It’s not only a game, it’s an adventure

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Socorro’s famous Elfego Baca Shoot is more than a game. Inasmuch as it’s an extreme sporting event, it’s an adventure for all who dare to play what is widely considered “the toughest hole in golf.”

 

 

That distinction is what drew Ron Schachter to last Saturday’s Elfego Baca Shoot. Wired with recording equipment, the longtime radio show producer from Boston took the trip down M Mountain with more than a half dozen competitors, their loyal and dedicated spotters, and, just in case, search and rescue personnel from New Mexico Tech University.

Schachter is a contributor to a weekly sports magazine called “Only a Game,” hosted by commentator Bill Littlefield. The show covers sports of all kinds.

“Some of it is on mainstream sports, but also other competitions that people are not as familiar with or are a little more quirky,” says Schachter, who’s wearing a hat that read, “National Hollerin’ Contest, Spivey’s Corner, N.C.”

Schachter likes covering quirky events, and the Elfego Baca Shoot fits the profile. There’s really not anything quite like it — a nearly 3-mile hole played down a rocky mountainside that includes rocky crevasses, abandoned mine shafts, and rattlesnakes as hazards.

Held in conjunction with the Socorro Open professional golf tournament each year, golfers tee off from atop M Mountain and play to a 50-foot circle that serves as the “hole” near the EMRTC building on Canyon Road. Rules allow players to tee up their ball on a scrap of carpet for each shot and move it clear of boulders and vegetation without penalty. Lost balls, however, are a one-stroke penalty. Players are allotted 10 balls to make it down the mountain.

The drop in elevation is about 2,550 feet and there’s no easy way down. The slope of the east side of the mountain is steep and loose rocks, sheer cliffs and cacti make the trek treacherous, as Schachter found out early on.

“Walking up to the tee box I slipped on some rock and fell flat on my face,” he says.

But he made it down no worse for wear and captured some of the sounds of the event along the way. He interviewed organizers and contestants, too, and will use the sound bites to edit into the segment, tentatively scheduled to air on June 25 on 200 National Public Radio stations across America. The closest station to Socorro that picks up “Only a Game” is KGLP, 91.7 FM, in Gallup. The show airs on that station from 8 to 9 a.m. on Saturdays. Downloads of previously broadcast shows can be found on the website www.onlyagame.wbur.org.

In addition to the radio coverage, freelance writer Michael Haederle also attended the event to do a story for the Los Angeles Times.

 

A Hell of a Hole

Schachter learned about the event by reading Rick Reilly’s book “Sports from Hell,” which includes a chapter recounting Reilly’s Elfego Baca experience in 2007.

What Schachter can do with his recording equipment that Reilly couldn’t do in his book is bring in the audio element.

“You wouldn’t think that a golfing event out in a desert would have a lot of sound to it,” says Schachter, who found a lot.

There’s the whack of a ball being struck and the fading whoosh that follows as it cuts through the thin air and disappears seemingly into oblivion. There’s the rustling of shrubs as spotters try to locate balls among the rugged landscape. There’s the dialogue between players and their spotters as they strategize the next shot over walkie-talkies, and the banter that takes place among them as they triangulate the search for a lost ball.

Schachter says the feature story will also address the history of the event — how an idea likely conceived at “the 19th hole” at what was then known as the Hilton Open in the early 1970s, in his words, “took on a life of its own.”

Schachter, who has also done stories on a divorced couples demolition derby in Rockford, Ill., and something called “chess boxing” in England, says such sports may be quirky, but there’s not much difference between them and sports you see on TV — or listen to on the radio.

“Most stories I’ve done about sports that are really odd have commitment and are purposeful. The people who participate have a purpose behind it. They appreciate and respect it,” he says.

That will likely be part of the focus for the Elfego Baca Shoot piece. Schachter says he was struck by what Dennis Walsh, the reigning “King of the Mountain,” told him during an interview the day before.

“Dennis said, ‘You have to love golf to play this event, and you have to love the mountain.’ That resonates,” he says.

 

‘He’s the Man’

Walsh, 36, loves the mountain that dominates the western horizon of his newfound hometown.

“It’s brown, and it’s a hunk of rock, but it’s beautiful,” he says.

Walsh says we’re blessed to live in a place that offers such vistas, and he considers it a privilege to tread its slopes. EMRTC property, the mountain is off limits to the public any other day of the year.

“One reason I love it is when you get on top you can see forever in every direction, and once a year you get to see this pretty view of the place where you live,” he says.

