UNM Championship course rich in college history

The University of New Mexico's Championship Golf Course.

The University of New Mexico's Championship Golf Course.

It’s an image that has remained in my memory bank for close to two decades – my first visit to the University of New Mexico’s golf course.

It was the first week of October, 1991, and I was there for the Ping/Golfweek Preview. It just so happened to be the same weekend as Albuquerque’s annual International Balloon Fiesta.

I will never forget going out to the golf club early in the morning and walking out onto the patio. Not only did I see a beautiful golf course, but hundreds of colorful hot-air balloons hovering above it.

What a sight. I was in total awe, and still am every time that image pops into my mind.

Later that day I got to see the entire Championship – formerly the South – course and was very much impressed. This par-72, 7,248-yard, Robert (Red) Lawrence-designed layout (which opened in 1967) was a true gem and certainly one of which I felt the university should be extremely proud. And it still is.

I returned again in the spring of ’92 for the Men’s Division I NCAA Championship and watched Arizona claim its first national golf title. I was back again in the fall of ’97 for another Ping/Golfweek Preview and then again the following spring when UNLV captured its first NCAA golf crown.

Oh, such wonderful memories.

Now I am saddened by the news that the university is considering closing it down or turning it over to private interests. It’s all part of a university-wide study to determine where to implement cost cutting.

The UNM Championship course, No. 13 on Golfweek’s Best Campus Courses list, has accumulated a $4.6 million debt and is among the assets under consideration by an advisory committee that hopes to close a $28 million schoolwide budget shortfall.

Golfweek’s Bradley Klein had previously reported that the course runs an annual operating deficit of $400,000. The maintenance budget, which includes the upkeep of the school’s on-campus nine-hole North Course, comes to $1.3 million a year.

So, yes, I can see why this would be one area where the university would extend its budget-cutting search.

But I also say it would be a downright shame if the golf facilities had to be part of the mix. Not only has the UNM Championship course been a vital part of the school itself, but it has been the same to college golf as a whole.

This course has served as a venue for three NCAA Championships (1976, ’92 and ’98), a pair of women’s NCAA Championships, and a number of conference and NCAA regionals. This past fall, it hosted its 56th William H. Tucker Invitational and has been the site for the women’s Dick McGuire Invitational since 1979.

And then there are the numerous state and regional competitions which have taken place there, as well as PGA Tour qualifying events.

So much history, so much tradition, so many memories.

“I was shocked when I heard about it,” said current UNLV coach Dwaine Knight, who headed the Lobo men’s program in 1977-87 and was a member of the golf team as a student-athlete in 1966-70. “I was there when they first started building it, and it was our home course my final two years.

“The golf course is not only very important to the golf teams, but to the university community, and I feel it’s a valuable asset to the Albuquerque community and the entire state, as well,” Knight said. “It has such a great history, and I certainly hope they can work things out with all of this.”

John Fields, also a UNM golf alumnus and a New Mexico native, feels much the same way.

“I was really disappointed to hear the reports,” said Fields, who followed Knight at the Lobo helm and coached there in 1987-97 before taking his current position as head coach at Texas. “I think right now some people are pushing the panic button. Hopefully, they will go back and see what an asset they have there.

“I’m hoping cooler heads will prevail and they will do whatever is necessary to keep the golf course,” Fields said. “Hopefully they will evaluate how to get more rounds out there and build on what they have.”

Current Texas A&M coach J.T. Higgins, who followed Fields at the UNM coaching helm in 1997-2001, hopes the university can find a way to make the course profitable and keep it going.

“It’s one of the best courses in the West and has meant so much to college golf,” Higgins said. “Just look at all the players who have started their college careers on that golf course at the Tucker, or who ended their college careers there at an NCAA. It’s pretty impressive.”

That it is, starting with one Tiger Woods. As a freshman at Stanford in the fall of 1994, Woods played his first competitive college tournament at the Tucker. And here’s a shocker – he won. This category list stretches long and wide.

Phil Mickelson ended his storied college career at this layout. A senior at Arizona State, Mickelson shot 17 under par and captured his third NCAA title in 1992. Six years later, the college careers of players such as Rory Sabbatini (Arizona), Charles Warren (Clemson), Doug LaBelle (New Mexico), Bill Lunde (UNLV), Bo Van Pelt (Oklahoma State) and J.J. Henry (TCU) came to a close on this UNM layout.

They could have a class teaching the history and the players and tournaments that have graced this wonderful facility over the past 44 years.

One person who remains remarkably upbeat is current men’s coach Glen Millican.

“I know our university is having to look at the budget just like a lot of universities around the country,” Millican said. “And, like a lot of golf courses around the country, ours struggles to make money.”

The UNM Board of Regents will make decisions on schoolwide budget cuts in April.

“I don’t know all the details on all the areas they’re looking at, but I’m very optimistic they will look at all the possibilities for saving it,” Millican said. “The course and our golf programs have been a part of the university and the entire community for a long, long time, and I feel they’ll consider the whole situation and do the best they can for all involved. Right now, my gut feeling is they will keep it going as part of the university.”

I, for one, certainly hope so. This is a course worth saving, not just for the good of the University of New Mexico but for all of college golf, as well.

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