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Smith column: Memories from the Men’s City Amateur

It was 38 — and truly great.

The 76th Greater Albuquerque Men’s City Amateur Golf Championship concluded on Sunday, and provided one of the most dramatic finishes I remember in all the tournaments I’ve covered.

Which would be a good chunk of them.

Half, in fact.

From toting a camera around the links and grabbing players for interviews in 1980 for KOB-TV through this year, I’ve been involved in journalistically covering the tournament.

Since 1987, that coverage has been for the Journal.

That streak nearly snapped this year because of health issues. But it didn’t. And when St. Puis X graduate Patrick McCarthy drained a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole at Los Altos on Sunday to avoid a three-way playoff and win, I thought it might very well have been the most dramatic finish I had seen yet.

That got me thinking about some of the great moments that I’ve witnessed in the tournament, and I figured today would be a good time to share some.

Keep in mind, that my mind — much of like the rest of me — doesn’t click as well as it did in 1980.

Playoffs? You talkin’ playoffs?

On Sunday, Isaac Alderete had just tapped in for par — missing his 25-foot birdie attempt by inches — to finish at 9 under in the 54-hole event that started Friday at Ladera and moved to Arroyo del Oso on Saturday. He played in the final group with McCarthy — who was also 9 under heading to the final hole — and Sean Carlon, whose approach shot was less that 2 feet from the hole, meaning a tap-in for birdie would also have him 9 under.

McCarthy ended any such playoff possibilities with his clutch birdie.

So when was the last playoff?

Honestly, I’m not sure (feel free to email me if you know). But the one that stands out the most in my mind was in 1997.

Glen Millican — current Lobo men’s golf coach and then a senior-to-be at UNM — birdied the second hole of sudden death to beat Conan Vitale.

But it was the stretch run in regulation that’s legendary.

Vitale led by four shots with three holes left, then stumbled. The fall was capped by a four-putt on 18 — including a three-putt from 3 feet.

I’ll never forget the stoic look on Millican’s face as Vitale chopped away. He had to be thinking, “What THE? He missed again! I’m still alive!'”

But Millican showed no emotion.

Nor did Millican’s parents or sister, who drove from Garland, Texas, to Albuquerque for the event. How could they? They were long gone on the way back to the Lone Star State by the time Millican won, figuring his chances at the title were long gone.

Another guy who looked finished was Sam Saunders in 2014. The former Lobo, who played for Millican, was king of second-place finishes. He looked to be on his way to another — at best — when he trailed second-round leader Nick Geyer by seven shots entering the final round.

But Saunders fought back to grab a share of the lead heading to the 17th hole at Los Altos, then drained a birdie putt and ended up with a one-shot win.

The year before, Saunders’ former La Cueva teammate, Patrick Behyan, beat Saunders by five shots to win his second straight City. That year, Beyhan finished 23 under par — breaking the record of 22 under — set by Saunders’ brother, Steve, in 2006.

Notah III’s trees and four

Notah Begay III was the most successful future PGA Tour player to ever win City. He won four times on the PGA Tour — one for each City title he captured, the first coming as a 16-year-old in 1989. He also won in 1991, 1992 and 1994.

Begay lapped the field a number of times in the tournament, beating great players such as Tim With (an eventual three-time champ), Toney Ortega (1995 winner) and Murray Van Gundy.

But I most remember Begay’s City showings for two reasons — or is that tree?

In 1992, he tried to hit a ball stuck in a tree on the par-3 ninth hole at Arroyo. He missed and made a mess of his scorecard on the hole. No matter, he still ended up winning the tournament.

Begay likely could have at least tied the record for wins (Ray Cragun has that, winning consecutively from 1972-76), but he had to skip it in 1993 to play in a national event.

Oh yeah, and then there was that other tree in 1990.

Begay opened the event at Los Altos by going 5 under in the first 13 holes. But on his approach shot on 14, he didn’t see a tiny tree a few feet in front of him. He smacked it solid with his ball, which ricocheted backward, hit him on the forehead and nearly knocked him out.

He made a quadruple bogey 8 on the hole (then a par 4), and his game wasn’t the same the rest of the weekend.

Probably the most dynamic shot I ever saw came in 1982 when Greg Solether needed to get up-and-down from a green-side bunker on the 18th at Arroyo del Oso to force a playoff. I don’t remember who the playoff would have been against.

But no extra holes were necessary. Solether holed the bunker shot for the win.

Tony Hidalgo won it the following year. The event always meant a great deal to Hidalgo and his father, the late Tony Hidalgo Sr. The younger Hidalgo showed just how much it meant a few years later. Sponsors bailed on the event, but Hildalgo ponied up his own money and became tournament director to save it.

Other notable moments:

• The lightning horn that blew just as Tim Madigan was swinging on the tee of the final hole during his final round. He hit it out of bounds, but easily won of his three titles anyway.

•  Longtime local standout Brint Clay, chomping on his cigar, finally breaking through in 1993 with his only win at age 46.

•  Jerry Lujan — whose brother, Larry, had long been one of the top amateurs in the state — winning in 1996. Larry never grabbed the City title, but he was a tournament contender for years.

In closing …

There are so many more things I remember, and don’t, after nearly four decades of events. But one thing I’ll never forget is quality of field — both talent-wise and character-wise. I will also always remember the local pros like Hidalgo, Chris Moya and Colby Reddoch who have given so much time and effort to run the event.

Reddoch has been tournament director the past 12 years, and along with assistant pro David Muttitt and volunteers Wally Iverson and Paul Todesco, spends endless hours trying to get everything and everyone on the same page.

And all because of a passion for the event — and the game.

As I mentioned earlier, health issues, including a glaucoma surgery with complications, have sidelined me much of the year.

I have no idea what the future holds, but I do know I was certainly glad to get back to it last week for the first time in months.

I doubt if I have another 38 years in me.

But even if I do, I doubt I’ll ever see a more dramatic finish.