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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Jim Engh breaks down Xs and Os of Redlands Mesa in Colorado

The first part of my article on Redlands is here. Below, you'll find the UPDATED star system ratings, based on the SEVEN star system.

Most of Engh’s unique design elements are present at Redlands. His trademark squiggly muscle bunkers are placed “randomly” – i.e. where the land accepts them, not at any specific distance from the tee. Moreover, they are frequently perpendicular to the line of play to impact the shot planning even more than bunkers on the sides. They are almost sinkholes and can be up to ten feet deep. While purists may be nonplussed, I love them. Engh has freed up bunker design from the inkblot and the cloverleaf.

As Redlands was built in 2001, the bunkering is not as severe or pronounced as at Engh’s later work at Pradera or Fossil Trace, but appears more in a “transitional form.” It evolved from the more traditional (for Engh) shapes at his earlier work at, for example, Sanctuary or Hawktree. As an illustration, try playing several Engh courses in chronological order (or reverse order) so you can see the artist’s progression. For example, play Red Hawk Ridge, then Redlands, then Fossil Trace.

Speaking broadly, the front builds softly to a peak at the visually arresting par-3 8th, while the back squeezes right from the tenth tee and does not let go. Houses line a handful of fairways on the front, but do not appear to clutter the back. Typical of Engh, many holes feature pronounced backstops to spin balls close to the hole and play creative chips.

The first hole presents a great statement of the course’s identity. A great view, a tough but fair hole, undulations in the fairway and greens, room to drive and room around the greens for lots of short game options. Quintessential Engh.

The par-3s are not just postcards, but have solid design concepts as an undercurrent. At the first par-3, the medium length third, a small pod of the green is semi-blind behind a rocky outcropping. The front right is visible. Players can draw the ball and use the hole’s contours to get the ball close or head straight for the more treacherous back left positions.

Two more par-3s are drop shots, but are markedly different. Eight is a great par-3 with its green set at base of rocky amphitheatre and guarded by a pond. Redlands General Manager and Director of Golf Eric Feely thinks eight may be the best par-3 on the course. “Club selection is very difficult. Like number 12 at Augusta, the eighth features swirling wind conditions because the green is nestled in the rocky grotto, it’s anything from a wedge to a 7-iron depending on the wind. Don’t be short as the chips are uphill from long rough. If you clear the water, that is.”

While eight might be the centerpiece par-3 at more pedestrian courses, it still takes a backseat to the most eye-popping par-3 on the course, seventeen. Tees on seventeen are chiseled into the side of a cone shaped mountain (Engh manufactured it, but so what, it’s still great.) [INSERT PIC OF 17] From 100 feet in the air its all carry to a green set in a shelf between two other 100 foot peaks. Miss on either side and you’re on the 16th or 18th teebox...literally. They sit fifty feet below on either side. A miss from that high up is as good as a mile and from 100 feet up, the ball is a screaming liner so if you’re on that tee box and someone yells “Fore!” duck…fast.

Two of Engh’s favorite holes are five and fourteen. The par-5 fifth green is controversial. The green is really two smaller greens in one. The front is a small round pod, the rear of which tapers and extends like a ramp sharply uphill to a second tier; another, second, round green. “The shot is dramatically uphill” explains Engh magisterically. You can almost envision him wearing professorial half-moon glasses and scraping chalk across the chalkboard as his face lights up recalling his planning of the shot. “An uphill shot like this has two disadvantages” he continues. “One is limited visibility, two is gravity has less affect on this shot as ball is not on downward arc. The ball will run more and not contain. Now the nose down below gives you proportion and relationship. It’s a false front where you can also stick a pin placement. The back extension serves as the rest of the green and also gives a buffer containment zone for shots that come in too hot.”

The mechanics are lost on most people, who often comment “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Interestingly though, the green has a twin. The green is remarkably like…no, that’s not quite accurate, is almost identical, in both size of each section and the uphill ramp, to the par-5 fifth green at Mike Strantz’s Tot Hill Farm. Another small round pod has a ramp-like extension that leads severely uphill to second tier which is larger.

Now here’s the really interesting thing. Although Engh and Strantz were contemporaries and friends, Engh never saw Tot Hill (built in 2002) and Strantz never saw Redlands Mesa (built in 2001). It’s possible both came up, completely independently, with a similar design or simultaneously recalled something they subconsciously remembered from the UK.

“14 is my favorite” Engh continues. “It’s a gorgeous grotto of rocks that when I saw it, I fell in love with it because a green fit perfectly. The only problem was the topo was tough. We cut a narrow little gap [between two towering rocks!] for the fairway. The containment of the valley was small so I was forced to put fairway there and keep it small in order to keep the green setting. It was forced on me, but it works.” That’s what great architects do: they make great lemonade out of lemons. With its dangerous drive through two huge boulders about 175 yards from the tee, its great use of the stubborn portion of the property and its excellent green, critic Ron Whitten called it “the most original hole on the course.”

