I had a dilemma for this year’s Product of the Year for “Best Golf Course” award. This award goes to the best course I’ve played/reviewed in the previous calendar year. Typically the award is an easy one to choose, like last year’s winner Cruden Bay, in Scotland. This year’s award came down to the two best courses I played, The Loop at Forest Dunes and Punta Espada Golf Club in the Dominican republic. They’re both so different and have such different unique qualities that I couldn’t find a way to leave either one out of receiving an award. So what was my solution for this problem? Create a special award for this year which falls in the Golf Course Architecture category. This year’s winner for Product of the Year in Golf Course Architecture is… the envelope please…
The Loop at Forest Dunes, Michigan
One of my most favorite golf architects is Tom Doak. Doak is one of the most respected and famous course designers of the modern era, and he’s a bit of a mad scientist. The first Doak course I played was Stone Wall in Pennsylvania a long time ago. I loved the rugged, minimalist design and the fact that I had to play creative shots to get the ball close to the hole. Sometimes hitting a green meant aiming 20 yards left of it, or short. A few years later I had the pleasure of playing the Doak designed Ballyneal in a remote rural area in eastern Colorado on the Nebraska border. What an experience.
Years later and many Doak courses later in 2017 I played the newly opened “reversible” course in Forest Dunes, Michigan called “The Loop.” The Loop is two 18-hole courses, the Red and the Black course, but one set of 18 physical golf holes. What a fantastic and special experience.
The reversible holes were extremely interesting and ingenious. While playing one direction the player sees a certain look from the tee, and certain hazards, bunkers and sight lines. When playing the other direction the hole looks nothing like it’s opposite. Those bunkers and features which appeared going the opposite direction are completely different, and often not even visible. Instead, a new set of bunkers, features, and sight lines is presented to the player.
Hats Offf to Tom Doak and Forest Dunes
I salute Tom Doak for executing an amazing concept which had yet to be done in the U.S.A. I suspect we’ll see more reversible courses, or courses with interchangeable holes. It’s a great way to use one piece of land to offer many different playing options. And hats off to Forest Dunes for pulling the trigger as well. What an effort. I can’t wait to get back for a 2nd round on both courses!
Playing the Red and the Black was literally playing two different courses, each with its own personality and style. And they’re two very good golf courses to boot! Truly amazing and worthy of a special Hooked on Golf Blog Golf Architecture Product of the Year award.
In an 18 hour period I played 36 holes on two golf different golf courses that were the same golf course. Sound confusing? I played the Red and Black courses which comprise Forest Dunes’ “The Loop.”
The Loop is a new course which was designed by golf architecture genius Tom Doak. It is one of three courses at Forest Dunes, in northern Michigan. The Loops is an 18 hole, par-70 course which plays one direction one day, and the opposite direction the next.
This reversible course quite a feat of engineering and creativity on the part of Doak, and I anticipate more and more golf courses will be doing this in the future. Two courses, same acreage.
I’m still mentally processing my rounds on the Loop for a future full blown review after I return from this current World Tour event in Michigan. Stay tuned. If you have questions about The Loop and/or Forest Dunes, let me know.
When I used to think of New Mexico a few things came to mind. I’d think of nuclear testing and Indian reservations. I’d mostly think of Roswell, where the alien ship crashed in 1947. Golf certainly wasn’t on the radar, alien or domestic.
No longer do I think of aliens when I considering New Mexico (barring a certain alien face which I’ll mention later). Now the first thing that comes to mind is Black Mesa Golf Club in the town of La Mesilla, 30 minutes from Santa Fe.
Black Mesa’s architect is Baxter Spann, newest member of my exclusive “favorite golf course architects” list. This is a tough list to get on, since Tom Doak is the only other guy on the list.
I’m a big fan of courses whose designs fit the terrain. I’m not as big a fan of the “Earth mover” designs, who’s engineers seem to ignore the natural contours of the landscape and force their vision with tractors and dump trucks. Black Mesa’s native New Mexico desert terrain is a dream landscape which Baxter Spann brilliantly utilized and complimented. Black Mesa is a visual orgasm from virtually any point on the course, tee-fairway-green.
Not just your average set of tees
Many boring golf courses have one or two teeing areas where they place their multiple tee markers. The only difference between the markers is yardage, not angles or elevation. How many courses have you played with one tee box and three or four sets of tee markers who’s only difference is a few yards? Boring!
Black Mesa’s FIVE tees are far from boring. Each hole has several different tee areas which are not only different distances, they’re completely different angles and elevations. By playing different tees from one round to the next, you could be playing what seems like an entirely different course. Playing different tees makes all the angles to the fairway, or greens on par-3’s, different.
