Travel mailbag: What’s the best ‘champagne taste on a light-beer budget’ golf trip? (Hint: New Mexico)

March 5, 2020

Welcome to GOLF’s Travel Mailbag, a weekly, interactive GOLF.com series in which members of our staff field your course and travel-related queries. This week, Josh Sens tackles courses that have a high-end feel but are still easy on the wallet.

What’s the best ‘champagne taste on a light-beer budget’ golf trip? — @GoranBarnes via Twitter

The cold, hard truth about golf in this country is that most of the “champagne” options (the Golden Age classics; the modern minimalist gems) are either private clubs or public-access hot spots that are priced accordingly.

One way to save a little on your champagne rounds is to hit up an A-list resort in the offseason: Bandon Dunes, say, in mid-winter, or Streamsong in the swelter of summer. But that’s still not going to get you into “light-beer budget” range. Even marquee munis — major championship sites like Bethpage Black, Chambers Bay, Harding Park and Torrey Pines — aren’t exactly cheap for out-of-towners.

Hmmm. Let’s see. Have you considered Albuquerque, N.M.?

Sandia Golf Club is both affordable and gorgeous.
Courtesy Photo

The city where Bugs Bunny should have made a left-hand turn is home to one of the better bang-for-your buck courses anywhere, the University of New Mexico Championship Course. Designed by Robert ‘Red’ Lawrence in 1967, this understated 18 has more of a parkland look and feel than the southwest desert aesthetic you might imagine. There’s plenty of cool movement in the terrain and no shortage of strategic nuance, but there’s nothing tricked up about the layout — the challenges unfold clearly in front of you, and the long views of the surrounding valley are cool, too. The course is especially budget friendly for anyone with a University of Mexico affiliation, who can play it for as little as $25. But as an out-of-towner, you can walk it weekdays for $55 ($70 if you want to ride). On weekends, the prices nudge up just a bit ($65 to walk; $80 to ride). If 18 holes aren’t enough for you in one day, you could tack on extra golf at the University’s original course, the nine-hole North Course, which dates to the 1930s. It’s tucked along the north side of the campus, about a five-minute drive from the Championship Course. Greens fees are $18-$28, a bargain for nine holes rich in character.

There are a lot of other options in the area, but for cost-meets-quality, your next best bet is probably Sandia Golf Club. Though the course, which is part of a Native American-owned casino and resort, isn’t apt to wow your inner architecture nerd, there’s a lot to like about it. The conditions are pristine. There’s a fair amount of water for added match-play intrigue. And as long as you steer clear of the blackjack tables, a visit isn’t going to break your bank. Greens fees are $54 Monday-Thursday, and $64 Friday-Sunday. Those prices include range balls and a cart.

Paako Ridge Golf Club is the state's top public course.
Courtesy Photo

In this swatch of the country, where a tradition of oral histories runs deep, legend has it that people sometimes win at casinos. If that happens to you, and you wind up feeling suddenly flush, we’ll toss out two more options, just in case. One is Paako Ridge, a dramatic property with 27 holes etched along a mountain that has been hailed by many as the best public course in the state. It’s about a 30-minute drive from Albuquerque, and peak-season greens fees are $200. Not a light-beer price. But, hey, it includes lunch!

Farther afield, roughly 90 minutes from Albuquerque on the way to Santa Fe, is Black Mesa, a rollicking course with a lot of quirk that runs through sandstone ridges and high-desert vegetation, with views of the flat-topped mountain that lends the course its name. It’s terrific fun, and a round costs just $49. Same price all week.

Granted, the drive from Albuquerque is a commitment. But with all you’ve saved in greens fees, you should have some gas money set aside.

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