But even with greens on cliff ledges (four), sunburst shaped bunkers surrounding a shimmering lake (thirteen), and panoramic views of striated rock formations (eleven), nothing prepares the player for the almost cubist surrealism and arresting vertigo of the elevated tee and precariously perched green at the par-3 17th. Even Engh sheepishly stifles a self conscious laugh as we discuss it. “Yeah, we built that tee box up a bit” he says, referring to a towering cone of rock 100 feet in the air where the tee boxes are chiseled in a spiral into the face of the mountain itself.

The green sits nestled between two such behemoths. “All the rocks that form 17 green - that whole area was 12-15 ft higher by the way - we just carved down a bit to build a little cove. It was tight for the tee box. Everybody thought I was nuts when they saw it. Tees we just went up and up.”

Crazy like a fox, perhaps, since the hole is unforgettable. Because the green drops sharply off a sheer cliff on both sides, if you miss right or left, you miss by a mile. Yell “fore” loudly as both the 16th and 18th tees are set in a perfect place to accept a screaming liner.


Redlands looks like the other western U.S. courses set in the canyonlands, but has much better golf holes, better bunkering (unique styling and more strategic placement) and a stronger routing which takes in all the buttes, mesas and craggy outcroppings. There isn’t a single hole that is weak, connective tissue or an after thought. If there is one hole that’s a headscratcher, it’s 15. A risk reward, dog-leg right par-5, bite off as much of corner as you can, but watch out, its also the only place on the course that’s out of bounds. The OB on the right side guards a scrubby, rocky, grassy wash, so there is no need for the cops, it’s penal enough because it’s a 50-50 proposition of having a playable lie. Playing devil’s advocate, maybe that’s why Engh out it there, he wanted the penalty for missing right to be uniform, not luck of the draw on a lie. But then again, isn’t that golf?

If there is a second drawback, the housing complex lines far too many fairways on the front, but the back nine is just you, the course and the red rock monuments. Also, poles in the middle of the fairway are superfluous.

Along with nearby Lakota Canyon Ranch (in Newcastle, CO forty-five minutes directly east on Route 70), the pair are a fearsome one-two punch. The large undulating greens are similar at both sites, but the fairways are less hurly-burly than nearby Lakota. Red sandstone striated rocks replace the jagged buttes and wrinkled flattop mountains for a setting.

Because Engh had to move about 400,000 cubic yards of earth at both courses, they are not “minimalist.” (heck, he built the three giant cones of earth to make the 17th at Redlands alone) but he also didn’t crowd the picture with flashy or gaudy features like waterfalls, island greens or chocolate drop mounding. Happily, unlike Lakota, there are walking trails from the teebox to the fairway and the walks between tees are nowhere near as long or hilly. Lakota is unwalkable until they create walking paths from tee to fairway and from greens to the next tee. The front at Redlands is easy to walk, but have an extra energy bar or two in the bag for the back. Being a mile above sea level does impact a player’s stamina, more so when climbing hills all day.

Writer Ron Whitten, who also likes the course greatly, worries that some holes look too much like holes Engh used at other courses. For example, he says the par-5 13th looks too much like the 7th at Hawktree (Engh’s course in North Dakota) and 15th at Sanctuary. That may be, but it is not noticeable to most eyes since not that many people will play both Hawktree in North Dakota and Redlands in Western Colorado. They would have to be a remarkably intrepid traveler, but hey, I’m all for that. As for 15 at Sanctuary, the course is so private, it only has two members, the owner and his wife, so again the resemblance will only be noticed by a precious few, who will like the courses despite this casual similarity.

Lastly, it’s a great price at $75 or less. It won’t cost you $40 in golf balls either. Look for Redlands in a future version of the Links golf video game series.


2325 West Ridges Boulevard
Grand Junction, CO 81503


Architect: Jim Engh
Par - 72
Excitement Level – 11/12
Difficulty – 6/12
Design – Six stars
Natural Setting – Seven stars
Conditioning – Six stars
Cost - $75 Peak
Yearly memberships – No
Value – Six and 1/2
Overall rating – Six and ½ stars

Tees Yards Rating Slope

Monument 7007 71.7 135

Redlands 6486 69.4 130
Canyon 5838 67.2 115
Desert 4916 69.0 115


Blogger dave said...

I would come to this site for the pictures even if I didn't read anything but I enjoy both.

3:12 PM  

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