Albuquerque Golf Trip, Days Three to Five (Last Man Standing Wins)

Day Three: Black Mesa

Day Three was the longest day on the golf trip. The alarm was set at 4:30 am for a 5 o'clock departure for Black Mesa Golf Club, which is about 25 minutes north of Santa Fe and an hour twenty minutes from our hotel in Albuquerque. Know many people willing to get up at 4:30 am to play golf? This is perfectly normal behavior for us.

Fortunately, Black Mesa is well worth it. We passed at least a dozen different casinos on the way up, until we reached the destination that can best be described as the middle of nowhere. The holes at Black Mesa carve around and between the mountains, and designer Baxter Spann did a great job utilizing the unique rock formations into the design. There is really nothing surrounding it. It feels like you are playing golf on the moon.

You will definitely enjoy the scenery but you may not enjoy the course as much the first time you play it. There are multiple blind shots and some holes that seem a little over the top at first. But you simply need to play it more than once. Black Mesa is one of those courses that just keeps getting better each time you play it (a la the Old Course at St. Andrews). You start to figure where to hit it (and more importantly where not to hit it) and where to bring your approach shots in to best attack the pin locations. The one complaint that I have against Paa-Ko Ridge is that the fairways and greens are too soft. The greens there are severe, but you can't really use the slopes on the approaches. Black Mesa plays firm and's very much like a links course that happens to sit in the mountains at 5,500 feet of elevation.

The nice thing about appreciating the course more as you play it is that your score will likely improve as well. The course seems brutally tough the first time, but it's downright user friendly upon a second look. The first round, it looked like I was headed for another disastrous day. I had multiple three jacks on the sloped greens (basically any time I was on the wrong slope it was an auto three putt). I gave a bunch of other strokes away and shot 87. The second round I shot a 75. Hard to believe it was the same guy.

Two rounds just wasn't enough. Jefe and I were determined to play more, so we jedi-mind tricked the guy in the pro shop to let us play another 18 for free. Jimbo wasn't thrilled with the decision made without him (apparently the first of many). He played great the first two rounds (79-77), but had hit his limit. He reluctantly played the front nine of the third round before bowing out. Jefe and I had decent rounds going so we left him at the clubhouse in a wake of dust as our cart peeled off for the 10th tee.

Something clicked with Jefe and he turned into a birdie machine. He was seemingly on the stick on every hole. He played well in the second round with four birdies, but was derailed with a desert-induced 10 on the 17th hole en route to a disappointing 82. He had five birdies in the third round, including some sweet redemption on the same 17th en route to a tidy 75. It was the start of something big for Jefe. He kept rolling 'em in, and my wallet kept getting lighter and lighter. I had implemented a bonus structure into the skins game, and it was definitely working against me.

All in all, it was a great day at Black Mesa. We were the first ones in the parking lot in the morning, even before the pro shop attendant. And everyone had already left for the day when we finished. Jefe and I probably could've squeezed another nine in before dark, but Jimbo would've likely disowned us.

First ones to arrive, last ones to leave

First tee at Black Mesa...blind tee shot

Looking back at the clubhouse from the first green

Jefe tracking Jimbo's tee shot from the perch on the 2nd tee

Really cool 2nd hole, a short par 4

First time I ever took a picture of a cart path

The short par 3 4th, hole set right of the base of the mountain. Very cool.

Another blind tee shot...this time it's the fifth hole

Par five sixth hole, with the driveable par 4 7th in the background

This is why we call him Jeferiano, after Seve. He's the king of recovery shots. Like Seve, he also shoots in the high 70's on a good day.

The aforementioned 7th hole. The only complaint was there was little room for a lay-up. Everything in the fairway slopes down into the bunkers right. Jimbo hit it into the same bunker three times (made bird from there the first time). From now on, call it the Jim Tang bunker.

Another cool little par 3, this one is the 11th.

The extreme uphill par 16th. In the third round, Jefe and I both drilled out drives the little chute where the fairway narrows to about 12 yards wide (shocking, I know). You can see a rainbow in the background.

Love the scale here. Jimbo walking up to the 16th green.

Day Four: Twin Warriors

In all fairness to Twin Warriors, I think we were all going through a little Paa-Ko and Black Mesa withdrawal. Whatever followed was doomed to pale in comparison. Twin Warriors is a desert course just north of Albuquerque, connected to a Hyatt resort. It's definitely not a typical resort course though, it plays at 7,700 yards from the tips and 7,300 from the next set up. At one point, it hosted a Nike Tour event or something like that, and it's easy to see why. The course is just big and mean. The front nine is mostly 450+ yard par 4's, and the challenge comes from having to hit long irons into big, rock hard greens. The front nine is a grind. I don't mind a challenge, but this was not exactly my idea of fun.

