Thursday, February 15, 2007

Golf in New Mexico isn't just golf. It's a spiritual experience that blends history and atmosphere, landscapes and legends. There's no need to go searching for cultural flavor here. It's everywhere -- behind every bit of sagebrush and down every fairway.

"It's different. It's unique. It's wonderful," said Dwaine Knight, golf coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and a former resident of Albuquerque, where he coached at the University of New Mexico, his alma mater, after playing five years on the PGA Tour. "I've heard people who play golf in New Mexico for the first time say they'll never forget it."

Naturally, there are terrific golf courses. But there is so much more. You'll marvel at the melting pot of pueblo Indians, Mexican-Americans and cowboys. There's an almost surreal scene everywhere you turn, with the earth tones of high desert giving way to alpine mountain ranges.

The air here is crisp and clear and invigorating. A collage of colors, changing by the hour from sunrise to sunset, has inspired some of the most notable artists this country has ever produced. You may not be able to paint like Georgia O'Keeffe or R.C. Gorman. But you can see what they saw, and just as easily get lost in its natural beauty.

"The variety of scenery is just staggering in a lot of ways," Knight said. "That's the lure of New Mexico: its variety, its culture. People say it's a spiritual experience. It's so diverse and interesting. Golf has picked up on that."

Chances are, each clubhouse (more than likely designed in an adobe style) will have a story to tell. In Socorro, for example, giggly golfers hike to the top of a small mountain during an annual tournament and try to see how close they can get to a pin hundreds of feet below. Bombs away!

New Mexico State University in Las Cruces held "rock parties" in 1962 when its golf course was being constructed. Not rock and roll parties, but true rock parties to gather rocks from the fairways.

Those rock parties must have been a success -- Lee Trevino frequently drove up from El Paso to play the NMSU course and often commented that several holes on the back nine are as good as any he had ever played. Trevino, ever the hustler, probably did quite well there in skins games, too.

Nancy Lopez grew up in Roswell and learned the game on the local nine-hole muni course. At age eight, and just a year after holding a golf club for the first time, Lopez won her division in a 27-hole, pee-wee event at Alamogordo by 110 strokes. That's right, 110 strokes. By age 12, she was New Mexico's state women's champion. Not yet a teenager, Lopez defeated women of all ages.

A Wake Forest University golf team featuring Curtis Strange and Jay Haas arrived in 1976 at the University of New Mexico course seeking to capture a third straight NCAA Championship for the Demon Deacons. But the winds kicked up and Wake Forest players couldn't keep their drives in the fairway.

They found it difficult to hit out of the sage and cactus -- or off the desert hard-pan -- and finished a frustrating fourth, nine strokes behind champion Oklahoma State.

Notah Begay took up the game at an Albuquerque public course and in 1999 became the first Native American to win a PGA Tour event since Rod Curl some 25 years earlier.

LPGA Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth grew up in Jal, a tiny New Mexico town tucked in the extreme southeast corner of the state that will never be mistaken for golf country. But that's just a hint at what New Mexico has contributed to the world of professional golf.

For more history and legend, let's start our magical mystery golf tour with the 45-hole Santa Ana complex near Bernalillo.

In 1540, Spain's Francisco Vacquez de Coronado, along with 300 soldiers and 800 Indian allies, entered the Rio Grande valley. Coronado was either searching for the fabled cities of gold or a perfect site for a golf course, because he camped about 500 yards from what is now Santa Ana, near the Tiwa pueblo of Kuauna. Settled by American Indians since about 1300 AD, Kuauna's earthen village was excavated in the 1930s by WPA workers. It has since become the Coronado State Mounument.

Play some golf at Santa Ana, then soak in the ruins and its mural paintings, which represent some of the best examples of Pre-Columbian art in North America. Better yet, set aside an extra day for the ruins exploration because you'll want to play all 45 holes at Santa Ana.

