Week Two, New Mexico

“The Land of Enchantment” When you think of New Mexico, do the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque immediately come to mind? Until my recent visit to New Mexico on the second week of my 50-week, 50-state golf tour, those were the cities I immediately thought of. That’s changed. Now I think of Las Cruces and Elephant Butte, the two cities in New Mexico where I played golf on my tour. Las Cruces, located in southern New Mexico is the home to three of the four New Mexico courses I played...Sonoma Ranch, Red Hawk, and The New Mexico State University Golf Course. Sonoma Ranch, which has a 113 slope rating, is just under 6100 yards from the Whites. I played it in a steady 20-30 mile an hour wind which made for quite a challenging day of golf. The course’s rolling terrain, water hazards, and large undulating bent grass greens, combined with the wind, required some very controlled shots. Fortunately I played with Mike Elizalde, a Las Cruces local who knew the course. We had a fun time so we joined up and played the next two days together at Red Hawk and the New Mexico State course. I always enjoy playing golf with someone who is local and not only has course knowledge but knowledge of the area. Mike was that kind of guy. He not only knew the courses but seemed to know everyone. One of the reasons I found out was that he is co-owner of the very busy and well known sports bar/restaurant, Ump 88 Grill. Mike and his partner, Major League Umpire Doug Eddings, number 88...hence the name...took over an unsuccessful Irish Pub and turned it into a Las Cruces hot spot with a great atmosphere and specials every night. When Mike told me about his Taco Tuesday it reminded me of spending many a Tuesday night having tacos at my home course, Shadowridge Country Club in Vista, California. However, when Mike told me Ump 88 Grill served as many as 2,800 50 cent tacos each Tuesday, I had to see for myself. I arrived about 7:30 and Ump 88 was packed with lines of people waiting to get in and evidently had been that way since it opened before noon. The tacos were good, the fun atmosphere enjoyable and the mixed crowd of college students, families and groups of friends were fun to observe. The second course I played was Red Hawk, a new course that opened in October, 2011. Situated on 200 acres with 100 acres of turf, 50 acres of planted native grasses and 50 acres of natural desert, it’s a links style course with no trees, 76 large sand bunkers, and five lakes with water coming into play on eight holes. Like Sonoma Ranch, Red Hawk has rolling fairways and bent grass greens and with tees that range from 5500 to 7500 yards. It’s sure to gain the reputation as being a challenging but fun course for players of all skill levels. Both Sonoma Ranch and Red Hawk look out at the Organ Mountain Range so named because of the peaks that look like the pipes of a pipe organ. The surrounding desert, valleys and Organ Mountains produced scenic visuals which made for pleasant additions to my rounds of golf. My third golf game was played on the New Mexico State University Course which opened in 1963. It’s the home course for the New Mexico State “Aggies” men’s and women’s golf teams. The men’s team has been the Western Athletic Conference Champion four of the last five years. A number of top individual players including Rich Beem, Brad and Bart Bryant and Tom Bryum have played for New Mexico State which is one of only a few universities in the nation to offer the Professional Golf Management Program. The course is a parkland course with mature pine and oak trees lining most of the fairways. Although the fairways are fairly wide, the trees definitely come into play when you spray your shots. Because the fairway grass was dormant and tight when I played, I found that when I hit the fairways I got extra yardage on most of my tee shots. This will change when the fairways turn green and are softer. Putting on the course was somewhat easier that either Sonoma Ranch or Red Hawk as it has milder greens with fewer severe undulations. The course plays to just under 7100 yards from the tips but has four sets of tees to choose from so it very enjoyable course for golfers of all ages and skill levels. It’s a very popular course as it is quite reasonable, easily accessible, has an excellent modern club house and pro shop, and a very friendly and helpful staff. Thanks to the Las Cruces Convention and Tourist Bureau and the management of the Hotel Encanto, the three days I stayed in Las Cruces I was able to stay at the Hotel Encanto, southern New Mexico’s only AAA Diamond Hotel. The hotel is a member of the Heritage Hotels and Resorts with six hotels in New Mexico and one in Arizona. Each of them takes in the preservation of Southwest heritage and culture. I really liked the original photographs and the Southwest atmosphere at the Encanto. Staying there with its relaxed atmosphere certainly helped me enjoy Las Cruces. Following golf at New Mexico State’s course, I drove 85 miles north to Elephant Butte to play Sierra del Rio, the Jack Nicklaus course I had read about. Frankly as I was driving north I was thinking why am I doing this as I was way out in the middle of nowhere. When I arrived in Elephant Butte, population 1300, I again questioned myself. However, when I checked into the Elephant Butte Inn, my worries went away. Although it was an older motel, I found it and all of its staff very helpful, my room comfortable and the meals in the casual restaurant excellent. Once again I learned you can’t judge a book by its cover. When I played Sierra del Rio I found out it has been recognized by Golf Digest as one of the top 10 courses in New Mexico. I had a ball meeting and playing with a group of locals and out-of-towners from Ruidoso, home of Max Cowan the 2011 winner of the prestigious and almost world renowned Fagapo Invitational Golf Tournament. The course, located within the 1,000 plus acres of the Turtleback Mountain Resort, has five sets of tees. Players of all skills can be comfortable playing Sierra del Rio whether it be from the 5,060 yard silver tees or the black tees all the way back at a little over 7,300 yards. Playing from the Whites at 6,157 yards, which had a 132 slope, I found the course to be challenging because of elevation changes, desert gullies, and well protected greens even though it had wide receptive fairways and, for a Jack Nicklaus designed course, mild and puttable greens. On my last day in Elephant Butte, which is only minutes away from New Mexico’s largest recreational lake, I spoke to the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Legion about Wounded Warrior Project. It was like preaching to the choir. The ladies of the auxiliary have been recognized locally, state-wide and nationally for the outstanding work they do on behalf of veterans. Following my presentation, I filled up at the local gas station and headed east to Carlsbad on my way to Antonio, Texas. I stayed overnight in Carlsbad so I could visit the famous Carlsbad Cavern which is located about twenty miles West of Carlsbad. Glad I did. The Cavern is amazing. I took the Big Room Self-Guided Tour, one of eight tours available. After an elevator descent to the Underground Rest Area, some 800 feet below the surface, I spent an hour and a half walking 1.25 miles along a mostly level non-skid trail that winds through the cavern. I gawked at stalactites and stalagmites that began forming some 500,000 years ago. It was an incredible experience. After my walk, I got back in my car and headed for San Antonio, another day and a half and two tanks of gas away. It was a long boring drive. Week Two, New Mexico
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