Except for a dozen or so of the best loved golf courses – like St. Andrews Old Course, Pebble Beach, Cypress Point – or those with long-established regional reputations, I generally don’t consider a single golf course to be ‘a destination.’
Black Mesa Golf Club in Espanola, New Mexico, about 20 minutes north of Santa Fe, is a rare exception.
Designed by architect Baxter Spann, Black Mesa is 7,307 yards of challenging and fun golf, carved into a strikingly beautiful desert environment. With five sets of tees – black blue, white, green and gold – the yardage slims down to 5,157 yards from the forward-most tees, making Black Mesa a spectacular, and playable, golf course for average to highly skilled players.
Visually, the course is a high desert knockout, and often from the tee, the visual aspects of a hole can be awe-inspiring and more daunting than its actual playability – a true credit to Baxter Spann.
We had the pleasure of playing the course twice – and with the course’s best associates: visionary Principal/Developer, Eddie Peck; business partner, ‘staff photographer’ and arguably one of the most eloquent and best golfing Greens Superintendents I’ve ever met, Pat Brockwell; and two-time Sun Country PGA Jack Hardwick Teacher of the Year, the delightful Tom Velarde. So both times we played, we had the advantage of the home-course knowledge and expertise of one or the other of these guys to help us navigate the course.
Knowing most golfers won’t have access to such personal assistance, a hole-by-hole guide written by Velarde called, “Tom’s Tips for Taming Black Mesa,” can serve as a helpful course guide for first-timers. While not a must-have, it will help you see through the panoramic vistas and help you focus on your game and ball placement, as most course guides would, and it’s available online, too.
Opened in 2003, Black Mesa already has earned multiple honors, including Golf Digest’s 2011-12 Top 100 Public Courses and an America’s Greatest Courses ranking. Links Magazine included it among the Top 10 Most Spectacular in the World, and it ranked among Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses You Can Play in 2006 and Golf Week’s 100 Best Modern Courses in 2008 through 2012.
“Black Mesa challenges a long hitter and rewards an accurate golfer,” Peck said, noting that the course also is fair. “With its five sets of tees, everyone plays the same course.”
The greens at Black Mesa are immense, averaging 6,500 square feet, and of the 1,600 acres comprising the track, only 80 acres are irrigated, which includes the 16-acre practice range. The course fits well within its natural topography.
Although Black Mesa’s signature hole is the par 5, 16th, dubbed the “Stairway to Seven” for its difficulty, one of my favorites is the par 3, 11th. By contrast, it is the easiest hole on the course, and one of the prettiest. Maybe that’s because it just seems to sit there – like a well-framed photo – sweet, complete, yet powerfully guarded in back by a steep ridge; it’s beautiful.
My husband, Paul, loved the intense visual contrast between the stark, white hillsides and and the lush greens and fairways. Paired with the region’s enchanting blue skies, he said it seemed as if every hole was carefully routed to offer the most amazing vistas possible.
While Black Mesa has plenty of holes of challenging length, his favorite was No. 7, a very short par 4 that allows for creative thinking. In our first round, Paul used an iron to lay up onto the narrower part of the fairway, short of the hidden ridges and safe from uncertain bounces. This left a mid-iron to a severely sloping, elevated green. The next time, he used a driver to go for the green, and while he eluded the hazards, the ball fed down into the right rough. Just a pitch shot remained, but from a sandy desert lie. Both yielded pars, but he had fun targeting the green with his drive.
Black Mesa has very few forced carries, so it’s interesting that the first hole tests your golfing mettle with one when you’re fresh on the tee. Just know that the first hole is easier than it looks, and reload if you blow it. After all, it is the first shot of your round.
There is no onsite lodging at Black Mesa, however, there are plenty of options locally and in Santa Fe. The preferred choice would be the nearby Santa Claran Hotel and Casino www.santaclaran.com, which is owned and operated by the Santa Claran Pueblo tribe, on whose land Black Mesa is constructed, so there’s a direct connection with the course. An upscale hotel, it has nicely appointed rooms, a lovely lobby and lounge area – complete with Starbucks, and an attached casino with three restaurants: a casual café, a sports bar and grill, and wonderful steakhouse. Add ‘O’ Bar & Tapas and the Big Rock Bowling Center, and you have a perfect stay ‘n play spot, just minutes from the course.
Out-of-state visitors can fly in to Albuquerque (1 hr. 20 min. away) or Santa Fe (20 min. away) and rent a car. From either airport, the drive is pleasant, and having a car will allow you to get to and from the golf club as well as explore the entire area – which includes the Puye Cliff Dwellings, Marty Sanchez Links de Santa Fe, downtown Santa Fe and Taos.
For more information, visit www.blackmesagolfclub.com