Links for Life

Golf at Marty Sanchez, Santa Fe’s true public course, has been a ‘lifesaver’ amid pandemic sorrows

(Katherine Lewin / Anson Stevens-Bollen)

The longer you live as a golfer without recording a hole-in-one, the steeper the climb.

For me, a family curse: Two generations of better than average amateur players spanning six decades in the game without a single ace.

So when the ball leaves my wedge and sails straight for the flagstick on the 161-yard, par-3 seventh hole during a recent tour of the Marty Sanchez Links de Santa Fe, I have a moment.

"Go…" I growl, hoping the shot has enough to clear the yawning bunker short and right of the green. "…in?" I ask the gods, confident of the distance as the ball descends.

It does not.

Instead, it stops a few feet short, bang on line. I hole the putt for birdie, half-disappointed.

The curse persists, but the moment had been real. Within it lay an expansive peace that stretches, for me, to childhood—one that embodies new depth in the stifled surreality of life amid a six-month-old pandemic that threatens to stretch further.

SFR’s Jeff Proctor drives one down the second fairway at Marty Sanchez. (Katherine Lewin)

Several Santa Feans who spoke with SFR for this story feel the same: Golf, once folks were allowed back on courses, has been "something normal" as they've watched thousands of fellow state residents get infected with COVID-19 and hundreds more die from the virus.

It's been a "respite," a "mental health save," a "lifesaver."

The relief comes as stay-at-home orders have fundamentally altered the way we interact with others, creating a collective scar no one can yet fully understand—not to mention Santa Fe's place in a nation cut and bruised by a bitter presidential election and violence, righteous anger and pushback against America's entrenched systems of racial and gender inequality.

As case counts have ping-ponged, threatening New Mexico's already tenuous economic future, the state has begun to peek its head above the wall created by the new coronavirus. Restaurants have slowly, restrictively unlocked their doors. Some people have returned, masked, to the office. In-person school is back on the table. Youth sports tiptoe to life.

Golf was the canary in the coal mine, the first of Santa Fe's Parks and Recreation offerings to come back online after more than six weeks of deserted fairways and greens. The game naturally lends itself to the outdoor, socially distanced ways in which folks can interact without a Zoom link or fear of once again bulging the curve.

"We did this very carefully," says John Muñoz, the city's Parks and Rec director. "It's been very successful because our staff and our users have made sure of it."

There've been struggles, including a budget reduction for Marty, as it's called by those who love it, of nearly 25% for the current fiscal year; a dip in rounds and revenues year-over-year due to the COVID-19 shutdown on March 16 and subsequent water plant issues that forced an additional closure; and furloughs for about a dozen staffers at the course.

After weeks of lobbying Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration to give golf a chance, courses, pros and organizations that support the game glimpsed some possible good news in late April.

The green light came the first weekend in May.

"There was this idea that golf could be this beacon of light in a time of despair," says Alo Brodsky, Marty's head golf professional. "It's kind of something those of us around the game always probably knew, but it made sense in a different way after all of this: On the course, it's always been social, while distanced."

Since the reopening, complete with COVID-safe practices such as eliminating shared surfaces and strict tee-time policies, Marty has exploded. For July and August, rounds are up over last year by more than 2,400, Muñoz tells SFR. Staffers are back on board. All day long, the place hums with the singular rhythms of golf.

The game itself has a rotten history of racism, sexism and exclusivity that, in these current times of upheaval, perhaps it still deserves. A quick glance at the men's professional game reveals very few non-white players. On the women's side, where there's significantly more ethnic diversity, players earn fractions compared to the men, despite what is arguably a more compelling version of the game and a superior television product.

But at Marty, the only truly public course in the area, that's not the thing. It's not the only golf option in Santa Fe or Northern New Mexico, but it's the most affordable, accessible and, for those who have chosen it as a golf home, the most welcoming.

For them, there's pretty much no place else.

"This is where you can throw your heels into the ground and your heart to the sun," says Miguel Rodriguez, president of the Men's Golf Association at Marty. "When the governor gave us the OK, people were elated. And not just privileged white guys."

