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Saturday, September 03, 2005

The incredible story of Fossil Trace Golf Club, Golden Colorado

3050 Illinois St.

Golden, CO

Architect: Jim Engh
Par – 72
Excitement Level – 11/12
Diff. – 7/12
Conditioning – Four and ½ stars
Cost - $60
Value - Five stars
Overall – Four and ½ stars

Tees Yards Rating Slope
Black 6831 71.8 135
Blue 6241 69.0 130
White 5359 66.4 114
Gold 4681 66.7 123

You found your dreams coming true
Every day is something new
Everything you need is here
Everything is Golden
So hold on
and own this little town
ll be there in the mornin
If you make it through the night
-Radio Nationals song

Jim Engh had to face incredibly stringent environmental restrictions, four different ecosystems on-site, the looming alternative use plan for the site of a detention center and twelve years of battles with archaeologists, environmentalists, nay-sayers and meddlers in building Fossil Trace Golf Club in Golden, Colorado. The result? The best muni in America and a national golf masterpiece the town of Golden now celebrates as a Colorado treasure.

Engh's assistance in the recovery, research and preservation of 64 million year old Triceratops and vegetative palm frond fossils is the greatest achievement at Fossil Trace, augmented by the genius in designing a routing of eighteen holes around not only the fossils, but the tricky topography in the rest of the site. The land sits shoe-horned into a mere 130-140 acres with in the Golden city limits and Rocky Mountain Front range. The course features four completely different environments; open prairie (holes 6-9), an old clay mine (holes 11-15), a wetlands area (holes 1-5) and lowland pond areas (holes 10, and 16-18).

"Fossil Trace easily had the most trade-offs and environmental restrictions of all the sites I've worked on. Between wetlands and the archaeological treasures, it took twelve years from the start of the project until opening day" Engh noted. "It was going to be a detention center for juveniles, but I told the city I could give them a golf course and there would be room for their center as well and we could preserve the fossils" he says with a knowing smile.

The result is a phenomenal triple use of the land, but only after a grueling twelve year battle fought on many fronts. The land on which the fossils resided was owned by the Parfet family who had mined clay on the property for five generations. Fossils were known to be there since 1877 when the family bagan mining, but since the land was private, no amount of public outcry could influence the Parfet’s use of the land. Mining went on continuously until 2001, although the family took great care to preserve all the archaeological treasures they found.

However in 2001 when the Parfet family donated to the city of Golden the 52 acres upon which holes 11-15 now sit, the land became public and well organized resistance to building the course erupted. Skeptical that a golf course architect could ever be respectful of the ultra-sensitive environment and claiming that development of Fossil Trace would spoliate the precious remnants of history, paleontologists and environmentalists united with a neighboring co-housing community in a determined effort to convince the Golden city council to scuttle the project.

But Engh knew the first duty of a golf architect is to be respectful of both the land and the history of the property and to preserve and promote both at all costs. Turning lemons into lemonade, he convinced the Golden city council, the well-meaning researchers and the fervent environmentalists that golf course architecture is not merely an excrcise in land development and money grabbing.

To their credit, despite years of fervent battles, the course’s opponents proved not merely “loud for loud’s sake” and blindly political to their agenda. Perhaps showing deference to Engh’s prior successes at beautifully natural sites like Redlands Mesa and Sanctuary, perhaps heartened that a fellow Coloradan was the architect chosen to promote and protect a state geological marvel and perhaps buoyed by the thought that Engh could work productively with Dr. Martin Lockley from the University of Denver and archaeologist T Canner on the site, foes became friends and dream ultimately became reality to the golf world’s inesteemable delight.

**********************AUTHOR'S ASIDE************************

One of the ancient creatures whose tracks found are found in the clay pits has been named Champosaurichnus parfeti, in honor of the Parfet family. Now extinct, this animal resembled a crocodile, but was more closely related to a lizard.


Fossil Trace contains many of the trademark features Engh's fans have come to embrace. "Muscle bunkers" (as the Engh design team calls them), i.e. deep, rolling bunkers lined with bumpy hills that resemble a flexed muscular bicep, are turned perpendicular to the line of play, often with their axis pointed directly back down the fairway. They can be as much as ten feet deep.