Opened in 1991, the original 27-hole Santa Ana Golf Club has served as host for a Buy.com Tour event with rave reviews. A golf pro at a rival course, trying hard not to sound too jealous, calls Santa Ana's high-desert setting "slam-dunk gorgeous."

A fine example of that beauty is found on the tee box of the 167-yard eighth hole of the Star nine, which gives you a glimpse of the surrounding area so breathtaking that you'll want to grab your camera.

Your tee shot here must carry entirely over a lake to a two-tiered green that is shallow from front to back, sloping 25 feet toward the water. And, oh, yes, pot bunkers front and back make things even more interesting. The tougher challenge is to concentrate on your swing rather than the amazing view.

The hole itself is pretty enough, but the backdrop of the cottonwoods lining the Rio Grande and the Sandia Mountains (nicknamed "watermelon mountains" because they can take on an orange hue during sunset) create an awesome scene. It's too bad Coronado didn't carry a club or two among his supplies.

The eighth on the Cheena nine also usually makes the annual best-holes-in-the-state lists. It's a 633-yard par five that borders the bosque of the Rio Grande, a wetland area adjacent to the legendary river that has been called the largest cottonwood forest in the world.

Your tee shot must carry 200 yards over a waste area of four-inch high bluegrass. But don't hit it 280 yards because on the right side you may be blocked out by three bushy junipers and go too far to the left and your ball could bounce down into an arroyo.

Santa Ana is undoubtedly one of the nation's best links-style golf courses. But they weren't content to stop there. Wait until you see Santa Ana's new kid brother, Twin Warriors Golf Club.

Twin Warriors has become the first public golf course in New Mexico charging a green fee of more than $100. And you know what? It's well worth it.

In addition to the golf courses, Santa Ana's complex includes the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa, and a casino.

Now if you're wondering about the quality of Twin Warriors, here's a clue. Approximately 427,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved to build Santa Ana Golf Club, but almost one million cubic yards were moved for Twin Warriors, creating a layout where few holes run parallel to each other.

Staff members boast that Twin Warriors, a 7,690-yard, par-72 layout, is the first golf course in New Mexico designed with "cultural sensitivity."

Golf course architect Gary Panks routed the holes in and around 20 historical sites, including a sacred butte Tuyyuna ("Snakehead") that serves as a backdrop for the 14th and borders the 15th and 16th holes. There's also an ancient cave dwelling between the tee boxes of the second and 15th.

Perhaps the most picturesque hole on the course is the 200-yard fourth, which features an elevated tee box and a fairway funneling down toward a sacred mining area.

The course is laid out among 12 natural arroyos and a dormant volcano that serves as the backdrop to the 10th, a 460-yard par four. Twin Warriors will host the Buy.com Tour event this fall and has already been selected by the PGA of America for the 2003 National Club Pro Championship.

You can also rest assured that the name "Twin Warriors" wasn't created by some Madison Avenue advertising agency.

As legend goes, the people of Santa Ana pueblo believe twin warriors Mase'ewi and Uyuye'ewi showed them the path to the Yellow Light, the Upper World, along the banks of the Rio Grande.

Carrying a rainbow bow and lightning arrows, the twin warriors are said to protect people in times of war and stretch out their hands in prayer for prosperity, health and all good things. The twin warriors "pray for answers to return with the speed of eagle's wings." And perhaps for an eagle to land on the scorecard as well.

Sure to rival Twin Warriors as New Mexico's best public course is Paa-Ko-Ridge, a new Ken Dye creation that made this year's GOLF MAGAZINE's "Top 10 You Can Play" list.

Paa-Ko-Ridge is carved through a forest of pinon and juniper evergreens on the eastern side of the Sandia Mountains and couldn't differ more from the desert layout of Twin Warriors.

The course sits at an elevation of 6,500 feet and offers an alpine golf experience with views of no less than five mountain ranges. You'll find dramatic elevation changes, rock outcroppings and, on the par three fourth hole, one of the largest greens to be found anywhere. The putting surface measures 100 yards deep -- yes, 100 yards -- with a tiered design that drops 13 feet from front to back.

