Piñon Hills: Dye's desert gem is still drawing links vagabonds
FARMINGTON, N.M. -- Air Force One appeared suddenly, banking left, descending into Four Corners Regional Airport on a cloudless, late summer day. Golfers strolling the verdant fairways of the award-winning Piñon Hills Golf Course had been buzzed and no one ignored the scarce sight.
One could almost imagine the man above, President George W. Bush, leaning over and whispering to an aide: "Wish I was playing golf today." America's First Golfer was arriving for a campaign rally.
If the president's schedule hadn't been full, there's little doubt he would have reserved a tee time.
Reportedly built for a prudent $2.5 million back in 1989, Piñon Hills was designed by Ken Dye and has been almost legendary for its affordable excellence. Some have called it the best golf course in the world for a dirt-cheap price. Even in 1996 travel golfers could play for $11.
Sadly, the U.S. economy isn't what it used to be. Gasoline prices in Farmington are hovering around $2 a gallon and non-residents have to fork over $38 just to walk Piñon Hills. And while you might find some New Mexicans and golfers from nearby states cranky about that rate, try complaining about it to golfers from California or Arizona. Residents pay a mere $20.70 on the weekends.
"Piñon Hills is just spectacular," said Latrell Bellard of Austin, Texas, who was making his second visit. "I love the plush fairways and the challenging greens, but I'm disappointed in the cost. You always hear about what a bargain it is and the first time I came I paid $11. But if the rate keeps going up it will no longer have that distinction of being one of the best in the USA at such a bargain price."
Golf Magazine just named its Thrifty 50 and Piñon Hills made the list at No. 5. Just as impressive is the magazine's newest Top 100 You Can Play List with the course at No. 57, even though it was ranked No. 45 in 2002. Golf Digest gives the course 4 ½ stars.
Piñon Hills rolls out to 7,249 yards from the tips at par 72 and gets its bite from heavily contoured, roly-poly greens, burly mounding, yawning grass bunkers and some unsuspecting collection caverns nestled behind the putting surfaces. And there are some pin placements just over rocky, unpardonable arroyos on tiny fingers of greens, that will appeal to "heroic" suckers.
Another Dye trademark is found all over -- greens are elevated and misses fall into deep bunkers or depressions below the greens.
Sandstone formations are dotted throughout and scenic arroyos combine with the area's native piñons and junipers to give the course a Wild West desert look. But this arid town has created a lush course, causing some purists to squeal for hard and fast fairways and environmentalists to plead for less water usage.
The nines have been reversed since the course opened, but the holes are so strong it is hard for the average hack to really even notice a difference in the finish. Some who study architecture liked the original crescendo better, ending the day with two par fives.
One argument for those who ponder such things would be that today's No. 1, a downhill, dogleg left 411-yard par 4, is much sterner than the original No. 1, which was a straightaway, downhill, 438-yarder with a forgiving kick plate in the rear, tossing many long approach shots back toward the pin. Today's No. 1 has an unforgiving left boundary with two lateral water hazards, one fronting the green, and a difficult bunker guarding the front left with a grass hollow behind it. Then there's the green. It is dissected with a depression in the middle making a putt from the far left to the far right a roller-coaster experience to start your round.
That's enough thinking. Just go out and enjoy this gem. No. 6 is one of the more photographed holes. It's a 228-yard par three located in its own canyon surrounded by sandstone heights and rugged boulders lining the right side and sand washes snake down the left boundary. Just behind the heart-shaped green are two boulders, portly pinnacles of rock, and if you nail your tee shot long you can get some crazy bounces off these obstacles.
The eighth (originally No. 17) is a long, 540-yard par 5 that demands a straight drive to avoid grass bunkers on the right corner of the left dogleg. Hook it left and trees will mess up your view of the next shot, which includes generous lay-up areas to a green that is treacherous and flanked by sand on the left.
No. 9, a 597-yarder can be testy because of the two arroyos running across the fairway. And the second shot must be mindful of sand that borders most of the right side. The green is long and narrow with sand in the right front portion and deep sand bunkers line both sides of the putting surfaces.
There's not much on the downside of Piñon Hills, except it is out in the middle of the Four Corners boondocks. But that should be a plus for metro area residents, sick of the big city, looking for an adventure. Also, some travel golfers who got to play the course back in its $11 days might be upset that it now costs $38, without a cart.
At any rate, this is a must-play for those wanting to experience the best golf courses in the USA. Make it a New Mexico journey and play the other award-winning layouts of the state -- especially Paa-Ko Ridge and Twin Warriors near Albuquerque and Black Mesa near Santa Fe.
Places to stay
The travel golfer has an opportunity to stay in one of the country's most distinctive Bed & Breakfasts on a visit to Farmington for Piñon Hills. Kokopelli's Cave has been featured on CNN, the CBS Morning Show, Oprah Winfrey, Home & Garden TV, the Travel Channel and many others. Just imagine a privately-owned luxury cliff dwelling with a sunset view of Shiprock, the Chuska Mountains and the Navajo Indian Nation.
The idea of geologist Bruce Black, the cave is not natural. It was blasted out and is situated 70-feet below a sandstone mesa. The entrance to the cave is an adventure on sandstone steps to a 1,650-square foot cave home blasted out from 65-million year old rock 280-feet above the La Plata River. It is furnished with plush carpeting, Southwestern-style furniture and accents, ceremonial kiva, a well-appointed kitchen stocked with breakfast and luncheon foods, washer and dryer, and a cascading waterfall-style shower.
Kokopelli's Cave Bed & Breakfast
3204 Crestridge Drive
Farmington, N.M. 87401
(505) 326-2461 (manager)
Farmington is located in the Four Corners area (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona) near many tourist attractions. A visit here can easily be extended into trips to Colorado for Mesa Verde and the Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge railroad. Monument Valley, site of many Hollywood shoot-'em ups, straddles the Utah-Arizona border. And Canyon de Chelley National Monument is just a short drive away in Northern Arizona. Log on to farmingtonnm.org or call (800) 448-1240 for additional information.
August 31, 2004