Black Jack’s Crossing lies between the Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande and it’s a Lanny Wadkins design which is set out within the massive 27,000-acre Lajitas Golf Resort. It’s a remote part of West Texas, with Mexico lying on the other side of the river, where many the illicit border crossings would have been made back in days of the Wild West.
Named after U.S. Army General “Black Jack” Pershing, who skirmished with Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in these parts more than a hundred years ago, the course is routed through a spectacular landscape of rock canyons and dry washes, replacing a previous layout that was damaged by flooding.
Interestingly, the historic Lajitas Trading Post (built in 1899) now serves as the clubhouse, pro shop and Longhorn Museum. It’s a remnant from the early Texas Frontier, where cowboys and miners would barter for supplies during the day then drink whisky together at night, and rather a unique place to relax after a round on the course.
The story of this property is simply fascinating -- within the continental USA just getting to Lajitas can be quite the adventure. Just spell the words slowly - I-S-O-L-A-T-E-D !
The Matt Damon movie, "The Martian", can be easily envisioned here because of the remoteness of the area. I have traveled extensively in the USA and there is no more remote area in the Continental 48 States than this location. Thankfully, the majestic appeal provided by the intoxicating views of Big Bend National Park and Big Ben State Park is truly mesmerizing.
Original owner Steve Smith (the man at the helm for Excel Telecommunications which he sold in 1996) bought the 25,000-acres of land in March 2000 for $4.25 million and envisioned an ultimate getaway. Hence the name -- Lajitas, the Ultimate Hideout. The facility provided a vintage western motif -- you half expected Matt Dillion from Gunsmoke TV fame walking the faux dusty streets with Festus and Ms. Kitty in tow. The facility also included a range of other non-golf activities.
The original course -- called The Ambush at Lajitas was a worthy 2006 layout from the tandem of Roy Bechtol and Randy Russell that replaced a non-descript nine-hole layout preceding it. However, in my original visit, not long after the course opened -- the 18-hole layout did not provide the kind of engaging architecture inspiring golf fanatics to savor a return trip.
The main marketing hype for the original course was its location. In close proximity to the Rio Grande the facility even sported an extra hole -- a par-3 at hole 11A played over the river to a makeshift green banked from back to front with a pin located in a closely mown pseudo green area. The tagline was you could actually play a golf shot -- approximately 135 yards -- between two countries. The key thing to remember was that the hole was not meant to be played out -- you simply opted to hit a giveaway ball to the Mexico target from the USA side.
Plenty of press info resonated, but the main news item came in September of '08 when a massive flooding of the Rio Grande took place and the bulk of the original 18-hole course was underneath water and debris.
Smith eventually had to forsake his grandiose plans and a new ownership group came forward.
Lanny Wadkins, the former PGA TOUR star and Hall of Famer was hired to design the course and this time the layout was placed far enough away from the Rio Grande. The par-72 7,413 course opened in 2011 and the experience provided is clearly exceptional given the marriage between the scenery and the bulk of the holes which are fun to play.
The course name was changed to Blackjack's Crossing -- named after General Black Jack Pershing who chased the notorious Pancho Villa through the west and across the Rio Grande.
So much of Texas public golf is truly non-descript -- blame substandard topography for much of that -- and even though there's been much progress it's hard to figure that to truly enjoy something of this quality you have to travel to such a remote location to do so.
The Dallas Morning News ranks the course as the best public layout in all of Texas and that position is clearly debatable as a few other courses can certainly make their respective claims.
Blackjack Crossing's initial three holes are fairly mundane -- but you're struck by the backdrop of the towering mountains in the nearby distance and the routing smartly works its way into the hillier terrain -- both on the outward half and for the concluding inward side.
The par-5 4th is a quality hole -- turning right in the drive zone and featuring a tapered fairway that mandates accuracy for those tempting to slug away. The green is situated on the far side of a diagonally-located desert wash. Strong players might contemplate going for the green in two big blows -- but the 613-yard hole will not surrender to just simply the ordinary effort.
The par-3 5th that follows is a quality counterpoint -- a beguiling hole of just 166 yards fiercely defended by a frontal bunker to a green that's well-situated.
The uphill dogleg right par-4 6th is one of the finest holes in all of Texas because it so magnificently marries terrain and golf strategy. The key starts with the tee shot and the crucial nature of placement is best appreciated when one sees the requirements for the approach. The 2nd shot must fly into a target placed across from a desert wash and which only accepts the finest of efforts.
The momentum continues with a fine par-4 at the 7th which moves in the exact opposite direction. The hole turns left deep into the drive zone and players have to decide on the merits in going that far since the landing area tighten up appreciably the longer you hit it.
The green is tucked on the far-left side and once again the need for a quality approach is called upon.
The par-5 8th begins from a mega-elevated tee and though listed at nearly 650 yards can be reached by strong players. The par-4 9th is likely one of the most underrated holes at the facility because it's not situated in the high ground but the strategic calculations are clearly present. The tee shot must find the ideal angle into the green. When the pin is cut on the far-right side -- being left off the tee is needed. If the pin is cut on the far left the need to secure the right side is called upon. However, there is water on the right side which must be avoided. When I played the course there was an area of grass grown in the center of the fairway providing for a split fairway decision. Wadkins angled the green and approach shots must be crisply struck as falls-offs await the half-hearted play.
Unlike the outward half -- the start of the back nine puts' players on notice immediately. The 438-yard par-4 10th is protected by water along the entire left side of the fairway and the approach is played to a putting surface ably protected by a series of bunkers.
Once you reach the par-4 11th you then begin the climb to the higher portion of the property. The short par-4 12th and the equally short par-3 13th are engaging because of where each is located on the property. There's nothing to distract you from the task at-hand.
Two good par-4 holes follow at the 14th and 15th holes. When you reach the latter, you begin to descend from the highland.
The concluding three holes have two par-5 holes bracketing the final par-3 hole at the 17th. Unfortunately, the finish does provide the kind of riveting conclusion one would certainly hope to see happen.
Blackjack Crossing's is blessed without any housing intrusions. A mega-plus. Once you commence the round it's you and your golf ball. The front nine does not returning to the cluibhouse and therefore the immersive nature of the golf is constantly front and center.
The weakness of the course is the lack of engrossing details tied to the greens and their surrounding areas. A bit more complexity would have truly elevated the stature of the golf experience. Much of the agenda is how to get to the greens. By no means is that a blanket indictment on all of the greens but far too many lack the sophistication that takes a good layout and turns it into a tour de force spectacle.
Turf conditions are always going to be a concern in such a stark landscape. When I played it was acceptable but not finely landscaped. When you have daily temps during summer months easily climbing over 100 degrees with sun and wind unrelenting the need to monitor such matters closely can be a very tough chore and no doubt hardly an inexpensive one.
Blackjack's Crossing is easily among the top five public courses I've played in the Lone Star State. The calamity from the devastating flood produced a second try in getting things right.
When you exit the pro shop be sure to take a look inside the Longhorn Museum which occupies a wing of the former Trading Post. It's a true walk back in time and in Texas history.
Hitch up your boots and saddle up partner because this is one golf hombre amigo where you quickly find out if you have the game to tame this bronco.
M. James Ward