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Black Mesa Golf Media Week - Part 3
As we stood waiting for what we could see of the first fairway to clear, our fivesome was spread out over three different tee boxes. Gilligan (a 1.7 index) and the Skipper (6) will have their hands full from the tips. I'll be playing one set down with Kevin Sniffen, about 6,600 yards. Eschewing the far forward tees, Mrs. Howell opts for one set back, roughly 5,800 yards in length.
The course is inspired by Mike Strantz's work at Tobacco Road, but the first hole is eerily reminiscent of No. 1 at a different Strantz masterpiece, Royal New Kent. Like RNK, the first at Black Mesa wakes you up with a thunderclap. A great first hole must set the tone for the round by showing the player the course's identity; some call this the "statement of place." Black Mesa does that as admirably as any course in the country. A "V-shaped" fairway is set blindly behind the shoulder of a long ridge that turns 90 degrees left to a green fronted by a deep bunker. The direct route from the tee box is no good as a huge rocky dunescape wasteland runs the entire length of the hole on the left.
Baxter Spann knew that some might criticize his wisdom for making the first shot of the day semi-blind and a forced carry to a diagonally-placed fairway. But it adds to the flavor of pure adventure and has its basis firmly in the great architecture of Alistair Mackenzie. Moreover, it serves a functional purpose as cutting through this gap in the 1,600-yard-long sandstone ridge was the only way to access a corner of the property that contained the best terrain for the front side. Another nearby gap in ridge lines would return the golfer to the clubhouse for the 8th and 9th holes.
Once again, Ran Morrisett summarizes Black Mesa's avante garde, yet neo-classic genius in one wise and bold decision of design by Spann and highlights how the first shot of the day is a microcosm of the appeal of the course:
"Now the question is what should he do about the 1st tee ball? Destroy the hillside with the heavy machinery at his disposal and provide the golfer with a perfect view of the fairway? Yet why destroy a natural feature? The shot wouldn't change; only the view. In the end, Spann leaves the hillside. Such a show of restraint [Author's note: and courage, in today's climate] is a welcome return to the core values held by the finest architects of the first half of the 20th century who built courses reflective of their environment."
Moreover, it turns the first hole from ordinary to a clarion call that the day will be dominated by one concept - adventure. Spann overturns conventional design shortcuts on their ear and shows how high we can reach when questioning concepts we once blindly adhered to through repetition on television and in magazines.
The rest of the front nine unfolds in the same adventurous vein. The back of the green at the par-4 second hole is set like a picture window, opening so that the view to the third fairway beyond and the Sangre de Christo (Blood of Christ) Mountains in the background is revealed. The fairway rumbles along the base of the hills along the entire right side of the hole. A false front will filter balls from the front of the green to a swale 12 yards short, punishing a careless approach.
At the third, a short par-5, Spann once again deftly blends his dual roles as golf course architect - scientist and artist - by deftly employing a dry wash that runs in front of the green, then curves back around creating a de facto 100-yard carry for players on the right side of the fairway. It's brilliant. Even though Spann could not touch the wash due to environmental restrictions, he angled the fairway so it has a strategic impact on play, the hallmark of the most skilled designers.
This was the first hole to bite the castaways. This 600-yard par-5 is a bloodthirsty Allosaurus. Gilligan hit a flare left into the desert and took three with a pitching wedge to escape a juniper bush - holy frijoles, what a horrid lie. He then hauled out a wood to try to reach the green. I tried to shout a warning, "Gilligan! Wait! There's a cross-hazard up there!" The reply came not from Gilligan, but from Kevin Sniffen. "Don't worry he found it." I found it too. Even The Skipper found the hazard and between the three of us we may have taken 25 shots. Smiling nonetheless, we saw with amazement the wave-like contours running through this wide but shallow green. So we applied Band-aids and Bactine to the teeth marks, and pressed on trailing blood, the rich Honduran flavor of one of The Skipper's Bolivar Belicosa No. 2 cigars providing a much-needed elixir.
Kevin Sniffen hit the shot if the day in our group on the par-3 fourth. After slicing badly into the hills, he had a totally blind chip of no less than 60 yards back to the green. With nothing to aim at, his ball finished six inches from the cup for a stellar par.
Like Strantz's idols, Mackenzie and Max Behr, Spann also incorporated many lines of charm - Tiger lines that challenge the golfer to take the longer and more dangerous route. At the tee of the long par-4 fifth, the golfer faces a 270-yard carry to the direct line to the flag. Otherwise he must play the long way around a deep sandy chasm. Similarly at the short, reachable par-4 seventh, long hitters go over the bunker and kick off its down-slope toward the putting surface. Challenge the hazard directly. If you execute, you get a big reward. Miss by a hair and the angles are quite severe. Note also that such options do not exist on tree-lined, penal courses where the center line is the only option. This includes many courses the PGA Tour frequents.
In fact, the sixth and seventh are the best scoring options on the front side. Seven is particularly short - I play 4-iron, 8-iron, but it's loaded with trouble; tight with bunkers and scrub-covered hills everywhere, you can drive the green but the angles are all wrong to contain a driver. Like architect Jim Engh, Spann agrees: he'll give you a chance to reach in less than regulation but sure won't help you do it. The green is draped precariously on a hillside, making downhill putts impossible to stop and requiring the player to be on the correct tier to earn a two-putt. Nevertheless, six and seven are the first place on the course where the player can step on the gas.