The par-3 fourth hole is a great example (see picture below). The black tee measures out at roughly 205-210 yards and has an elevated attack angle where you can see most of the green. The lower blue tee (or possibly an alternate for the black tee) is a good 40 yards left of 210 tee and is at about 175 yards. That 40 yard left difference is huge, since the angle of attack from there makes the back half of the green blind due to a conical badlands hill in front. A back left pin would be hidden from that angle.
Most of the holes at Black Mesa have these wonderful tee variations. For instance, the first hole provides a blind shot from the blue and black tees over a badlands hill. You need to use the aiming flag or the signal bunkers to align your shot. Yet if you move up to the front tees, you can see almost all of the fairway.
Black Mesa’s fairways aren’t what I’d call tight. The landing areas are fairly wide, or at least they look wide when you’re standing ON them. The fairways don’t look that wide from the tee however. The visual effect of the fairway shaping, combined with the fairway bunkering and adjacent badlands makes them look very slim. There’s a real mental game you can play with yourself on each tee. You can try to decide just how much of the dogleg to cut off, knowing that an errant shot may result in a cactus sandwich or at worst a lost ball.
Black Mesa’s fairway and green-side bunkers are rugged, ragged, rigorous and down-right rude! I’m a big fan of making bunkers actual hazards, like they’re supposed to be. Many golf courses make their bunkers too pristine and pretty. The lies are too sweet. On the PGA Tour these bunkers can actually be easier to play out of than the surrounding rough.
At Black Mesa the native grasses and plants can be found growing right into the rough edges of the bunkers. The grass around the bunkers is longer and more punishing than the rough. The bunkers are not unfair, but they do penalize bad shots which find them and bad shots made in an attempt to vacate them.
Like the tee areas at Black Mesa, the approaches of the greens present many options for the player. Many different, yet well executed shot selections may result in equally rewarding results. Most of the approaches allow the player to choose to fly it, run it or even putt it onto the green. The hills in and around the greens provide many attack angles for the player to bounce or deflect shots to the correct green location.
Some approach angles force the approach issue into the air via green-side bunkers, grass bunkers, hazards or badland areas. If you hit the wrong part of the fairway your positioning may dictate the type of approach shot you’ll need to hit.
Remember the aforementioned boring golf courses? They’re also the ones with flat, round greens. You won’t find any of that at Black Mesa. All of the greens at Black Mesa are uniquely shaped and contoured. The fringes and hills around the greens also provide contours and shaping while still being one with the terrain.
Putting on the greens at Black Mesa is a blast. The many humps, bumps and bowls provide a creative putter and short game player with a ton of shot and line options. Some hole locations can be reached by going at several different angles with your putt or chip, and letting the lay of the green and gravity work the ball.
Though the greens at Black Mesa are large and have a myriad of breaks, they’re not unfair. A skilled player could place a shot to the correct section of the green and have a great shot at birdie.
I mentioned an alien face in my introduction. My pal Jay has said, and I’d have to agree, the 16th green is the “alien face” green. Looking at this green from a distance you can really see an alien face. Check the picture above, looking down from the top of the alien’s head. Perhaps this is some sort of alien version of Stonehenge looking up at the sky to signal the next coming of an alien ship to New Mexico?
I stood on the bridge of the alien face nose and dropped golf balls, rotating 3-4 feet. Just a 3-4 foot difference in where a ball started rolling, sent them rolling for dozens of feet in many different directions.
Playing the course
Unfortunately my game was in a bit of a shambles when I played Black Mesa. My normally deadly accurate driving suddenly turned into a deadly hook. Plus, I had a hard time concentrating on hitting decent golf shots because I was so busy admiring the course and the terrain. I shot 120 pictures on the first day alone, during my round!
I found myself in the badlands quite often, but surprisingly I found my ball every time. In fact, I played with the same ball the whole first 18. That would change on day two, when 30-40mph winds kicked up.
I had a blast playing the black tees on my first round and didn’t find the course to be over-the-top long at a little over 7300 yards. Keep in mind that Black Mesa is over 5000 feet above sea level and has dry air. The ball flies. 300 yard drives are not uncommon. I did have to hit a driver on the 238 yard par-3 8th hole though, as a strong wind was shooting right up the canyon.
I loved the amazing views from the elevated tees. Many tees were at the tops of badland hills or mesas and you could see for miles in every direction.
The contours of the fairways and greens presented me with a ton of opportunities for fun shots. If I got careless I’d pay the price by missing the green and having a tough bunker shot or up-and-down from a collection area.
The putting greens at Black Mesa are amazingly fun. With all the contours (like the alien face), a creative putter could have a great time playing breaks and utilizing the hills on and around the putting surface. On a couple of holes I actually putted my approach putt OFF the green, up a hill and back onto the green, leaving myself a tap-in 2nd putt!
