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The Modernization of City Park Golf Course

By David R. Holland

Generations of inner city Denver residents and East High School students have hoofed through City Park Golf Course, a historic parkland golf standard.  That risky route saved time and legend has it that golf ball burglary was witnessed from time to time, not to mention the hazard of getting plunked.

(By the way, management of golf courses discourage walkers through golf courses.)

Surrounded by the Denver Zoo, Natural History Museum and other parks amenities, the golf course location was once home to the City Park Dairy Farm before its September 6, 1913 grand opening.

When this Tom Bendelow routing opening it was one of the longest golf courses in the USA and was especially popular with businessmen who worked downtown – it took only 10 minutes to arrive at City Park by streetcar.

Famous golfers to play here include Colorado PGA Tour Player Jonathan Kaye, who was in the City Park juniors program. Jim Thorpe, Lee Trevino and Babe Zaharias also played here.

The Modernization of City Park Golf Course

 But the golf course boom of the 1990s created many new daily-fee courses and a need for 100-year-old routings to be modernized with tree mitigation, green complex improvement, bunker remodeling and storm water detention areas to help reduce flood risks in surrounding neighborhoods.

Actually, the City Park Golf Course improvements started in 2017 as part of a $46-million storm water project. The goal was to reduce flooding and was funded by normal water utility fees.

 The reconstruction, headed by golf course architect Todd Schoeder, created low areas in the western half of the course and the catch basins can now hold more than 200 acre-feet of water before draining to the below ground infrastructure. Tees and greens were elevated above the water line and the stream that flows around holes 11 and 13 eventually drain into the Platte River.

When all that earth was removed to make the deep catch basins it was transported to the middle of the property. That high point is where a brand-new clubhouse stands at 3181 E. 23rd Avenue adjacent to the Denver Zoo entrance.

The new clubhouse has floor-to-ceiling glass windows and a west-facing patio to allow patrons to fully enjoy City Park’s views of the downtown Denver skyline and the Rocky Mountains. The building also houses Denver’s First Tee offices and has a 4-hole course for beginning golfers ages four through teens.

“We now have non-golfers coming for the view, sunset and restaurant,” said Susie Helmerich, head golf professional. That couldn’t happen with the old clubhouse that was situated on the lowest point of the property (25th and York Street).

Bulldozing 136 acres

You can imagine the thoughts of non-golfing neighbors and others passing by when golf course architect Schoeder’s crew started bulldozing all 136 acres with consultation from Colorado Hall of Fame PGA Tour golfer Hale Irwin.

“They’re going to murder hundreds of trees for a new condo complex,” some screamed. “Nope it’s going to be an Amazon super distribution facility,” others opined.

Denver Parks and Recreation had no such decimation in mind.  In fact, there was no reason for a candlelight vigil for the trees. Of the 825 trees, fewer than a third got the chain saw and around 700 new ones were planted.

“In the end the increase in trees was about 4-to-1,” Schoeder said.

You see it from hole No. 1, a 430-yard, par 4, that has a cluster of those native trees on the right and left giving an illusion of a tight fit for your tee shot. Enjoy the view of the Denver skyline and have fun on the Biarritz green with its center swale.

“Where did those smallish greens of the old golf course go?” Just try two putting on the longish par-three holes with the pin at the back and your tee shot on the front of the green.

“The reaction to the new course has been really positive,” Schoeder said. “Golfers are enjoying the new green complexes and the strategic wide playing corridors. We are continually thinking of new improvements and one idea is to make a split fairway on hole 13 with two distinct landing areas, making more of a natural look.”

Today, the course measures 6,703 yards at par 70. One can imagine the new City Park Golf Course is packed and it is, but on the day I played it was only four and a half hours playing time.

The Oxford Hotel offers stay and play

The Oxford Hotel, Denver’s historic hotel (opened in 1891), is partnering with Denver Golf to offer visitors exclusive access to three municipal Mile High golf courses with the Denver Golf Experience.

Oxford guests can enjoy preferred tee times at three of courses – Willis Case Golf Course, Overland Park Golf Course and renovated City Park Golf Course.

My night’s stay in this historic hotel included a Colorado whiskey tasting experience, a short walk to a Colorado Rockies baseball game, and a walking tour of LoDo – the 16th Street Mall and Union Station.

Priced start at $369 per night and The Oxford Hotel Denver Golf Experience includes:

• Luxurious overnight accommodations in the heart of Lower Downtown (LoDo)

• One round of golf for two people at City Park, Willis Case or Overland Park

• Golf cart rental and green fees

• Tesla transportation to and from the golf courses