Black Mesa Golf Club
Green Keeper: Pat Brockwell
There is much to be thankful for in modern architecture. Travel and money are such that courses are being built on remotepropertiesthat possessgreat naturalgolfing qualities. Sand Hills Golf Club was not practicalfifty years ago. Irrigation and new grasses make course construction feasible in spots never thought possible. Cabo de Solmight be the finest piece of property upon which the Nicklaus organization will work.
Desert golf has become popularand itstreeless environment open to the windshareskey elements with the game’s origins of links golf.Tom Doak’s Apache Stronghold, Gil Hanse’s Rustic Canyon and Coore & Crenshaw’s Talking Stick are perfect examples of classic architectural features being applied in a desert setting. Importantly, housing will never mar the golf at these three courses.
And in the spring of 2003, another sterling example opened in the New Mexico high desert. Once again an architect, in this case Baxter Spann of Houston-based Finger Dye Spann Golf Course Architects, has transposed an appreciation of classic architecturalconcepts uponthe altogether unique andstriking New Mexicolandscape.
The result is a most welcomeoriginal.Incorporating natural landforms where possible into the design, Spann’s ideal routing weaves in and aroundsandstone rock formations and arroyos. Witha local walking green feeof $40, the golfer is correctto assume that construction costsmust have been reasonable and such can only be the case whenthe architectworks with – as opposed to against – nature.
What are specific examples of Spann applying tried and true architectural tenets upon this fresh landscape? A review of the holes shows plenty of examples.
Holes to Note
First hole, 385 yards; The tell-all moment at Black Mesa occurs straightaway on the 1st tee. In front of the golfer is scant view of a fairway but he is told there is one and his tee ball shall find it provided he hits over the shoulder ofthe hill. Spann appreciates that some will crucify himfor havinga forced carry to a blind fairwayas the opening shot of the day yet he reasons the trade-offis worth it. Thereare only two gaps in a 1,600 yard long sandstone rock formation that bisects the property of the first nine. If he gets the golfer through this gap, a series of wonderful holesfrom the2nd through the 5th follow and he can return the golfer through the second gap at the 8th hole. Without doubt,Spann concludes this isthe best routing. Now the question is what should he do about the 1st tee ball? Destroy the hillside with the heavy machinery at his disposal and provide the golfer with a perfect view of the fairway? Yet,whydemolish a natural feature? The shot wouldn’t change; only the view.In the end, Spann leaves the hillside. Such a show of restraint is a welcome return to the core values held by the finestarchitectsof the first half of the 20th century who built courses reflective of their environment.
Second hole, 405 yards; One of the principles of classic design is to give the player room off the tee and tighten the challenge by the green complex. In this manner, more skill sets of players can enjoy the course. The 2nd fairway is amply wide for a hole of this lengthand plays to an elevated green set in a saddle. To miss the green left or right is problematic thanks to the natural defenses of the terrain. Of great interest is the false front where a ball can be on the green one moment andtwelve yards off the next. The green falls away behind as well and is not marred by mounds or back walls common atother ofNew Mexico’sfinest courses.
Third hole, 605 yards; The original routings didn’t venture the golfer into this portion of the property. Once it became clear the piece of property was indeed available, Spann jumped on itas it was rich withnatural features. Eventually,today’s 3rd, 4th and the back 5th tee were built. With a property as rugged as Black Mesa, the architect needs to balance finding challenging holes full of golf quality without overwhelming the player. Here at the 3rd, a natural high spot fifty yards beyond the 2nd green suggested itself for the tee and 560 yards further up, a gully made a fine natural defense for a green site. In part, the gully was ideal because at less than ten feet in depth, a recovery shot is possible (save for the occasional horrid lie) and Spann was conscious of ensuring that Black Mesa possessed plenty of short game interest/variety. Thus, the start and finish of the 3rd hole seemed natural enough. However, slashing across in the 330-400 yard range from the tee was a large arroyo. Should Spann leave it as is? In this particular case, having a blind forced carry early in the round followed by another one over a gully seemed asking too much from the golfer. Thus, Spann eventually made the in the field decision to smooth over the arroyo and grass in much of it. The 3rd remains a tough proposition requiring care on each of the three shots but at least most golfers will finish the hole with the same ball that they started!
