Muni course, junior golf putting New Mexico city on map

Hobbs, N.M., has become a golf hotspot because its 27-hole Rockwind Community Links is filling a void in the West Texas, New Mexico junior golfing community

Rockwind Community Links — H15
Rockwind Community Links opened as a 27-hole facility in 2015.

Deep in the oil-rich Permian Basin, hard against the border of Texas, the City of Hobbs, N.M., has emerged as an unlikely oasis in a vast golf desert.

Its municipal course, Rockwind Community Links, opened in 2015 to serve as the focal point of an ambitious junior golf initiative. But the 27-hole facility has developed into something of an economic engine for the town – a destination for visiting New Mexico and Texas high school golf teams, junior league players, their coaches and families.

“Let me put it this way: If they’re not coming to Rockwind, for some of these smaller Texas towns, they’re playing their high school tournaments on their local nine-hole muni and going around twice,” said Roger Martinez, an Albuquerque PGA professional who played golf in Hobbs in the 1980s for New Mexico Junior College.

“Yeah, goat tracks,” said Victor Rotunno, head coach of the Hobbs High School boys and girls golf teams. “They come here from hundreds of miles away to play Rockwind.”

To understand the Rockwind story, one must first understand the geography, terrain and economy in this part of the Southwest.

In New Mexico, the nation’s fifth largest state, the distances between towns are huge.  The drive from Farmington, N.M. in the Four Corners region in the northwest corner, to Hobbs, in the southeast corner, is more than 500 miles — longer than the drive from Pittsburgh to Chicago, which spans four states.

Carlsbad, N.M., the nearest city with a municipal 18-hole course, is 70 miles away. Roswell, alien capital of the U.S. is 116 miles away. Lubbock, Midland and Odessa, the closest large towns in West Texas, are all 80 to 100 miles away.

In between all these cities, the flat Chihuahuan desert landscape is populated by cactus, sagebrush, occasional grazing cattle and the bobbing praying mantis-like silhouettes of jumpjacks sucking oil from deep underground. That oil is the economic lifeblood of the region. When its price is above $80 a barrel, as it was earlier this year, towns in the Permian Basin are awash in cash. Such was the case in 2014, when the then- and current mayor of Hobbs, Sam Cobb, decided it was time to invest in his city.

Cobb and the city commission convened a committee to explore how to use the town’s swollen coffers to improve its quality of life, especially for children of the oil-rig workers who live there.

The impetus for the effort was the imminent failure of the un-repairable irrigation system at Hobbs’s 59-year-old Ocotillo Park Golf Course, Hobbs’s only public course. The committee concluded they needed to do more than replace the irrigation system on their outdated, pancake-flat golf course.

The focus from the start was on junior golf. Despite its lack of character, Ocotillo Park often was packed with regular players. On days when the tee sheet was full, “The course staff would say, ‘Sorry, coach, there’s no room for your kids today,’” and practice would be canceled, Rotunno recalled.

Hobbs’s only other course is a private club, meaning that ordinary kids interested in taking up golf also were frozen out, too. Cobb and the committee wanted that to change.

They decided to abandon the old “municipal golf” model with its pro-owned or leased golf shop and a revenue-sharing deal that required the course to cover its operational costs. Instead, they wanted to build a general fund-subsidized venue that would serve both golfers and non-golfers, expose families to golf, and build a sustainable junior golf program.

From the outset, the committee knew it couldn’t be just about golf. If city taxpayers would be asked shell out for a new facility, it would have to serve non-golfers, too. A place for non-golfing parents to drop off their kids for a couple of hours wouldn't cut it; it had to be a destination for families.

The committee vision was a community park with a walking trail along its perimeter. At the park’s center would be a renovated championship golf course, a nine-hole par 3 course, a multi-use clubhouse, and an adjacent green space large enough to host outdoor events, including concerts and weddings. The budget for the project was $16.8 million — $12 million of that for the golf course renovation.

“They wanted to make the course accessible to the community, and the community links concept was born,” said PGA professional Linda Howell, who was recruited away from the Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino to oversee the new course.

In a sign of how serious city officials were about ditching the idea that their muni had to be a self-supporting enterprise, a 2016 presentation to a USGA innovation symposium that tells the story of Rockwind contains this telling bullet point: “ROI not always about $$.”

Texas High School Golf Tournament
A golfer from Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, playing in a Texas high school tournament at Rockwind in October.

“Make sure the community had access to the golf course,” Howell, now back in Santa Fe after four years Rockwind, recalled being told by city officials. “They didn’t want quarterly P&L reports; they wanted a junior golf program and my mission was to get it done.”

Access by juniors and the high school teams was to take priority but her first job was to roll out the welcome mat. “We had disc golf and night disc golf events and all sorts of events to bring kids and families out,” Howell said.

