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Finding Great Golf in New Mexico Easier than Spelling Albuquerque

By: Steve Habel


Though more than 4 million tourists flock to New Mexico's high-desert city of Albuquerque, it would be interesting to see how many of those out-of-towners can spell the city's name correctly.

Long Vistas at Isleta Eagle

It is much easier to find great golf here. The local populous - along with those spelling-challenged tourists - love to tee it up at the area's many courses. Public-access tracks run the gamut from municipal to daily-fee to college to wonderful courses by casinos. The temperate climate makes golf a 12-month sport in Albuquerque.

One of the most famous stops along Route 66, Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico; roughly half the people in the state live in the metropolitan area.

There are plenty of draws to Albuquerque. It hosts a stunning and colorful International Balloon Festival each October and there are more than 300 arts organizations with ties to the region. The film industry is booming here as well, and Albuquerque lies at the center of the New Mexico Technology Corridor, a concentration of high-tech private companies and government institutions along the Rio Grande.

Larger institutions whose employees contribute to the population are numerous and include Sandia National Laboratories, Kirtland Air Force Base and the attendant contracting companies that bring highly educated workers to the somewhat isolated region.

During a recent trip to Albuquerque and its suburbs, we played a handful of courses. The variety and overall quality of the offerings in the area make it a must-visit destination for golfers in search of challenging tracks and unlimited off-the-course fun that rivals better-known destinations such as Scottsdale, Myrtle Beach and the Coachella Valley.

In this feature, we will highlight two courses - the 27-hole facility at Isleta Eagle and the highly ranked Championship Golf Course at the University of New Mexico - in or at the edges of the city's southwest quadrant.

Isleta Eagle Golf Course

Variety is the Draw at Isleta Eagle

There's little subtlety at Isleta Eagle Golf Course, probably because the track is an amenity of the burgeoning Hard Rock Hotel and Casino across the highway.

Designed by Bill Phillips and opened in 1996, Isleta Eagle offers three nine-hole sides that can be played in 18-hole combinations on the Pueblo of Isleta's vast high-desert reservation just five minutes south of Albuquerque. The courses along the Rio Grande River feature typical desert conditions, with extraordinary panoramic views from thee tees. The greens are mid-sized and have contour, and the fairways are undulating, creating challenging uneven lies, with natural roughs on the borders.

The tracks are named after their primary topographic feature - Lakes, Arroyo and Mesa. Each has different character.

Mesa - the longest of the three nines at 3,827 yards from the tips - starts out with a downhill, 500-yard par-4. It moves to a stunning three-hole stretch with the 210-yard par-3 fourth (with three huge grass bunkers guarding the right-front), a 593-yard par-5 (forced carries on the drive and approach to the green) and a 212-yard par-3 with a shallow "U-shaped" putting surface. If you get past this threesome, the 635-yard par-5 eighth is just around the corner.

Water is in play on five of the nine holes at Lakes (3,745 yards), but never more so than on the 193-yard par-3 fourth and its island green. All five of the two-shotters on Lakes nine extend past 400 yards, with the set highlighted by the 471-yard fifth. No. 8 - a par-5 at 638 yards - also asks for three good shots to have a chance to post a low score.

Arroyo comes in at a relatively paltry 3,450 yards, but still packs a punch thanks to the 227-yard third, the 433-yard fifth and the 450-yard eighth. Both par-5s on Arroyo (the 537-yard first and 525-yard eighth) can be reached in two, though their greens are well-fortified with sand traps.

Of the three 18-hole combinations, the toughest is Mesa-Lakes, which carries a rating of 74.7 and a slope of 128. Lakes-Arroyo is rated at 72.7 and sloped at 125, while Arroyo-Lakes has a 72.4 rating and 124 slope.

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9th Hole at UNM Course

Length & Routing Make UNM Championship Course Daunting

Just a few minutes north of the Isleta Eagle along the east side of the highway sits the Championship Golf Course at the University of New Mexico. Once rated the top course in the state, the UMN Golf Course is a fine venue thanks to a combination of length and a demanding routing, all amplified by ever-blowing winds.

UNM Golf Course opened in 1967 and has undergone a number of renovations over the past 30-odd years. Original architect Robert "Red" Lawrence utilized naturally hilly terrain to create wide, rolling and tilted fairways with many elevation changes.

Long and tough from the tournament tees, where it plays to a par of 72 at 7,562 yards, 135 rating and 75.4 slope, UNM is not a true desert course, even though its holes meander through arid terrain that is home to rabbits, roadrunners, owls and hawks.

Panorama at UNM Golf Course

Stray shots are harshly penalized by thick rough and unforgiving bunkers. If in the fairways, a premium is placed on club selection due to the elevation change and the wind. The quick-paced putting surfaces here feature hills and multiple breaks.

Hit all you can and hope for the best at the 524-yard par-4 seventh, which is narrow and ends at an elevated green. That's followed by a 260-yard par-3 and the 602-yard par-5 ninth. Two other par-4s on the back nine (the 520-yard 10th and the 406-yard 13th at 506) stretch longer than 500 yards from the tips.

UNM Course Overlooks Albuquerque

The best hole is likely the drivable-par 4 15th. From the back tees it's only 364 yards. The hole will reward aggressiveness, but forces you to think seriously about the consequences. A lake extends along the left side and your approach is over a large stand trees at the corner of a dogleg right.

The Championship Golf Course at UNM enjoys a long history of college tournaments. It's hosted the William H. Tucker Invitational over 34 years and, in women's college golf, the Dick McGuire Intercollegiate since 1979. UNM has also hosted many NCAA Golf Championships, most recently the Division I NCAA Women's in 2008.

This home course to the University of New Mexico golf teams is open to the public year-round. The facility includes a practice facility with a large driving range, three practice greens and a unique three-hole beginner's course where newcomers and veterans alike can test their skills.

For more information, visit www.unmgolf.com.

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.