By David R. Holland
WOLCOTT, Colo. — Twenty years ago the grand opening at Red Sky Ranch Golf Club was, as ranchers sometimes say, a cool deal.
George Jouflas was a 78-year-old cell-phone carrying Colorado pioneer-rancher-realtor, who sat amongst a former president, Gerald Ford, and PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem at the high-end festivities.
No doubt when he was toiling as a young ranch hand he never dreamed this rugged, beautiful land west of Vail would be used for anything other than sheep grazing. That’s what his dad Peter had in mind when he bought more than 11,000 acres in 1926 for $10 an acre.
George passed away in 2012, but today, after 100 years in the area, the Jouflas family still runs the Lazy J Ranch, a haven for outdoorsmen, where 20,000 sheep once roamed next to another million acres of national forest land the family leased for grazing.
Now golfers are enjoying the views along Bellyache Ridge, vistas off to Castle Peak and the Back Bowls of Vail. Golfers walk the gently sloping fairways and rolling ridges that frame shots through purple sage, junipers, evergreens, aspen groves and sandstone-rock outcroppings. And they are tested by devilish, slick putting surfaces.
Red Sky is private, with a national membership that extends from coast to coast. These members can take advantage of direct flights into Eagle County Regional Airport, a short drive from the club.
The Red Sky Ranch experience
With two courses, Red Sky Ranch was able to offer its membership play on one course, alternating daily, while guests of certain Vail-area hotels can book tee times on the other course.
The guest clubhouse, located at the Fazio Course, features a log exterior and architectural detail designed to present a Rocky Mountain atmosphere. Valet parking greets visiting golfers and there’s a pro shop, and men’s and women’s locker rooms.
On the practice range attendants keep your clubs clean and tell when to go to the first tee. After your round the Summer Thyme restaurant, with both indoor and outdoor dining, is ready to serve.
A separate member clubhouse is a showpiece overlooking the Norman No. 18 green. Members are served a complimentary breakfast buffet during golf season at Silver Sage Restaurant and there’s a private lunch, too.
The Fazio Course was the first of two to open. It’s a 7,116-yard, par-72 stunner that was joined in 2003 by its neighbor the Norman Course, a par-72 routing that measures 7,480 yards. The courses are separated by a rocky ridge that serves as a corridor for migrating deer and elk.
Both Red Sky Ranch courses rank high. Golf Magazine selected the Fazio course at No. 3 and the Norman course at No. 1 in the state of Colorado.
The Fazio Course, opened only for VIP play in 2002, is a blast for the senses. It’s as scenic as they come and very playable tee-to-green. That’s when the extreme challenge comes — you are going to three-putt some of these slick surfaces.
Fazio’s design team took particular care to maintain the site’s indigenous vegetation, relocating more than 23,000 native plants into nurseries for re-planting throughout the course. Enjoy the variety of terrain as players traverse open sage-covered hills, dense aspen groves and around a highland lake.
“Red Sky Golf Club not only provides the opportunity to play great golf, but also to encounter dramatic Rocky Mountain landscapes in their pure environmental forms,” Fazio said.
The Norman Course allows the natural landscape to dictate the flow of play. There’s an elevation change of 400 feet from the third green to No. 14.
Many think the Norman Course has more dramatic elevation changes and tee shots downhill, while the Fazio Course climbs through stands of aspen trees and is less penal and rolling gently.
“For years, my love of the Rockies, along with the natural beauty of the surroundings, has beckoned me to the Vail Valley. Red Sky Golf Club afforded me the chance to create one of the most natural and aesthetically beautiful golf courses in this region,” Norman said.
Actually, until just recently Norman owned The Seven Lakes Ranch east of Meeker and north of Pagosa Springs. He sold the ranch for mucho dinero ($40 million).
It’s interesting that one can drive the I-70 corridor and see golf course after golf course, left and right, as you rubberneck down the Vail Valley. But if you look up left at Wolcott you would never dream the land would be that spectacular for two golf courses — the Vail Valley’s 12th and 13th courses.
Finchem, a frequent Vail visitor for skiing with children and grand kids, was so impressed by the Red Sky Ranch area he called Fazio to quiz him about the golf. At the grand-opening festivities Finchem said it took him about “18 minutes” to decide he wanted a retirement home at Red Sky Ranch.
Where to Stay
When I visit Vail, The Antlers at Vail (www.antlersvail.com) is my pick for lodging. It is located in the redeveloped Lionshead area, 150 yards from the Vail Gondola.
The hotel offers condominiums ranging from studio suites up to four bedrooms with fully equipped kitchens, fireplaces, outdoor balconies with barbecues, and free internet access.
The property includes a heated, year-around, outdoor swimming pool and two hot tubs, a sauna, fitness room, business center and free, heated, indoor parking.
Photos by David R. Holland and courtesy of Red Sky Ranch