Forth hole, 205 yards; Having found the 3rd hole, the 4thbecame evident. Standing on a ridge to the left of the 3rd green, Spann looked out 200 yards and saw a natural amphitheatre framedfar right bya 30 foot deep bowl and left by a 20 foot tall knob. Though fill was required to create a green site with good golfing qualities between these two pronounced landforms, the hole looks entirely natural.
Fifth hole, 495 yards; The best view that the golfer has from the elevated 5th tee is of the green nearly 500 yards away. Logically, the golfer likes to hit out directly toward the green and thus shorten his distance for his approach. And yet…that line requires a carry of over 270 yards to reach the fairway. Right of that and the carry grows to well over 320 yards. Ala some of thestakes found on links courses in the United Kingdom, a white flag on the near hillsideindicates thatthe prudent line is well left ofthe view of the 5th green. Max Behr wrote often about the merits of a line of charm and of an architect tempting the player into doing something that he shouldn’t. The 5th is a fine example of a returnto this concept within modern architecture.
Sixth hole, 565 yards; One of the benefits ofrugged property is thatslopes and landforms exist that kick balls in a varietyof directions, an attribute in keeping with the origins of links golf. And one of the challenges of a round at Black Mesa is that level lies are tough to find, another feature sought by architects who like to distinguish the player from the range jockey. Shaped like a right parenthesis as such ), the 6th bends left around the side of a rock formation. The pitch of the fairway and green is thus from left to right. Can the golfer going for the green draw his tee ball against the left to right slope and shorten the way home? On the 2nd shot, can the player not cut the ball too much with the ball below his feet? Several bunkers dot the way down the right of the fairway as one nears the green. The green itself is open front left and a skillfully played shot that comes in from the high left will bound onto the green from well back in the fairway.A course without ground game options is too limiting; indeed, the author firmly believes that a course cannot be great without ground game options and Spann evidently is one of the few modern architects who appreciate this fact.
Seventh hole, 355 yards; Some prefer a hole that is laid out before them with its (visible) hazardsdictating a clearway to playthehole. Forsuch people,modern courses built from the 1960s-1990s represent the height of architecture. Others view such holes as lacking in mystery as there is generally just one way to play them. Rather a hole like the 12th at The Old Course at St. Andrews is well nigh perfect and far more alluring as there is no ‘right’ way to play the hole. Neither laying up off the tee or trying to drive the green is necessarily the ‘smart’ play and such maddening indecision can undermine even the best (remember Tom Watson’s quick pull off the 12th tee in the last round of the 1984 Open at St. Andrews?). And such it is with the 7th at Black Mesa which features a bunker directly between the tee and green. The curved backbank of this bunker kicks balls sharply ahead toward the green as well as to the right where two other bunkers lurk and left where a miserable angle greets the golfer. This hole takes getting to know, alaudable trait.
Eighth hole, 240 yards; From the 7th green, the golfer hikes up the hillside through a gap in the sandstone and from the crest of the hill, the long one shot 8th unfolds. Though well downhill, the 8th requires a solid poke, especially when the prevailing wind blows up the canyon toward the golfer. Such lengthy one shotters are one of the few ways that an architect can make thetiger player hit long irons in this mile high plus altitude.
Ninth hole, 440 yards; Low profile features that hug the ground minimize the appearance of man altering nature. The bolder the man-made features, the more evident thatthe golferis playing in a manufactured enviroment. After the 9th tee ball clearsan arroyo, the remaining 250 yards of the hole areon the tamestpart of theproperty. And as the course is already full of dramatic features, Spann did not want to overwhelm the golfer and wisely kept the bunkers and green at ground level.