Engh also likes greens that have many small nodes to place tucked pins. There is usually between five and seven paces of diameter from hole to fringe, so the hole locations look tougher from the fairway than they actually are, yet they are still challenging visually and in practice. Believing that undulation is the unsung soul of the game, Engh designed greens and fairways surrounded by high, pronounced sidewalls which rebound approaches, chips and even putts back onto the green and closer to hole locations. As a result, there are a lot of muni-friendly good bounces at Fossil Trace.

Finally, Engh takes full advantage of the stunning natural settings the site enjoys. Elevated tee boxes showcase stunning panoramas and green backdrops are idyllic. Native grasses serenely line the edges of the sidewalls adding color and texture to the canvas. No slave to traditional routing, Fossil Trace features five par-3s and five par 5s.


Like any world class course, the first hole sets the theme of the round admirably. The first part of this par-5 has a dramatically downhill tee shot that plays to a sidewall lined fairway. The second shot can reach the green only by negotiating a tight gauntlet of cottonwood trees jealously guarding the right side and a long deep muscle bunker guarding the left. Short hitters can play safe and easily reach in three. Engh creatively left the remnants of a 100 year old incinerator chimney in the middle of this bisected fairway.

The third green exhibits Engh’s philosophy of design perfectly. The green has severe sloping sidewalls that bump errant shots back onto the green. “You can putt completely off the edge of the green, and the ball can roll back toward the hole location” he says, knocking a Pro V-1 that was two feet from the cup completely off the green in the wrong direction and onto one of the side ramps. The ball rolls back down the slope to within inches of the cup. “Jay, your sculled bunker shot did exactly that – rolled past the pin, up the slope and back down to the cup’s edge. That’s the way I like my holes to play. There is more than one way to get it close” he says with a nod and a wink.

The tight fourth may be the toughest hole on the course. A 426 yard par-4 (480 from the tips), Engh requires a fairway metal or long iron approach to a heavily guarded green. Most players fear the pond on the left, but that plays into the designer’s hands. “There is more room behind the pond than there appears” Engh says pointing to a forty yard patch of safe landing area behind the hazard. Those afraid of the water end up risking finding the deep muscle bunker guarding the right. Fearing one hazard, the player inadvertently points himself right into the other. The key to playing the fourth is reading the hole while playing it that the extra room is hidden back and left.

The fifth is perhaps the only shortcoming on the course. Engh had a tough choice. With an access road dangerously close on the left, a par-4 or par-5 were out of the question – too many shattered windshields would result. Engh decided on a 100 yard par-3. The green is well defended by deep bunkers on three sides and by undulations and swales. Topped or sculled shots are severely punished by a marsh in front of the teebox. If you play that bad a mishit, you deserve a six. Finally, the target is particularly narrow, so although the hole is short, it is not as much of a pushover as it appears.

Engh offers a good mix of short and long holes at Fossil Trace. "I get alot of my ideas from the great links courses of the U.K. he recalls. "Six and seven are a good example. Six is Scottish in flavor with its openness and lack of hazards from tee to green. Seven is Irish with its high dunes lining the fairway." The two par-4s are completely different lengths and have a completely different feel, but the variety never feels unnatural or contrived. Instead, they are a good microcosm of the course's flow. Six plays uphill and is wide open. Bunkers behind the green give the hole some definition. “They also add some depth perception for players” Engh adds. The seventh green is a wild, undulating bowl.

Many of the par-4s and par-3s are short. "The shorter the hole, the more sex appeal - you know - design features that I can throw in. These added features result in lots of creative ways to play the hole" Engh says.

Nevertheless, Engh makes up alot of ground at his 660 yard par-5 9th. The hole plays shorter at 6500 feet above sea level, but it's still a bear. Engh hit a 325 yard 5-metal to reach it in two. Never having seen anyone achieve that feat, PGA Head Professional Jim Hajek fell to his knees and cowtowed repeatedly, bowing in half-mocking, half-sincere homage. Engh two-putted for birdie, breaking a string of eight consecutive pars. “Damn. There goes my streak” he quipped, needling Hajek.

Almost every great course in Ireland or Scotland has one par-3 that requires driver and Engh, like all great architects, taps this design feature at the uphill eleventh. At over 200 feet deep, the green is the longest in the state of Colorado.