Marty Sanchez the golfer was a local world-beater who won every tournament in sight in the 1980s. The course, which sits on a bluff 8 miles west of the Plaza and offers panoramas of three mountain ranges, took its name from Sanchez when it opened in 1998, six years after he died of cancer.

The property features an 18-hole course with five sets of teeing grounds, ranging from more than 7,200 yards—a healthy total, even at Santa Fe's high elevation, where the ball travels farther—to 5,025 yards, a more manageable length for shorter hitters. There's also "The Great 28," a nine-hole design that provides opportunities to work on the more delicate parts of the game.

The course's annual budget has hovered between $3.2 million and $3.5 million, but that number is down to $2.5 million this fiscal year as the city struggles with myriad financial holes. Rounds are down, too, this year—by about 7%—which means the course isn't bringing in as much money to pay down the $20 million debt the city incurred to build the massive sports complex west of NM 599 that includes Marty.

In fact, annual rounds have been slipping for years, reaching a peak of nearly 53,000 in 2000, then declining to yearly averages more recently of about 36,000.

The uptick this summer—which city officials and golf course staff attribute to Santa Feans' thirst for something familiar and outdoors during the pandemic—has brightened forecasts.

"I am very hopeful we will recover some of our lost ground," says Muñoz, the Parks and Rec director.

Those who play Marty in 2020 will find a course that's matured since the early days by sticking to its beginnings.

First, there's the reduction by 47 million gallons this year of effluent water course superintendent Pat Brockwell has used to feed the grass. He glows about the accomplishment.

"We sometimes get criticism, but we are reusing wastewater here," Brockwell says. "The city gets to use that water twice—once in town when people flush the toilet and again to keep this wonderful expanse of turf that people can enjoy."

The man knows every inch of the property, and he's proud but humble in describing the test he presents to golfers each day.

The greens are creeping bentgrass, a difficult strain to maintain in desert conditions; the fairways and rough are a mix of fine fescue and bluegrass.

The combination—and a welcome aversion to overwatering—allows Brockwell to keep the course firm and fast. That's a philosophical priority for him, in keeping with the word "links" in Marty's official name, harkening to the bouncy, rolling nature of the game's original layouts in Scotland that were built on "linksland" between the sea and inland highlands.

"The shot's not over when the ball hits the ground," Brockwell says, sitting back in his seat and playing music to my ears.

My own recent round at Marty bears this out.

I played with Vic Vela, a fellow journalist and old friend. He was a Santa Fe-based reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, where we worked together, and is now one of the most recognizable voices on Colorado Public Radio.

We hadn't seen each other since last summer, at a Dead and Company concert in Albuquerque, where I live—back before the world caught fire, before we couldn't have imagined not being able to congregate by the thousands for the joy of live music.

Vic let me know a couple weeks ago that he'd be visiting. Marty was the obvious choice.

I've been playing 44 years; there are photographs of me with a golf club in my hand before my second birthday. There was even a time when I was good, before I went to work for a living.

Vic has not played as long, but Marty gave us both a fair, fun chance, with plenty of runout on Brockwell's fast playing surfaces, and choices to attack each hole through the air or along the ground.

Give golfers options, and there's not a single playing style a course like Marty doesn't suit.

Vic played well; I showed signs of the old brilliance in between the sorts of massive mistakes that have sent my scores northward as time goes along.

At Marty, the corridors are ample, suffering a less-than-perfect shot and giving players a chance to recover. There's not much "rough" to speak of—that's the longer grass at the edges that parallels the shorter-cut "fairways"—but if your ball flies wide of it, you'll spend some time searching amid the scrub and cactus.

Even that didn't matter as Vic and I had a chance to catch up, enjoy the air and renew our friendship in these deranged times. Despite our shared decades in journalism—much of focused on dark, difficult topics—we did not discuss any of that

As is common with most municipal courses, we were paired with two other players to make a foursome. We didn't know them when we teed off, but we did when we finished. They were of varying skill levels, played the course from vastly different distances, finished miles apart on the scorecard and deployed a wide swath of English after shots good and bad—some of it not family friendly.

That's golf. And that's Marty.

The unobstructed views that infuse the peace of golf in a time of COVID-19 with an even richer meaning don't hurt.

