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Begay charity event could turn into something big

The Santa Ana Pueblo and its stunning vistas have a long and strong track record of luring high-profile golf in its direction.

Twin Warriors Golf Club, the newer of the two courses on the pueblo, has served as a regular site for local U.S. Open Qualifying. Twice it has hosted the Professional National Championship for the grinding-under-the-radar club pros.

The PNC is a qualifier for the PGA Championship.

The PNC in particular brought an almost unmeasurable amount of publicity to Twin Warriors, as it was televised by Golf Channel.

Of course, one of the bizarre trade-offs of the PNC was that almost nobody in the Albuquerque metropolitan area bothered to show up to watch in person. Which was a shame.

Twin’s neighbor to the north, Santa Ana Golf Club, has been the host site for all kinds of play-for-pay activity.

The PGA Tour’s feeder circuit, what is now known as the Tour, came to Santa Ana Golf Club three times under three different banners – the Hogan (1993), Nike (1999) and (2000).

The New Mexico Open makes a regular late-summer stop at the course, as well.

But none of these tournaments, whether it be at Twin or Santa Ana, has the potential to move the needle as much as the event Notah Begay III is planning for June at Santa Ana Golf Club.

The Rio Grande Charity Slam tournament will be a celebrity-laden fiesta, drawing the likes of former Lobo football player Brian Urlacher and former Masters champion Mike Weir, among others.

The addition of NBC lead analyst Johnny Miller (rumored) would be an additional bonus for Begay, the former Albuquerque Academy and Stanford standout who won four PGA Tour events. Begay is currently a course reporter and analyst for NBC and Golf Channel.

The Rio Grande Charity Slam is a fundraiser for the Notah Begay III Foundation and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque.

The tournament – think of it as a pared-down version of the old Charley Pride celebrity event at Rio Rancho Country Club – will become a humongous success if Begay is able to lure two major “gets.”

One of them is Roswell native Nancy Lopez. The other is Tiger Woods.

Lopez apparently is lined up for 2015, and she would be a major draw for local fans.

As for the enigmatic Woods, well, it’s impossible to guess where or when he’ll play, since he often keeps his playing schedule close to the vest and especially because he’s been so injury-prone of late.

But the golfing brain trust on the Santa Ana Pueblo must be salivating at the prospect of having Woods on its property, whether it is next year or some other year.

Frankly, no marketing efforts the pueblo could ever conjure would come close to the impact on business that Woods would have if he showed up on behalf of Begay, his old Stanford teammate and close friend.

The average 15-handicapper would consider it a privilege to be able to say that he or she played the same golf course as Tiger Woods, who to my knowledge has played only one New Mexico track – the UNM Championship Course, when he was in college.

If you’re Santa Ana Golf Club, you couldn’t buy the kind of publicity that would come with a visit from Woods.

Moreover, with a strong overall player/celebrity cachet, it increases the chances that local businesses and corporations would jump on board, and that’s never been an area in which New Mexico typically thrives when it comes to golf. But solidifying the corporate scratch could keep an event like this operating, and raising money for charities, for a very long time.

There have been a couple of other niche golf events in New Mexico that attracted major attention, but neither was played in the metro area.

Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw staged a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf Match at Las Campanas near Santa Fe in 2001, an 18-hole match that drew an excellent crowd.

To the south, Sierra del Rio Golf Course at Elephant Butte in 2007 held the New Mexico Shootout, a women’s-only event that included Natalie Gulbis, Lopez and former Cibola golfer Rosie Jones playing as part of a foursome.

That little shindig attracted a strong crowd – estimated at 4,000 – despite the sparsity of the location.

If the metro area were ever going to prove itself as a city that can get behind something other than men’s college basketball or Triple-A baseball – our minor league failings are, sadly, far too many to mention – this would be an ideal place to begin.