrated the greens and made them roll 12 on the Stimp meter. A kid from Utah in the very first foursome seven-putted the first green. The maintenance staff had set the pins and this one was on a knob. The ball just kept rolling back to the kid’s feet. We knew we had a big problem so I got a golf cart and filled trash cans with water. We hauled them around to the greens with the toughest pin placements. After we poured water around the holes it helped greatly to slow down the greens.”
The undulating bent-grass greens of the Blue Course and bluegrass fairways roll out today to 7,301 from the back, Falcon Tees. There are no houses, no out of bounds, a generous amount of directional and greenside bunkers, but very little water. “It reminds me of the Olympic Club in San Francisco,” Miranda says. “You just hit it and go find it.”
The eleventh is considered the most scenic. It is a 557-yard par 5 that doglegs left with water fronting the green. No. 15 is another favorite — a difficult 480-yard par four with a dogleg right with a challenging green and greenside bunker. No. 17 is a daunting 216-yard par three with a kidney-shaped green, and presents a tiny target when the pin is tucked into the right corner.
There’s no water on the finishing hole, but this 434-yard par four has bite. “I always told the golf team that if the pin is back and left and you hit it to the right side of the green it is just like putting it in water,” Miranda said. “Not many will be able to two putt.”
Frank Hummel designed the Silver Course at The Air Force Academy, which opened in 1976. It measures only 6,510 yards from the tips, but your score could be just as high because of slick greens and uneven lies. “The Silver Course is shorter and tighter and was supposed to be built as an executive par 68, but was ultimately turned into a regulation par 72,” Miranda said. “It could be stretched out to 6,800 yards, but complements the Blue Course and can be just a tough with the same tricky putting characteristics dominated by the foothills.”
Longer hitters can drive three of the short par fours — six, fifteen and sixteen are downhill and only 360, 356 and 370 yards. Water comes into play on eight holes including No. 17, the signature hole. It’s downhill 211 yards to a narrow green with water left and sand right. This looks like an easy target from the tee, but it can be frustrating.
One might be surprised to hear that the Air Force Academy ranks as one of Colorado’s most frequently visited man-made attractions. The Visitors Center features informative exhibits on cadet life as well as a 250-seat theater, a complete line of Academy merchandise, cafeteria, gift shop and nature trail leading to the Cadet Chapel, which is being refurbished.
The money collected from the Visitors Center helps support all 27 men’s and women’s intercollegiate sports with little assistance from taxpayers. Military golf courses are self-sustaining and their profits contribute to many other “non-appropriated” moral and welfare activities not funded by the taxpayers. Because of Covid-19 concerns the base is closed to visitors presently unless you have a valid military ID.
Cadets, active duty military, Department of Defense civilians, retirees and guests can play the two golf courses at The Academy.
Coach Miranda just turned 81 years old and his buddies say he continues to be a factor in the scoring department.
For more information visit: https://www.usafasupport.com/golf-club.html
David R. Holland is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. He served as a medical administer at the USAFA Hospital.