Of course the minute I say that, a member of our group hits it over the green and takes seven. Even The Skipper took bogey, needing four to get down from greenside. But that's Black Mesa. You think you're safe, but suddenly with a rustle of grass and the flash of a steely talon you're bleeding profusely.
Starting on the par-3 eighth, a two-club wind suddenly blustered from out of nowhere. Wind makes every golf course play differently, but it especially affects courses where there are no trees and the canyons act as wind tunnels. It howled and screamed in our ears by varying degrees the rest of the round - the roaring 40s, the furious 50s, the screaming 60s, and so forth - but no one was complaining. This intrepid crew knew the howl of the wind is the clarion call to golf. "I like it," said Mrs. Howell, smiling. "This is the way it's played in the U.K., so it's good practice," she added cheerfully as she scraped a good par with a long putt. Well schooled on the finer points of golf design, she tacks her way around the course intelligently.
The 180-yard par-3 eighth gave me a little dino bite after I drilled a 4-iron - the same 4-iron I had hit well all day -into the desert for a disgraceful double-bogey.
The greenside bunkers on No. 9 are six feet deep and they took a bite out of everyone on our group. Gilligan, The Skipper and I all took high numbers. They both finished the front with 42s, a tough number for single-digit handicappers. But still, not too bad for Gilligan's first time around.
Like he did on the front, Spann sends us through a canyon to reach the terrain in which most of the back nine sits. The 10th fairway is cut in a natural saddle between ridges with its green protected on the right by three grass bunkers.
Turning to the left, the green at the par-3 11th sits in a natural amphitheatre of rock, which makes the wind swirl and affects ball flights unpredictably. The pin is far front today, near the edge of a false front. Kevin ended the hole with a six after putting off the green and down the fairway another 10 yards.
On the short par-4 12th, I hit my only bad drive of the day, a duck-hook into the desert. With fairway bunkers presenting a diagonal hazard, I tried to bite off too much. Fairway wood, not driver, is the correct play. Take what the course gives you. It took me two more to hack it out of the scrub-covered broken ground.
Gilligan also had issues - his second shot was greenside in a swale pin-high. But after hitting his first chip short and watching it roll back to his feet, he hit the next one too far left, the ball veered left and rolled all the way down to the front of the green. "I hit two good shots and was pin-high and now I have a 90-foot putt for bogey!" That's just one more reason why Black Mesa is such an intelligent design. The greenside hollows, contours and swales make the ball swerve in unpredictable directions. Lose concentration for just one shot and the ball can end up further away than when you started, or back at your feet.
Everyone loves the beautiful birdie option at the short par-4 14th, but remember: the shorter the hole the more sex appeal the great designers add. Here the fairway is bisected by a huge scrub-covered hill. I hit fairway metal just short and left for an easy wedge to the green. Gilligan tries to drive the green but ends up in the scrub on the mound. The Skipper, showing us what home-field advantage does here, bounces his drive off the back of the mound and onto the kidney-shaped green. The ball ends up 5 feet from the cup. He missed the eagle putt.
The green here also defends par admirably. Like No. 7 at Crystal Downs, (which is kidney-shaped instead of the hourglass shape here) and No. 6 at Riviera (with its bunker in the middle of the green), the contours built into the green allow for a putt played wisely and with the correct spin to ride the contours around the rough cut of the green to reach tucked hole locations without chipping and taking a divot out of the green. Both Spann and Black Mesa owner Eddie Peck nominate it as one of their favorite holes. Spann said: "I am partial to short drivable par-4s. Number 14 is maybe my favorite hole I have ever designed."
After negotiating "The Mounds of Venus" - two humps in the middle of the green named for the lump of flesh below one's thumb, every player stops dead in their tracks upon reaching the visually arresting par-5 16th. Called "Stairway to Seven" by the staff, the fairway rumbles uphill to the gap where the ridgelines end. The left side is death; anything missing the fairway is in a deep arroyo.
As Strantz and Alister MacKenzie believed, a great hole should play easier than it looks. The secret of the hole becomes revealed upon reaching the green and looking back down the fairway. While they are invisible from the tee due to ingenious grading, three ample landing areas contain the ball so the player can safely make their way up the fairway. The concept is yet another derived from Crystal Downs, this time from the short par-4 17th. The green is the most severe on the golf course, featuring two bowls on the lower half separated by a foot-high ridge. The back of the green is severely sloped back to front and as severely contoured as the front. Although my group of castaways had its problems (my 6 was the lowest score), sportswriter Richard Skelly hit driver and 3-wood to 15 feet and made the putt for eagle.
I dodged danger on 16, but on No. 17 my second shot flies the green to the collection area behind and about 7 feet below the level of the green. I found the exact same place the next day. So much for dodging danger at 16, but that's Black Mesa: if the thunder don't get you then the lightning will.
And what lightning it is. The skyline green at 17 towers over the desert floor like the citadel of Minas Tirith in "The Lord of the Rings." More like a fortress than a golf green, from atop its battlements you can see vast expanses of the golf course.
As we finish for the day, the castaways are bloodied but unbowed. Black Mesa is a course that makes you want to stand up and cheer and makes you sad to depart. We leave the course to the silence of the desert, thinking of the steaks, French Black chicken and salmon waiting for us back at Bishop's Lodge. An aura of red still remains in the sun's flames, leaving a few minutes of splendor while the hills glow with all the colors of the spectrum.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.