Nearly seven thousand feet high in the piñon-and-juniper forests of New Mexico's Sandia Mountains, twenty minutes east of Albuquerque's sprawl, there is a place where world-class golf meets high-desert wilderness in the backyard of the ancient Anasazi. Its name is Paa-Ko Ridge. Want invigorating scenery?From the back tees of number seventeen, on a bluegrass-fairway course that changes four hundred feet in elevation, there is a sixty-mile, 360-degree view of five mountain ranges, unspoiled (so far) by fast-food boulevards or trophy homes. Two other holes drop 110 feet from tee to green, but none as dramatically as the par-three eighth, where I watched in awe as a young Notah Begay III look-alike hit a five-iron downhill and downwind from the tips to a green 265 yards away.
There are moments so profoundly quiet in the far foothills of Paa-Ko—it rhymes with "taco,"and is said to be a Tiwa Indian word that means "root of the cottonwood tree"—that all you can hear is the wind and your beating heart. The mountain air is so rarefied that you almost lose the feel of your skin.
"I am most pleased," says Paa-Ko's designer, Houston-based architect Ken Dye, "with what I didn't do here. I saved as much of the rock outcroppings and native vegetation as I could. I disturbed as little land as possible." More impressively, Dye, who personally shaped each bentgrass green and spent 170 days on-site, created a long, challenging course (five tees, from 5,702 to 7,562 yards) virtually everyone finds to be a near-religious experience, one that grows in intensity with each hole.
"I play over a hundred courses a year," a Nebraska real-estate developer told me after his round. "I can't think of a better one. It's awesome. It's better than the seventy-six courses I've played in Arizona and one-third the price." (Green fees are $49 to $59; call 505-281-6000 or visit www.paakoridge.com.)
"Before," said a Colorado CEO, "my favorite course was Torrey Pines. I've played Sandhills and Castle Pines. Paa-Ko is better."
Dye, no relation to Pete, won lofty praise more than a decade ago for designing Piñon Hills in Farmington, New Mexico, thought by many to be America's greatest true muni and golf value ($20 weekdays). So people paid attention when he declared Paa-Ko Ridge better in every way. And wondrously, it may even improve because Dye is a one-third owner who plans, like Donald Ross with Pinehurst No. 2, to grow old with Paa-Ko and tweak it to perfection.
I can't imagine where he would start.