An Illinois native, Walsh came to Socorro as a college student at New Mexico Tech and wound up staying here. He now works as a systems analysis for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The mountain greets him each morning when he walks across the New Mexico Tech Golf Course on his way to work. He’s intimately familiar with it, having played in the Shoot the last five years, and he knows the way down.

“Last year we veered off to the south. It’s an easier route but takes about a half hour longer,” he says.

Taking a more precarious path, Walsh wound up with an identical score as a year ago. It took 13 strokes, but with two lost balls he officially carded a 15, which stands as the course record for that particular pin placement.

“I probably had my best year ever, as far as striking the ball. I was down the mountain in five strokes,” he says. “It’s when you get to the flats that it gets tough.”

After nearly four hours descending the mountain, the flat part of the vertical dogleg is little relief. Fatigue and the heat of the day become factors and there’s still more than a mile to go.

Walsh had a chance to break the record, but from 230 yards out his shot skipped through the circle and rolled 50 feet out the back side. He chipped in from there to complete the adventure.

He’s got a long way to go, though, if he wants to break the all-time record. Mike Stanley, now director of EMRTC, won the event 18 times.

Afterward, Walsh was asked about what he meant by loving the mountain.

“It’s about respect,” he says. “A lot of sports are that way. You have to respect your opponent, or in this case the mountain. You know it’s going to be tough and it’s going to be grueling, you have to respect that and be up for the challenge.”

Walsh loves golf too. With a 1-handicap on a regular golf course, he’s a long hitter, able to drive a ball more than 300 yards with regularity. His first shot off Socorro Peak travels more than twice that distance.

Equipped with binoculars, his spotters attempt to track the little white ball’s flight on this day against an ashy sky created by the smoke from Arizona’s Wallow Fire.

The spotters are the unsung heroes. Their job may be tougher than the player’s, covering more ground recovering balls — sometimes out of deep crevasses.

Walsh gives most of the credit for his success to his spotters: Jason Metzger, Robert Vega and Tony Zimmerly.

“Three-quarters of it are the spotters, and I have the best spotters in the world,” he says. “I wouldn’t even do it if I didn’t have these guys.”

Walsh says he tried to get Zimmerly to play this year, and he’d spot for him. But Zimmerly won’t have it.

“He’s the man,” Zimmerly says of Walsh.

 

Only a Game

Six other men finished the hole. There was one casualty. One player was forced to withdraw when the mountain took his sole — the sole of his shoe, that is.

The Elfego Baca Shoot has become a tradition for three high school buddies. Scott Jameson, Primo Pound and Jesse Taylor were members of Socorro High School’s Class of 1978. They’ve participated one way or another — as players or spotting for each other — for the past several years.

Last year, Jameson promised it would be his last time. He turned 50 that year, so it was already scratched off his bucket list.

“Every year I swear I’ll never do it again, and about three-quarters of the way down I remembered why,” says Jameson, who finished second this year, with a 21.

What changed his mind?

“This guy here called me and talked me into it,” Jameson says, with a nod to Pound, “then he pulled out at the last minute.”

“I couldn’t find anyone to spot for me,” Pound shrugs.

So instead, Pound ended up spotting for Taylor, the kind of guy who’s quick with a quip.

“I fired Primo up at the top but my other two spotters quit on me, so I had to hire him back,” Taylor jests.

Spotters are not only charged with finding balls, they literally serve as targets in the coordinated effort to navigate down the mountain.

When Jameson mentions that on one shot he nearly hit his target, who happened to be his sister, Janet Fields, Taylor chimes in, “I never hit it close to one of my spotters. My motto is safety first.”

Taylor, last year’s runner-up, shot 24 — five strokes worse than last year.

“I had a bad day,” he says. “It wasn’t my spotters’ fault. I hit the ball in places you’re not supposed to go.”

One other player had local ties. Gerald O’Connell, who makes his home near Riley, played in the Shoot for the first time. He says Walsh encouraged him to give it a try.

“He didn’t have to talk me into anything; I like doing things like this,” O’Connell says. “I think it’s a wonderful thing to do. And because of the mountain. It’s a privilege just to be able to go up there.”

O’Connell carded a 32 and placed sixth. He was proud of the fact that he only lost three balls.

“I was just happy to finish,” he says.

Because with an event like the Elfego Baca Shoot, it’s not about winning or losing. What score you shoot is secondary to the challenge, the adventure, the experience.

After all, it’s only a game.

 


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