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Black Mesa - Wild & Crazy Fun in Santa Fe
The New Mexico desert can - at first glance - seem austere and bleak, with sand and scrub brush and rock dominating the landscape at every turn. But look closer, get down in the land and the life and Mother Nature's knowing touch become more evident as wonders abound, down to the smallest fissure, cactus and dry gulch.
Black Mesa Golf Club
Designing a golf course to take advantage of these wonders, while adding little but accentuating a lot, is an example of architectural prowess of the highest degree.
At Black Mesa Golf Club, set in the high-desert sandstone ridges of northern New Mexico near the confluence of the Rio Grande, Cham and Rio Santa Cruz rivers north of Santa Fe, golf architect Baxter Spann has expertly melded a memorable and challenging track into an otherworldly environment.
Much has been said and written about Spann's work at Black Mesa, but seeing - and playing - is believing. Absent of any man-made or artificial distraction, the course seems as if it were placed on the rolling landscape, its holes little green areas among all the grays and brown and blacks of the living desert.
And while Black Mesa seems daunting almost from the first shot, it's actually very playable, with expansive fairways and greens big enough to sport various pin placements without gimmickry.
Black Mesa is located on Santa Clara Pueblo Indian land, in the small town of La Mesilla. Despite Spann's craftsmanship, the nature of the land is the course's best feature. Sightlines of the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo Mountains and far-away sandstone spires rise above the manicured acreage, while native arroyos dissect and act as borders for the verdant fairways.
The 4th Hole at Black Mesa
The venue is situated at 5,400 feet above sea level and wind is a constant factor. Despite elevation changes of about 125 feet, two-thirds of the routing plays slightly downhill. Weighing in at 7,307 yards from the back set of five tee boxes, par-72 Black Mesa carries a rating of 73.9 and a slope of 141 from the tips.
"The design concept was to create as wide a variety of holes as possible, with each having its own memorable features," Spann said. "We wanted a course that would be fun and challenging in calm conditions, but yet not impossibly difficult on the frequent days when it is blowing 30 or 40 miles an hour."
Accuracy is a must at Black Mesa, as native grasses and plants grow right into the edges of bunkers and line the fairways. The grass around the bunkers is longer and more punishing than the rough.
Most surrounds allow the player to choose to fly it, run it or even putt it onto greens. The hills in and around the putting surfaces provide many attack angles for players to bounce or deflect shots to the correct pin location. If players hit the wrong part of the fairway, their positioning will dictate the type of entry shot needed.
The greens allow for creativity with the putter and give the short-game maestro plenty of shot and line options. Some cups are approachable from several different angles with a putter or chipper, letting the slopes of the greens and gravity work the ball.
The 12th hole at Black Mesa
Take Aim & Have Faith
The core of Black Mesa's challenge is taking the correct line off the tee. The visual effect of Spann's fairway shaping, combined with bunkering in the landing areas and adjacent badlands, makes the targets seem tiny. There's a real mental game here, as the player must decide how much of the doglegs to cut off.
One of the recurring themes is the increased angle of approach to the fairway going from the tips to the forward tees. By using different tees from one round to the next, one could be playing what seems like an entirely different golf course.
For instance, the opening hole provides a blind shot from the blue and black tees over a badlands-filled hill. But if a player moves up to the front he can see most of the fairway.
"The second hole (a 404-yard par-4) gives players an idea of the concept with which Black Mesa was designed," Spann said. "The tee shot from the back tees points to a landing area on a diagonal line, while the forward tees approach it more straight on."
The 16th at Black Mesa
On the par-3 fourth is carded at 203 yards and has an elevated tee where players can see most of the green. The lower blue tee is about 40 yards left of the back markers, but those 40 yards are a huge difference since the angle from there makes the back half of the green blind due to a conical hill in front. A back-left pin is hidden.
The 565-yard par-5 sixth has a double-dogleg fairway and a bundle of deep bunkers along the right. A large green contains areas that slope in different directions.
No. 16 is an uphill 536-yard par-5 with a menacing nickname - "Stairway to Seven." The back tee is positioned on a high point and involves a substantial carry over an arroyo to a raised landing area. The fairway is narrowed by a deep bunker left; anything played to the right will kick left. The putting surface is the most severely contoured of any at Black Mesa as the surrounds fall sharply away on the left side and behind. Find yourself in the wrong spot here and it's an easy three-putt, hard two-putt.
The closer is a demanding, 429-yard two-shotter with an entire right side guarded by a deep creek bed and bunker complex over the last 200 yards. Shots played to the left move to the left and into an arroyo, while the approach is played to a generous and bowl-shaped green.
Black Mesa also offers a practice facility that includes a range with a spacious, 60,000-square-foot teeing area with seven target greens.
The course opened in 2003 to numerous kudos including "Best New Affordable Course" by Golf Digest and one of the "Top Ten Courses You Can Play" by Golf Magazine. As the years have passed, Black Mesa has been a steady presence on various Top 100 lists and is continually cited in golf and travel media for its design, flair for testing golfers of all skills, aesthetics and exceptional value.
At Black Mesa, the experts have hit the nail on the head. It's a must-play course and deserving of the accolades. For more information, visit www.blackmesagolfclub.com.
This story originally appeared in Cybergolf on May 27, 2011.
Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Texas CEO Magazine and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.