At its heart, New Mexico is about color and scale. Georgia O'Keeffe introduced the world to the region's unmistakable desert palette beginning in the 1930s, with her vivid paintings of bleached white cattle skulls, vermilion mesas and burnt-sienna adobes. The same vast, arid mountains and open spaces that inspired O'Keeffe have more recently sparked the imaginations of golf course architects and developers, who in the past decade have established New Mexico as a full-fledged golf destination.
There's never been any question about the state's cultural richness, or its high-desert climate of warm, sunny days and crisp, cool nights (not to mention brilliantly star-filled skies). In Santa Fe alone there is world-class summer opera, the architecturally preserved seventeenth-century Plaza and galleries teeming with shoppers in search of works by contemporary artists who have inherited O'Keeffe's abiding fascination with this land.
And it's not as if golf had been previously unknown in these parts. New Mexico produced the LPGA legends Nancy Lopez and Kathy Whitworth as well as the PGA Tour veteran and Native American Notah Begay III. But with the recent openings of rugged—and remarkably well-priced—courses such as Paa-Ko Ridge (2000) and Black Mesa (2003), New Mexico has unquestionably arrived.
WHERE TO PLAY
Black Mesa ****1/2
By now, many golfers know all about the sign—the one in the clubhouse that warns: BIG COURSE, BIG MEDICINE—IT WILL KICK YOUR BUTT. Indeed, Black Mesa Golf Club isn't for everybody. The first hole alone could induce shock in the unwary. It demands a blind tee shot over an arroyo, a pond and a scrub-covered hill. From there, the course only gets harder . . . and more interesting . . . and more spectacular. Located a half-hour north of Santa Fe, Black Mesa weaves over and through stark sandstone bluffs to pre- sent a supreme but fair test. The par-three eleventh, for example, ascends into a box canyon ringed with rocky escarpments, but beyond a crossing forebunker the approach is relatively open. The bunkering throughout is magnificently varied, with some smallish fringed scrapes that look like they merely evolved and others formally shaped as if they came from the drafting table of Alister MacKenzie.
115 State Road 399, La Mesilla; 505-747-8946, blackmesagolfclub.com. YARDAGE: 7,307.PAR: 72. SLOPE: 141. ARCHITECT: Baxter Spann, 2003. GREENS FEES: $50–$85.
Paa-Ko Ridge ****1/2
For years Ken Dye (no relation to Pete) was best known as the architect of America's supreme value course, Piñon Hills, in remote northwestern New Mexico. With Paa-Ko Ridge Golf Club, situated between 6,500 and 7,000 feet on the sunrise side of the Sandia Mountains twenty minutes from Albuquerque and less than an hour from Santa Fe, Dye created a near- masterpiece that's readily accessible. Paa-Ko Ridge rambles through junipers, cedars and piñones, or small pines, occasionally skirting arroyos and outcroppings of rock. This is high desert, to be sure, but it's heavily forested; the mountains defining the horizon are clothed in shades of green. The par threes form a distinguished quartet, with two of them, the eighth and fourteenth, checking in at 260-plus yards. But it's the 183-yard fourth you'll remember most, not for the uphill thrust over a ravine, but for the green itself, which unfurls in three tiers and stretches a hundred yards end to end.
One Clubhouse Drive, Sandia Park; 505-281-6000, paakoridge.com. YARDAGE: 7,562.PAR: 72. SLOPE: 138. ARCHITECT: Ken Dye, 2000. GREENS FEES: $75–$89.
Pueblo de Cochiti ****
So tucked away that one might be tempted to turn the car around, thinking there couldn't possibly be a golf course here, this pristine layout on tribal land is worth the effort required to find it. Perched on a plateau in the red-rock foothills of the Jemez Mountains, nearly an hour north of Albuquerque and forty minutes southwest of Santa Fe, Pueblo de Cochiti Golf Course can't quite decide if it wants to be a mountain or a desert layout—it's graced with elements of both. Robert Trent Jones Jr. returned here in 2000 and engineered a successful face-lift of his original 1981 design, smoothing out a few maintenance wrinkles and adding teeth in the form of twelve new bunkers and an extra 350 yards. After your round, linger awhile in the new adobe-style clubhouse, but when the coyote pups start to howl, you'll realize it's time to rejoin civilization.
5200 Cochiti Highway, Cochiti Lake; 505-465-2239, pueblodecochiti.org/golfcourse.html. YARDAGE: 6,817.PAR: 72. SLOPE: 132. ARCHITECT: Robert Trent Jones Jr., 1981. GREENS FEES: $45–$65.