Rater’s Notebook: Sandia Golf Club

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

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – There’s something transcendent about the light in New Mexico.

When viewed from an airplane, the land up and down the Rio Grande River looks hopelessly forlorn and barren. And yet when seen from the ground, the stark rock and outcroppings of the sparsely vegetated terrain acquire powerful shape and tone – enough to make a visionary of painter Georgia O’Keeffe for capturing the land’s magic with her bold use of ochre and red, as if the land were alight.

For a golf course here to make an impression, it has to be more than just a place for the game. It has to enable patrons to encounter that eerie quality of the land that shows up best at sunrise and just before dusk. And this is precisely how Sandia Golf Club stands out. It’s about far more than just golf. It’s an encounter with a powerful landform.

The course is anchored by Sandia’s fine 228-room hotel, which is located 11 miles north of downtown Albuquerque and looks more like an oversized adobe pueblo, with lots of natural light animating its interior.

Outside, the golf is allowed the space to breathe at its own tempo, with the small landforms of the course understated and in scale without trying to match wits or drama with the towering Sandia Mountains, which dominate the backdrop and serve as the focal point of the opening three holes.

We’re in the middle of Sandia Pueblo land, all 44,000 acres of it, at the base of what feels like a massive rising slab of parched earth. The first hole, only 337 yards from the regular tees, starts out through a narrow defile formed by a natural-looking dunes formation on the left. It looks like a basic layup to a narrow landing area, but I immediately sense a principle at work of “release and compression,” whereby a small confined space gives way to something expansive and powerful beyond. The small landing zone spills out into a wide fairway that delivers golfers onto a broad open expanse of New Mexican range land. In the space of one hole, you can tell that architect Scott Miller knew what he was doing.

It helps that the bunkers throughout the course achieve a simplicity of form that amounts to little more than tipped-up saucers. There is nothing ornate that suggests Miller worked too hard trying to justify a fat fee. Here, the holes all take on the flow and contour of the surrounding untouched land that envelops them.

The bunker positions also are relaxed, with the greens protected only modestly and lots of rollout room for approaches and ground-game recovery options. This is not a torture chamber; Sandia GC allows golfers to play rather than work.

It helps, too, that the ball goes a long way out here. At a base elevation of one mile above sea level, golfers get a turbo-boost of more than 9 percent. In caddie-speak, it’s a one-and-a-half-club bonus on approach shots. All of a sudden, the back-tee distance of 7,772 yards (75.1 rating/125 slope) isn’t quite so intimidating, because in effect it plays about 7,072. My own preference here and elsewhere is for something more relaxed, like Sandia’s Championship tees, nominally 7,163 yards (72.0 rating/120 slope), which translates into 6,518 yards.

Matt Molloy, the resort’s general manager and director of golf, came here six years ago to work with OB Sports, the management firm that operates Sandia. For Molloy, a Connecticut native, the appeal of the place is pretty simple. Gesturing toward the vast tableau that engulfs the golf course, he says, “Growing up on the East Coast, you just don’t see this far.”

• • •

1. Routing: 6

Returning, clockwise nines, with a few long walks from green to tee that deter easy walking. Terrain is not at all severe for land that has a vertical fall of 140 feet.

2. Quality of shaping: 6

Everything looks as if it had to be created, especially the consistently modernist, concave bunkers.

3. Natural setting/overall land plan: 7

Enchanting setting, with a land plan dominated by the Sandia Mountains and undercut only somewhat by the hotel and resort core that you encircle on the front nine.

4. Interest of greens and surrounds: 5

No fanciful decks or quadrants, just flowing surfaces that roll off into generously recoverable ground.

5. Variety and memorability of par 3s: 4

Par 3s are too similar in look and feel for shot, distance and basic direction.

6. Variety and memorability of par 4s: 7

Wide angles and some bold optional carries offered.

7. Variety and memorability of par 5s: 7

You can get left behind pretty quickly on these long par 5s if you don’t hit a good drive; if solid off the tee, holes have crucial second-shot options.

8. Basic conditioning: 10

Flawless bentgrass greens, well-manicured bluegrass fairways and surrounds. There’s a gravelly look to the areas adjoining fairways; it’s not conventional rough, more like small crumbly rocks. And the sand in the dished-out bunkers has a dirty, more natural-looking tone rather than a flash-white appearance.

9. Landscape management and trees: 9

There’s just enough deployment of trees and other native plants to give the surrounding landscape some life: junipers and Colorado Mountain cottonwoods, plus the tantalizing blue tone of lavender plants and some tawny ocotillo.

10. “Walk in the Park” test: 6

Setting is magnificent; a bit awkward in the walk around, but impressive if you focus on the long views.

Overall rating (not cumulative): 6.3

The real tale out here is the wide berth of play, the optional lines off the tees over arroyos; the way in which the parched landforms assume life thanks to the vibrant lawns of bluegrass fairway arrayed atop slack, thirsty land. Sandia GC is No. 19 on the Golfweek’s Best Casino Courses list and No. 100 on the Golfweek’s Best Resort Courses list.

>> 30 Rainbow Road, Albuquerque, N.M.

>> 505-798-3990; www.sandiagolf.com

>> Par 72, 7,772 yards (75.1 rating/slope 125)

>> $50-$85 (including range balls and optional golf cart)

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