Not long ago, one of the major golf mags did an admittedly subjective, rather whimsical listing of the ‘Golfiest’ states. New Mexico was mired in the lowest echelon, beating out just half-a-dozen also-rans. (Alaska, Delaware, Wyoming, Tennessee, Louisiana and New Hampshire, for those of you scoring at home.)
However despite its modest ranking in several of the metrics used (golf avidness displayed by residents, in addition to ‘vibe,’ which encompasses things like preponderance of homegrown golf luminaries, number of prestigious championships contested there, etc.) New Mexico scores well where it counts: The playing fields themselves. Here’s a quick overview of a quartet of the best public-access facilities in the Land of Enchantment, also known as the Land of Lopez: (IE—LPGA legend Nancy, who won the New Mexico Women’s Amateur at age twelve, and is the state’s most successful professional golfer.)
The Championship Course at the University of New Mexico
There are some fabulous collegiate golf courses in the nation. A short list would include Yale University, Duke, Ohio State-Scarlett and Stanford. To that august list one might add the University of New Mexico’s fine Championship Course. (Not to be confused with their nine-hole North Course, which is a fun diversion in its own right.)
At 7,500 yards from the tips, one might think it’s a course built for Phil and (the old) Tiger. In fact it is: Both have competed there during their intercollegiate careers. (Phil played at Arizona State, Tiger at Stanford.)
The course, not far from the Albuquerque airport, is hilly, tree-lined, and rife with waste areas. It plays a bit shorter than the advertised length owing to the mile-high (almost exactly, as it sits at 5,300 feet) elevation. That elevation boost helps on the monster eighth, a par-3 nearly 270 yards long. Those without college scholarships can tackle it from 250, 230, or even 170 yards. But whatever the yardage chosen, any ball coming up short of the green is destined to roll back some thirty yards or more.
Twin Warriors Golf Club
Located just up the highway from Albuquerque on the way to Santa Fe, Twin Warriors is even more imposing than the aforementioned collegiate course. This Gary Panks design is more than 7,700 yards of high desert, championship golf routed in and around twenty ancient cultural sites of previous habitation and activity. The course features grassy knolls and ridges dotted with Juniper and Pinon Pine. Dry washes known as arroyos and eroded land features, along with the sacred butte known as Tuyuna or “Snakehead” complete a picture framed by unforgettable views of the Sandia Mountains. This is golf in a vast space, the acreage of the entire property dwarfs the course itself, which is typical of courses developed by Native American tribes. (In this case, the People of the Santa Ana.)
Speaking of which, the nearby Santa Ana Golf Club is also worth a look. This sister course to Twin Warriors is little more than a mile away, and their trio of nine hole routings is a bit more intimate and walker-friendly, greens and tees closer to together, with less elevation change than what’s found on its marquee sibling.
Pinon Hills Golf Course
Farmington is located in the sparsely populated northwest corner of the state, not far from the “Four Corners” region where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico come together at a common border. One of the highlights of a visit to this somewhat remote town is a round at Pinon Hills, for many years considered one of the best public-access tracks (and best bargains) in the nation. Its desert beauty, long-range vistas, rolling hills, intimidating gullies, colorful flora and fauna have intrigued both locals and travelers since its 1989 debut. Elevated tees, deep grass bunkers, thoughtful water features, the occasional canyon and blind approach shot, and a series of devilish greens keep the attention level high at this secluded gem. Designed by Ken Dye, who is unrelated to Hall of Fame member Pete, this course would be a feather in the cap of any architect lucky enough to be bestowed such a captivating piece of topography.
Paa Ko Ridge
Less than twenty five miles from Albuquerque in the town of Sandia Park is Paa Ko Ridge, considered by many to be the finest course in New Mexico. This is another Ken Dye design, the original eighteen debuting in 2000, with an additional nine added five years later.
With elevations as high as 7,000 feet, tee shots tend to travel far. The problem is if they’re not struck accurately, they will also travel far off line. The wind, firmness and tilt of the fairways and encroaching high desert terrain means that players will go hunting for errant balls in the juniper and ponderosa trees that frame the fairways, and help to provide separation between holes. The seventeenth hole is a jewel in this glittering crown, featuring a panoramic display of the course and surrounding Sandia Mountains. This dogleg par-4 bends left to a raised green surrounded by an amphitheater of trees. Any tee shot lost to the right or too short might result in a blind approach. At a course like Paa Ko Ridge, as beautiful as any venue in this magical state, blindness is a condition to be avoided at all costs.