The following content was first published in Golf Journal, a quarterly print and monthly digital publication exclusively for USGA Members. To be among the first to receive Golf Journal and to learn how you can help make golf more open for all, become a USGA Member today.
Few know the Blue Course at the United States Air Force Academy’s Eisenhower Golf Club in Colorado Springs, Colo., better than five-time club champion Gary Kephart. He first played the Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed layout in 1982, and it’s even the punchline in a dream he once had about playing in the Masters. “During the first round there I had 22 putts,” the 69-year-old said of his fantasy day. “In a post-round press conference, I was asked, ‘How could you have only 22 putts on the greens at Augusta?’ I answered, ‘These aren’t hard. I play at Eisenhower.’”
Sharply contoured greens are the primary defense of the venue that will host the 2023 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship July 17-22. Postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be the first USGA championship to ever be contested on the grounds of a military academy.
In another first, the Colorado Golf Association (CGA) is serving as the host organization since the Air Force Academy was unable to take on the financial requisites of a host site. “I think it’s a really good model to bring USGA championships to places like Eisenhower that might not otherwise be able to host one,” said Ed Mate, executive director/CEO of the CGA. “This might open up some eyes and lead to similar partnerships with Allied Golf Associations around the country.”
The Blue Course, replete with Trent Jones Sr.’s signature runway teeing areas, is largely unchanged since opening in 1961, save for a reversal of the nines in 1967 and the recent addition of some new tees. “Because the Air Force Academy does not have some of the resources that private clubs have, they haven’t tinkered with the course,” said Mate. “So it’s kind of a step back in time. This is the perfect championship to play on this course.”
Now about those challenging greens. “I’ve been here for 12 years and still think, does the putt go this way or that way?” said general manager Steve Wallace. “Whoever is fortunate enough to get one of our members to caddie for them, their experience would be invaluable.”
More friendly are the generous fairways, which average 40 to 50 yards wide, though they’re dotted with treacherous bunkers.
“Those can be very penal – a stroke penalty at least, because the lips are so high,” said Kephart, whose part-time job on the Eisenhower maintenance crew might preclude him from serving as a sought-after caddie for the championship.
Located on the north end of the Air Force Academy’s 18,500-acre property – home to approximately 4,000 cadets during the school year – the course is secluded in nature. “Once you tee off, it’s just the course and ponderosa pines,” said Wallace. Natural distractions come in other forms: bears, elk and bobcats roam, and Air Force parachute training is a constant. At 7,000 feet above sea level, the thinner air can tax oxygen levels, but the elevation also adds an estimated 10 percent of distance to shots.
Given the strong athletic rivalry among the military academies, it might seem curious that the Air Force would name its golf facility after an Army man. But an exception was made in this case for a former United States president. West Point graduate Dwight D. Eisenhower was a frequent visitor to Colorado, and the club he used to hit a ceremonial tee shot when visiting the course on July 8, 1963, hangs on a clubhouse wall. Three years earlier he had provided permission for the use of his name, with one modest caveat. “Incidentally, because of the length of my name, I should prefer to see only the designation Eisenhower Golf Course rather than using my full name,” he wrote in a letter framed in the clubhouse.
Augusta National was one of Eisenhower’s favorite places to play, and locals here refer to holes 13-15 as their own Amen Corner. “Thirteen can play from 120 yards to 180 yards, and the green does not accept low shots very well,” said Kephart. “Fourteen can play fairly difficult – it’s a dogleg-left par 4 with a fairway bunker on the left corner. And the 15th is just the opposite: a sharp dogleg right with a dreaded fairway bunker on the corner and a back-to-front sloping green guarded by three bunkers. My guess would be that this will play as the toughest hole.”
Although this classic layout hails from a different era of golf architecture, it’s more than ready for its USGA championship debut.
“It’s so beautifully routed, with tees and greens right next to each other, and there are no houses and no out-of-bounds stakes,” said Mate. “The runway tees are classic and can help vary the distances. I think this championship and this course is a perfect marriage, like the 2011 U.S Women’s Open at The Broadmoor (located 20 miles south of Eisenhower). I served as a Rules official during that championship, and every single shot had to be played properly. It wasn’t bomb-and-gouge. It really brought out the best strategy, and Eisenhower will do the same.”