An Interview with Colorado Golf Hall of Famer Dennis Lyon in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the start of his storied career with the City of Aurora.
By Ed Mate – 5/31/2023
Fifty years ago this month, Dennis Lyon began his career with the City of Aurora Golf Division. On May 5th I met with Dennis at the place it all started—Aurora Hills Golf Course. After enjoying a “Cinco de Mayo” lunch Dennis reflected on his career which included 30 years as the Manager of Aurora Golf.
Ed: Dennis tell us about your start as the Superintendent at Aurora Hills Golf Course in May 1973.
Dennis: I graduated from CSU in 1970 in Horticulture with an emphasis in Turf Management. However, my golf course experience was limited. Immediately after CSU, I spent two years in the army on active duty. Prior to graduation, I spent one summer as an intern at Boulder Country Club working for Hall of Fame Member, Stan Metsker. When I got out of the army in 1972, I was hired as the Assistant Superintendent at Heather Ridge CC, by a college friend, Bill Jewell. After one year at Heather Ridge, I applied for the position of Superintendent at Aurora Municipal Golf Course, currently Aurora Hills. Aurora had been open for about 5 years when I was hired by the Director of Parks and Recreation. At the time I was hired, the director told me he was taking a chance on me but was willing to take the chance. As things ended, I spent about 25 more years with the city than he did.
Ed: Looking back 50 years, what comes to mind about changes in golf course maintenance?
Dennis: – That is a question too long to answer here. But one thing that comes to mind is mowing heights. As I recall we mowed greens at ¼ inch or .25. Tees were mowed at ¾ of an inch and fairways were mowed at 1 inch. Since then, mowing heights have gone way down and mowing equipment has improved greatly. Irrigation controls were primitive with many courses using manual quick couplers. Aurora Hills had an automatic sprinkler system with limited abilities and valves that always stuck every night. As a result, we needed a night irrigation person to drive around and shut things off. On a positive note, in the early 1970s, Aurora started irrigating the course with recycled wastewater. Aurora was very early in taking this step-in water efficiency.
Ed: Dennis during your career Aurora Golf went from one course in 1973, to 7 courses when you retired in 2010. Can you fill us in on how Aurora Golf evolved during this time?
Dennis: This was an exciting and challenging time for Aurora Golf. Along with Aurora Hills, the city acquired Springhill Golf Course in 1972. This 9-hole course was part of an abandoned recreation center complex, which closed in the mid-1960s. The course laid dormant for about 8 years. Right after I started in 1973, golf staff started irrigating the course, fertilizing the turf, spraying the weeds, sodding the tees, and replanting the 9 greens. Early that fall Springhill opened for limited play. In 1976, Springhill was rebuilt, which included adding 9 holes and re-routing the holes into the 18-hole course it is today. The new construction continued to use the 9 original greens which were small round and flat. Seven of the original greens were rebuilt by Springhill staff over the next 15 years. Two of the original greens are still in play. For those interested, they are 11 and 13.
Next up is Meadow Hills, which was built in the mid-1950 as a Jewish Country Club and was miles from the City of Aurora at that time. In 1977, the city purchased Meadow Hills with considerable controversy among the City Council. The thinking by some was the city of Aurora would never be clear out there and why did the city need another course. The city purchased Meadow Hills and the driving range was not included. A few years after Meadow Hills was purchased, Richard Phelps was hired to redesign several holes to create the current driving range. An automatic sprinkler system was installed in 1983. Prior to that, the sprinkler system was a manual quick coupler system.
The city acquired the land for Centre Hills from the developer and built that 9-hole course in the East Toll Creek drainage area. The course opened in 1988. This 9-hole course and large driving range were very popular for many years. However, the primary water source was the highline canal and Denver Water stopped sending water to the far east. Due to a lack of a sufficient source of water and a decline in interest, Centre Hills Closed in 2013.
After the city opened Centre Hills in 1988, the population of Aurora grew very fast, and the demand for additional golf grew with the city. During the 1990s golf communities were very popular and the city entered into an agreement with the developers to build Saddle Rock Golf Course. The developers donated the land and the city paid to build the course. The cost at that time for Saddle Rock including the clubhouse and maintenance shop was about $7 million. Saddle Rock opened in 1997 and was very well received by the golf community.
While Saddle Rock was under construction, the land developers at Saddle Rock were making so much money, they convinced the city to build another golf course, Murphy Creek. Murphy Creek opened in 2000 at a cost of $8 million. Building two courses a few years apart created several problems for Aurora Golf. Both Saddle Rock and Murphy Creek, in addition to construction costs, of about 15 million, there were also grow-in costs and equipment costs. Borrowing the money to build two golf courses, plus other expenses, put quite a financial burden on the Golf Enterprise. The Golf Enterprise is independent of city funding and had to spay operating costs and debt on its own.
In addition to financial concerns, Murphy Creek is about 5 miles from Saddle Rock. By building these two courses, Aurora Golf was going into competition with itself. As the project manager for both courses, my goal was to build two very different, yet appealing golf courses. I hired different architects for the courses and different architects for the clubhouses. Looking back today, I think these two courses, although very different, are successful golf operations. The Colorado Open was held at Saddle Rock, for three years, a few years after opening. Murphy Creek hosted the USGA Public Links Amateur Championship in 2008.
In addition to opening one course in 1997 and another in 2000, Aurora Golf also took over the management of Fitzsimons in 1998, after the Fitzsimons Army Hospital closed. This 110-acre golf course was to eventually be used as a land bank for the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority. When the city took over this military golf course and opened it to the public, I had the responsibility of trying to keep the original military golfers happy and accept the changes to their golf course. Staff worked hard to transition the course from military to municipal and was very successful. Aurora Golf was originally expecting to manage Fitzsimons for only 5 years. However, the city successfully managed the course for 19 years, until it closed in 2017. Several; buildings have been built or are currently under construction.
Ed: Well Dennis, this history of Aurora Golf has been very interesting. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dennis: Thank you Ed, for this opportunity to share the story of Aurora Golf. I would just like to close by saying that my time with Aurora Golf was a fun and challenging time. I need to thank all golf employees and their families for their dedication to Aurora Golf and Aurora Golfers. I would also like to thank all the thousands of golfers who have played Aurora Golf over the many years. Speaking for myself, as a 37-year city employee, I would like to share that through the efforts of many people, the city of Aurora is a much better community now than when I arrived in 1973. Thank you.
Dennis Lyon is a Certified Golf Course Superintendent. He also served as President of the Colorado Golf Association and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. He is a member of the Colorado Golf Hall of Fame and is the recipient of the USGA Green Section Award, for dedicated service to golf, through work with turfgrass.