Shoot to thrill

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In this age in which the unknown corners of the map have been filled in, to paraphrase a saying, it’s not enough to just climb the hill because it’s there — that’s been done before; now, one must climb the hill and then hit a golf ball off the top.

So what hill better than the iconic-yet-inaccessible ‘M’ Mountain, our own Socorro Peak?

Griffin Swartzell/El Defensor Chieftain: Winner Dennis Walsh was able to beat his previous record by two swings during the Elfego Baca Shoot.

Thus, we have the Elfego Baca Shoot, a “golf” event so ambitious and ludicrous in nature that it could only be named after the self-deputized 19 year old who survived a barrage of 1,000 shots in a shoot-out. Fortunately, the sporting event doesn’t take 1,000 shots — the score card only goes to 75.

Russell Moore, head professional at the course’s pro shop, was on the hill Saturday a little after 6 a.m. on the patio, as the morning sun was shifting from red-gold to a summery yellow on the mountain’s face. There were complimentary breakfast burritos for all golfers beginning at 6:30 a.m., and the Baca Shoot competitors met at 7 a.m..

“Nobody else likes to get up here too early,” Moore said, “It’ll just be us Elfego Baca guys.”

Already, he indicated that the few who took part in this event were of a different mind set than those who were present on the course for the prim-and-proper, gentlemen’s-game, capital-g Golf, which would take place on the links nearby. Even without his comment, those present for the shoot — players, spotters and scorers alike — were in boots and backpacks full of water and other supplies. They were all fit for a day’s hike, not a walk.

Of course, the Baca Shoot is hardly golf — for one, balls can be moved up to 50 feet from point of landing. The ever-vital short game is gone — the hole is a 50 foot diameter patch of dirt marked by a flag and a neon orange circle of paint. Every shot can be teed up.

Each golfer gets 10 marked balls and every lost ball is a one-stroke penalty. Golfers who run out of balls are disqualified. Even with teams of three spotters, the difficult, rocky terrain generously dotted with holes, rocks, mines, cacti and denser high-desert plants, this is a legitimate concern, and a disappointing and not-unheard-of end to a game.

As the golfers queued for free food and the staff discussed how many drinks they’d be limited to, the Baca Shoot participants were receiving their balls, assembling their teams, meeting their scorekeepers and being addressed about the schedule for the event and the major dangers on the mountain — snakes and slipping.

This year, there were only three competitors, so the prize money had been adjusted: first place would receive $500, second $300, and third $200. All three were returning players, so the briefing was, well, brief.

The three players were last year’s winner Dennis Walsh, the older but fit Gerald O’Connell, and Dan Bleasdale, the only non-local.

All met up at the EMRTC building, the site of the hole, and, after some well-wishing on all fronts, piled into white NMT SUVs to pass through the security checkpoint and climb the rocky road up to the peak of the M.

The horizon was hazy with smoke from the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire, but most of that had settled into the valleys to the southeast.

The golfers, the scorers, Fire Chief Joe Gonzales and his event coordinators arrived at the relay site on the rear peak and hiked over to the higher front peak, adorned with a brilliant white letter M. Each team’s spotters were already in place at the base camp below.

After one last briefing on what was out of bounds and a little tactical discussion between the players, everyone was ready to tee off.

Three mad golfers

Walsh has participated in the shoot five times before this year, and his team of spotters has been with him for a few competitions already. They were well equipped; one carries a range-finder and another a roll of neon plastic.

Walsh, himself, carried a small square of carpet — something both O’Connell and Bleasdale picked up from him after last year — with a piece of wood attached to the bottom. Why find a good place to tee up when one can be brought along? His three clubs were bound with Velcro to a walking stick, and he wore a broad hat.

He’s a big golfer, too — he worked the NMT course through college, and he used to be assistant pro at the shop. Now, he coaches the K-8 team and acts as assistant coach for the Socorro High varsity team.

“I used to (play in the regular tournament),” Walsh said, “but you can’t do both. The tee times for the regular tournament overlap when we get done here, so you have to choose one or the other.

“I played the regular tournament three or four times, but I’d rather do this,” he said. “It’s once a year … (I can play the Tech course) any time, but I’m out there 200 days a year with the kids. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but this is only once a year.”

O’Connell is on his second year at the shoot, and at 65, he’s the oldest player. He’s from Northern Ireland originally, but he came to the United States 15 years ago. Currently, he works at the VLA and has done so for 11 years.

Last year, he scored a 32. This year, he was hoping for a 25.

“I play golf — I try to — once a month,” O’Connell said. “(The Baca Shoot) is different. Totally different.”

When asked what brought him up there for a mad hole of golf, he said, simply, “Look,” and gestured to the sight of Socorro below.

No further explanation was needed. The view of Socorro and the Rio Grande River Valley from 7,200 feet is hard to describe.

“Stunning” and “breathtaking” both feel cliched. O’Connell called it perfect — it’s easy to agree. All around, the desert landscape is brownish, dotted with dark-green mesquite and creosote. But the area around the river is teeming with vivid green plant life, as brilliant and alive as can be imagined. It’s something which needs to be on a postcard if it isn’t already.

Bleasdale is from Phoenix, Ariz., where he’s a commercial hardware representative for a multi-national company. He first read about the competition in a book by sports writer Rick Reilly.

“I read (Reilly’s book) about 1 1/2, two years ago and decided this is one of the crazy things I’d like to try,” Bleasdale said. “It’s one of the closer ones to do too.”

And why did he come back for a second round on M Mountain?

“I’m just a masochist … Plus it gets me out of Phoenix, saves 5 degrees, 10 degrees this time of year.”

