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Club Campestre: How the lone golf course in Juárez, Mexico, overcame the drug cartels

Club Campestre, third hole, Juárez
Angus Murray
The quirky third hole at Club Campestre tempts golfers to cut the dogleg by flying a workshop.

Dean Jones, the club’s high-energy general manager, has also experienced the anxiety of working in Juárez. He lives with his wife and two daughters in El Paso, and commutes to work six days a week. This is Jones’ second stint at the club; he worked here from 1992-2008, when he resigned after reaching his breaking point. “I had lost a couple members to the drug war -- not insinuating that they were in it, but that they were victims of circumstances. I lost probably four or five members,” Jones says. “That kind of rattles your cage a little bit.”

Losing friends was jarring, but the incident that finally led him to quit and find work in El Paso happened one evening when he was on the 18th fairway with the club’s junior golf team. “We heard some gunshots over the top of our heads,” Jones recalls. “I’m not saying that it went over the top of our heads, but it was very clear what the noise was.”

Miguel Ángel Viveros, Campestre’s superintendent of 16 years, had an even closer brush with danger. In 2010, he was driving home from work when he watched in horror as a young man at the wheel of a nearby vehicle was shot twice in the head. Viveros arrived home safely, but witnessing a murder took a psychological toll. “I stayed home that night. The next day I didn’t even want to read the newspaper,” he says. “You feel impotent, you feel despair. I got nervous, and I tried to avoid that area. For an entire month I didn’t pass by that place. I took other streets.”

Viveros, 52, eventually emerged from his fog, and he credits Campestre for helping him move on. “I stayed in Juárez, and I overcame this by concentrating on my job and on more positive things,” he says. “And thanks to my work and the youth I surround myself with, we’ve all overcome that. I don’t think about that day anymore. I now just tell the story as something that happened in my life. An experience. Nothing more.”

To fend off the gangs, residents of the community around Campestre asked the city to ring their neighborhood with an iron fence. The government declined -- many other neighborhoods had made similar requests -- so residents took matters into their own hands and used boulders to block an entrance to the main road. The city ordered the rocks removed, but the group made their point. “There was fear here, but most of my neighbors stayed -- maybe 10 fled,” says 79-year-old Jaime Canales, who has lived in the community for 49 years. “My house has a very high fence in front and walls around the back, so no problem. The fear was to go out at night.” By the end of 2010, the neighborhood added additional safety measures: security checkpoints on the main streets.

In many ways, the club has served as a barometer for Juárez as a whole. As the guns have quieted down, Campestre’s tee sheets and restaurants have filled up. The place was humming during my visit. A week later, it would host a Mexican amateur tournament, with competitors flying in from around the country. Later in the summer television personalities from Mexico’s Televisa network converged for a bash. The course also staged a midnight outing where members knocked around glow-in-the-dark balls. Campestre and Juárez are rebounding together.

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You wouldn’t mistake the grass at Campestre for Augusta National’s, but it’s green and it’s lush. Average summer temperatures easily surpass 90 degrees, but it’s not a desert golf course. There isn’t a single cactus. Instead, there are 18 holes of verdant fairways, thick rough and more than 10,000 blossoming elms, pines and pecan trees.

As one of the two large green spaces in town (the other is Chamizal Park, near the U.S. border), the course carries an added environmental significance. “Campestre is the second lung of the city,” says Viveros, the superintendent. “This course is so important, not only to the people, but to the city, because of the oxygen quantities and benefits. Sometimes we don’t see this.”

Campestre’s condition is even more impressive when you consider what the club doesn’t have: a sprinkler system. The 45-man grounds crew still uses the “coupler system” that was installed in the 1950s. The club takes water from the city, runs it through an on-site treatment facility, and pumps it into ponds around the course. To access the water, workers attach a hose to one of the hundreds of ground-level valves.

The land is such an intense source of pride among the employees that they have never let the course turn brown, even a few years ago when it wasn’t seeing much action. “To let the greens die is to let our faith die. It’s like the cartels won,” Viveros says. “The workers had to go through cuts in their checks and they had the option to leave or to stay, and they stayed loyal to the greens and the course. Now here we are.”

And so Campestre marches on, a quirky delight full of fun and demanding shots. The third hole, for example, is a gentle dogleg-right that tempts golfers to fly a maintenance shed with their tee shots. (It calls to mind, of all places, the Road Hole at St. Andrews.) The ninth and 18th holes each have alternate greens, so it’s a good idea to confirm which putting surfaces are in play before you tee off.

Idiosyncrasies aside, Campestre is a serious, scenic test, stretching nearly 6,900 yards from the tips. Wayward shots can leave you with tough angles and tricky punch-outs. The greens roll quick and true. The tee boxes are tightly mowed. Fish and turtles fill the ponds. There’s a driving range, a putting green and two chipping areas, plus indoor and outdoor pools, a playground, racquetball courts, tennis courts and a cozy 19th hole where members gather to swap stories, clink glasses and play dominoes.

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