Commonground GC, Aurora. Tom Doak with Jim Urbina and Bruce Hepner, 2008.
Built on the site where the Lowry/Mira Vista course previously stood, this is an incredible testament to how much can be done with very little. Mira Vista was a typically plain course on a plain site. Nothing terrible but nothing interesting, either. The site is fine but not great—it has nice long views of the front range and downtown Denver and doesn’t have too many obvious major constraints (there’s ample acreage, no housing, the streets are set well back, etc), but there are not a ton of natural features to work with either.
So Mira Vista was just OK; fair enough, the site didn’t seem much better than OK. But Commonground puts the lie to that notion, because Commonground is fantastic.
So how did Doak turn this plain site into a special course? Did he spend millions and move huge amounts of earth a la Mr. Fazio at Shadow Creek? Far from it. On a surface level, there’s not all that much that looks so very different about the property. Doak (unsurprisingly, if you know anything about him) didn’t come in and build a course with containment mounding, he didn’t build any new lakes, and his waterfalls are very tastefully done (that’s a joke, there are no waterfalls).
What Doak did is build an extremely solid, fundamentally strategic golf course. This is the kind of course that works for a high level player (it held its own as the alternate course when the US Amateur was at Cherry Hills in 2012) but is entirely playable for new, inexperienced, or senior players.
The first fairway is nearly 70 yards wide and the green is open in front, so it’s not all that hard to make a 5. But if you want to make a 4 (or a 3) on this opening 489-yard par 4 then you’re going to have to hit a good drive that challenges the bunkers down the left side. So it goes throughout the day at Commonground. There’s plenty of room for a sensible player who’s happy to play for bogey to tack his way around. But if you want to make birdies you’re going to find you have to challenge some kind of peril.
That’s what I call great golf.
The second is a short par 3 with a winged green that tempts the player away from the smart shot to the middle of the green and into trouble that could so easily be avoided.
The par-5 third has both a centerline pot bunker and a diagonal carry bunker for drives to contend with and then another centerline bunker in the layup zone. And then it ends with a magical punchbowl green, only the front left portion of which is visible.
The fourth isn’t really a Cape hole but it does offer a bite off as much as you dare style drive. There was a par 4 in a similar location at Mira Vista as well but that hole didn’t really engage the wetland, it simply played as a dogleg around it, with trees even hiding the hazard. Now the trees are gone and the fairway extends up against the hazard. This allows the flag to be visible from the tee and tempts the player to take a more dangerous line. The trick is that, for a lot of hole locations, playing your drive safely away from the hazard is actually the better play.
Then at the fifth—a hole which reminds me very much of #2 at Talking Stick as well as other similar Coore/Crenshaw holes—Doak does the opposite and asks you to drive close to the hazard. Here the fairway is wide, but a rough-covered bump can either catch shots hit to the right side or block the view of the green, while shots that challenge the left side will avoid that and have a better view.
The eighth is a classic position hole. The hole is just 355 yards and the fairway is wide so the temptation is to simply blast away, but doing so may well leave you with a very awkward pitch. The play is to determine where the hole is and play to the opposite side of the fairway for the best angle into the elevated green.
The par-5 11th is reachable but there’s a lake looming to the left side of the green so the natural inclination is to bail right, where it looks fairly open. Instead of a bunker, which frustrates the high handicapper and doesn’t bother most skilled players, Doak has built a rough covered mound that introduces a good player’s worst fear: uncertainty. A second shot at the right side of the green that hits the mound could do a lot of different things—it could kick onto the green or hit softly, or it could bounce hard left into the water, bounce hard over and into the water, or bounce right and into the rough leaving a blind flop shot over the mound. For a good player the potential for bad outcomes from that mound means they’ll want to play away from it, whereas a good player would have no worry about playing toward a bunker.
Another grass mound features at the 14th, obscuring the green of this par 3.
But by far the defining feature of the course are the fairway bunkers. Nearly every two- or three-shot hole at Commonground has at least one bunker that actively cuts into the line of play in some way or another. There are centerline bunkers. There are bunkers angled to make carry distances uncertain. Few of the holes at Commonground would really be described as doglegs. They might move slightly one way or another but none really bend around any hazard or feature. But the bunkers create interest on every drive.
And of course this all works because they are strategic. There’s some degree of interest to the bunkers at, say, Quintero, too, because I do not want to be in them. But that’s it. They frame the edge of the fairways and I know I have to hit it straight; that’s all there is to know. The fairways at Commonground are much wider and yet the bunkers create more interest because there’s often a reason to challenge them. On #1, challenging the bunkers on the left helps shorten a very long hole; the same is true at #15. On #13, a drive close to the centerline bunker gives a great view down the angle of the green. But if you’re in it … ouch. That’s risk/reward strategic golf.
And as an added bonus, the course is entirely walkable and offers distant views of downtown and the mountains in a lovely parkland setting.
If I still lived in Denver, I’d make this my home course in a heartbeat.
Colorado 1st Decile