Bob Ehrlich walks through the doors of the Mad Russian Pro Shop wearing a big cowboy hat and a navy blue blazer, looking very much like the man in charge. In his deep, slow timbre, he asks me if I golf. “Not as much as I’d like,” I say. And by that, I mean, “No.”
Ehrlich seems to understand.
“Well,” he says with a smile, “I don’t golf too much either.”
Which is kind of odd coming from an owner of a golf course. But I understand. This is more than a golf course.
Despite the fact that I am not a golfer, I have heard stories about the Mad Russian, a funky little course just north of Milliken, for years. The players who frequent the course talk about it with big smiles on their faces and even a bit of a twinkle in their eyes. They talk about it as though they had slipped through a rabbit’s hole and landed in the golfer’s version of Wonderland.
The Mad Russian is out of the way, but it’s known for being a golfing experience, not simply a course—Golf Digest recognized it for its nifty moniker and for its infamous history.
“We all appreciate the thought and care and grooming that goes into modern courses,” said Charlie Snider, a friend who waxes poetic about the Mad Russian. “But sometimes it’s fun to just go out and try something different. This course is different. Some complain it’s ridiculous. There are hole layouts where golfer’s shots actually cross paths. You need to be familiar with where you’re going or you can find yourself in the line of fire.”
Truth be told, the course is really a bit more mainstream than it once was. More than two decades ago, Ehrlich bought the course from the mad Russian himself, a farmer and cattle feeder named Ted Blehm. As the story goes, Blehm was as ornery and cantankerous as they come, a fighter with eyebrows as wild as his right hook. Ehrlich tells me that Blehm was rejected from a local golf club and decided to build his own—something a bit out of the ordinary, like himself, and something for those who like a challenge. He called it Jack Rabbit Trail Golf Course.
“It was wacko,” Wayne Millspaugh says about the Jack Rabbit Trail. Today, Millspaugh works in the pro shop, and he’s a Renaissance man around the Mad Russian.
The course was difficult and, yes, a bit wacko back then. But then Blehm, who made a small fortune in the 1970s, hit a patch of financial trouble and the land went into foreclosure. That’s when, in 1986, Ehrlich stepped in and bought the land, the clubhouse and what’s known as “the Round House,” a UFO-looking home on the course that actually spins 360 degrees.
When Ehrlich took over, he wanted to change the course but make it an ode to the Mad Russian, who was a family friend.
“I have a lot of respect for the guy,” Ehrlich said. “He was such a hard worker. The type of guy who never considered anything too big or too challenging.”
The course was too challenging to be accepted by the mainstream. So, they upped it to an 18-hole course, and they’ve taken out some of the most quirky holes. Still, they’ve kept some of the spark.
“It still has some of Ted’s DNA,” Ehrlich said.
The course is a par 69; most courses are around a par 71 or 72. Golfers often assume the course is simple. But it’s not. There are blind shots. There are greens the “size of a postage stamp.” It’s hilly, and if you can’t hit straight, especially on the back nine, you’ll suffer.
“It’s a quirky, short, old-style course. I find it’s kind of nostalgic,” Snider said. “It’s rated as an easy course, but I’d be surprised if the average golfer didn’t walk away with really high score unless they’ve played a few times on this course. That’s what makes it kind of fun and challenging. This ‘ridiculous’ little course will burn you, and that frustrates people.”
Millspaugh sees it all the time (the day before my visit, a golfer had thrown his club through the windshield of a golf cart because he couldn’t make a shot). He says his own brother-in-law, a scratch golfer, shot seven over par on his first time at the Russian.
But Erhlich tells me the course is still much easier than it once was. He’s thinking about adding another nine holes in the coming years, yet he still prides himself on the “down home” feeling. It’s also what visitors like about it: Whether you are a golfer or a wandering journalist, it’s a place to enjoy beautiful views of the Front Range, having a few laughs at yourself and the trouble you find.
“It’s like a small, local ski area with narrow runs, rickety old lifts and a big warm fireplace,” Snider said. “A different experience. Don’t go there with anticipation of a resort. Arrive with a casual attitude and plenty of golf balls.”
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