Call it a comeback.
Opened in 2002 to widespread acclaim, the yarn of Black Mesa Golf Club in northern New Mexico spins much like that of the game it purveys: highs, lows, ups, downs and an ultimate vision of finally finding the perfect swing.
Following a stated debut which saw the Baxter Spann design chart as the No. 1 “Best New Affordable Course” in 2003 by one major outlet, while another graced it among nation’s the “Top Ten You Can Play” in that same year, Black Mesa soon experienced some quarter-horsing.
“When we opened in 2002, we were at the top of the heap, with a lot of top national rankings to back it, and we stayed ranked in the top-100 for five or six years,” says Tom Velarde, head golf professional at Black Mesa. “At that point, we stared experiencing a bit of a decline in upkeep; things were happening that just weren’t good for the golf course.”
What such things? Well, considering the remote, desert setting, as one might imagine, water can be an issue.
“After being opened a dozen years, that (decline) manifested itself into the golf course being not very good at all,” continues Velarde, who has been at Black Mesa since its inception. “About five years ago, we lost water; we had maybe a hundred and twenty thousand gallons a night, and we need around 450-650. So we had less than a fifth of what we need; all we could basically do was keep the greens somewhat alive.”
In 2017, the Santa Clara Pueblo, on whose tribal land the course sits, endeavored reinvestment in the property, which included bringing on new staff.
“There were actually two separate water problems here,” details Aaron Sunderlin, hired as head golf course superintendent at Black Mesa in ’17 to help bring the course back to its one-time glory. “There was a considerable flood with the original well coming off the river, and that put the course behind. And then, the assumption was that the problem was solved with wells on the property, but those just didn’t produce enough water. So that brought us full-circle back to finding a good-quality water source down at the Rio Grande. That’s where we still stand today, and we work hard to make sure that water source is protected and cared for.”
The down years took Black Mesa to some dark places.
“We got the water system stable, and that, along with new staff, was the first big quantum leap,” Velarde continues. “But the story of this comeback is really a six-year timetable that began with the absolute worst decline you can imagine. At its lowest, I was the only one here and all we had in the fairway was dandelions; and the reason I didn’t cut those was because I didn’t want the topsoil to blow away.”
Concurrent to solving the water situation, a big part of Black Mesa’s re-ascent was creating a more playable spread. Sporting a mere 80 acres of turf, and idyllically-routed and carved around arroyos, ledges, mesas and rustic desert spread, the course’s original design landscape was further met with a whole host of mean fairway bunkering.
Hence, Black Mesa’s original (if not former) nickname, “The New Mexico Monster” — a moniker which undoubtedly proved apt for 20-handicap visitors or sticks having a bad day from the 7,307-yard tips.
Today, the Monster has mercifully fewer fangs, with more than 130 bunkers removed from the routing.
“Yeah, the bunkers outlined the course well and provided great sightlines, but we had so many bunkers here that keeping them in good condition was also an issue; once the wind blows, that sand is in Colorado or Texas,” says Velarde. “And, from a management standpoint, they also come with a lot of expense. So, all that considered, for us, it became a pretty easy choice to make them into (grass) hollows.”
And easier, or at least far more manageable, from the player’s perspective as well.
With peripheral rough grasses (hefty though they may be) in lieu of bunkering en masse, players now can attack and approach Black Mesa with a philosophy of natural camber. While sightlines prove skinny for the newcomer, the course’s superb borrow of the native topography allows for bumps and bounces to keep the player in-bounds from the box.
“The design from the tees, it looks narrow, but when you get out there you often find a lot more space than you thought,” details Velarde. “From about that 240-yard range from the tees, the fairways are really generous; after that distance, they start to neck down.”
Such necking leads to shot-making demands and studied mid-iron/wedge play toward sizable, albeit amply undulated greens.
“Approaches here can be demanding,” Velarde adds. “The more you play here, however, you learn that every hole, every green here has a backstop. You just need to learn where they are. If you’re a player who can flight the ball well from 150 out, you can score here.”
Supreme solitude at Black Mesa is met with year-round play.
“Where we’re situated, between the Jemez Mountains and the Sangre de Christos, the bad weather seems to pass over us. We have better weather than everything around us, every day,” Velarde says.
“And there’s also a lot of diversity in play. You can come to the course today, and it plays in a certain manner. Then you come back tomorrow, and the winds shifts five degrees and it’s a totally different animal. I’ve been here 20 years, and there’s only been a handful of times that I’ve played the exact same course. We’ve got 360-degree views, which means 360 degrees of wind, so, even with a slight breeze, it will come at you from every direction on a different day.”
Situated about 25 miles from New Mexico’s capital of Santa Fe, the Black Mesa setting (remote even by New Mexico standards) does sport nearby accommodation, with the tribe’s Santa Claran Hotel Casino just a few minutes away. While convenient (and offering a sports book), the modest lodgings may not suit the high-end traveler or multi-round Black Mesa visitor. Instead, guests may well want to explore the attractive dining, art and plaza-strolling spread of Santa Fe, which will likely provide a more inviting stay-and-play experience.
The region’s outdoor bounty finds ample compliment to a few days of golf.
“This a very diverse region: We’ve got diverse topography, diverse weather patterns and diverse amenities,” smiles Velarde. “You can come to New Mexico and go fish for trout, bass, catfish; for outdoors people, we’ve got hunters of elk, deer and turkey; you can ride horses, go parasailing, hike, hot air balloon; it’s just a great place to be outdoors. This is also one of the rare places where, if you come in January, you can ski in the morning (Ski Santa Fe and Taos Ski Valley) and play golf here in the afternoon. It’s a big, eclectic outdoor menu we’ve got here.”
Whatever the chosen activity to pair with a visit, the driven player should make Black Mesa the focus; following its down years, the course is now indeed on the come, swinging a true vibe as the Land of Enchantment.
“Black Mesa, it’s almost a spiritual place,” concludes Velarde. “I’ve been out here in the late afternoons, the setting sun, that perfect light…and it’s just an amazing place.”