Plus, the front nine has two holes with the strangest design flaw I've ever seen on a quality golf course. Despite most of the holes on the course being very isolated, the sixth and seventh run parallel to each other with nothing but three deep bunkers in between. The sixth goes left of said bunkers with desert left. The seventh is a long dogleg left with desert left. However, the optimal line off the sixth tee is to bomb it over to the seventh fairway. The green angles right-to-left with a bunker front left. I took one look at the hole and the limited landing area on the left and took aim right over the bunkers. My drive went in the rough to the RIGHT of the right fairway, and I had a perfect opening to the green. On the seventh, you want to go left over the desert, but most golfers slice and bail right. We witnessed this first hand, as we had to duck for cover behind our carts when we were playing the sixth. It was like a shooting gallery on those two holes.

The back nine has a lot more variety and interest than the front, with a couple shorter par 4's to mix things up and some nice holes that play along the ridge of the rock formations. One ranger was quick to praise the stretch of 14-15-16 as three of the most beautiful holes in the state, but in all honesty it wasn't more visually spectacular than anything we saw the previous day. Twin Warriors is by far the most expensive course in the area, with an unlimited play rate of around $140. At that price, I don't know why anyone would pick it over Paa-Ko at $80.

We were fortunate to meet up with this guy Andy who I met through the discussion forums on (the definite site for all things having to do with golf course architecture, with participation by some of the top architects in the country). Anyways, Andy moved to Albuquerque at the beginning of the year from South Bend, IN. He keeps a course list and he loves the River Course at Blackwolf Run, so I knew right off the bat we would get along swimmingly. The only downside is that he went to Notre Dame, but I can let that one slide. Andy was barely keeping score and probably didn't play as well as he'd like, but it was clear that he was a pretty good player. On 18, he bombed a drive that had all of our jaws dropped...a laser about 320 dead into the wind.

I began the day with a birdie on the par 5 opening hole, but it was downhill from there. I had a bad case of the low duck hooks and bogeyed or double just about every hole on the front nine, shooting a 43 that had me questioning why I even left the state of Illinois. But after 10, I settled down and played the rest of the holes one under to come in with a 79. Jefe kept us his solid play and grinded out a 38 on the front, but had a disappointing 41 on the easier back nine to come in with the same number. Jimbo struggled with the length on the front but still played well, shooting a respectable 81.

We grabbed lunch and headed out for our second tee time at 1:20 PM. The course looked wide open so we relished the opportunity to burn around in three hours or less. And that appeared to be the case as we cruised through the first six holes in an hour or so. Jefe and I love speedy play and we were both cruising at one under at the time. Then we hit the Great Wall of China. We caught up to a twosome that was stuck behind two slow foursomes. There goes any semblance of rhythm and timing. I knew my round was doomed. We went from a 3 hour pace to a 5+ hour pace in a heartbeat. On the par 3 9th, it was at least 25 minutes before we got to hit our tee shots. I laid down in my cart and took a cat nap. At the turn, I even had time to go into the pro shop, plop down on the couch and watch about 15 minutes of the PGA Championship.

Later on in the round, we could see the rest of the back nine from an elevated tee box and determined the culprit was a foursome three groups ahead of us that was almost two full holes behind the group in front of them. I know you're wondering...where were the rangers? Aren't they the ones tasked with keeping the pace of play up? Well, the rangers were out there in full force. But I guess their responsibilities are limited to handing out cold towels, filling water jugs and filling divots with sand. When Jefe pressed the ranger on the 12th hole whether there was anything they could do to speedup play, his response was to hop in Jefe's cart, check out the GPS and say, 'You're not behind, your cart says you're 10 minutes ahead!' Of course, just three holes prior we were 27 minutes ahead, but apparently that was beyond his grasp. I tried to make it as clear as day for him, yelling 'It's taken an hour to play the last three holes!' His response: filling in more divots with sand. Just another chapter in Jefe's storied history of run-ins with rangers and starters (that morning, the old-timer on the first tee gave us his 8-minute scripted starter routine, including a very detailed description of the functionality of the GPS systems. The morale of the story is, whenever a starter asks 'have you played this course before?', just do yourself a favor and say 'Yes'.)