Peso Chavez, the well known local private eye and former city councilor who helped push Marty's construction over the finish line, hosts an annual charity tournament there that benefits disadvantaged youth.

"The nice thing about the course is it sits up, on top of everything," Chavez says. "With so many private ones, the course sits down below, and the houses are all up above. Not at Marty."

The Fore Kids tournament almost didn't happen this year because of the pandemic. When the course closed, doubt ran rampant.

But late last month, they pulled it off. About 120 people turned out, helping to raise more than $12,000, 95% of which will help kids who can't afford it to learn golf and participate in other city activities, says Melissa Bustos, recreation manager for the Parks and Rec Department.

"The tournament opens doors for kids, and people were so happy that it continued," Bustos says. "During the pandemic, we've seen a rise in violence against youth in Santa Fe. I see kids counting pennies at the Chavez Center who can't afford the $4 to get in. This money makes a difference and gives kids and families something to do."

Two golfers, socially distanced as can be, push their clubs toward the par-3 third hole at Marty Sanchez. (Katherine Lewin)

Peso Chavez doesn't get to play much golf anymore—about once a year, during the tournament—but the game's spirit, especially during uncertain times, stays with him.

"It speaks to your moral development and your honesty," he says. "At the end of the day, you are the judge, jury and executioner of how you did on the course."

Sheila Hyde plays a little golf at Santa Fe Country Club, but Marty is home. Her best score on The Great 28 is 34. It came after not touching a club for weeks following a knee surgery, and it means Hyde is no beginner.

"I like a public course," Hyde says. "It's cheaper, which I appreciate, and it's beautiful to boot. They meet you where you are, and I feel like more women play at Marty. At the country club, it's way more male-feeling, with a lot of talk about drinking and the 19th hole."

She also enjoys the city's deep-water aerobics program for exercise. But that's still not an option with COVID-19 restrictions.

Planning for a round at Marty with her friends has been as important as the golf itself, Hyde says. It gives the group something to talk about besides the latest COVID-19 case counts or death totals—and something to look forward to.

"I'm kind of a news junkie, which is a terribly unhealthy habit these days," she says. "Arranging a game and then getting out there, I don't even think about Trump or the orange hair or the Supreme Court going to hell in a handbasket. It's a respite, a mental-health save, a place to focus on something besides how awful everything is."

Hyde's group was crushed when courses were closed statewide in March.

"We were dying to get back on the golf course because it's a normal thing to do, and nothing else is normal," Hyde says. "We can do it safely, together, apart and not on Zoom."

Brodsky, the head pro at Marty, tells SFR the closure was "emotionally depressing."

He laid off 12 staffers, putting many of their livelihoods at risk, in a move he didn't really agree with. Brodsky felt that golf could continue safely, even in the uncertain early days of the pandemic.

Like at many courses around the state, he's made dramatic operational changes to ensure safety.

Flagsticks remain in the holes, with a little piece of foam sticking halfway up to keep people from touching the same surfaces. There are no rakes in the sandtraps.

There are no walk-ups; all rounds are pre-arranged. Tee times have been spaced 15 minutes apart instead of eight. That helps to discourage congregating near the clubhouse and the first tee. Golf carts are sanitized after each use, and unless two players live together, each gets their own for a round.

Tee times are required now even for appointments on the driving range and on The Great 28.

"I've learned a lot," Brodsky says. "Some of these changes will never go back. Tee times, for example: Spacing them further out has also improved pace of play. People are getting around faster, which is always a good thing."

The sixth-year head pro praises Santa Fe as a place where following COVID-safe practices at a golf course is perhaps a bit easier than in other locations. People understand the necessity of wearing masks to continue flattening the curve—particularly inside the clubhouse and restaurant and even in some of Marty's higher-traffic outdoor areas such as the patio, driving range and practice putting green.

A quick stroll up and down the range turns up plenty of evidence.

Richard Ferri of Santa Fe strikes a solid drive with a tiny left-to-right fade, then another, as I approach to ask what golf has meant to him during the pandemic.

"It's been a lifesaver. I don't know any other way to say it," Ferri says, pausing before another excellent warmup shot. "If it hadn't reopened, if we weren't allowed to come out here and play, what in God's name would we be doing? Everything else is so tough right now."

