Pity the poor head pro in northern New Mexico.
Despite nearly two decades of increasingly glowing national press for its courses, some ESPN face time for two PGA Club Pro Championships and the international allure of fancy Santa Fe, plenty of American golfers don't really have a clue about the region.
"We still get calls from golfers back East asking if we give discounts in the summer months," says an amused golf GM from Albuquerque. "That's our peak season. Summers are perfect here. They obviously assume we're like Phoenix."
And we'll just ignore those lost souls who call New Mexico's hotels -- we aren't making this up -- and ask if one needs a passport or if the drinking water is safe.
The Land of Enchantment could just as easily be the Land of Misconceptions.
Northern New Mexico is high desert -- roughly 5,000 to 7,000 feet high for golf purposes, four distinct fabulous seasons, ski resorts and hail-dented Toyota pickups. This is not Scottsdale. No saguaro cactus, no Saharan heat, barely any valet parking.
On the highest courses, say, Paa-Ko Ridge GC, east of Albuquerque in the Sandia Mountains (ranked No. 63 in Golfweek's top 100 modern), a cloudless blue summer morning might begin at 50 degrees and end at 75. On the back tees of No. 17 you might see parts of five different mountain ranges rising to 12,000 feet, and in good years, they'll have snow. (They're still in drought mode.) Down the mountain around mile-high Albuquerque and along the shallow Rio Grande, mid-afternoon summers can certainly stay in the 90s, but the wind is nearly constant, the shade is cool and the humidity may be lower than your handicap. You know the summer here is something blissful when all the folks walking around with Moonie grins are wilted Texans.
But the unArizona-ness goes further. While the neighbor state easily has more opulent courses that push $250 in the winter, northern New Mexico offers all you can ever play in a week, three that have been ranked in Golfweek's top 100 modern and an exceptional second-tier of affordable golf that would be the star in any flat buggy state. And New Mexico's best can all be played for about $35 to $70, with one resort splurge around $115. Alas, you might have to live without Scottsdale's country club frat boys sprinting to your car to darn your socks. New Mexico's best golf is public and unpretentious.
The Santa Fe Golf Trail, which includes eight courses spread from just outside the Albuquerque airport to the Santa Clara Pueblo some 90 miles north (and 24 miles past Santa Fe), works for the traveling foursome or family of various talents because they aren't cookie-cutter courses you can't remember an hour later, nor are they all uniformly monstrous in difficulty.
The backdrop of vast red-rock mesas and the languid Rio Grande is so enthralling that hundreds of movies and TV commercials have been shot here. And famously, with one exception (though not egregious), every course mentioned here is totally free of fairway homes, primarily because most are on tribal land.
Better still, when the golf is done you are surrounded by one of America's unique cultural attractions. The green chile-fueled New Mex-Mex restaurants are plentiful, and virtually every course has incendiary burritos and green chile cheeseburgers. (Remember, milk soothes your flaming tongue, not beer.) The 19 northern New Mexico Indian pueblos are known historically for their exquisite pottery, jewelry and art, which can be found at both pawn shops and stylish galleries, and notably at the Santa Fe Indian Market, normally held during the third weekend in August on the Santa Fe Plaza. It's free, very crowded and full of extraordinary artists, so don't assume there are bargains o' plenty. The pueblos also offer feast days and ceremonial dances throughout the summer and fall.
Of course, there are also tribal casinos, which have brought gambling addictions to the pueblos, but also major infrastructure improvements, senior citizen centers and at some pueblos education incentives suchas free laptop computers for each family and guaranteed four-year college scholarships for qualified high school grads. Those garish casinos also generated the cash that made New Mexico's tribal-owned golf courses a reality. Farther south the state's Mescalero Apaches pioneered tribal golf at Inn of the Mountain Gods in 1975, and the state now boasts more tribal courses (nearly nine) than any other.
