Santa Fe’s Tribal Courses Offer Enchanting Rounds
By Kim D. McHugh
In The Avengers, heroine Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) is simultaneously gorgeous and punishing. As I navigate Black Mesa, a tribal public course north of Santa Fe, I find myself assigning those characteristics to the tough, yet majestic layout. Woven into the high desert within the Santa Clara Pueblo, one of eight Northern Pueblos in New Mexico, Black Mesa reflects the handiwork of course architect Baxter Spann.
Of the three tribal golf courses in close proximity to Santa Fe (Towa Golf Club and Cochiti Golf Club are the others), Black Mesa is the most formidable. Long carries over unkempt native areas, ball-swallowing arroyos running tee-to-green, and treacherous bunkers remind me the course isn’t a pushover. Still, as intimidating as I make it sound, the 7,307-yard course does have a kinder, gentler side found in the white, green, and gold tee boxes. The most forward of these shrinks the course to 5,157 yards and does a good deal to vanquish the intimidation factor.
So enamored with Spann’s efforts LINKS said it was “one of the most spectacular courses anywhere.” Golf magazine placed it in its Top 100 Best Bang for Your Buck category and Golf Digest gave it “four stars out of five.”
But what’s especially cool about Black Mesa and other tribal courses is that being on tribal land provides is a significant benefit to the people of the pueblo. “Black Mesa does bring in outside dollars into the community,” said Pat Brockwell, course superintendent. “We are also pleased that the national recognition the golf course has received has cast a light on this beautiful area to a broader audience.”
At the heart of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, the Towa Golf Club layout is a stunner, providing golfers with panoramic vistas of the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains. A combination of three nines designed by Arizona’s William Phillips and by PGA Tour and Champions Tour great Hale Irwin, the 27 holes, though pretty as a cactus flower, can be prickly.
The Piñon 9 plays 3,575 yards from the tips and frames fairways and greens with indigenous piñon trees. Named for the amazing rock formations bordering its fairways and greens, the 3,578-yard Boulder 9 has an especially tricky hole in number four: the 186-yard par 3 is the only island green in New Mexico. Evident elevation changes boost the wow factor and challenge on these nines, as the rises, falls, carries, and slippery lies put even seasoned high-desert golfers to the test.
A third configuration, the Valley 9, opened in 2009 and plays 3,337 yards from the tips; an assortment of tricky doglegs and par 5s that open and close the nine, just as at the Piñon 9, make this track a psychological test as much as a physical one.
Located 12 miles north of Santa Fe’s main plaza, Towa is the centerpiece for the Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino, a pet-friendly Hilton resort that opened in 2008.
“Buffalo Thunder was chosen as the name because it is a symbol of spiritual strength for Native Americans,” explains Tribal Governor George Rivera.
Some 40 minutes southwest of Santa Fe you’ll find Cochiti Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Of five TripAdvisor.com reviews the 6,817-yard layout (5,100 from the forward tees) earned four five star ratings. Opened in 1981, the public course is located in the Pueblo de Cochiti, a sanctuary for wildlife that helped earn the course kudos from Golf Digest in 2008 as one of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.
Similar to its counterparts north of Santa Fe, Cochiti showcases panoramic views of the high desert and, with its setting in the foothills of the Jemez Mountains, introduces more undulation and elevation changes in its fairways and greens on the back nine, but the front nine is fairly flat. Holes 4, 10, and 18 have water hazards, though the horseshoe-shaped pond fronting 10 and two ponds to carry on 18 are the most nerve-racking from the tee box.
Playing 525 yards and 565 yards from the tips respectively, Hole 1 and Hole 5 on the front can be daunting. The 530-yard 13th and 560-yard 17th keep players focused on hitting a long drive and solid second shot. Two par 3s on both nines present great birdie opportunities if the longer holes steal a shot or two from your scorecard.
But, similar to the other Santa Fe–area pueblo courses, the challenge of the golf is matched, if not surpassed, by the beauty of the surroundings.
Whether on a tee box, in the middle of a fairway, or on a green, I feel as if I’m watching a GoPro helmet-cam video. Sandy hillsides are peppered with juniper, piñon, cactus, and wildflowers. The contrast of blue sky against towering sandstone hogbacks and iridescent green fairways creates a surreal effect. Combine your rounds with a generous helping of local cultural events, New Mexican cuisine and heritage, and you’ll head home satisfied.
Santa Fe is about a six-hour drive from Denver, either straight down I-25 or down I-25, then west from Walsenburg over La Veta Pass, which takes you through Taos. For those flying into Albuquerque, it is just over an hour’s drive north.
Black Mesa Golf Club – Greens fees for 18 holes range from $62 to $87, including a cart. Walk and you’ll save $20 playing 18; 9 hole play isn’t available on weekends. Stay & Play packages start from $142. 505-747-8946, www.blackmesagolfclub.com
Towa Golf Club – Greens fees for 18 holes range from $49 to $79, including a cart. Stay & Play packages are available. Purchase a Towa Card and receive discounts. 505-455-9000, www.buffalothunderresort.com
Cochiti Golf Club – Greens fees for 18 holes range from $33 to $51; cart fee for 18 holes is $17. 505-465-2239, www.cochitigolfclub.com.
Golf on the Santa Fe Trail represents eight courses, from Isleta and “the Monster,” the University of New Mexico’s course south of Albuquerque; to Sandia, Paa-Ko Ridge, Santa Ana, and Twin Warriors north and west of Albuquerque; to Towa and Black Mesa near Santa Fe. Golf travel packages are on GTSFT’s website, www.golfonthesantafetrail.com.
Check out New Mexico’s courses here: www.newmexico.org/golf.