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Golf in El Paso: Nothing borderline about it

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,
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Lone Star Golf Club - El Paso
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Lone Star Golf Club is as flat as a pancake and as easy as Paris Hilton. (Courtesy lonestargolfclub.com)

Sure El Paso is the classic border town, with Mexico's thrills (and temptations) a short walk away. But while many come here to party, more people are coming for great golf courses like Painted Dunes Desert and Lone Star Golf Club. So check out Mexico, but don't miss El Paso's courses, some of the best in Texas golf.

EL PASO, Texas - The plains of Texas are darker than a Nazi's heart at night. As you draw closer to El Paso, the lights suddenly appear on the horizon in a flood.

It's like someone hit a switch and turned on a Christmas tree. A Christmas tree with more bulbs than a junkyard dog has fleas.

It's not until you're nearly on top of El Paso that you realize all those lights are coming from across the border. Mexico is bringing the millions of twinkles. El Paso itself is pretty dark and largely deserted at this hour.

As introductions go, this serves as a great crash course for the area. You're going to El Paso, the fourth largest city in Texas and the 22nd biggest in the entire U.S. You're going to play golf in El Paso at a course designed by celebrity golf architect Tom Fazio. You're going to stay in El Paso at a sweeping old hotel that's on the National Register of Historic Places, Camino Real.

But a whole lot of the action is going on in Mexico.

"Coming to El Paso and not walking across the border is like going to McDonald's and never ordering a Big Mac," local Jose Cruz said.

It's almost hard not to end up in Mexico. Take the wrong turn on the confusing maze of freeway ramps near the hardscrabble downtown and you can easily find yourself smack dab in the middle of the traffic jam headed to a border checkpoint.

The easier - and much more enjoyable (not to mention less smog choked) - way to cross countries is to walk right across at the Santa Fe Street bridge checkpoint in downtown El Paso. U.S. and Canadian citizens do not need anything more than a driver's license when walking in.

The bridge takes you right into the bustling avenues of Ciudad Juarez, which is about as different from sleepy El Paso as Jon Stewart is from Bill O'Reilly. Here the streets are a constant clatter of buzzing activity with vendors hawking their wares from carts with the zeal of Tony Robbins on speed.

There are trashy trinkets and intricate high-quality glass work. Pharmacies promising great drug prices are on almost every corner. And the beer's often crazy cheap (don't pay more than $2 U.S. a bottle).

Shortly after the sun goes down, the main drag of Avenida Juarez turns into one big party with the atmosphere from the nightclubs and bars carrying out onto the street, until you can barely tell the difference between curb and bar stool. It's all one big happening.

You don't want to get too relaxed - unless you want to lose your wallet to a pickpocket or stumble upon worse in an alley. This isn't the U.S., no matter how easy the walk was.

Everything's for sale and you'll see many lone male tourists trolling around, usually nervously. They might as well have a neon sign flashing SEX TOURIST on their foreheads.

"You're here to play golf?" Cruz asked, arching his eyebrows. "Sure, you are. That's a new one though. I give you points for originality."

No one may believe you, but El Paso actually boasts some surprisingly good golf. It's making a push to become a golf destination, partly no doubt because city leaders are sick of being seen as a mere rest stop to debauchery.

You'll never mistake the streets of El Paso - which includes many shops covered in aluminum siding scrunched together and would make someone like CNN's Lou Dobbs say that it looks like Mexico - with the sophisticated scene of a Scottsdale. Forget those plush spas with soothing new-age music.

Of course you're not going to pay close to trendy greens fees either.

El Paso golf courses

The best golf course in El Paso can be played for about what you spend in tips at a Troon North. Painted Dunes Desert Golf Club boasts 27 holes of desert golf in the foothills of the Franklin Mountains and a $32 high-season weekends greens fee ($43 with cart) and $14 twilight rates.

Yes, you can play a round of golf for near New York City movie prices at one of the best desert courses anywhere (Painted Dunes received 4½ stars in Golf Digest).

This is technically a municipal course. But Painted Dunes Desert's muni in the same sense that Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines are. In fact, when it opened in 1991, Golf Digest ranked it the second best municipal course in the entire country.

Painted Dunes isn't quite at that stratosphere now, but it's still a must play and other El Paso courses are starting to raise their game around it.

Lone Star Golf Club is another Texas cheapie ($20 weekdays), and has long been known as the course you could play drunk and blindfolded and still not find too much trouble. It's flatter than a pancake. But recent renovations - including seven new tee boxes and two completely new greens - at least make its easiness more visually appealing.

Plus, it's so close to the airport, you can almost walk from the runway to the first tee.

A new high-profile Fazio stands at the center of El Paso's modest golf push though. Butterfield Trail Golf Club is set to open in June and will bring 7,307 yards of dramatic Fazio golf, including a 566-yard par-5 closing hole that has golfers shooting downhill into the wind, doglegging around water.

Butterfield's greens fees will be $65, almost astronomical for El Paso.

Butterfield follows in the footsteps of Sonoma Ranch, another course with mountain views that opened in 2000. Sonoma Ranch is actually in New Mexico, but it's a short trip from El Paso, one you want to make if you're actually coming here to golf.

El Paso does not have a lot of courses - less than 20 total. It's a long way from being a golf mecca. It's one of those trips you're not going to forget though.

"I think I've spent more on beer every day than I have on the golf," visitor Matt Sharp said. "And I've played 36 most days. I'm exhausted. From the partying. Not the golf."

Hey, no one said discovering new golf worlds is easy.

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El Paso - Street SceneEl Paso - Camino Real HotelPainted Dunes Desert Golf Course
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Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

 
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