Travelin’ Joe Don’t Know Albuquerque

There’s a great article every month in Golf Magazine called “Ask Travelin’ Joe” that I like to read and fantasize about traveling all over to play golf. This guy must have the best job on the world. Readers write in and ask Joe for recommendations for courses at their vacation destinations. In the article he briefly profiles a couple of courses in each location for them to try.

In the May 2009 issue a fellow by the name of Warren Dorn from Cincinnati asks for recommendations in Albuquerque, my home town. Warren already intends to play at Paa-ko Ridge and is looking for a couple more courses to try. Travelin’ Joe gives him three recommendations, but I only agree with two of them, so I thought I’d throw out some local knowledge.

First he suggests Twin Warriors which is a really fun course; picturesque and challenging. The PGA Club Pro Championship was played there a couple of years ago. It’s very well designed with lots of elevation change and interesting shots. Joe didn’t mention it but Twin Warriors is on the Santa Ana Pueblo land and is actually the second course built there. The original course is just called Santa Ana and has 27 holes. This is also an excellent course and consistently gets high rankings from various magazines. If you want to play more than 18 in a day you couldn’t go wrong playing all 45 between Twin Warriors and Santa Ana. Santa Ana is definitely a quality course with lots of challenge and interesting shots; if it has a fault it’s that it just isn’t as precisely manicured as the other courses in this article. Another nice thing about Santa Ana is the 5-star restaurant adjacent to the clubhouse called The Prairie Star. This is some of the finest dining in the area with an excellent wine cellar. It’s a great place to take your significant other for an anniversary, but it might be wasted on on your golfing buddies. I know it would be on mine.

Next he suggests Black Mesa up in EspaƱola. Now here’s where my beef is. For starters Black Mesa is 70 miles away from Albuquerque. Out here in the wide open West that qualifies as “in the area” but for you Easterners I doubt it really does. It’s about the same distance as from Cincinnati to either Louisville or Indianapolis. I don’t know; if you visited Cincinnati would you be willing to drive to Louisville or Indianapolis for a round? My next objection to this recommendation is that Black Mesa doesn’t really compare favorably to the other courses in the area. It is filled with blind shots, which are fine if you’re familiar with the course, but get really aggravating if it’s your first time. The are also several greens on the course that are just Putt-Putt silly. It is a good layout and a fun course, but it’s definitely not on my list of recommendations for courses in the “Albuquerque area”. For some reason Black Mesa keeps appearing on the lists of “Best 100 Courses in America” and “Best Courses You Can Play”. I don’t know why, it’s not merits, I’ll tell you that much. I once took a visiting friend, an avid well-traveled golfer, to play there and he had a miserable time. He spent the entire ride back to Albuquerque complaining about the ranking Black Mesa got in Golf Magazine. It’s a fine course, and quite challenging, but I’d really only recommend it to people who happen to be driving through EspaƱola.

Joe’s last recommendation was Sandia Golf Club on the North side of Albuquerque. Technically this course isn’t in Albuquerque; it’s on the Sandia Pueblo land which is better because it’s on the same property as a really nice hotel and casino. This’d be a great place to stay if you’re coming to visit Albuquerque and play golf. I just love this course too. The layout is just fantastic. Very unusual and challenging holes. This one is worth playing more than once on a visit. They have 5 tee boxes set up usually and the course plays very differently from the tips and the resort tees. Not just a different length, but different angles. This had to be a deliberate design feature, to allow people to play the course more than once, because they did a terrific job of it. This really is a fabulous course and well worth a visit.

Now, what should Joe have mentioned that he didn’t? The first course that comes to mind is the University of New Mexico Championship Course. Locally it is called UNM South to differentiate it from UNM North which is the former UNM championship course actually on the UNM main campus. UNM North was cut down to 9-holes to make room for new law and medical school buildings. Anyway, “South” is widely regarded by locals as the toughest public in the area. The NCAA frequently used to bring their tournaments here… until they decided it was too hard. I think it’s also got to be in the running for the best value for golf in the world. It’s a great course that’ll only run you about $50. Can’t beat that with a stick. Also, it is right next to the airport so if you’re flying in you could be playing some of the best golf in the area 5 minutes after getting your sticks from baggage claim.

The next one that occurs to me is Cochiti Golf Course on the Cochiti Pueblo to the North of Albuquerque. While this one isn’t in Albuquerque either it’s only about half way to Santa Fe, so it isn’t too bad a drive, and definitely worth it. This is another foothills type course like Paa-Ko Ridge. Cochiti deserves the ranking and attention that instead goes to Black Mesa for some reason. If you like Paa-ko, and who wouldn’t, you’ll like Cochiti too. It is a very picturesque location and the course layout is fantastic as well. This is one of my favorites.

Also deserving mention are the 27 holes at Isleta Eagle Golf Club. This one is a lot of fun. Each of the nines, Lakes, Mesa, and Arroyo, have a different character. A lot of the holes have rolling hills in the fairways which leads some challenging uneven lies. Lots of fun.

If you’re on a budget another high value proposition course in the area is our best munie, Arroyo Del Oso Golf Course. There are actually 27 holes there, but unlike the other 27 holers in the area, they don’t mix and match. There’s an 18 hole course, and the “Dam Nine”. The main course will run you about $25 (plus cart) and the Dam Nine half of that. Both of these are challenging and fun and well worth every penny. The atmosphere is a little “Andy Capp-ish”, if you know what I mean, but hey, it’s a munie! Gosh, that sounded snobby, didn’t it? No, really, these are both great courses. One fun loop us locals like to do is adding the Dam Nine to the 9 at UNM North. They’re both excellent and very different from each other. It makes for an interesting round.

In conclusion let me put it this way. I like to play a special round on my birthday. Courses that qualify are, in order of my preference, Paa-Ko (in my opinion the finest course in the country, but I may be biased), Sandia, Cochiti, Twin Warriors, UNM South, Santa Ana, and Isleta. There are about twenty more courses between Isleta and Black Mesa on my list.

Warren, I hope you enjoy you trip to my neck of the woods. We really do have some terrific golf out here (for cheap) with excellent weather most every day to boot. I don’t know why New Mexico doesn’t get more attention as a golf destination. I’ve played all over the country too and I’ve never gotten a better value anywhere than in New Mexico. You and your friends are wise to head out here.

Travelin’ Joe, next time you’re out in the Albuquerque area drop me a line. I’d love to give you the tour of the courses I mentioned and show you why I disagree with your recommendations. BTW, if you think I’m just some lone crank, do this. Call up any golf shop in the area, or the Sun Country PGA office. Don’t tell them who you are. Just ask them their opinion on Black Mesa and the other courses. You’re gonna’ get the same opinion. There is a commonly held local confusion over the whole Black Mesa thing.

Oh yeah, my last tip. If you’re a Costco member stop by the local Costco and pick up a $98 Paa-Ko ticket that includes lunch and a cart. It’s a pretty good discount.

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