Head pro Warren Lehr says that depending on the pin placement, wind conditions and which of the five sets of tees are used, you may hit everything from a driver to a pitching wedge. He's not kidding.

The hole measures 77 yards from the front tees and 193 from the back. But that's to the center of the green. With a deep pin placement, a low-handicapper hitting from the tips may need all of 240 yards to the flag.

Located just 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque or the airport, Paa-Ko-Ridge feels like a vacation getaway. You'll see only a few housetops and no highways or power lines. The idyllic finishing holes are a treat.

The 16th is a fun, downhill par three that measures 228 yards from the back tees. There's water on the left and a tricky green awaits.

The 17th hole measures 419 yards from the back -- an elevated tee box with the best view on the golf course. You'll spot all five mountain ranges, three ski areas and a 90-foot drop to the landing area. Ever whack a golf ball off a cliff? This is your chance. Make believe you're a field-goal kicker and aim for a spot between the two ponderosa pines that frame the fairway.

The 18th hole, a 474-yard par four, requires an approach-shot carry over an arroyo to a tiered green. Pars are not guaranteed, but this much is certain: You won't want the round to end.

Moving northwest to the Four Corners area, could there be another golf course with a green fee ranging from $13-$25 that has received as much publicity as Farmington's Pinon Hills?

We seriously doubt it.

Why all the attention? Because this may be the absolute best golf value in the nation, and it doesn't take a back seat to either Twin Warriors or Paa-Ko-Ridge.

A 1988 Ken Dye creation, Pinon Hills is a links-style layout sprawling through sandstone hills, towering mesas, deep arroyos and craggy rock formations. The fairways and greens at exclusive country clubs aren't in any better condition.

Speaking of rock formations, just off the back of the green on the par-three sixth hole sits a giant boulder. We're talking just off the back, as in about three feet.

Shaped like a cylinder, the boulder measures about 15 feet high and 20 feet in circumference -- there's no way anyone was going to move it.

The boulder comes into play more often than it should, but that's half the fun. Just be careful when trying to lob a wedge shot over it so that the ball doesn't ricochet back at you. That part would not be much fun.

There are nine sets of tee boxes on the sixth. That's right -- nine sets of tees, measuring anywhere from 235 yards off the back to 147 yards from the front.

And your shot must steer clear of the waste-area wash that runs the entire left side of the hole.

The most difficult hole on this course may be the best. For most courses, that's unusual. But the par-four fifth hole includes just about everything, including a tricky, lay-up tee shot, an approach shot over a deep canyon, a boomerang-shaped green that wraps around a bunker and a putting surface with two tiers.

The 470-yard 18th hole is a terrific test of golf. Shots are aimed into the teeth of a prevailing wind and it's a par four. This green also features two tiers, with a ridge running down the middle. Anything that lands short will roll back to the froghair. It's everything a finishing hole should be.

The nationwide publicity received by Pinon Hills has drawn golfers from everywhere. And we mean everywhere.

Head professional Chris Arand tells the story of receiving a letter of introduction from a Japanese gentleman who requested to play Arand's fine course. Enclosed was his picture, a copy of his handicap card (English version), and a letter from the president of his country club in Japan.

The letters were written in a distinctly formal style as somebody may do to request a tee time at St. Andrews, Carnoustie or Royal Birkdale.

"He flew in and played three straight days," Arand recalled. "He brought gifts for me and my wife from Japan. He thought playing here was the greatest deal ever. He absolutely loved it."

Sticking with northern New Mexico, Taos Country Club is certainly worth a visit. Taos Country Club sounds private, but it's a daily-fee course with a reasonable 18-hole rate of up to $63. And you will find country club quality even if the course appears a bit barren at first glance.

As one golf professional jokes, "Taos Country Club may have a tree on it, but I can't remember one."

Don't let that dissuade you.

