ESPANOLA, N.M. ' Tucked in between the Sangre De Christo Mountains on one side and the Jemez Mountains on the other, there is no question the staggering grandeur of Black Mesa Golf Clubs natural setting commands the players attention. The desolate, wrinkled rose-colored mountains outside of Santa Fe are reminiscent of Turkeys fabled conical rocks of Cappadocia which reach reverently to Heaven. The Black Mesa itself, a tall cylindrical mountain of ash towers over the whole site.
Moreover, while most people think desert courses are just ribbons of fairway framed by saguaro cactus, Black Mesa has far more color and texture than many of its Arizona counterparts: sagebrush and the predominant deciduous cottonwood trees share the canvas with the bright reds of Indian paintbrush, the shimmering gold of chamisa, the noble purple of aster. Apache plume, warbonnet seedhead and many other species of high desert flora offer a deep texture and bright contrast to the desolate pink rock and the green of the Kentucky bluegrass fairways and creeping bentgrass greens.
But owner Eddie Peck and architect Baxter Spann wanted a strategic course with solid design principles as well and, indeed, this course has as much brains as beauty. Peck and Spann sometimes joke that Black Mesa is really Tobacco Road West for it was an impromptu visit by Spann to Mike Strantzs Carolina sandhills masterpiece that inspired Spann to go for broke, design outside the box, and ultimately build one of the three most critically important golf courses to open in our generation (the others are Bandon Dunes and Tobacco Road). (http://www.golfobserver.com/features/Flemma/FlemmaBlackmesa_091507.php).
Spann wrote in an interview with Ran Morrissett:
course, I had played Tobacco Road. I was blown away
by the dramatic features there and by some of the chances
Mike Strantz took on the design of that course. I also
knew that many felt that TR was over the top or overly
severe in many places, but to me it was not any more
severe than many of the great places in Ireland or Scotland
that are revered by everyone. There just havent been
enough guys who are willing to risk working on the edge
to create something that breaks away form the routine,
formulaic golf hole design patterns that have become so
prevalent in America. Tobacco Road slapped me in the
face and made me realize what wild and exciting golf holes
can result when conventional wisdom and traditional limits
are abandoned in favor of fresh creativity and vision.
Thankfully, for the game, Peck understood and embraced the same concepts. He allowed Spann a free hand to incorporate just a few blind or semi-blind shots and design heaving, contour-filled greens as the course meanders through, around and sometimes over the dramatic, bleak, jagged pink hills that tower over the high desert floor.
Amazingly, architect Baxter Spann only moved about 200,000 cubic yards of earth to build Black Mesa; and that includes greens, shaping, tee boxes and the practice area. Id say almost half of that was for the practice area chuckles course superintendent Pat Brockwell, the mild-mannered, caterpillar-moustached legend in greenskeeping circles who spent many years at Southern Hills, site of this years PGA Championship. Baxter was here more than 100 days walking the property reminisces Pat with a serene smile. All that time on property was pivotal in coming up with this intricate routing.
Spann accomplished three astounding feats while moving so little earth. First, the courses routing is outstanding: each hole looks completely different from every other, no two consecutive holes run in the same direction and all four par threes play to different points of the compass. Next, except for the twelfth hole, the bunkers are completely organic, with shapes following the existing grade of the terrain and designed as though there were blown out by the wind. Finally, Spann designed open routes to the greens and allowed the fast and firm conditions fostered by sandy soil to promote the ground game as well as the aerial game, providing more options for all skill levels.
Black Mesa is both visually intimidating and demands precision around the greens. (http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com/?p=764). In an age where the PGA Tour prefers oceanic, flat greens that could masquerade as helicopter landing pads, the adventure on any hole at Black Mesa only begins upon reaching the green; as Tiger Woods would say, they have elephants buried under them.
The character-filled contours are not merely fanciful whims, but echo the great design features of classic courses. The green on the par-3 eighth hole is a modified punchbowl. The kidney-shaped green of the par-4 14th has the same interior movement as the seventh hole at fabled Crystal Downs, the Northern Michigan masterpiece of Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell. Although it looks as though you need to chip the ball over the section of rough in the kidney shapes negative space to get from one end of the green to the other, the contours will actually filter a well planned and struck putt from one part of the green to the other. Finally, the alien-face shape of the par-5 sixteenth green calls to mind the fabled double plateau shape used frequently by architects Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor.
A second course designed by uber-architect Tom Doak is being routed as we go to press. (http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com/?p=1054).
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 260 nationally ranked public golf courses in 39 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer, Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan.