If you can get past the mountain lions, black gnats and rattlesnakes, if you can ignore the cacti, mesquite and creosote bushes, if you can get over the idea that you may fall into an old mine shaft, canyon or completely off its side, and if you can make peace with the fact that it’s a testing ground for ballistics, explosives and warheads, then playing in the Elfego Baca Shootout on Socorro Peak in New Mexico might be right for you.
Okay, so it’s not that bad, though everything mentioned is a part of the journey. But the Elfego Baca Shootout, an event held nearly every year at the top of the 7,284-foot mountain that looks over the course at New Mexico Tech, is not for the faint of heart. This is golf — with an adventurous side.
The tournament, which is usually run alongside the Socorro Open, a pro-am in which future pros like Rich Beem and Lee Trevino have participated in, has been around since 1960. The rules are simple: for $125 you get 10 balls and three spotters to reach a chalked out circle, 50 feet in diameter, on the desert floor. The course itself is three miles long. You start at the top of the mountain and work your way down, hoping to find your ball along the way. As long as you finish with at least one ball, you’ve successfully completed the shootout.
I still haven’t figured out why I kept doing it.
“I still haven’t figured out why I kept doing it,” says Mike Stanley with a laugh. If there was ever an Elfgeo Baca standout, it’s Stanley. He grew up caddying at the Open, and also worked as a spotter for his dad in the Baca. He’s won the shootout a ridiculous 18 times, and holds the record with a score of nine strokes. (The average is between 18 and 21.) His innovation was to use a driver, as opposed to ratty old clubs, like many competitors used to do. Because of the elevation, the ball really travels. “When you hit the ball, it goes out of sight,” he says. “That’s a really neat feeling, to hit it 600 yards.”
You have to make your own tee — Stanley uses a piece of carpet, some use a broom head — but otherwise it’s pretty much golf. (You know, minus the mountain lions and rattlesnakes and cacti. There’s a reason Stanley brings a lot of tweezers.) And though he hasn’t played the shootout in 10 years, he looks back on it with fond memories. “It’s an adventure,” he says, “but it’s just a lot of fun.”
The shootout is aptly named, in honor of Elfego Baca. In 1884, Baca, then the 19-year-old sheriff of Socorro — it’s now a town of 8,500 people about 75 miles south of Albuquerque — took down a mob single-handedly. He outwaited them as they fired some 4,000 rounds, hiding out in an adobe home for 33 hours. It’s known today as the Frisco Shootout. He later became a U.S. Marshal, and was one of the first Hispanic pop culture heroes in U.S. history, part of a Disney miniseries, comic book and movie in the 1950s. (There’s also the legend that says he stole a pistol from Pancho Villa and Villa responded by putting a $30,000 bounty on Baca’s head.)
The mountain is off limits to the public most of the year. As home to the New Mexico Tech Energetic Materials and Research Center — which tests explosives and other detonable materials for governments and corporations — it’s not something you can just wander on to. (It’s also where Stanley works. He’s the director of the EMRC.) For the tournament, though, they make an exception. Only six competitors are allowed at a time. You have to be driven up by a four-wheel vehicle, which takes about an hour, and then it’s a 15 minutes hike to the top. After that, let it rip.
The status of the shootout for this year is up in the air, according to Sabino Grivalja, the director of golf at the New Mexico Tech Golf Course. Last year, they held it in October as opposed to June, in conjunction with the 49ers celebration, which is the university’s homecoming event. The new date also served to mitigate the heat factor slightly. (Average temperature in Socorro in October is 74 degrees, as opposed to 93 in June.) Though golf is back on in New Mexico, with appropriate measures, they may not want to take the risk of allocating additional resources for the Baca. (There’s a team of first responders on site during the Baca in case something goes awry.)
The Baca Shootout carves out a niche as one of the odder holes in the golf landscape. And sure, it might not be like your typical day of 18 holes. But it’s challenging. (As one of Grivalja’s colleagues told him after finishing one year: “I need a beer and a bed.”) And these hazards, unlike some of the more, shall we say, benign ones that we’re used to, are actually hazardous.
Sure, it’s a novelty. But it’s not a gimmick — it’s hard. It’s also a good social-distanced activity. You know, if you can stay six feet away from the mountain lions and rattlesnakes.
Jeremy Fuchs’ work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, GOLF, SportTechie and more. His first book, Total Olympics, will be released in 2021.