Designed by Jep Wille and built in 1992, this desert links layout sits at the base of some of New Mexico's most spectacular mountain peaks, and in its own way, is as scenic as any course in the state.

Measuring 7,430 yards from the back tees, this is one of the longest courses in the state. It sits at an elevation of almost 7,000 feet, and you'll need that extra carry in the rarefied air, especially when the breezes blow. The par-five eighth hole, for example, is 560 yards and requires a tee shot of as much as 180 yards over sagebrush to reach the fairway, depending upon which tee you play from.

The par-three 11th is the only hole on the course with water (we told you this was desert links) and it's a good one, playing 175 yards with all carry over the pond. Aim at a spot on Truchas Peaks in the distance and fire away. While others are hitting, turn around and enjoy a stunning view of Taos Mountain.

One more thing: a day at Taos Country Club simply wouldn't be complete without biting into a green-chili cheesburger, undoubtedly the specialty of the snack bar.

Heading from one art colony to another, slide down to the state capital and grab a round at the Marty Sanchez Links de Santa Fe.

As one golf professional puts it, the Links de Santa Fe is like Pinon Hills, but without the severe greens.

Course architect Baxter Spann is a partner with Ken Dye, thus the design similarities of the two courses. The Links de Santa Fe, however, is easier to walk and has relatively flat greens, with only subtle breaks.

That can be good news and bad news. The low-handicapper often prefers more dramatic undulations because they can be easier to read. For the high-handicapper, however, the flatter the better.

That's not to say this is a boring course. Not at all. It's cut through a forest of pinons and junipers, and has scenic views of several mountain ranges.

The Links covers rolling terrain, with a couple of ridges running through the layout. This is a very walkable golf course, however, and it's not routed through a housing area.

A real compliment is the fact that it holds up well against even top players using the back tees. Playing as far back as 7,415 yards, the Links hasn't seen a round better than 3-under-par 69 in competition.

It can be a good test or easy paced, depending on which of the five sets of tees are used. The par-three fourth hole plays 245 yards from the back, but only 135 from the front for those who shudder at the mere thought of having to get their tee shot airborne long enough to carry the lake.

The 18th hole measures 485 yards from the tips and it's a par four. Bunkers guard the left side of the driving area. And your approach shot must negotiate a lake to the right of the green.

A rock wall juts up from the water, becoming the border for a bunker in front of the green. If the pin is placed on the right side of the green, you'll need of those high, Nicklaus-like fades to get close, we're told.

Just down the road about 35 miles southwest of Santa Fe, but seemingly nowhere near anywhere, sits the Pueblo de Cochiti Golf Course. Like any gem, this is worth searching for.

It was designed two decades ago by Robert Trent Jones Jr. That's about all that need be said. We're talking architectural brilliance here.

As you'd expect of a Jones course, this is a shotmaker's delight. Tricky, but fair. While not exceptionally long (last year's $2 million renovation project directed by Jones increased the length by almost 350 yards to 6,804) this track is far from easy. You'll find enough mounds and hills, water and trees, native grasses and jackrabbits to keep your attention.

The best part about Cochiti is that it's routed along natural arroyos and washes. For most of the round you won't see any other holes, creating the feel of each sitting in its own world.

The 10th hole is world-class. It's a par four of just 335 yards, but you'll need to lay up to about 200 yards and short of the lake. Water surrounds three-fourths of the putting surface, giving the feel of hitting your approach shot onto an island green. Framed by the towering Jemez Mountains, it's a dramatic scene.

Cochiti's best par three is the 225-yard 16th. Tee it high and let if fly off an elevated tee box after enjoying a view of the Sandia Mountains some 50 miles to the south. Robert Trent Jones Jr. once again has succeded in delicately nestling a golf course into the land.

You can try and name another state with a better pair of college golf courses open to the public than New Mexico, but odds are you won't be able to.

Let's start with the Championship Course at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

At 7,248 yards and with many elevated greens, it's a test for anybody -- even the swing-from-the-heels college kids.