Santa Fe itself -- spacey, self-conscious and yet often irresistible -- is brimming with bookstores, galleries, outdoor cafes, plant nurseries and New Age charlatans. Love it or loathe it, Santa Fe is always worth a day of idle grazing. Curiously, there is no Santa Fe golf course that is a member of the Santa Fe Trail, but the local muny, Marty Sanchez GC, is excellent, and two very private Nicklaus courses are at the gated subdivision of Las Campanas. Tell them you're with golf-crazed actor Gene Hackman, a local, and they'll at least chuckle before they throw you out.
Here's your local knowledge: Expect bentgrass greens and Kentucky bluegrass fairways virtually everywhere. New Mexico is in its second year of extreme drought -- don't smoke on the courses. April to October is prime time, but spring and fall in the mountains can be volatile, so know the forecast. Sunscreen and lip protection are essential. Your ball flies about one percent farther than sea level for every 1,000 feet in elevation. At restaurants, when waitresses ask, "Red or green?" they're asking about your chile salsa preference.
The rates quoted below are forever changeable and are ranked from cheapest non-resident (usually weekday, walking, twilight) to most expensive (usually weekend with cart). This does not include any discounts for juniors, seniors, military. Always check for Internet deals and call the pro shop about weather, course repairs and such.
From south to north, here's your menu, with designers and opening dates noted. Restaurants at the bottom:
Are you desperate to play the moment your flight touches ground?
This beloved state-owned course is literally 90 seconds from your rental car parking lot. Talk about immediate gratification.
UNM (South) is hilly, lined with tall and scrubby pines and sits on a bluff overlooking the city. Thankfully the airport flight paths rarely buzz the fairways. It's a lovely, though potentially difficult, community course that has hosted dozens of major college tournaments – Tiger won his first here in 1994; Phil Mickelson won his last NCAA in 1992 -- including three NCAA men's championships (1976, '92 and '98), a pair of women's NCAA championships and numerous PGA Tour qualifiers.
"We've put in what I call the ‘Oh My God!' tees," says long-time director of golf, George Trujeque, who will retire soon. "They're 7,562 yards from the tips ... for the college kids mainly. But we have six sets of tees. Choosing the right ones is important." Though the UNM course has lost rounds to the spiffy tribal tracks over the years, it remains a tranquil vigorous walk, while many of the newer courses all but force you to rent a cart. Lovely cottonwoods, a restful pond and a view that takes in almost the whole city make the testing course a joy to find right off the plane.
Rates: $50 to $76. (505) 277-4546
About seven miles south of the UNM course, just east of Interstate 25 -- you're thinking 36 on your first day aren't you? -- the Isleta tribal course lures you with 27 holes and 220 acres of wall-to-wall bluegrass. You'll find an enjoyable game here, whether it's from 7,500-yard tips or the forward tees, but the rough has always been lush so that inviting grip-and-rip mentality must be tempered a bit.
Truthfully, they could take out 80 acres of the dense turf and not impact any of the golf challenge on the three nines, but like all the native pueblos, the Isleta have virtually unlimited ancestral water rights and so there is little incentive to eliminate out-of-play turf to conserve water.
"Among all the pueblos," says one head pro (not at Isleta) who asked for anonymity, "there is the attitude that they must use all the water they can, so that the state or feds never think that they could easily get by with far less." In New Mexico, water rights are an amazingly contentious subject and the source of endless litigation. The native take on all that, understandably, is, How can white folk build all these shopping malls, gated subdivisions and freeways, and then begrudge Native Americans their ancestral water.
On a day when the high desert wind was howling, director of golf Mike Ciolek, who has been at Isleta all of its 17 years, guided me through a quietly scenic course that has matured nicely over the years. The beauty here is subtle but unmistakable. The arroyos, lakes and mountain vistas may not be quite as vast on the course itself as some others offer -- man-made mounding creates its only elevation changes -- but Isleta's use of elegant native grasses and the peaceful Rio Grande riparian forest, or bosque, gives the course a timeless natural solitude. The occasional passing train only adds to the lonesome Southwestern mystique.
Making the course more playable for women and seniors was a theme I encountered at several stops along the Santa Fe Trail.