As for the course itself, it was clear that the featureless Ocotillo Park and its push-up greens needed more than a facelift. Enter Scottsdale, Ariz., golf architect Andy Staples, a self-described “maximalist” course designer.

“I move a lot of dirt,” Staples said during the June 2015 grand opening of the 18-hole course, which was renamed Rockwind, and its nine-hole par-3 counterpart named “Li’l Rock.”

And move dirt he did. In Hobbs and elsewhere in Southeast New Mexico, a layer of hard white caliche clay called caprock lies 18 to 24 inches below the surface. To get the soil he needed to build hillocks, brows and berms to add elevation and visual interest, Staples’s crew hacked through the caprock and moved tens of thousands of cubic yards of dirt across the 224-acre property.

The mature trees of Ocotillo Park were retained, but the layout of its 18 holes was drastically rerouted. A stream fed by a new 5.2-acre irrigation lake meanders through the course. Low rock walls built from excavated caprock, evocative of the courses of the west coast of Ireland, line some holes.

The new 18-hole course was named Rockwind for the caprock that lay beneath and the wind that blows above.

In 2015, Rockwind was named Golf Digest’s best new course to open that year. Golfweek ranked it the second-best course you can play in New Mexico in 2019 and 2020, and Golf Advisor named it one of 24 new courses that shaped the 2010s.

When the course opened, the City of Hobbs entered into a contract with the First Tee of Southeastern New Mexico, which gained an office at the course. The Hobbs Municipal Schools invited the First Tee into its 19 schools to introduce kids to golf using plastic-head clubs and tennis balls.

City records show that in 2019, before the Covid pandemic altered school life, 49 percent of the 9,856 students in the district were exposed to golf in phys-ed class. That’s projected to rise to 5,415 by the end of this year. On-course First Tee participation at Rockwind grew from 124 in 2015 to several hundred each year since.

The cost for an adult resident to ride 18 holes is $31. Kids can walk 18 for $6. It costs an adult $6 to walk the L’il Rock course and up to three kids can play for free with a paying adult. Unaccompanied juniors play the par 3 course for $3, although course staff said that if a kid shows up without money, he or she likely will be allowed to play anyway.

Six years later, the family-friendly policy is paying off. “You’ll see a mom and a dad, kids five or six years old, the mom with a stroller and the dad helping the other kids play Li’l Rock,” said Tanya Lackey, head of the Rockwind First Tee program.

From the beginning, however, Rockwind had a second mission, at least in the eyes of the mayor. Cobb recently said that Rockwind was built to serve another purpose: “creating an economic development feature.”

Howell confirmed part of her initial tasking was “bringing in the tournaments from Texas and bringing people into town and playing this award-winning golf course.”

“Basically, ‘putting heads in beds,’” she said.

Jennifer Grassham of the Lea County Economic Development Council, said hard economic-impact numbers aren’t available but, “We do know there are teams coming in and hotel room-nights and restaurant receipts are up.”

PGA professional Ben Kirkes, who succeeded Howell in 2018 as Rockwind’s general manager, said that so far in 2021, his facility has served as the venue for 13 high school golf tournaments. One of them, an event hosted by Frenship High School in Wolfforth, Texas, outside of Lubbock, involved 19 Texas teams — 14 of which stayed at area hotels or motels. “We were sold out of golf carts, so many parents came down to see the kids play,” he said.

Christie Parsley, the girls golf coach at Lubbock’s Cooper High School, 96 miles to the north, says her team travels an hour and 45 minutes to play at Rockwind and, because Texas high school tournaments are two-day events, they stay overnight. “They play golf all day and at night, we go out and have a good dinner.” She added, “I coach girls, and they like to shop.”

Spurred by Rockwind’s success, in 2016 Hobbs doubled down on Cobb’s vision of the city becoming a regional destination for youth and families. It spent $62.5 million on a sports facility called CORE for Center for Recreational Excellence. The project was funded by Hobbs and five government and private partners.

Completed in 2018, the 158,715-square-foot facility features indoor artificial turf fields; basketball and volleyball courts; a multi-story playground/jungle gym; workout gyms; a massive space for spin and Zumba classes; swimming and therapy pools; and a kid-themed water park. Like the golf course, it draws visitors from across Southeast New Mexico and West Texas.

For Rotunno, the Hobbs High School golf coach, the 2015 opening of Rockwind was the game changer for junior golf in Hobbs. He said he was “like a kid in a candy store” when the 27-hole facility and its huge, two-sided range opened. “No more being crowded out of the old 20- 24-station practice range,” he said.

Rotunno stressed two points that nearly everyone I talked to in Hobbs made sure to mention: Rockwind indisputably helped the Hobbs boys team win the 2020 New Mexico 5A high school state golf championship; and all of the team’s five starters are graduates the Rockwind’s First Tee program.