Water-driven turnaround

Returning a stunning New Mexico course to its lofty status started by correcting issues with wells, pipes and pumps.

© judd Spicer

The time has come to meet your mesa.

All over again.

Nearing a 20-year anniversary since its celebrated debut, Black Mesa Golf Club in northern New Mexico is enjoying a rebirth after flooding and well issues saw the unique, attractive grounds hit a serious O.B. hook in both narrative and playing conditions.

Yet, amid the solitude of the scene’s natural ledges, arroyos and desertscape, the course is rising anew. New Mexico, a state with just over 2 million people — and flanked by golf-rich Arizona to its west and Texas to the east — is no doubt hoping for a rank rally. The state supports 76 golf facilities, according to the National Golf Foundation. Only six states have fewer.

Compliments of a reinvestment in the grounds from Santa Clara Pueblo tribal ownership, reworked irrigation logistics and an energized superintendent looking for a fresh test, Black Mesa is on the rebound. “It posed a challenge, but that’s where I was at, what I was looking for in my career — a challenge with great potential,” says Aaron Sunderlin, who accepted the superintendent gig at Black Mesa in 2017.

Upon Sunderlin’s arrival, he received the challenge he was seeking, as Black Mesa’s water issues had taken the course from Rising Star to Aging Afterthought in a mere decade-plus of existence.

Aaron Sunderlin has led Black Mesa’s turf team since 2017.
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“There were actually two separate water problems here,” he says. “There was a considerable flood with the original well coming off the river, and that put the course behind. And then, the assumption was that the problem was solved with wells on the property, but those just didn’t produce enough water. So that brought us full circle back to finding a good-quality water source down at the Rio Grande. That’s where we stand today, and we work hard to make sure that water source is protected and cared for.”

Originally, Black Mesa, located 25 miles outside the capital city of Santa Fe, used to have two seed ponds from the river. The course now irrigates via what are basically a pair of artesian wells — one a filter catch that feeds into the second, which provides a fast enough recharge for the course.

A lone member of Black Mesa’s original team remains, able to recall the grounds’ tale of debut, descent and comeback.

“Our water lines come up from the Rio Grande through this dry arroyo; and the arroyo, through the years, didn't get enough rain and so it turns over,” says Tom Velarde, head golf professional at Black Mesa, where he’s worked since 2002. “And when it turns over, all the piping comes up and you have to get in there with an excavator and trench back in. So, when it happened the last time — even though it wasn’t anything new or different — we found out that nobody had ever received permission to do that. That began a whole timetable of getting permits, which took well over a year. But, in that interim, we had an engineering firm come in to design a pipeline, and now we’ve got a stable water source.”

Motivated and financed to stave off a “What was” label, Black Mesa regained footing, step by step.

“The original plan, it wasn’t a bad plan. I think we have a similar design. But they just had the terrible flood down at the river, which wiped out everything,” Sunderlin adds. “It was very traumatic, but the tribe has stepped up and put the proper resources in place. The first summer I was here, in 2018, we put in the new pump station on the golf course. Below the lake on No. 1, those are my irrigation lakes, which was a necessary irrigation update as a lot of the components of that (former) pump station were obsolete.”

Sporting but 80 acres of turf, the agronomic comeback has worked in-swing with a reimagining of the original Baxter Spann design. Aptly considered — and marketed as — a “Monster” in its inception and maiden years, Black Mesa has come back with a more playable mindset.

To wit: Gone are approximately 130 bunkers that initially lined fairways. Though a pleasing photographic aesthetic with tall, wispy grass framings, the bunker-laden routing also led to five-plus hour rounds for mid-handicappers.

“Its acres of bunkering we’ve removed,” Sunderlin says of what now essentially play as grass bunkers. “The original design was incredibly beautiful and the architect did a great job, but as decades have passed, things change, philosophies change and I think the product we have now is fantastic. And with a lot of these bunker grow-ins, we had to put in new drainage in the bottom, as they were kind of a natural catch.”

Peering quietly across the attractive terrain, Sunderlin highlights the changes on the top-handicapped, 603-yard par-5 third hole, which once had bunkering all along its right side.

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“The original design, for the 20-handicapper … this course was originally thought of as ‘The New Mexico Monster.’ That, of course, was when ‘Tiger-Proofing’ was around, and things were built challenging and beautifully for the really good golfer,” Sunderlin says. “But where we’re at in golf right now, I think we just want people to come out, have fun, not spend the whole day playing from the trouble. We’ve improved both the speed of play and the playability of the course. And we still have a great test out here. Every hole still has multiple bunkers and there were some bunkers I added back in for depth, so the course still retains the original design concepts.”

From sand to grass maintenance, the natural topography presents its inherent encumbrances.

“It’s quite a challenge,” Sunderlin details as the course rounds toward the turn. “Sitting here at No. 9 tee, we look at the plethora of nobs and mounds that used to be bunkers, and now we’re expected to drive rough mowers over those areas and maintain what are now essentially grass bunker areas, not all of which may even have irrigation coverage because they were meant to be sand.”

A portrait comparison of Black Mesa then and now presents contrasting images.

“I’ve seen past pictures of the course, and what we’ve got here now — it’s fully recovered from any hardships,” Sunderlin says. “I actually considered it a new course grow-in when I was growing in all these bunkers. I just took it at face value. Getting the greens right, getting the grow-in bunkers right, getting the fairways beautiful, and then get to work on the rough areas.”

Of course, past or present, and whatever the degree of green acreage, a desert course is still a desert course.

“A lot of what we try to do here is, anything we apply, we try to acidify the soil,” Sunderlin says. “I spray the fairways every three weeks, just to get the nutrients in the plant because they really have a hard time up-taking nutrients from the soil. It’s a good amount of work, and I found after my first year that you throw granular fert at it and it just turns the place yellow. The turf kinda grows, but when it grows it doesn’t pull any nutrients out. And, of course, there’s the challenge of growing grass in the desert soil. The soil is very high in pH, very high in bicarbonates. The problem with the pH is that it doesn’t allow the turf to pull the nutrients out of the ground, doesn’t allow water to infiltrate very easily.”

Now four years into the rehab, Sunderlin’s work in the Black Mesa rally isn’t yet complete. But with continued ownership backing and a steadied water supply, the remote canvas is primed and prepped to regain its once-lofty status.

“This is a very special property on a great location,” Sunderlin says. “No matter where you’re at on the course, you get great solitude. It’s a very peaceful place, where you’re at one with the land.”

Judd Spicer is a Palm Desert, California-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.

January 2022
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