"On several holes," says Ciolek, "we had desert-like transition areas that actually crossed the fairways, with trees, rocks, native grasses. And we learned that women and seniors didn't really like playing that nine, with those forced carries, so we cleaned them up and put in some finely crushed rock so you can run the ball through or play the ball out of there."
In tough economic times, New Mexico courses, like many across the country, have looked hard at their playability for all customers and decided that high-handicappers can be assisted without the scratch player ever thinking the challenge has been dumbed down. "When rounds are down," Ciolek remarked, "it just makes no sense whatsoever to give anyone a reason not to return."
The Isleta Hard Rock Casino and 200-room hotel are just across the road from the golf course.
Rates: $35 to $69. (877) 475-3827
Few courses in New Mexico announce their physical presence quite as dramatically as Sandia, which sits quite metaphorically between the foothills of 10,000-foot Sandia Peak, the ancient iconic mountain that gave birth to its namesake pueblo, and the 10-story hotel and faux-adobe gambling palace, largest in New Mexico, that keeps the pueblo alive today.
Designer Scott Miller, who produced the Coeur d'Alene Resort course and Scottsdale's exceptional We-Ko-Pa GC, produced a course that has quickly become a local favorite and which seems to always be in fine shape.
Hugging Albuquerque's busy northside intersection of I-25 and Tramway Blvd., this broad expansive course (7,772 yards from the tips) further enhances Miller's We-Ko-Pa success by masterfully pulling off what so many designers hope but fail to do. He has created a thoroughly inviting and playable resort course -- you'll hit driver all day long -- that knows its true customer base (the occasional golfer) wants to simply find his or her ball on every hole and plod delightfully on, whether they're headed for 100 or not.
If they play Sandia from the correct tees, Miller rewards them. He has 40 acres of wide desert transition areas with decomposed granite between the fairways and the truly inhospitable, snakey desert, which allow the wayward to at least recover and stay alive.
However, ironsmen like Sandia's director of golf, Matt Molloy, and the similarly gifted find that the precision required closer to the green always keeps them engaged. "I hear from locals all the time, 'I shot my best round of the year out here,'" says Molloy, a mellowed-out New Yorker. "It's not hard from the tees, but the greens are difficult, there are false fronts and deceptive dual-fairways, four par-fives that are true three-shot holes, and from 150 yards in, the better player has to pay attention."
In a region where seemingly every course has Nikonic grandeur, Sandia's 360-degree vistas are unsurpassed. You can watch coal-black mountain storms full of hail and lightning play themselves out 50 miles away over Chaco Mesa and feel that you're on a different, safer planet at Sandia.
Rates: $46 to $86. (505) 798-3990.
About 14 miles north of Albuquerque, west of I-25 next to the town of Bernalillo on the Santa Ana Pueblo, lies another 27-hole complex that physically resembles Isleta in many ways. Man-made mounding, eight lakes, rolling bluegrass fairways, essentially flat and very inviting golf.
But the restful banks of the Rio Grande create a backdrop here every bit as stunning as the fall of New England. In October, thousands of tall golden-leafed guardians of the middle Rio Grande make up the largest cottonwood forest in North America. Joined by willows, Russian olive and salt cedar, the river's bosque, in places as wide as three miles, is a beloved part of New Mexico culture that emerges in songs, poems and artwork. Sadly, for decades now the river has been so depleted by agriculture and suburban growth that it is usually just a shallow remnant of its once-Great self.
But I digress. Santa Ana is the older sister course to the Hyatt Tamaya's award-winning Twin Warriors GC, which is just a mile or so away (see below), beside the Tamaya resort. The café, pro shop and staff here have been consistently wonderful throughout the tenure of the pueblo's just-retired director of golf, Roger Martinez, whose business acumen and attention to customer satisfaction is known throughout the state. I'd be worried that this could continue under new management, but Martinez will be succeeded by Twin Warriors' former head pro, Derek Gutierrez, who mentored under Roger and will ensure both a smooth transition and a stunning breakfast burrito.
Rates: $35 to $59. (505) 867-9464
Just up the hill from Santa Ana GC at the Hyatt Tamaya resort is the first of three must-play courses for your trip, and certainly the most logical place to stay for a week of golf.
