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Late singing legend Pride played major role in successful Albuquerque golf event

In this undated photo, country and western singing legend Charley Pride, who died last week, drives a cart during the Albuquerque golf tournament he sponsored and hosted. (Journal File)

Whether Charley Pride ever got an answer to the musical question “Does anyone know the way to San Antone?” has never been definitely answered.

What’s clear, though, is that Pride needed no help finding his way to Albuquerque – or finding a way to contribute to our city.

For 18 years (1974-91), the legendary, ground-breaking country and western singer hosted the Charley Pride/Sunwest Golf Fiesta/Classic for the benefit of the cancer research unit at St. Joseph Hospital.

Pride died on Friday at age 86.

Who gets credit for recruiting Pride to become the host of the annual tournament isn’t precisely known, but it’s known he’d made friends and contacts here during multiple performances at the New Mexico State Fair rodeo.

“I had been an entertainer at the State Fair for more years than anyone else and had always sold out,” Pride told the Journal’s Dennis Latta in June 1983. “They needed someone for the golf tournament, so a bunch of people asked me if I’d serve as the chairman. I told them I didn’t think it would work, but they insisted it would be successful.”

Turned out, they were right.

As for the beneficiary, that was personal.

“My mother had cancer before she passed,” Pride said. “Besides, I like doing things for people.”

Over its lifetime, the Pride tournament had three iterations.

It began as a celebrity-am, with Albuquerque-area golfers paying to be paired with the athletes and entertainers that Pride and associates were able to recruit. Mickey Mantle, Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett and Joe Greene were among the biggest names. From the entertainment world, there was Jack Albertson (“Chico and the Man”), Ron Ely (“Tarzan”), Stuart Margolin (“The Rockford Files”) and George Lindsey (Goober on “The Andy Griffith Show”).

Other high-profile entertainers came not to play golf but to perform at the annual Pride dinner show. They included Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard and the Gatlin Brothers. Comedians Lindsey and Flip Wilson appeared as well.

One year at the dinner show, Lindsey, in his hayseed persona, related that a U.S. census worker had come to his home.

“The fella said, ‘We’re trying to find out how many people there are in the country.’ I said, ‘Man, I’m sorry, you came to the wrong place. I have no idea.'”

The original St. Joseph benefit tournament, staged at the Rio Rancho Country Club, had begun before Pride’s participation with other celebrities, actor Dale Robertson and comedian Jimmy Durante, lending their names and efforts. Pride signed on in 1974.

In 1983, the Pride became a stop on the Tournament Players Series, a PGA satellite tour, and moved to UNM South (now the UNM Championship Golf Course). It returned to Rio Rancho in 1985.

Pride always did far more than attach his name to the enterprise, which is why in 1985 he announced his intention to bow out – citing time constraints.

He was persuaded to stay on.

“I can’t imagine a tournament without Charley,” Albuquerque auto dealer Lloyd McKee, the event chairman, said. “He’s always been here when we need him.”

In 1986, the Charley Pride Golf Classic went big time – becoming a stop on the PGA Senior Tour and attracting the likes of (tournament champions all) Gene Littler, Bob Charles (a three-time winner), Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino. The tournament moved to Four Hills Country Club. Sunwest Bank signed on as the title sponsor.

Pride, in agreeing to stay on in 1985, had said he’d probably do so for just two more years. When the tournament hooked up with the Senior Tour, he changed his mind.

“I love coming here,” he said. “I just hope it gets bigger and bigger. If the city and the PGA want me, I’d like to be involved longer.”

Throughout, Pride was a cheerful and accommodating presence.

At the 1991 event, Pride again said he was willing to stay on as long as he was needed.

“Only two personalities in golf now are associated with tournaments,” he said. “Me and Bob Hope.

“As recently as this year, my wife and I were asked if we’d like to keep doing this. We said yes. We’re here to stay as long as they want us.”

Sadly, the following October, the end came. The Senior Tour’s rising popularity meant a rising demand for prize money, and the Albuquerque tournament could not pay the freight.

“They’ve gotten so big they can pick and choose,” Pride said. “… I’m gonna miss it.

“Tell all my fans I’m gonna miss them.”

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