Cherry Hills: Restoring a classic

  • Cherry Hills
    Evan Schiller

    Renaissance paid special attention to the impact of the Little Dry Creek, as seen here running between the greens of, from left, the fourteenth, eighth and seventh

  • Cherry Hills
    Evan Schiller

    At the fifteenth, restoring tees and the front-left portion of the green revived what was planned as the course’s shortest hole

Eric Iverson
By Eric Iverson

I was familiar with William Flynn’s design work before our team took on the project to restore Denver’s Cherry Hills, the century-old site of this year’s US Amateur Championship. But I would soon learn a great deal more.

We had spent the summer and fall of 2002 outside of Philadelphia, working with Tom Doak on his second course at Stonewall. While I missed a couple of Flynn courses, I got a pretty good dose of his work while in the area. For me, Flynn was easier to identify with than most of his contemporaries; he got into design and construction at a very young age, and did so, in part, through the interest he developed from being an avid player in his youth. He wasn’t influenced by courses in the UK as many of his contemporaries were. Instead, he relied on finding inspiration from the graceful contours of the land he was working on. I came away thinking he built beautiful greens with plenty of slope, yet subtle undulations within them that made for great golf.

The first thing that stood out on our initial visit to Cherry Hills were trees, trees, and more trees! We couldn’t achieve anything of substance, like restoring greens and bunkers, until we started getting rid of many of the planted trees on the property. That’s a pretty standard refrain when consulting on older courses, particularly when we began talking with Cherry Hills back in 2006.

As the trees came down, the long-range views emerged. It became clear that Flynn had taken great care in laying out the course. His third hole is lined up directly on Mount Evans, the tee shot on five directly toward Longs Peak, and the tenth toward the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountain National Park. These things don’t happen by accident. Bunkers had been added and restyled, and two green complexes had been completely redesigned. The rest of the course was pretty well preserved and just needed to be presented more like it was originally by Flynn.

I was unaware of the Cherry Hills connection to Pine Valley until I read Mark Fine’s comprehensive 2006 report on the course. To me, the most enduring element is the fourteenth hole, which is remarkably similar to Pine Valley’s thirteenth, one of the best holes in the world. Throughout the course, you can see from both Flynn’s drawings for Cherry Hills, as well as the as-built drawings from October 1922, that he had an affinity for breaking up sections of fairways in the same manner as Pine Valley. Some of those remain today on holes like five and seventeen.

I’ve heard the term ‘Muirfield routing’ used to describe Cherry Hills, referring to its outer loop of nine holes, with the remaining nine on the interior of the property and, in Muirfield’s case, featuring a clockwise then counter-clockwise rotation. In this case, I think it had everything to do with how the property is essentially bisected, lengthwise, by Greenwood Gulch and to a greater extent, Little Dry Creek. Once Flynn made the decision to play along the creeks instead of crossing them multiple times, the result was a number of holes on the interior that all had water in play. The remaining holes were on the higher perimeter, playing along the hillsides which adds great interest, too. He would deploy this same solution at Huntingdon Valley a few years later. In contrast, Muirfield is routed over rambling links terrain, and I believe the routing there may have been more intentional, whereas I think Flynn arrived at his instinctively, which is genius in its own right.

Our restored versions of the third and thirteenth greens represent the biggest impact of the project. It was suggested that we also move the par-three eighth to make room to lengthen holes nine and sixteen, but we liked our idea more because it solved a significant congestion problem. The first version was an exact reproduction of the original, and served as a good lesson that reproducing greens exactly in a new location doesn’t work as well as just designing a new one that fits the new space. In 2016, we built a new green further west and positioned it atop the bank of Little Dry Creek. It’s still a difficult hole but now complements the others that play along the creek.

Flynn designed the holes along Little Dry Creek to be impacted in various ways by the creek. Think of it as a creek bed and not just the water itself. Flynn’s holes played along the high ground, on the banks of the creek bed, and everything below, from bank to bank, was an unmaintained hazard, with the creek itself meandering within the banks. As part of the project to restore the creek to a more natural state, we had a few opportunities to re-establish the alignment and get the creek proper back into play. The fourteenth hole is the best example of this. Also, restoring the original tees, as well as the front-left portion of the fifteenth green revived what was meant to be the shortest par three on the course. There are terrific new hole locations close to the creek. With the bank mowed short, the slightest pull with a short iron will likely find the water. The longer tees remain intact, so the day-to-day setup for the US Amateur will be fun to watch.

It has been a privilege to help Cherry Hills restore the brilliance of its William Flynn design. With the altitude of the Mile High City, 7,316 yards from the championship tees may seem modest for the world’s best amateurs, but Cherry Hills will prove again, as she has so many times in the past, to be a thrilling venue for championship golf.

Eric Iverson is a golf course architect at Renaissance Golf Design.

This article first appeared in the July 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page