I've played the course perhaps ten times over the last decade and have yet to find any single feature, much less an entire hole, that seems misplaced or clumsy. Twin hosted the 2003 and 2009 PGA Club Pro Championships (New Mexico's only nationally televised golf events) and won over a host of faraway golf travelers. The course climbs through a rugged high-desert landscape that seems to glow in reddish hues at sunset, weaving its way through more than 20 native cultural sites where meals and conversation were made among the ancient Keres-speaking people, or Anasazi, as far back as the 12th century. On the left of hole 13, you can also find some old track from the Santa Fe Railroad of the late 1800s.
As the back nine rises into a mesa overlooking the resort, which fortunately is understated and perfectly wedded with its landscape, every hole seems framed by mammoth Sandia Peak and the Rio Grande. "We always take guests and corporate groups out on the back nine," says Troy Wood, Hyatt's director of sales and marketing. "Then they're hooked. Groups that didn't even have golf on their program want to add it in. And we're more popular with corporate groups now because we're not Hawaii or Las Vegas, and profits from this resort go straight back into the Santa Ana Pueblo."
Twin's bentgrass greens are fast and wavy like a Stetson. There are some mild carries over cactus-lined arroyos and washes, but some of the tougher ones have been tamed a bit. Panks allows you to unleash your driver from some thrilling elevated tees, but prickly desert rough awaits the errant tourist.
Seemingly every resort in New Mexico is talking about sustainability and water conservation -- they are easy targets in a drought-stricken state -- and the Hyatt Tamaya is no exception. The beef served in the hotel's restaurants is grass-fed, hormone-free, and New Mexico-raised, near Socorro. They've got their own herb garden and a very successful horse rehabilitation program that has rescued some 60 abandoned mustangs and quarter horses from around the state. There are native bread-baking classes with Santa Ana women, mountain biking trails, wonderful kid programs and horseback riding that goes beyond the sleepy nose-to-butt resort trail experience.
There are both casual and fancy restaurants on site -- the swanky Corn Maiden has an attentive staff and creative chefs who go the extra mile -- but the town of Bernalillo is barely a mile away, and there you find two quality New Mex-Mex outfits, The Range Café and Abuelita's.
The Hyatt is well-removed from the sprawl of Albuquerque. You can literally hear coyotes at dusk, and the walks along the Rio Grande bosque are a delight, but ABQ's hip cafes, bars and UNM sports scene are just 20 minutes south. And Santa Fe is about 45 minutes north. More important, the resort offers two excellent golf courses, and Twin's awesome driving range, with instructor Sandy Lemon, is right next to the parking lot.
Rates: $79 to $109. (505) 771-6155.
Few courses in America have had more trouble with establishing themselves in an already-quirky golf economy than Towa GC, on the Pojoaque Pueblo, 12 miles north of Santa Fe. In its earliest years, the three nines were sometimes so bald and unkempt that Golfweek raters (ahem, me) were politely asked not to show up. Conditions have improved dramatically under new GM Linda Howell, but the lack of adequate water in its formative years is still apparent.
"This course never had enough water," says Howell. "We had to get by on about 450,000 gallons a day sometimes, when we needed over a million." The Butterfly nine, which would complete the planned 36-hole complex, was allowed to go dormant. In June, parts of the Boulder nine still had fairways that looked like a Calico cat, with patches of brown, orange and green competing with hard, bleached-out expanses beside the tee boxes and cart paths. The ballyhooed island green looked sad and plain, like a forgotten ferris wheel. That's the bad news.
The Pinon nine has jaw-dropping vistas, with some skinny Tour-width fairways and a gorgeous par-3 No. 8 that glistens beside the stark desert outcroppings. The Valley nine, designed by Irwin but since reshaped, is in fine shape and seems infinitely more coherent, playable and pleasing to the eye. "We've played here many times," said a middle-aged woman from Colorado, as she striped one down the middle of Valley's tough par-5 finishing hole to applause from her husband. "The carries aren't too bad," she added, with a wink. "I think it's fair."