The slow play sapped what little fuel I had in the tank. I was basically going through the motions the last 12 holes, making bad bogeys on 7-10, 16 and 17. On 17, I hit a great drive in the fairway (amazingly, only my fifth fairway of the day) and had 76 yards left to the flag. I even took the time to measure it up with my laser rangefinder. But a funny thing happened between the time I got the yardage and made my swing. I swung my lob wedge like it was a full-swing shot (I hit my LW 115 yards). About half way through the swing, I said to myself, 'WAIT, IT'S ONLY 76 YARDS!!!' and tried to put the brakes on the downswing. The result...and 85 yard shot over the flag and over the green, leaving me with no chance at an up and down. This is what 10 hours in the sun will do to a guy stupid enough to wear a black shirt.

Thankfully, I managed to save par from the bunker on the last hole (sand saves...the only category I would lead for the week, simply because I probably had twice as many chances) to escape with a 77. Jefe mastered the front nine again, this time with a 36, then scrambled around the back nine to shoot an impressive 75. I don't know what's gotten into the guy. Jimbo was about as sapped as I was, but two birdies in a row on the back salvaged a 42-38 80.

With its unlimited play policy, our original itinerary called for 54 at Twin Warriors. But the agonizingly slow second round and the lackluster course made it an easy decision for us. None of us even considered teeing it up for a third round. When we pass up free golf, you know it's saying something.

Only documented proof that the three of us were in New Mexico on the 18th tee at Twin Warriors.

Day Five: Sandia

Saturday at Twin Warriors was moving day. Jefe managed to close the gap on Jimbo heading into the final round. In our cumulative mini-tournament, Jimbo's lead was trimmed from 10 down to 3 strokes. I'm embarrassed to admit that I was still 12 strokes back. But overnight, I had the number 67 in my head. In a feeble attempt to lift my spirits, Jimbo continually would tell me, 'Just wait. Sandia will be right up your alley. You're going to tear it up'. I even started to believe him. Sandia is definitely the easiest course on our itinerary. The fairways are wide and the slopes feed the ball back into play. Even though I've never shot better than 71, in the shower in the morning I was convinced that 67 was a realistic number.

And it looked like it might've been a possibility as I sat in the middle of the fairway only 70 yards from the hole. Right up until the point where I skulled my approach over the green and made bogey. The dream died a short while later after I bogeyed the second hole. By the fourth hole, there was nothing to do but go for birdies and work on swing changes, grasping for some shred of self-worth that would keep me playing the rest of the summer (and keep from withdrawing from the US Mid-Am Qualifier in three weeks). For the most part, I simply played the role of Flag Boy and tried to stay out of the way of the actual good golfers who made the trip.

Sandia is an okay, but at end of the day pretty unspectacular golf course. As mentioned, it's pretty wide open off the tee. The greens are even more rock hard than Twin Warriors (yet the fairways were soupy). The greens are pocked up with unfixed ball marks simply because the ball doesn't ever end up with 50 feet of where it lands, even with wedge or less. The highlight of the day was a rattlesnake that darted across the 13th fairway (and let out a nice rattle once provoked). Up until that point, I hadn't heeded my five-year old son's advice to watch out for rattlers and other poisonous lizards. We didn't think anything of going into the arroyo fishing for lost balls (no wonder we found so many). The next hole I hit my drive through the fairway and into the junk and after finding it, I couldn't pull the trigger on whacking it out. All I could think about was the snake that could be lurking behind the bush next to my right foot.

Do you mind if I play through?

As for the golf, there was simply no stopping Jefe. It took him awhile to get used to the firm greens, but once he got the speed down he was back to his old self. He shot 40 on the front to Jimbo's 41 to close the gap to two strokes with nine to play. But Jefe turned it up a notch, made the clutch par saves and closed with a couple of more birdies on the back. It got to the point where it was a shock when he didn't get up and down or make a putt.

140+ holes of grind began to wear on Jimbo, and in the end he was signing up for the same Stick-A-Fork-In-Me Support group that I had joined two hours earlier. If you find a pro V1 right in front of the greenside bunker on the 18th hole at Sandia, it's more than just a $4 golf ball. Jimbo left a piece of himself with that ball, and it represents the last shot he'd hit in 2007.

The trip ended quietly and fittingly, with a tap-in by Jefe for 75 and yet another sand save for par by me. In the end, the man in the ridiculous looking five-day old 'stache was the only one left standing. Jefe simply played better as the trip wore on, made the clutch shots and saves when he needed them most. Congratulations to Jefe, your 2007 New Mexico Invitational Champion. I'll be ready for Michigan next year.

The man in the moustache at the end of the trip. Your 2007 New Mexico Invitational Champion.


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