Bleasdale doesn’t do many other novelty sports. He’s a hiker and occasional backpacker, and he plays golf, but not as often as he’d like.

The game begins

O’Connell teed off first, followed by Bleasdale and then Walsh.

Since Walsh had more experience, the others had decided to try and follow his route down. Unfortunately, O’Connell’s first shot was a little short and left. He was a little tense, and it showed. His spotters had set up for a farther shot, so there was searching to do.

“This is the story of my life,” said O’Connell, “of everybody’s life right now.”

He wasn’t entirely correct; Walsh’s team was already working like a well-oiled machine. Walsh’s spotters were finding his ball, then tying a neon orange ribbon around a nearby branch, then moving on to the next prescribed landing zone, with only minor adjustments to their locations to be made by radio.

Walsh’s time investment to golf also showed — his shots were straight, consistent and long. Which made his spotters’ job even easier. Shot after shot, he was moving along at a commendable pace, picking up his spotters’ neon ribbons and tying them to his pack as he went.

Bleasdale and O’Connell were a little further behind. Bleasdale had already lost a ball and was a shot behind by the time he got to where Walsh had taken his second shot. O’Connell was even a little slower moving along, but neither seemed particularly concerned.

“I’m competing against myself,” said O’Connell.

This seemed to be the general case; it was not as much a competition between golfers as it was a competition against the mountain on which they stood. Still, everything was fairly relaxed at this point, even the terrain after the initial climb down the face of the ‘M’.

But around the corner of the southeast-facing cliff, the terrain got harsher. It was a scree slope, the first of many to come that day, extending around 150 yards, then dropping off. And it was steep. Any ball that had landed there would either be hidden in some crevice or lost off the drop.

Walsh was still in fine form, hitting his shot from a little ledge down and across the face of the main cliff, aiming for an open mine shaft hundreds of feet below.

And after a rough start, O’Connell was having a new problem: his shots were a little too sweet and landing a little far.

Bleasdale, at this point, had lost two balls and was determined not to lose another; his last time here, Bleasdale had lost seven balls, sending him just outside the paying bracket. His shots were tending to be a little short, but he was spending a lot of time searching. And every minute he and his team were hiking about and searching was tiring.

After leaving that point at the top of the scree slope, it was time to descend the main cliff, the front of M Mountain. It’s a steep slope, covered with boulders and chunks of shale, then somewhere partway down, there’s a jutting ridge of sharp igneous rock, followed by a less-hazardous, but still tiring, slope down to the mine shaft.

Most went a fair way north along it, towards a gentler portion, then down — still not very gentle. But O’Connell went straight down the steepest part of it: a red-rock scree slope so long and wide it can be seen from town.

By this point, everyone had slipped into a pattern which would continue down to the base of the mountain. Walsh was dead on, and although the long hike and the hot day were tiring him out, he was still hitting within a few yards of wherever he intended to.

O’Connell had lost three balls by this point, but he’d gotten into his groove and his team had figured out where his shots were landing reliably.

Bleasdale was hitting a little shorter than Walsh, and his spotters were taking a long time to find his ball on every shot, but his lines were growing consistent.

This, though, is where it started to become more of an endurance game.

Straight line home

There’s a point at the bottom of the mountain where the game changes again.

There are still several thousand feet between the base of the mountain and the hole, and it’s all fairly flat scrubland with gentle hills and the occasional arroyo. The course, ideally, follows a gravel road that joins a paved road back to the EMRTC building and the hole, so all a player has to do here is keep it on the road and keep it moving.

Thanks to the rules regarding moving the ball, as long as it doesn’t get too far off the road, this seems a reasonably easy challenge in theory.

Then consider the heat. It’s around noon by this point, and the sun is beating down on the shadeless terrain. The golfers and their spotters are already tired and hot from getting down the mountain. This last mile and a half or so, though not as directly dangerous as the mountain, drags on and drains everyone.

Gonzales, though, was driving around on the various roads, providing ice-cold water bottles to everyone involved, making the final crossing just a little easier.

Walsh kept hitting them sweet, landing within a few feet of the road with every shot. It seemed like the arduous event had barely affected the straightness of his swing.

He lined up a shot — his 12th of the day, though he had lost one ball up on the mountain — and swung. The ball soared, hitting just short of the hole, bouncing up and over the hole, into the parking lot, then rolling 75 yards across the blacktop.

He came over the rise to see where it had ended up, then jokingly pleaded to Gonzales to just “call it two” and let him be done. No such luck.

Good thing too — he sank it in one. At the end, his score was 14 — two better than what he’d done the previous two years in a row.

O’Connell hit one over the rise in the road a few minutes later, which stopped right inside the circle. Having lost three balls, his final score was 28.

It was a while before Bleasdale knocked his ball out of the arroyo and into the vegetation just next to the EMRTC building. After some searching from there and a quick place, he tried to “putt” in the last 20 or so feet. But his “short game” had problems; it took him two more shots to get it in. Having lost only two balls, his final score was also 28, tying him with O’Connell.

A strange journey

It was a very long day, and a very long game of golf. Everyone was tired — although O’Connell said, as he did last year, he’d play it again tomorrow, if he could.

Everyone was scratched up, but there were no serious injuries. It’s not hard, though, to figure out why anyone would play this mad hole of golf. For some, it’s the novelty. For others, it’s the beautiful landscape.

But there’s a powerful sense of accomplishment once everyone hits their last shots into the big orange circle next to the EMRTC parking lot. Besides, everyone who got up and took that first stroke off the top of the mountain has this wonderfully absurd achievement: they can now point to ‘M’ Mountain whenever they wish and say, “See that? I hit a golf ball off of that.”

Who could ask for more?