Head for the Mountains - of Southern New Mexico

By: Steve Habel

The Sacramento Mountains rise majestically above the desert plains in south-central New Mexico, and a snow-capped peak, Sierra Blanca, dominates the landscape at more than 12,000 feet. In the midst of these sacred mountains is a magical valley where tall pines whisper in the breeze, a rushing stream makes lively music and a fine time - with good golfing - can be had by all.

The region, encompassing the towns of Ruidoso, Lincoln Valley and Cloudcroft, has long been a bastion of Texans looking for a place to escape summer's heat. But it doesn't matter what the season is for a visit from Dallas or Austin. Folks come here for the snow to ski and snowboard in the winter, for the appeal of crisp morning air for mountain biking and hiking in the spring, for fishing and hunting among the yellow aspens in fall, and to play golf any time the weather allows.

During a brief window in spring visitors can glide downhill at Ski Apache in the morning - high atop 12,003-foot Sierra Blanca, and play golf in the afternoon at the Links at Sierra Blanca or the Inn of the Mountain Gods. "We liked the area so much we moved here," said Mark Rutledge, a former Texas policeman and the owner of Two Bears Trading Post in the heart of Ruidoso. "My wife Barbara can hit that golf ball, and there are so many good places to play that she never gets bored."

The region sports four public/resort golf courses, two of which - the layout at the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino and the Links at Sierra Blanca - are regularly ranked among the best in the state. A third, the nine-holer at the Lodge at Cloudcroft (a scenic 45-minute drive from downtown Ruidoso), is a must-play just for its stunning elevation changes and the fact its lodge was once owned by Al Capone. Also available is Cree Meadows Golf Course, a short but sweet semiprivate facility with stunning views of the big mountain.

Inn of the Mountain Gods

The Inn of the Mountain Gods' course, designed by Ted Robinson and opened in 1976, features an island fairway, landing areas lined by trees, fast-breaking greens and superb vistas. Players here contend with the challenge of teeing up at an elevation of 7,200 feet in land bordering massive Lincoln National Forest.

The course hosts the New Mexico Open and an Adams Golf Pro Tour Series every year. The par-72 test stretches 6,834 yards and boasts elevation changes over 200 feet. It has been featured in Golf Magazine and Travel and Leisure Golf as "a top-35 golf course" and "the most underrated golf course in the Southwest," respectively, and garnered a Golf Digest magazine Top 40 Gaming/Golf Destination ranking.

Owned by the Mescalero Apache Indian Tribe as part of their first-rate Inn of The Mountain Gods Resort and Casino, the course is noted for its pines and firs, views of Sierra Blanca and man-made water features. No. 10 is a target-island hole of 337 yards and, on several holes you will face huge Ponderosa pines in mid-fairway. Slick bentgrass greens, cross-cut fairways and visits by deer and elk make this a must-play when in the area. The boasts a 72.1 course rating and a 132 slope from the tips.

The Links at Sierra Blanca

In 1990 owners R.D. Hubbard and Ed Allred of All-Hub Investments undertook the task of converting the old Sierra Blanca Regional Airport into this course. Champions Tour player Jim Colbert and golf architect Jeff Brauer tore up the tarmac and removed the old hangars and buildings while using smart land management to build the signature high, rolling mounds throughout the layout.

You'll be amazed the architects brought no dirt onto or off of the property as towering artificial mounds pop up everywhere. The deal-breaker are the lightning-quick undulating greens; to avoid three-putting, stay below the hole.

Ranked No. 6 in the state in Golf Digest's 2001 rankings, the Links at Sierra Blanca calls itself a Scottish-style links. The front nine is open while the back side meanders into the pines with some thick rough along the routes. The upshot is a nice combination of long and short holes, all which are affected by the area's constant wind.

The Links at Sierra Blanca is a municipal track but has all the makings of a resort with the on-site Lodge at Sierra Blanca Golf & Convention Resort steps away from the golf shop.

The Lodge at Cloudcroft

The course at the Lodge at Cloudcroft is a fun excursion that will bring a smile when your score is totaled. Situated at 9,200 feet above sea level, it's the fifth highest layout in the United States and, built near the previous track established in 1899, is the oldest course in New Mexico.

Carved out of a pine forest with rolling greens, this course isn't a championship layout at its 4,858 yards and par of 68. But don't tell that to the thousands of golfers who play here annually and consider it among their favorite haunts. This is pure fun and an absolute ego builder.

Built on a former cabbage patch in Chautauqua Canyon, the Lodge course starts the blood rushing on the first hole, a 251-yard par-4 that descends 200 feet straight downhill. Pick the right club and you may be putting for eagle right out off the bat. Word is that the historic Lodge at Cloudcroft is haunted, so if ghosts are your thing, here's the place.

Cree Meadows Golf Course

Opened in 1947, this course offers unparalleled westerly panoramas of the Sacramento Mountains. Affordable and immaculately groomed, Cree Meadows is a short but demanding track, with tight fairways and small greens calling for thoughtful shot-making and an accurate putter. With a rating of 66.9 and slope of 116, par-71 Cree Meadows plays at 5,952 yards.

The semiprivate track welcomes outside play and is perhaps the best place in the region to get a preferred tee-time. "This is kind of a neat little golf course because you can make a lot of birdies and a lot of sixes," said Eric Eggleston, Cree Meadows' director of golf. "The back nine is very short with drivable par-4s and the front nine is longer and a very good test. There are lots of OB areas and some water comes into play."

Also in the Area

Away from the links, visitors can watch the horse races at Ruidoso Downs, home of the $2-million All-American Futurity - the richest quarterhorse race in the world - on Labor Day. Or they can delve into the history of Lincoln County and its relationship with Billy the Kid at museums and art galleries, or enjoy many of the area's excellent restaurants.

This part of New Mexico makes for a great weekend vacation as it's just three hours by car from Albuquerque and two-and-a-half hours from El Paso.

Steve Habel is an Austin, Texas-based journalist. Since 1990, he has traveled around the globe covering news, business and sports assignments for various news bureaus, newspapers, magazines and websites. He also contributes to Business District magazine in Austin as managing editor and is the Texas football beat writer and a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated, the Austin-based magazine for University of Texas sports. Habel writes a weekly golf column for The River Cities Tribune in Marble Falls, Texas, and is a member of the Texas Golf Writers' Association.