Destination Guide: Golf in southern New Mexico

From the gypsum granules of White Sands National Monument to the Gila Wilderness, southern New Mexico offers a variety of climates and ecosystems, which provides the palette for an array of outdoor sports, including golf.

The diversity in climate means you could drive an hour or so in any direction and find totally different terrain and looks. You'll find arid desert, flat farmland, high mountains and natural forestlands like the Gila Wilderness.

At its center is Las Cruces, a college town (New Mexico State University), just north of El Paso, Texas. With a population of around 85,000, Las Cruces has a vibrant art scene, ranging from galleries, museums, studios, public and fine art, to sculptures, paintings, photographs and historical artifacts. There is also a nice variety of performing arts, theater, music and dance available in this high desert community.

Due east from Las Cruces, you can visit the White Sands National Monument, which is also near White Sands Missile Range and the mysterious Roswell, N.M., which is famous for its UFO sightings. White Sands National Monument has more than 750 square miles of pure, white gypsum sand and is a popular family daytrip. Visitors are welcome to climb and "surf" the large dunes.

To the west of Las Cruces is Deming, which is home to three state parks - Pancho Villa, City of Rocks and Rockhound. Silver City, which is where Billy the Kid grew up, is to the east. And if you like ghost towns, check out Chloride, located 60 miles north of Las Cruces on Highway 52, or Hillsboro, which is about 70 miles north of Las Cruces on Highway 152. Chloride was settled in 1881 by miners after silver chloride ore was discovered there. Hillsboro is an old gold miners' town.

There's also the world-famous Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico, backpacking and camping in the Gila National Forest, and terrific skiing and winter sports in Ruidoso and Cloudcroft. Southern New Mexico is literally a place where you could ski in the morning and drive less than hour to play golf in 80-degree weather, depending on the time of year.

Many of the ski resorts, of course, double as golf destinations in the late spring, summer and fall. Here's a look at what the area has to offer on the links:

Southern New Mexico golf courses

The Inn of the Mountain Gods: It was the Mescalero Apaches who gave this resort area its name, and Ted Robinson who designed this Ruidoso-area golf course. The 7,206-yard, par-72 course is cut through tall pine trees with 12,000-foot Sierra Blanca Peak providing the backdrop. Fairways are wide off the tee. At 7,200 feet, you can subtract at least a club on your shots.

The Links at Sierra Blanca: Designed by Champions Tour player Jim Colbert and Jeff Brauer, the Links at Sierra Blanca is a 6,800-yard, Scottish, links-style golf course that has been ranked among the top 10 courses in the state. The course features plenty of mounding on the front nine fairways, while the back nine meanders through the Lincoln National Forest. Tees, greens and fairways are all bentgrass.

New Mexico State University Golf Course: Opened in 1963, the New Mexico State University Golf Course has played host to three NCAA National Championship tournaments along with a number of USGA qualifiers. Designed by Floyd Farley, the 7,040-yard course is framed by the Organ Mountains to the east and the Mesilla Valley to the west. The course has won a number of accolades from Golf Digest, including in 1996, when it was named the second best public course in the state. In 2004, a new clubhouse was built. Other recent improvements include new bunkering, new tee boxes, improved practice facilities and concrete cart paths.

New Mexico Tech Golf Course: Located in Socorro, this non-crowded par 72 may be only 6,596 yards, but it's no pushover. With lots of elevation changes, tight driving areas and small greens, you have to be accurate here. With holes of varying lengths and design, you'll get to use all your clubs. The 13th, a 360-yard dogleg left, may well be the signature hole with a green some 60 feet above the fairway.

The Silver City Golf Course: Home of the Annual Billy Casper Benefit Golf Tournament and host of the 2003 New Mexico Women's Amateur, the Silver City Golf Course is a 6,300-yard, par-72 course with bentgrass greens, bluegrass fairways and plenty of high desert views. In the foothills of the Gila National Forest, Silver City Golf Course, also known as the "jewel of the high desert," sits at 6,000 feet.

Sierra del Rio: Located about an hour north of Las Cruces on Elephant Butte Lake, Sierra del Rio is a 7,334-yard links course with seven lakes - four of which come into play - and 89 bunkers. Designed by Dick Phelps, the course stretches to more than 7,300 yards. Greens are bentgrass, while fairways are a mixture of rye and bluegrass. Special care was taken to make sure that the golf course is environmentally friendly by using less water and blending into the natural high desert landscape.

Sonoma Ranch Golf Course in Las Cruces: Designed by Cal Olsen, when Sonoma Ranch opened in Las Cruces in 2000, it was the first public course to open in some 50 years. At 7,028 yards, there are a number of long holes from the championship tees and plenty of bunkers, both in the fairways and around the undulating bentgrass greens. Players are also treated to breathtaking views of the Organ Mountains, Picacho Peak and the Mesilla Valley.

Southern New Mexico golf resorts and lodging

If you're looking for a major chain hotel or motel, Las Cruces is probably you're best bet. For example, there's the SpringHill Suites by Marriott (575-541-8887). The hotel has 101 suites with separate areas for sleeping, eating or working. There's also a complimentary breakfast, whirlpool and fitness center. SpringHill Suites also offers golf packages.

For a little more local flavor, stay at the Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces (575-522-4300). The Encanto's Mexican Colonial interior creates a mood reflective of the area's rich history and tradition. The hotel offers 203 guest rooms, an on-site restaurant, lounge, gift shop, heated pool, whirlpool spa, gym and salon

In Ruidoso, you can stay and play golf at the Inn of the Mountain Gods (888-324-0348), which has 273 rooms and suites, a plethora of dining options, an indoor pool, 40,000 square feet of meeting space and a 38,000-square-foot casino.

The Lodge Resort and Spa in Cloudcroft (575-682-2566) goes back to the turn of the previous century, when the original structure was burned down (rumors of ghosts persists today because of it). The resort has 59 guests rooms, a couple of restaurants, an outdoor heated pool, lawn games and its own golf course. The nine-hole golf course is 9,000 feet in elevation.

Where to dine in southern New Mexico

If you like Mexican food, you've come to the right place. In Las Cruces, there's La Posta de Mesilla (575-524-3524), which is located in the 1840s historic Old Butterfield Stage building, adjacent to the historic Old Mesilla Plaza. Si Señor Restaurant (575-527-0817) serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, including homemade tortillas.

Or try the historic Double Eagle Restaurant (575-523-6700), which serves both American and New Mexican cuisine. It's also located on the Mesilla Plaza.

Other options: El Paisano (575-538-5803), for good service and Mexican grub in Silver City, the landmark Western Bar and Restaurant in Cloudcroft (575-682-2445) and Lucy's Mexicali Restaurant in Carlsbad (575-887-7714)

Getting to southern New Mexico by plane or car

Most air travel to southern New Mexico is through the El Paso International Airport, located less than one hour south of Las Cruces in El Paso, Texas. The airport accommodates most major commercial airlines and has direct shuttle services from the airport to several points in Las Cruces.

By car, Interstate 10 runs from Arizona to El Paso across the southwest part of the state. You can actually stay on I-10 as you go east of El Paso, skirting southeastern New Mexico as you drive through west Texas.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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Destination Guide: Golf in southern New Mexico