Black Mesa Golf Club
Tenth hole, 455 yards; From the first time that he walked the property in the fall of 1998, Spann knew he would keep the tee ball between two rock forms to a natural saddle fairway as part of any final routing. The green slopes left to right and runs away from the player ala a reverse redan.
Eleventh hole, 170 yards; In an ideal routing, the architect takes the golfer to the most visually appealing parts of the property. In that manner, the golfer is made all the more aware of the beauty that surrounds him, surely a good thing.
Twelfth hole, 405 yards; While beauty without strategy remains beautiful by definition, for the golfer, it becomes less engaging with time if there is nothing to accomplish. And a trademark of every classic course is that it beckons the golfer for a return game with strategy being crucial in luring the golfer back. And one of the most tried and true strategic elements is the diagonal carry whereby each golfer can pick his or her correct line based on ability and the day’s playing conditions. The first photograph in this course profile captures the angles that the each player has to consider off the 12th tee.
Thirteenth hole, 590 yards; Some properties have a homogeneous feel and are none the worse for it with prime examples being Walton Heath Old, Hidden Creek, Pinehurst No. 2 and Sand Hills. However, other properties are more diverse and the architect takes delight in introducing the golfer to such different parts. Prime examples include Cypress Point, Friar’s Head, The Creek Club and Cape Breton Highlands. In the case of Black Mesa, it belongs more with the later than the former and the thirteenth is a fine example of a graceful shift to a different look.
Fourteenth hole, 340 yards; Central hazards area crucial tenet of good design. Hazards that lie between the golfer and the hole must be dealt with and thus lend holes strategic interest. A nice attribute of a central hazard can be that a golfer that successfully challenges it will get handsomely rewarded. As off the seventh tee, if the golfer can clear a central hazard in the right center of the fairway, his tee ball should land on the downslope of a knob and be propelled close and perhaps onto the putting surface. In the case of the sandy scrubby area in the fourteenth fairway, Spann actually shaved off a bit of the ridge to give the golfer a better view of the green, a scant 320 yards away. Spann’s hope is to goad the modern power player into having a go at the green as that’s when the fun begins given that the green may be the most severe on the course.
Fifteenth hole, 215 yards; The man-made water hazard twenty yards right of the green is the most modern feature and is out of context with the rest of the course. However, as with most one shotters, the green is the key. By now in the round, the first time golfer might be making some assumptions. Seeing the two hundred foot sandstone formation left and the general left to right flow of the land away from it, he can rightfully conclude that the green will follow nature’s lead and slope from left to right. In fact, a spine running toward the golfer further exacerbates the ground’s slope and creates a distinctive higher left and lower right side to the green. Yet, Spann is quick to point out that the contours function well together and a putt hit from the top left tier to the back of the green can find a cut in the spine and finish close to many of the back lower right hole locations.
Sixteenth hole, 535 yards; Climbing up a relatively narrow canyon, the sixteenth was always going to be severe as the landform that it occupies narrows to less than twenty yards in two spots. A tough grueling two shotter could have been placed here but such a hole would have been unmerciful. Spann felt better served by keeping the hole within reach of the average player. Initially, he considered a short two shotter with a long one shotter to follow but the prior two were better such holes. In an effort to add variety, a reachable three shotter fit in well. If the golfer keeps his wits, he can progress up the fairway without undue trouble but the penalties are severe for the greedy golfer who forces the issue.
Seventeenth hole, 425 yards; One of the shames of modern architecture is how man’s heavy hand wipes away the interesting random contours found in nature. Not so at the seventeenth where its lumpy-bumpy fairway reflects the initial property. Also, the skyline green is most attractive, with skyline greens in general having a storied place in golf architecture highlighted by the Eden hole at St. Andrews. With no framing or backdrop to comfort the golfer or aid in depth perception, the approach to such greens is particularly nervy.
Eighteenth hole, 430 yards; As at the second, fifth and twelfth, another appealing diagonal carry greets the golfer from the back markers on the Home hole. Further ahead, the green contours are virtually as Spann found them when he first walked the property. The construction team of Ortiz Earthscapes carefully preserved these interior contours and the Home green caps off a diverse set of eighteen greens rich with character. The architect could have easily had eighteen mundane putting surfaces, figuring that the golfer would hardly notice given the stunning scenery. Yet, given that greens are the ultimate target, to do so undermines the lasting appeal of any course. In fact, so good are the greens at Black Mesa, they deserve equal billing with the routing as the star of the design.
What conclusions can be drawn from a review of the eighteen holes at Black Mesa? Certainly, one is that classic architectural features abound with the twist being the stunning New Mexico setting and the unique landforms. As Spann modestly notes,
A site like that has a way of making everyone look good. But I can say this, in hindsight, I would not have wanted to touch that property without having had that 25 years experience under my belt already. I think it really is true that you have to ‘pay your dues’ in this profession – at least it is for me. You have to make a lot of mistakes to learn this art, but your mistakes are not on a canvas that you can wad up and throw away if it doesn’t come out right. And this land was too precious to make any blunders with – hopefully we did right by it.
Get it right he did and this form of high quality, affordable golf is a very exciting development for golf in New Mexico and indeed for the game in general. Additional such opportunities must surely exist in such states as Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. One can only hope that Baxter Spann gets many more opportunities to work on such projects – his approach of working with the land leaves the ownership a cost effective end product and the golfer will delight in trying to solve the strategic challenges for decades to come.
Though a heavily tree-lined Oak Hill might epitomize ‘championship’ golf as it held the pros in check during the 2003 PGA Championship, such style golf is well removed from golf’s origins where trees played no role. The links courses obviously didn’t possess trees nor did the heath courses. And neither do desert courses like Black Mesa.
As the game crossed the Atlantic, men like Leeds at Myopia Hunt, Fownes at Oakmont, Macdonald at both National Golf Club of America and Chicago Golf Club, Emmit/Travis at Garden City Golf Club and Wilson at Merion had trees completely removed or at the very least kept well back from play. Trees reduce playing angles by narrowing the playing corridors, provide definition, and block the wind – all three characteristics of no appeal to these architects.
Indeed, the world’s first great courses like Fowler’s Walton Heath in England and Macdonald’s National Links were open and expansive. The Old Course at St. Andrews that is considered a strategic marvel to this day didn’t become so until Old Tom Morris markedly widened its fairways. Such courses marked a sharp departure from the cramped, symmetric designs of the 1880s and 1890s.
Yet, as golf in the United States progressed inland in the first decade of the 20th century, many heretobefore features that were considered crucial for an ideal course were lost: wind became less of a factor; as clay replaced sandy soil, the need for built-up green complexes for drainage arose with an unintended result being that the aerial game took hold; the natural landforms became less pronounced and unique; and finally over time, green committees planted hundreds upon hundreds of trees with the negative effects as already mentioned above.
In an ironic twist, in the southwest part of theUnited States where the great past master architects never had the genuine opportunity to work, several modern day architects are working with properties that reverse some of the above. This is indeed an exciting time for modern architecture, as a tour around Baxter Spann’s work at Black Mesa exemplifies.