Paa-Ko Ridge, course at Inn of the Mountain Gods are among great offerings in the Land of Enchantment
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (Feb. 25, 2018) — Many people come to New Mexico to get away from it all, to embrace the feeling of oneness with the environment or to take advantage of the chance to seek their own path.
I go to New Mexico for the combination of hot and cool, the duality of the mountains and the desert, the freedom to roam away from people and then the opportunity find someone I like when I need companionship, the pairing of the native and the new and, of course, the golf and the gambling.
I’ve been to nearly every corner of the Land of Enchantment, as New Mexico is called, playing golf from Las Cruces to Angel Fire, from the bustling metropolis of Albuquerque to the guarded corner of the White Sands Missile Range – just over a mountain pass from the site of the explosion of the first atomic bomb, and from the flatlands of Hobbs to the moonscapes of La Mesilla.
Along the way, I’ve spent time in opulent homes and hotels and lodges, eaten a ton of New Mexico’s version of Mexican food (red or green?), glided across the desert in a hot-air balloon, rode a cardboard-box sled down dunes of nearly-unimaginably white sand, gambled in both casinos and at horse tracks and had at least a dozen times when I played 36 holes of golf at two different course on the same day.
I’ve even golfed and skied in the same town on the same day twice – in two different locales. And I’ve barely scratched the surface of what New Mexico has to offer.
All my escapades in this place have been pushed forward by golf, and the offerings for the grand game here are variety and plentiful. Let’s take a look at a few, with the caveat that there are others that are grand that we will have to examine the next time we meet.
Finding great golf is easy in Central region
Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico, established in 1706 at the western slopes of the Sandia Mountains within the northern, upper edges of the Chihuahuan Desert. The elevation here ranges from 4,900 feet in downtown to 6,700 feet in the foothills, so playing golf in this region is comparable to playing in Denver.
Any discussion about golf in Albuquerque must begin with the Championship Golf Course at the University of New Mexico. Once rated the top course in the state, the course is a fine and demanding venue thanks to a combination of length and a tough routing, all amplified by ever-blowing winds. The track opened in 1967 and original architect Robert “Red” Lawrence utilized naturally hilly terrain to create wide, rolling and tilted fairways with many elevation changes.
Southwest of town across the street from the burgeoning Hard Rock Hotel and Casino (of which it is an amenity), the Bill Phillips-fashioned Isleta Eagle Golf Course offers three nine-hole sides that can be played in 18-hole combinations on the Pueblo of Isleta’s vast high-desert reservation.
Opened in 1996 and named after their primary topographic feature – Lakes, Arroyo and Mesa – the courses run along the Rio Grande and feature typical desert conditions with extraordinary panoramic views from the tees. The greens are mid-sized and have contour, and the fairways are undulating, creating challenging uneven lies, with natural roughs on the borders.
Some 15 miles north of Albuquerque on rolling desert at the base of the Sandia Mountains, the sacred land of the Santa Ana Pueblo is home to two striking, and very different, golf courses, each noted for their beauty and challenge.
The courses – Twin Warriors Golf Club and Santa Ana Golf Club – are set on acreage surrounded by the grandeur of the Jemez Mountains to the west, the Sangre de Cristos to the north and the Sandia Mountains immediately east, and are woven through sand, cactus, scrub brush and rock. With 45 holes of golf, the two venues, which serve as amenities of the tribal-owned Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort, offer players plenty of variety and tests.
Another must-play in the Central region is the Ken Dye-designed Paa-Ko-Ridge (pictured above), which is carved through a forest of pinon and juniper evergreens, with some specimen ponderosa pines near the landing areas and greens to make the course stand apart from the region’s other high-desert venues.
Opened for play with 18 holes in April 2000 and later expanded to 27 holes in 2005, Paa-Ko Ridge features multiple mountain views and strong shot values. The course also sports many big, bold features, undulating putting surfaces and plenty of risk-reward opportunities. Golf Digest ranks it No. 20 on its list of America’s 100 “Greatest Public Courses” and as the top course in New Mexico.
Southeast region brings mountains into play
Three hours south of Albuquerque in New Mexico’s Southeast region, three courses have for years set the bar for excellent daily-fee golf.
Begin a trip to the area in Ruidoso in the shallow of 12,000-foot Sierra Blanca for a round at the Links at Sierra Blanca, Champions Tour player Jim Colbert and golf architect Jeff Brauer tore up the tarmac of the old Sierra Blanca Regional Airport to build the course and removed the old hangars and buildings while using smart land management to form the signature high, rolling mounds throughout the layout. Players are amazed the architects brought no dirt onto or off of the property as towering artificial mounds pop up everywhere.
A stalwart of the region around Ruidoso is the golf course at the Inn of the Mountain Gods, an upscale casino property owned and operated by the Mescalero Apache. The track was designed by Ted Robinson and opened in 1976 and features an island fairway, landing areas lined by trees, fast-breaking greens and superb vistas. Players here contend with the challenge of teeing up at an elevation of 7,200 feet in land bordering massive Lincoln National Forest.
Head further into the Sacramento Mountains and one will eventually find the town of Cloudcroft and the famous Lodge at Cloudcroft. A mainstay of the property is nine-hole golf course situated at 9,200 feet above sea level, the fifth-highest layout in the United States. It was built near a previous track established in 1899, and is the oldest course in New Mexico.
Carved out of a pine forest with rolling greens, this course is pure fun and an absolute ego builder. Routed on a former cabbage patch in Chautauqua Canyon, the Lodge course starts the blood rushing on the first hole, a 251-yard par-4 that descends 200 feet straight downhill.