Out of Thin Air: In Shadow of Grand Tetons, Golf Takes Your Breath Away

        My daughter’s lifelong friend moved to Jackson Hole, WY, and fell in love. I think it was the skiing and, most definitely, the boy. The couple decided on a huge engagement party for family and friends in the shadow of the Grand Tetons and a smaller family wedding at a later date. My daughter, wife and I were invited to the engagement party, quite the trip from Connecticut; but we love Nicola and her family and, not inconsequentially, I had heard that the golf in the Jackson Hole area was pretty special. I was not disappointed.
        Actually, the two golf courses I played were technically in Wilson, the town where we stayed for the weekend, a few miles outside the more famous Jackson and its Hole (another name for a “deep valley”). Shooting Star Country Club and Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club are about two miles apart as the crow flies but, unfortunately, crows can’t fly you to the Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club from the other side of the Snake River. Roads in the area are at the mercy of the surrounding mountains, and my trip from our lodgings just south of Shooting Star to the Jackson Hole golf course took about 30 minutes – nine miles south, a sharp left turn and then nine miles north.

Shooting Star Country Club
        First up, though, was Shooting Star Country Club, sited at the base of the hulking Tetons and immediately below the Jackson Hole ski resort in Teton Village, often rated the best ski resort in the land by those who rate such things. I am not a skier, but the ski runs looked imposing from below, like a bunch of narrow fairways between the trees, laid out almost parallel to each other. The drops from the 10,450-foot high peak looked intimidating. A gondola moved up and down the mountain as I played my round, adding to the visual drama of golf at the base of the Tetons. (In the late afternoon, my Shooting Star caddie informed me, you can ride the tram for free to the top and have a cocktail and appetizer, with views you are not likely to forget.)
Shooting Star practice greenOne of America's most highly rated ski areas hovers above the large practice area at Shooting Star.        Shooting Star, which was opened in 2009, is private and, it is fair to say, exclusive, many of its members coming from the surrounding community of impressively large homes designed to fit the surroundings and priced well into the millions. The golf course is one of Tom Fazio’s most dramatic, and takes the fullest advantage of its setting against the backdrop of the Grand Tetons. At Shooting Star, the artist in Fazio started with the frame -– those dramatic and snow-capped mountains –- and built his artwork inside it. The architect commanded that tons of dirt along the flat valley inside the frame of mountains be pushed around to create gentle elevations that seem almost a small-scale model of the mountains hovering above. It all works to the benefit of the golfer’s eye.
Shooting Star behind green with glacierSnow in August? No, that is a glacier on top of one of the Teton Mountains above Shooting Star Country Club.        The effort was substantial. For example, the small hill that before construction was the highest point on the property is today a field of sage that runs along a few of the holes on the back nine. A 50-foot deep lake at the south end of the course was created from all the dirt scooped out and deposited strategically throughout the rest of the course. The flat nature of the valley was disturbed, yes, but that undeniably improved the land visually. (Keep in mind this is a golfer talking, not a rancher.)
ShootingStar short par 4Because he is a master of bunkering, Tom Fazio's short par 4s tend to be loaded with them. At Shooting Star, restraint is a good idea on one of those short par 4s.        As for conditions on the course, they were pretty much impeccable with few blemishes on the fairways; greens were smooth and as fast as I’ve played in 10 years; I’d estimate they were running around 12 on the stimpmeter. By the 18th hole, I still hadn’t figured out the speed, despite consistently perfect guidance on breaks and contours by my forecaddie, Goose, who shares his golfing wisdom in winter with golfers he caddies for at a club in the Scottsdale, AZ, area and at Shooting Star in summer. I counted four three-putts for my round, the results of going well past the hole on my initial putts; I racked up 41 putts in all, a good seven or eight above my average. Getting to the greens at Shooting Star is only half the fun.
        I played the hybrid “Silver/Gold” tees at 6,060 yards; they carry a rating of 69.5 and slope of 122. The championship tees at 7,633 yards carry a course rating and slope of 76.9 and 148, respectively. I started my round the way I sometimes finish my rounds, a bit winded and feeling slightly lethargic. It took me a hole or two to realize, with Goose’s help, that it was the altitude. I did get used to it and I wound up, poor putting notwithstanding, playing one of my better rounds of the year.  The thin air was a two-edged sword; tough on the lungs, at least for a while, but helpful in terms of distance.
ShootingStarbehind green with waterMost of the lakes at Shooting Star are man made, but they blend with the sky and provide a nice contrast to the mountains above.       I wish my aging eyes could have followed my ball flight better because the few sights I did catch of my tee shots rising against the backdrop of those mountains was one of the payoffs for a long trip to Wyoming.

Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club
        Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club may be only a couple of miles away from Shooting Star, but the perspective of the mountains is totally different. Whereas at Shooting Star you look almost straight up to see the tops of the mountains -– some of them snowcapped in August –- at the Jackson Hole course you catch the entire vista, top to bottom, on most of the holes.  A well-launched drive rises against the background of the mountains, reaches into the blue sky, and then floats back down those same mountains.
JHGTgreen between treesJackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club is just a few miles, as the crow flies, from Shooting Star Country Club, but the view of the Tetons is significantly different.         Unlike Shooting Star, Jackson Hole is accessible to the public. Based on my Saturday morning round, the course is clearly popular, and because it is close to the well-trafficked resort areas of Wilson and Jackson Hole, it attracts a fair number of golfers who, to put it kindly, don’t play regularly. I played as a single behind a slow foursome, something that might have bothered me on my favorite muni in Connecticut, but with a camera in tow on a beautiful day and all those amazing mountains, I was in no rush. (For those thinking it was my own damn fault for playing by myself, a foursome would have waited on every fairway for the group in front.)
JHGTwell bunkered greenBy layering the greenside bunkers at Jackson Hole, Robert Trent Jones Jr. adds a bit of intimidation to a relatively short approach shot.        The golf community adjacent to the course is surrounded by three mountain ranges –- the aforementioned Tetons, the Snake and Gros Ventre ranges. Whereas I normally have to work hard on a golf course to find a unique or interesting camera shot, no such effort was necessary at Jackson Hole (or Shooting Star, for that matter). Any bad shot with the camera was the result of operator error, not the subject matter.
        Airplane noise took a little getting used to during my round. On virtually every hole, it seemed, a plane was either taking off from nearby Jackson Hole airport or landing there. (The ones taking off make more noise.) But once you understand that air traffic is part of the scene, you stop hearing it, or at least it doesn’t affect your play. And some of those jets looked great against the mountains.  Needless to say, Jackson Hole is a popular destination in summer as well as winter.
JHGT MarmotI am not used to the wildlife of Wyoming, and I naively thought this was a beaver or gopher munching the turf alongside the fairway at Jackson Hole. Turns out it is a Marmot, the first I had ever seen.        Jackson Hole Golf Club opened initially in the mid-1960s. A few years later, Laurance Rockefeller purchased the surrounding resort and commissioned Robert Trent Jones, Jr. to totally redesign it in 1974. The layout is a wonderful mix of typical Jones bunkering, especially guarding the amply sized greens, and enough water, mostly in the form of small lakes, to keep your attention. I played the RTJ1 tees at a total of 6,142 yards; the layout from there sports a fair 68.6 rating and 122 slope. (If you include the hybrid sets of tees, which pretty much alternate the distances between two sets of regular tees, the total number of “courses” you can play at Jackson Hole is a whopping nine. That is helpful, given that the next regular tees back from the ones I played are about 600 yards farther.) At the tips, the numbers are 7,390, 74.2 and 135, respectively. At an elevation higher than 6,000 feet, those of us who don’t hit the ball too far get about a 10% boost in distance.
        Nevertheless, the layout I played at just over 6,100 yards was a lot of fun, which a resort course should be. Fairways were generous if you didn’t stray too far into one of those ubiquitous Jones bunkers, greens were on the medium fast side, the turf was in fine condition throughout, and you could not ask for a nicer greeting from staff -- from the pro shop to the starter to the director of membership who had arranged for my round.
        I ran into him as I was leaving the course; he was showing an engaged couple around the club for a possible wedding venue. Given the facilities, the friendly staff and especially the mountains, if the couple chooses Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis, their marriage will literally be off to a beautiful start.


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