Away Game: Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Big Draw

Mixing a little art and a lot of golf in Santa Fe

March 2013

Arnold Palmer famously said, "What other people may get from art or museums, I get from the flight of a good drive." In Santa Fe, N.M., you can have both. The art market ranks behind only New York and maybe San Francisco for the largest in the nation. And with an elevation of 7,000 feet and perpetual sunbaked weather, the air's so thin you might well hit the longest tee ball of your life.

Course Guide

Map: Kagan McLeod & Jonathon Rivait

Travelers from all over the world come to Santa Fe, but usually not to play golf. The open-air opera house, more than 250 art galleries and 17 museums are why there are so many fine places to stay and eat in this city of fewer than 70,000. The golf happens to be terrific, inexpensive, and the fact it's a small part of the city's tourism adds to the appeal. There are no cart boys dressed in plus-fours hustling for tips, nor starters with walkie-talkies playing soldier. If not for the carts corralled outside like livestock, I would've mistaken the clubhouse at Black Mesa Golf Club for just another ranch home--albeit for a large family--dug into the severe landscape. I'd taken a left some time ago at a small bridge and was thinking this was a wrong turn. Mine was the fourth car in the dusty lot. Granted, my friend and I were visiting after the peak summer months, when even Scottsdale golfers venture north to escape the heat. But with only 15,000 rounds annually, the pitch at Black Mesa, I'm guessing, never rises much higher than low-key.

We slung our clubs on our shoulders, and because we were already wearing our street-style golf shoes we sidestepped the problem of not knowing where to put them on.

The first person we encountered was Pat Brockwell, the superintendent. All golf-course superintendents in the Southwest dress somewhat like cowboys, and Brockwell's moustache and soft-spoken voice make him a ringer for the actor Sam Elliott.

"Fellas gonna get you some golf in?"

We said we aimed to, and Brockwell smiled proudly. Past the heaving rugs of fairway and immediate buttes, we could see for 50 miles. "Good day for it," Brockwell said.

Course architect Baxter Spann also speaks in the succinct cadence of a frontiersman. "I wanted to make a layout that was wild and untamed, like a mustang, and they let me," he says. Spann's first order of business when designing a course (his credits include the city's terrific muny, Marty Sanchez Links) is a camping trip to see how the property looks at dawn.

A word of advice: Put your bag on the cart's driver side if you don't want to relinquish control of your life. I let my friend David Haase drive, and he (wrongly) thinks he could've been a NASCAR driver. The paths are all sand, and the potential for power skids into and through the steep desert formations is considerable.

Towa Golf Club

A walk to the tee at Towa.
Photo: J.D. Cuban

With the sun an inch above the horizon, we played an emergency nine (this time walking), and it struck me how the experience was very "links-y." Our distance from the ocean precluded the term, but with the right imagination, the cactus-dotted topography transmuted into the sand dunes and gorse of Ireland. Not just pretty scenery, the eroding buttes have an integrated presence that truly influences how shots are played. And with the areas off the fairway more fine sand than chunky rock, you get chances at successful recoveries without ruining your clubs. Just ask Haase.

On the other side of Highway 285 is Towa Golf Club, which has a complicated history of openings and closings. At present, 27 of the planned 36 holes are open. Barring a major change in the effluent water supply, this is how life will stay. The course superintendent, Jimmy Rodriguez, dressed like a cowboy but speaking like a chemist, has a plan to revive the course to grandeur despite the unusually salty topsoil.

From what we saw, Rodriguez is close. And since the opening of the attached Hilton Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino in 2008, the course has become more stable. The greens were pure and the grassless patches in certain fairways were few--playable concessions for environmental sustainability.

Jointly designed by Hale Irwin and William Phillips, Towa maximizes panoramic views of the Pojoaque Valley while narrowing your concentration with tight demands off the tee. A common criticism of desert golf is that holes often blend together, but that's the fault of the cart, not the architect. Every Santa Fe course we played offered a walking rate, and it's funny how hoofing it distinctly burns a course's features into your mind.

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