The most celebrated hole on the course is the show-stopping, eye-popping twelfth - lined by the fossil encrusted sandstone monuments for which the course is named. Twenty foot tall pillars of sandstone line the left of the fairway. More monuments featuring the 64 million year old trace fossils of palm fronds and triceratops footprints pepper the landing area on the second shot and frame the backdrop of the green. Engh even made creative use of fine ceramic fly ash waste by-product left by an uncaring prior landowner. "We just piled it up and built the pulpit tee for the twelfth."

***************************AUTHOR'S INSERT*********************

During clay mining, logs inserted horizontally between the fissures in the sandstone walls served as a warning alarm to miners. If the walls started to give way, the miners would hear the logs creak and immediately scramble to safety. Several massive relics of clay mining equipment remain throughout the course as a reminder of the property's rich and diverse history. [INSERT PHOTO]


The finish offers all sorts of opportunities to save or squander strokes. The gorgeous, rumbling par-5 fifteenth rolls through the rugged remains of the old clay mine, before ending with a semi blind approach to a green set well below fairway level in a small dell.

Playing through the lowland, pond areas, Engh uses water hazards to guard the greens at sixteen and eighteen and at the seventeenth tee. At a mere 320, seventeen can be driven, but the shot must avoid deep muscle bunkers on both sides.

Engh loves a short par-5 as a finishing hole as both a comfort to amateurs and for a thrilling finish for experts and tournaments. With water guarding the right side and front of the green and with the front portion of the green narrow and rolled off into the hazard, no lead is safe until the final putt is holed.


Fossil Trace is a triumph on more levels than most golf courses can even imagine. With the forces that conspired to scuttle the effort from its inception, it’s a miracle the course exists at all, let alone as the strategic and historic tour de force that into which it has evolved. Although he moved about 400,000 cubic yards of earth – a goodly amount, Engh still made the course flow naturally with the landscape. It won second place for best new public course in 2003 from Golf Digest, and deservedly so.

"The course is not only beautiful," says Hajek, "but you have to think the whole way around. People really love this course. It's so popular, we've even seen people scalping tee times on eBay."

Hajek is right. Unthinking bombers will be confounded by the hurly-burly bumps, twisting fairways and unique muscle bunkers. Yet for careful planners, strategic options abound to shave strokes. At 6,500 feet above sea level, the 6,400 plus yards play shorter, but still present plenty of challenge. For a muni, it’s downright stellar and a steal at $60.

Questions from the test each Fossil Trace employee must pass before receiving playing privileges at the course.

(Reprinted with permission of PGA Head Pro Jim Hajek and Fossil Trace.)

Q. Where did the city of Golden get the land to build Fossil Trace Golf Club?

A. Jeffco Open Space Co., The State of Colorado, Chip Parfet and the Parfet family.

Q. How much did Fossil Trace cost to build?

A. $14 million.

Q. What substance was mined on the property before it became a golf course?

A. Clay.

Q. What holes are located where the mine was?

A. 11-15.

Q. What is the chimney in #1 fairway and when was it used?

A. A kiln/incinerator used in the mid-1900s

Q. The boys’ school (Lookout Mountain Youth Service Center detention facility) was originally a farm. Besides farming, what other activities took place on the land?

A. Tailor, blacksmith, laundry and plumbing.

Q. How were the dinosaur prints created?

A. Sand and clay were piled on top of each other in a layering process and when dinosaurs stepped on the softened sand, they left behind their prints. On top of the prints more clay and sand fell into the prints solidifying them. When the land shifted and the mountains were created, the sandstone and clay layersshifted from their horizontal position to a vertical position saving the prints and simultaneously making clay mining easy.

Q. Name the dinosaurs whose prints were found.

A. Triceratops and hadrosaurs.

Q. What was the clay that was mined here used for?

A. Brick making.

Q. Why is there a path that goes by the fossils on #12 and who created it?

A. Eagle scouts did it so the public could view the fossils.

Q. On which holes are the machinery found and when were they purchased?

A. Yard shovel (#11), Dragline bucket (#14), shovel boom (#14), all purchased in 1954 and 1956.



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