Howell, who works for the Hilton management team selected by the pueblo, arrived in 2008 and brought in a hard-working superintendent, Jimmy Rodriquez, who happens to be a four handicap. I found him on hands and knees on the practice green one morning – "he sometimes works 16 hour days," says Howell – hand-plucking black pellets of algae with a table knife. Tall, athletic and full of energy, Howell tries to keep a sense of humor about a litany of underperforming water wells, severe winter freezes, problematic turf and a customer base that was once understandably dismayed.
"In the worst years," she says, grimacing, "customers would go out, play three holes and storm back into the pro shop and we would give them their money back before they could say anything. We could not justify the price. We've definitely had to manage people's expectations and not advertise that we are something we are not."
Howell's needs are many, but she gets admiring nods from her counterparts all along the Santa Fe Golf Trail. "If I had extra money," she says, "I'd take $250,000 to fix the bunkers. I'd drill an extra well. Jimmy has a staff of 12 while other courses have twice that ..." She smiles and remembers to only fret about those things she can actually change.
Towa does not yet have 27 holes of great golf -- only the Valley nine is the equal of its southern neighbors on the Trail -- but I would certainly not bet against Howell and Rodriquez changing all that by mid-summer.
Rates: $55 to $89. (505) 455-9000
On the same road as Towa, about 30 minutes north of Santa Fe on the Santa Clara Pueblo, is the second of three must-play courses for your week of high-desert golf, Black Mesa GC, which has cracked the nation's top 100 in virtually every golf magazine and gets raves from some very fussy architecture critics.
But Black Mesa is controversial.
For every golf design maven on the Internet who rhapsodizes about Baxter Spann's oceanic bonanza of turf sprawling across the bleached desert like the collision of Ireland and Nevada, there are legions of locals and golf travelers who have played it once, nodded with respect, even awe, and not quite found the time to return. Sources on the Trail say Black Mesa has consistently lost money for years, is heavily subsidized by the pueblo's casino (as are nearly all) and that plans for a second 18 by Tom Doak may stay in the file cabinet.
The reason is that Black Mesa, while starkly beautiful, is unrelentingly difficult.
I'm not sure America has enough single-digit handicaps to keep these fairways bustling. The golfer's exam starts at the very first hole, where Spann, wisely choosing not to obliterate a craggy hill that bisects the front nine, has you blindly go over the side of it, while gazing at water, desert rough and evil lurking all about. The carry is not wildly difficult, but the penalty for a hacker's weak slice is a lost ball, almost before you're out of your car. A beautiful series of holes rewards you – that's never the issue; Spann respects the land and had a near-limitless canvass -- but there are crowned fairways, baffling tee shots and penal (though slightly tamed) bunkers that will make a 20-handicapper wail.
GM Tom Velarde, an unfailingly kind fellow who has heard all the praise and scorn without taking it personally, admits that there has been some recent tweaking.
"My wife is about a 34 who thinks she is a 17," he says, with a chuckle, "and she had trouble clearing some of the waste areas. We turned a handful of the most penal bunkers into grass bunkers. We just figured that people had hit a pretty bad shot to get into the bunkers. Let's not have them blast out of one, only to find another just like it."
No doubt the public agreed. "We would see these enormous elephant footprints in the bunkers," Velarde confesses. "The unraked bunkers were a sign that they were really mad with us."
But, hey, you don't live there, right? You're visiting, and you want to see the best golf New Mexico has to offer, and you're going to Santa Fe anyhow. The tin-roofed prairie clubhouse, windmill, hospitality and mesmerizing solitude of Black Mesa make it well worth the trip. Just take plenty of balls -- some used ones might not hurt -- choose the right tees and don't view your score as an affirmation of your life.
Then soothe your wounds with some tamales in nearby Espanola, home to some of the finest Latino low-rider vehicles in the land, made famous by National Geographic.
Rates: $35 to $87. (505) 747-8946.
This is New Mexico's best course. Don't leave without playing here.