I managed a 41/41 round of 82 on this par 72 layout for my tipped-out first round. Normally an 82 for me is pretty bad. But in this case, not knowing the course layout is a huge disadvantage and I was moderately happy. On many shots I had no idea where to go or even where the fairway was unless I drove past the badland hills blocking my view. The more course knowledge here the better.
On the 2nd day, the winds were furious and it was cold. I played the blue tees and was enjoying getting a completely different flavor and look than I’d gotten from the blacks the day before. The 30-40mph cold winds beat me down pretty bad though and I shot about a million. I eventually stopped keeping score and focused on enjoying the layout and the New Mexico surroundings.
I fully intend to make many trips back to Black Mesa to see what I can really shoot if I play my A-game.
No snooty attitude. No gaudy, mammoth clubhouse. The clubhouse/proshop is comfortably functional, with nicely stocked Black Mesa apparel and equipment. Some of that apparel now has a new home in my closet. The cafe is a nice A-frame with a comfortable lounge upstairs. The cafe’s food selections are wonderful. I devoured several of them. Many of the items on the menu are good old Southwest family recipies.
The practice facilities at Black Mesa are superb. There’s a full driving range and practice green. Best of all, there’s a short game area with a green and those signature awesome Black Mesa style bunkers.
My pal and owner Eddie Peck is the coolest. I’ve had the pleasure of playing a bunch of golf with Eddie over the last year. Eddie is a great guy who loves golf and is living the dream (sometimes nightmare) of owning a golf course. He’s passionate about the game, it’s nuances and his golf course.
If simply practicing isn’t enough and you need a lesson or two, Black Mesa’s pro Tom Velarde will take care of you. I played some golf with Tom and he’s a heck of a cool cat. I asked Tom for some pointers but after looking at my “granny over-the-top epileptic seizure on crack reverse pivot” swing, he told me he was thinking of retiring…. Just kidding.
Pat Brockwell is Black Mesa’s superintendent. Pat has a very mellow, calm personality. Don’t let his calm demeanor fool you though. Pat is passionate about his work and about keeping Black Mesa in tip top condition. I befriended Pat quickly and we chatted about the course and golf course maintenance for an extended period of time. Our conversations went from Poanua to skiing. Pat is also a skilled skier and he and I will be hitting the slopes here in Salt Lake.
Black Mesa has more trophies and awards than the people who play there
Standing in the cafe, you can see dozens of awards and magazine articles hanging on the wall. Here are a few:
Top 100 You Can Play at No. 47
Top 100 Best Bang For Your Buck at No. 25
Top Thrifty 50 at No. 11
2003 Top Ten You Can Play
2006 Top 100 Modern (post-1960) Courses at No. 62
2003 Best New Affordable Public Course
T + L Golf
Four and a Half Stars (out of five)
Editor’s Pick: Top U.S. Golf Courses
Perhaps I need to come up with a Hooked On Golf Blog award system so I can get my pals at Black Mesa to put my award in their list… I’ll work on that.
Off the course
I’ve got plans of doing a few more articles on other things to do in the artsy Santa Fe area. I had the pleasure of staying at The Bishop’s Lodge and touring around downtown Santa Fe. I had some great meals at Santa Fe’s Tamasitos mexican restaurant and the Black Mesa Steak House located in the Santa Clara Pueblo’s Big Rock Casino. Stay tuned for more on these later.
Black Mesa Photo Gallery
Check out the over 300 photos of Black Mesa located in the Hooked On Golf Blog Black Mesa Gallery.
Black Mesa is a “must play” course. It’s a wonderful golf experience all around. The course design, routing and scenery are stunning. The course is fair and fun to play, if you can keep from dropping your jaw on every shot due to the amazing design and landscape.
Black Mesa doesn’t kick your butt and send you home humiliated. It kicks your butt and sends you home with a smile on your face.
Ballyneal is a private golf club located a few minutes from Holyoke Colorado. Ballyneal opened in September 2006 and I was privileged to play the course before it officially opened. Holyoke is a very small town in North Eastern Colorado, roughly 12 miles from the Colorado/Nebraska border. You would never be able to find Ballyneal if you were simply passing through the town of Holyoke and wanted to stop by. To get there you need to drive about 15-20 miles through a maze of dirt farming roads which provide farmers access to the thousands of acres of cornfields in the area. You’d have an easier time finding the course if you chartered a small helicopter.
Designed by Tom Doak
Ballyneal was designed by my new favorite golf course designer: Tom Doak. Tom Doak is probably most famous for his design at Pacific Dunes in Oregon. I have yet to play Pacific Dunes, but since I’ve experienced Ballyneal it’s at the top of my golf course to-do list.
After doing a little research on Doak my ranking was solidified even more when I found out he designed one of my all time favorite courses: Stonewall in Elverson Pennsylvania. Stonewall is an amazing course and has the dubious distinction of bringing my game to it’s knees worse than any other course has.