Wednesday, June 24, 2009

SOCORRO, N.M. (AP) — Talk about an intimidating golf shot.

There's only one tee box at the Elfego Baca Shootout, and it's perched 2,550 feet above the hole and nearly three miles away.

After a kidney-busting trek aboard 4-wheel drive vehicles to the top of Socorro Peak, golfers have been hacking and whacking every year since 1960 at New Mexico Tech's extraordinary single-day event.

"I guess it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing to go to the top of a mountain and play your way down," said Miguel Griego, defending champion of the Socorro Open. "You're never going to get another chance to hit your first shot 1,000 yards."

This year's one-hole shootout is Saturday, a side event on the final day of the Socorro Open. The shootout was established to drum up publicity for the quiet college town of about 9,000 residents, located 75 miles south of Albuquerque.

In Spanish, "Socorro" means help, and that's what plenty of shootout golfers need while enduring the scorching sun, swirling winds and unforgiving terrain as they smash the ball toward a 50-foot circle chalked in the desert dirt.

The hazards? You name 'em.

"I've seen lots of rattlesnakes on the mountain," said 18-time champion Mike Stanley. "One year we saw a mountain lion. Another time, we had an El Paso reporter and photographer with us. One of the guys slipped and fell on a cactus."

Because the terrain is so rugged, golfers are allowed to tee the ball on every shot. Many bring a swag of old carpet, an empty water bottle or a whisk broom that can be jammed handle-down into the ground.

It's OK to move the ball laterally or away from the hole, but that only solves half the problem of hitting it.

"The hardest thing to do is get a stance built so you can stand and swing and not fall down," Stanley said. "You pile up rocks. You dig with your feet. Anything to try to have some stable footing so you can swing and hit the ball."

Stanley, a 49-year-old explosives researcher at New Mexico Tech, carried only water, bug spray, a first-aid kit and tweezers when he played from 1980 to 2004. As for the clubs, it was only a driver and 5-iron.

"It would be a little hard to carry a full bag up there," he said.

These days, many participants use laser range-finders to measure distances.

The key to success, Stanley said, is positioning the three spotters that each golfer is allowed. There have been instances where balls have sailed into abandoned mine shafts or inaccessible canyons.

"You've got to hit the ball where they can find it," he said.

Each competitor is allowed 10 balls and must finish with at least one. Any ball that can't be located within 20 minutes counts as a stroke.

Stanley said it also helps to know the mountain. Although the elevation drop has helped him smash drives 600 yards or longer, his most successful rounds came when he was able to carefully place the ball.

"You try to hit it right to the top of a cliff if you can, so you're strategically positioned for the next shot," he explained. "A lot of times, it's not how far you hit it but where."

Once the ball is safely down the mountain and into the foothills above Socorro, it's a series of shots where distance is the demand. But golfers still must negotiate sandy arroyos and thick fields of creosote bushes.

Stanley said the 5-iron is a must near the hole, and it's never easy to stop the ball inside the 50-foot circle.

"It's not trivial because you're not hitting onto grass like a golf course. The hole is in the rocks, the desert," Stanley said. "It's hard to get the ball in. You just kind of chip it."

The course record is 9 strokes. Stanley said he usually averaged 18.

The event is named after Elfego Baca, a territorial lawman and politician who became famous during the Wild West years.

Elfego Baca Shootout:

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