New Mexico: Land of quality public access golf

Black Mesa, ranked No. 2 in New Mexico.

Black Mesa, ranked No. 2 in New Mexico.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – New Mexicans famously love hot-air balloon rides. The nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta that’s held each October frequently attracts more than 700,000 attendees – an impressive number given that the state’s total population is only about 2 million.

It’s little wonder that residents and tourists enjoy surveying New Mexico from on high. From any given point, balloonists are likely to have a bird’s-eye view of three or more mountain ranges that jut up all around the Rio Grande Valley.

“When people come out here, they can’t believe the vistas,” says George Trujeque, director of golf at the University of New Mexico.

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University of New Mexico's Championship Course, No. 6 in the state.

Even on an overcast day, snow-capped Mount Taylor 80 miles to the west and the Magdalena Mountains 120 miles to the south seem to loom over UNM’s Championship Course. Golfers might take note of another landmark, a billboard along Interstate 25 touting $38 green fees at the course, which has hosted five NCAA Championships.

“Out of all the screaming deals in this town, that’s the best,” says Dan Vukelich, a former political and investigative reporter who now edits Sun Country Golf, a magazine based in Albuquerque.

The UNM course has a lot of competition. These days, golfers can find unheard-of deals around the country. But year in and year out, it’s unlikely that any state delivers the sort of value – marquee courses at modest prices – that can be found in humble New Mexico.

That includes two layouts ranked among the top 100 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list – Paa-Ko Ridge (No. 42) near Albuquerque and Black Mesa (No. 77) in La Mesilla – both of which can be had for less than $100 on weekdays. Twin Warriors, which hosted the 2009 PGA Professional National Championship, tops out at $79 on weekends for state residents.

But it’s hard to beat the deal at Pinon Hills, ranked No. 4 on Golfweek’s Best Municipal Courses list – trailing only major-championship venues Bethpage Black, Chambers Bay and Torrey Pines South. Residents can walk Pinon Hills in Farmington for only $30 on weekends.

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If you don’t share locals’ love of ballooning, you might try the next best thing. Drive 10 miles up the Turquoise Trail off I-40 to Paa-Ko Ridge, the flagship of New Mexico’s golf renaissance. Its reputation is reflected in the fact that out-of-state players account for 46 percent of the rounds. Set at 6,800 feet on the east side of the Sandia Mountains, Paa-Ko is what Trujeque calls “a 360 course. On every tee, you have to do a 360 to see the views.”

Take Panorama, the aptly named par-3 eighth, or the par-5 fifth, with the Ortiz Mountains to the east, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where the Rockies’ southern march ends, up toward Santa Fe, and the Sandias at your back.

Unlike the tribe-owned courses that have driven the growth of premium golf in New Mexico, Paa-Ko is a privately owned public facility, part of Paa-Ko Communities, roughly a 30-minute drive from downtown Albuquerque. There are about 350 homes on the 3,600-acre site, but you don’t feel their presence on the golf course.

“Do you get this kind of silence?” Rob Murray, general manager of Paa-Ko Ridge, asks a visitor. We’re standing on the tee at No. 7, the hardest hole on the course, and Murray points to a hawk circling nearby. The isolated design of most holes intensifies the golfer’s connection to a stunning natural setting.

New Mexico’s shifting topography – stretching, for instance, west to east from the Chuska Mountains across the Rio Grande Valley, over the Rockies and on to the Great Plains – ensures a diverse golf landscape. And the tribes, which often control tens of thousands of acres, can offer architects broad canvasses on which to work. In La Mesilla, for example, the Santa Clara Pueblo has 55,000 acres, 1,600 of which have been set aside for Black Mesa and a proposed second course that Tom Doak tentatively is scheduled to design. That’s four times the amount of land typically needed for two courses.

“(The pueblos) are the only ones who have water, plus they have the resorts and casinos,” says Eddie Peck, co-owner of Black Mesa through a joint venture with the Santa Clara Development Co., the pueblo’s development arm.

• • •

On the back of a napkin, Stuwart Paisano writes two words: first “vision,” then below it “mission.”

The vision – casinos and resorts serving as the economic engine for the tribes – has been realized in the form of projects such as the lavish Sandia Resort & Casino, a project Paisano spearheaded after becoming governor of the Sandia Pueblo at age 27. Now 38 and still a tribal councilman, he projects the air of an elder statesman, having witnessed the transformation of the Rio Grande Valley thanks to what locals, according to Vukelich, refer to as “the Miracle of Indian gaming.”

That “miracle” not only has produced a rich golf landscape – including Sandia Golf Club (No. 5 on New Mexico state’s list) – but has transformed tribal life.

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Sandia Golf Club, ranked No. 5 in New Mexico.

“Twenty years ago, we were just a poor, dusty tribe that had nothing,” says Jay Garcia, board secretary of the Santa Ana Golf Club, which includes the Santa Ana and Twin Warriors courses.

That’s no longer true. New Mexico Business Weekly reported that the Santa Ana Pueblo’s gaming operations generated a total net win – the amount of bets received minus winnings paid out – of $75.8 million in 2008. Sandia dwarfed all competing casinos, with a net win of $168.3 million, according to the publication. Most tribal officers are reluctant to discuss finances. But Calvin Tafoya, CEO of the Santa Clara Development Co., said that his company controls $60 million in assets – the latest is the recently-opened 124-room Santa Claran hotel in Espanola, near Black Mesa – and has distributed $25 million to members of the tribe. The pueblo’s annual operating budget, just $500,000 when the company was formed 10 years ago, has grown nearly ten-fold.

Tafoya, a banker by trade, has latitude to run the business, but he says the tribe’s egalitarian culture demands that he move slowly and court consensus.

“I need the backing of my people, the backing of my family,” he says. “You create success, but you have to bring people along.”

That gets to the “mission” to which Paisano referred. Since the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when the tribes

rose up against colonization by the Spanish, the pueblos have been determined to maintain their identity.

“They didn’t lose their war,” says Pat Brockwell, superintendent and part owner, along with Peck, of Black Mesa. “They still have their language and their customs and their dances. They really have an intact connection to their past.”

Tafoya and Garcia talk about their tribes’ connection to nature, which flows from their history of living off the land. While the gaming operations have been the engine of change, the tribal leaders reason that the golf courses serve not just as an amenity but as a link to the pueblos’ past.

“Running a golf operation,” Garcia says, “is an honorable way to be stewards of the land.”

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