He says he's been playing about 10 years. Ferri visits Marty a couple times a week, usually with three regular golf buddies. They eschew the golf cart, instead choosing to walk the course and push their clubs on three-wheeled trollies.

Getting outside is important to Ferri, and he's clearly wary of COVID-19. But at Marty, the worry fades. He points out that the other dozen or so folks hitting balls on the range are all wearing masks, as is he. And there's plenty of distance between each person, a positioning that only increases out on the course.

"Staying six or eight feet away is really easy," Ferri says. "That's how golf is anyway, and this is where I want to play my golf. This place is a gem."

A bit further along, I encounter Rodriguez, the men's association president, again.

Richard Ferri of Santa Fe says playing golf at Marty during the pandemic has been a “lifesaver.” (Katherine Lewin)

A first glance might not suggest a seriously skilled golfer. Today, he looks more ready for some home repairs than an under-par round. Even his old school, homemade swing wouldn't give an opponent much pause—till you see the ball take off.

He alternates between a few different irons for a handful of shots on the range, none of them curving more than a yard or two. Rodriguez says he's a scratch player. (For the uninitiated, that means he's better than 99% of people who will ever play.) His best round during the pandemic is a 68. (That's very, very, very good.)

I'm certain Rodriguez is telling the truth and that you'd best pack a lunch to take him on in one of the weekly money games at the course.

But after the two of us share a brief lament about how advances in club and ball technology have rendered the pro game moderately boring to watch, he'd rather talk about Marty.

Since play restarted, Rodriguez has heard and felt a consistent refrain: Marty has been the lone spot for folks possessed with the golf bug to get away, exercise, take a deep breath.

Rodriguez speaks stern and certain about the diversity at Marty. Seniors, kids, the women's league and people of every race and ethnicity coming to enjoy a game with a terrible historical reputation as elitist.

At nearly 70, Rodriguez remembers his early playing days as a teenager when the game's arms pushed him away because of how he looks.

That's not the vibe at Marty.

"The camaraderie is the thing out here, and people really dig on that," he says. "Nobody cares what your wallet looks like."

I grew up in Kentucky, playing at some of those stuffy, elitist clubs that would have looked sideways at Rodriguez, regardless of his ability to whip most of the membership on the course. That changed when I started caddying in my 20s and again when I moved to Albuquerque in 2001.

Since then, I've played nearly all my golf at public courses. Just before the pandemic hit, I hesitantly joined a semi-private course, where I play with a group of diversely opinionated guys who wouldn't look askance at anyone ready to enjoy a round of socially distanced golf.

We talk a little politics, a little life, a lot of golf. I'm the oldest and worst player in the group, but these are my guys. I've seen more of them in person than anyone else since New Mexico recorded its first COVID-19 case on March 11.

They're quick to razz me when I've started a round well, only to self-immolate by launching a ball into the Jeff Proctor Memorial Penalty Area near the sixth green at our course. (That's a great spot to forage for a natural snack, but full of dark, dank coleslaw from which no golfer could ever escape.)

They're just as quick to encourage me or to salve the wound with a cold IPA.

Rodriguez is right: The camaraderie is the thing.

That floods back once again as Vic and I finish our round at Marty and say goodbye. Had it not been for golf, I may not have heard that massive, unmistakable laugh during his visit.

Just as he leaves, my friend and colleague, SFR's Katherine Lewin, joins me to make some photographs to accompany this story. She's never hit a golf ball, so I hand her a club, tee a couple up and suggest she swing hard.

Several of her efforts fly straight and true against the imposing sky over Marty. Like me, Katherine is an extrovert, and staying at home has done her no favors.

"Did you see that one?" she asks, abeam, after a particularly solid shot.

"Yep," I respond. "Do it again."

A bit later, on our way off the course, we find Brodsky, the pro, giving two young boys a lesson in the ninth fairway. I suggest a closest-to-the-hole contest from 100 yards.

Nathan and Adam buckle down and send their balls toward the green. Brodsky plants one five feet from the hole.

"Yours sounded better," he says right after I strike the shot. It wasn't. My ball finishes 35 feet short, in the fringe of the green.

That's golf. And that's Marty—pandemic or none.

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