Paa-Ko, which is not tribal-owned, is about 24 miles east of downtown Albuquerque on the backside of Sandia Peak in one of those second-home, blindingly white, Southwestern retirement communities. You can easily play it your first day or your last, but it's not really on the way to any other courses. (It is, however, on the Turquoise Trail. Look it up.)
At the end of my recent New Mexico trip, a conversation at Sandia's 19th hole among the director of golf, Matt Molloy, and two talented locals told me volumes about Paa-Ko's reputation. They uniformly praised Paa-Ko as a butt-kicking test of golf, but unlike Black Mesa, there were no qualifications, no cautionary tales. You could tell they loved everything about it and couldn't wait to return, even if, in Molloy's case, Paa-Ko was a competitor.
Ken Dye changed the nation's perception of New Mexico golf with Paa-Ko. After Golf Digest named it the best new course for 2000 and Golfweek ranked it No. 23 in its modern top 100 in its debut year, there was a rampage of word-of-mouth traffic. Rumor had it that some of the cognoscenti would fly in from San Francisco and New York just to play Paa-Ko, then leave.
What they found was really unlike anything in the state, except perhaps Dye's other New Mexico sensation, Pinon Hills GC, an incredible muny in deep northwest Farmington. It wasn't just Paa-Ko's wall-to-wall turf, the altitude (7,000 feet), the transcendent, 60-mile views from the tee boxes or the flawless bentgrass greens. Scenery and conditioning certainly count, but what Paa-Ko brought was an intelligent challenge that kept golfers buzzing about how they might play this or that hole differently tomorrow and how much better they'd score on their fifth round.
In its first years, I would interview well-traveled golfers in the clubhouse café after their rounds and several without hesitation compared Paa-Ko to Torrey Pines, the Olympic Club and the best of northern California. Best of all, the regulars began developing almost personal relationships with several holes, such as the par-5 12th or a benign, down-wind par-3, where it seemed that bunkers had been placed overnight by angry ex-wives and the mountain winds could be generated by one's own frustration. Paa-Ko soon became a Moby Dick for the tortured New Mexican golfer.
But after having played the original 18 perhaps a dozen times, and the new nine maybe twice, nothing yet seems even remotely unfair. I wish the original 18 were more walkable and that those trophy homes were more hidden by the pines, but that's far outweighed by their $59 summer twilight rate (after 2 pm). Go look for that at your friendly, local top 50 national course.
Rates: $59 to $114. (505)281-6000.
Cecilia's Cafe, (505) 243-7070, true family New Mex-Mex, with blue corn enchiladas and green chile chicken soup, among others.
Duran's Station, (505) 830-0007, some locals think to eat breakfast anywhere else would be a sacrilege.
El Modelo Mexican Foods, (505) 242-1843, generations of South Valley families swear by "the model" for New Mex-Mex.
Il Vicino Wood Oven Pizza, (505) 266-7855, lusty artisanal pizza in the hip Nob Hill 'hood near UNM.
Frontier, (505) 266-0550, open until 1 a.m., where the underside of ABQ loves to dine.
The Range Cafe, (505) 867-1700, a breakfast institution for artists, activists and turquoise ranchers. I've never had a mediocre meal here. Nice gift shop, too. Albuquerque also has two locations.
Abuelita's, (505) 867-9988, unassuming and tasty, the sopapillas are worth waiting for.
The Flying Star, (505) 404-2100, a quality casual chain with fancy Chinese stir-fry dishes, fabulous salads and (Homer Simpson drooling) one of the country's great cherry pies, with tart red cherries, cane sugar and a dash of lemon juice.
Prairie Star, (505) 867-3327, elegant dining right next to the Santa Ana Golf Course (beside the Hyatt Tamaya), open 5:30 to 9 p.m., Tuesday - Sunday.
Too many to mention, but you can't go wrong at ...
Shed's, (505) 982-9030, exceptional unpretentious New Mex-Mex.
La Choza, (505) 982-0909, very fresh, very local, and kinda expensive.
-- Bruce Selcraig is a former staff writer with Sports Illustrated who has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and Harper's, among others. Click here to email him.