It has hosted the NCAA Championship on three occasions, and the individual winners have included Scott Simpson (1976) and Phil Mickelson (1992), who of course became marquee PGA touring pros. And as Curtis Strange and Jay Haas discovered in 1976 to their chagrin, you absolutely, positively must keep the ball in play on this golf course.

The width of the fairways is fairly generous, but hit one crooked and your ball might be sitting on anything from rock-hard desert caliche, to cactus, to tumbleweeds or worse. Greens are large and fairly demanding.

This is a fair course, but tough. The 10th hole is a par four that drops from the top of a hill and doglegs right. Thanks to an elevation change, it doesn't play as long as the 480-yards from the back tees.

But there's desert terrain on both sides and out-of-bounds to the right. Keep the ball in the fairway, whether it takes two shots or three to reach the green. Otherwise you might as well bring along a pick, shovel and search party.

The number one handicap hole is the par-five ninth, which measures 602 yards from where the big hitters tee off. It doglegs right, but go too far right, or try to bite off too much, and the ball will bounce down into the desert.

For fun, go to the back tees on the eighth, a par three that measures 248 yards from the tips. Hit the green from there and buy a round of drinks. It will feel almost as good as a hole in one.

You're certain to always find the New Mexico State University Golf Course in Las Cruces to be in tip-top shape.

That's because the NMSU business school offers a marketing degree in professional golf management, one of only eight such curriculums in the nation. Students are able to use the course for hands-on experience and help keep it immaculate.

This is another traditional desert golf course, but old enough to have mature trees. Views of the Organ Mountains to the east and the Mesilla Valley (where the nation's best green chili is grown) add to the ambiance.

The signature hole, the par-three 11th, measures 225 yards uphill to a split-level green. An arroyo provides a hazard to the left, and if your ball rolls to the back of the green, good luck in getting your putt to stop if the pin is up front.

The NMSU course, with green fees priced from $20-25, is only 50 miles from the El Paso airport and has become a popular destination of "snow birds" fleeing the cold.

Classic mountain golf can be found at the Inn of the Mountain Gods Golf Course in Mescalero. Surrounded by Lincoln National Forest, the resort features majestic views, stunning elevation changes, tight fairways, cool air, a 250-room hotel and a quality golf course.

There are plenty of lakes and ponds and creeks, a nice departure from the desert terrain that dominates the state. This is a serene, oasis-like setting.

Big hitters wanting to take advantage of the 7,200-foot elevation at which this course sits, will love the par- four 10th hole. It's 337 yards from the regular tees, but it takes a drive of at least 290 yards to safely clear the water to a peninsula green.

Watch golfers take a white-knuckle death grip on their club as they tee off on the narrow 371-yard 16th hole. Tall trees give the feeling of trying to hit through a tunnel.

And don't forget to take one last look at the peak of Sierra Blanca. During certain times of the year, you might be able to spot what looks to be the outline of an Indian chief wearing full headdress.

Which brings us back to Albuquerque, where some urbanites say the state of New Mexico begins and ends.

Albuquerque's best municipal course is Arroyo del Oso, located in the northeastern quadrant of the city.

And although Arroyo del Oso gets more play (140,000 annual rounds for the 27 holes) than any golf course in the state, you won't find many public courses in better condition tee to green.

Former President Bill Clinton played Arroyo del Oso during a 1996 campaign stop and shot an 82 while reportedly only taking a mulligan off the first tee. He raved about the course and you will, too. This is a quality track.

Its signature hole, the 457-yard, par-four eighth, requires a tee-shot carry of almost 230 yards from the tips. The 17th hole, a 405-yard par four, meanders uphill between a grove of trees to the left and an arroyo to the right. All the par three holes measure at least 200 yards from the back.

Arroyo del Oso won't beat you up, however. And you can get a good chuckle by telling everyone that you also played its nine-hole course, located on the other side of a flood-control barrier.

It's aptly called The Dam Nine.

Tom Kensler is the golf writer for The Denver Post.


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