The first thing that strikes you at the Champions Club at The Retreat is the rugged beauty of the layout.
This Jack Nicklaus design is carved into the foothills that abut the Cleveland National Forest.
The members-only course, which opened in 2006, was built under orders from The Retreat developer to “make the course as difficult as possible,” said Flint Nelson, general manager.
After members started walking off the course and asking for their initiation and membership dues back, changes came.
Nelson has overseen dramatic repair work since he joined the Champions Club in 2009. Now it’s is a semi-private, daily-fee course that is returning to bent-grass greens and Bermuda fairways. Sixteen difficult fairway and greenside bunkers have been removed.
“It’s still a difficult course,” Nelson said, “but if you play it regularly, it will make you a better golfer and improve your game.”
On the first tee, you know you will need all of your wits to get through the day. A sign suggests that players with higher handicaps –10 or more – play from the white tees. Our group heeded the advice.
The par-5, 453-yard (white tees) first hole requires a short drive of 200 yards or less to hit the preferred landing area before the hole turns sharply left to an elevated green. Miss and you will encounter one of the many punishing bunkers.
I used a 5-iron, and it was plenty of club. This is a definite layup par-5, and par would be a good score here. Double and triple bogey are possible if you gamble and go for the green in two.
The singular goal on this layout is to keep the ball in play. If you don’t hit your driver well, consider leaving it in the bag. None of the holes from the white tees are severely long, and your 3-metal might be the prudent choice.
After the No. 1, you begin an up-and-down climb through canyons, across barrancas and along sloping fairways that seldom leave you with a level lie.
It is not unusual, regulars say, to see a coyote or bobcat lope across fairways and to hear the screech of hawks overhead.
The No. 4, a par-5, 434-yard hole, is listed as the number one handicap hole and will require three well-placed shots to hit the green in regulation. This hole plays uphill and into the wind, so consider using more club than usual.
The 120-yard, par-3 No. 5 requires a precise downhill shot to a green with water in front and to the right. Take a moment to enjoy the sweeping view of the Temescal Valley and then reconnect with your concentration: You’ll need it.
After the No.9 par-4, stop for refreshment at the 25,000-square-foot, Tuscan-style clubhouse and get ready for the back nine.
It’s harder than the front.
Memorable is the 373-yard, par-4 No. 12, a sharp dog-leg left with a semi-blind tee shot.
There is an aiming pole stuck into the hillside on your left: Stay right to keep your drive in play. The approach is downhill to a wide, multi-tiered green. Watch out for the pot bunker on the right.
The most difficult par-3 on the course is No. 13. At only 163 yards from the white tees, a straight tee shot is required to clear the barranca and avoid the hazard that runs down the right. Shots hit left of the green may catch a steep hill and propel your ball across the green into a deep bunker.
The finishing 348-yard, par-4 dogleg right will test your mettle. Stay left off the tee but be aware of the creek bed running down the left. The second shot is uphill, usually into the wind.
I had a 179-yard shot to reach the green and had to use a 3-metal to get it there.
Even though this course is not for beginners, it annually draws about 40,000 golfers, most of whom certainly come away with a round to remember.
For more information, go to championsclubretreat.com.
≈ BY THE NUMBERS ≈
Course distance in yards from the back tees
73.9 / 144
Rating and slope from the tips
Feet of elevation drop from tee to green on the par-3 15th hole
Course record shot by Jordan MacDonald, a former first assistant professional at the course
Number of bunkers
Number of fairway and greenside bunkers removed to improve play
Number of holes where water comes into play
Daily greens fee Monday-Thursday; $50 Friday; $72 Saturday, Sunday and holidays. Check for specials and twilight rates.