Julie Ann Grimm "Are you going to play Marty today?"

When Pam Whitney asks that question, she sounds like she's talking about a match against a close friend. In a way, she is. She's talking about her favorite golf course.

Her love affair with the game led her to Marty, and like many Santa Feans, she's used him to make friends and improve her skills at the sport.

The city's Marty Sanchez Links de Santa Fe celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer. In addition to the 18-hole regulation course, the links also boast a learner-level 9-hole course. Both have scenic views and effluent-watered desert plants along with green turf.

Even though she also plays weekly at the Santa Fe Country Club, the municipal course is where Whitney wants to be.

"I play in Hawaii a lot. I have played Pebble Beach and Palm Springs, but for a public course, the maintenance and upkeep of this course is phenomenal. There is a beautiful sight no matter what hole you are on. It's just picturesque," she said.

When officials dreamed up the plan to borrow money for the course and adjacent athletic fields, estimates for operating costs and revenues suggested the city would be making money within five years. However, because revenue predictions were too optimistic and the city incurred a large debt to purchase the land and build the complex, about $1 million of city tax revenues will be diverted to the venture each year for another 15 years. After that, the investment's payoff will be obvious, according to Robert Romero, director of the city Public Works Department.

"Whoever ran the numbers thought that it was really going to make enough money to pay for the whole thing, but that was before our time, and in the end, it's really not enough," he said. "Once the debt is paid off, it's going to be a huge asset."

Given the tough economic times and a city budget for the upcoming fiscal year that expanded the police department without a dedicated revenue source, frills like the golf course might be a place officials eye to save money. Users say that's a bad idea.

Play for working people

"I mean, is that the choice — golf or cops? How about we take a bunch of golfers out on the streets for vigilante protection?" said one golfer, swinging her club like a weapon.

Linda Gammon, who was warming up to play a round last weekend, said she believes in the city's sports complex. "I feel like we should have soccer fields and stuff like that for the kids. That is something we should provide," she said.

Gammon joins Whitney on most Saturday mornings along with the other members of the Ladies of the Links who reserve several tee times every week. At 7:30 a.m. last weekend, several groups of golfers were already queued up at the first hole.

While many load up an electric golf cart to make their way around the 18-hole regulation course, Gammon, Whitney and elementary school Principal Robin Noble were walking, pushing their clubs in three-wheeled carts. "I think some people feel like golf is just for the elite, but Marty is really for locals. It's just working-class people who are out here playing," Noble said, grinning at Gammon, "or trying to play."

Most of the 40,000-plus rounds at Marty Sanchez each year are played by area residents, course officials say. Among the thousands who go there each year are school children who participate in free or low-cost programs and players who choose the 9-hole, par 28 course called The Great 28. The regulation course also has five sets of tees to allow golfers to increase or decrease the game's difficulty.

"Based on how you play, this golf course probably hits the widest audience," said head golf professional Ross Nettles. "Beginners can have a good time, and we encourage and expect and want a lot of beginners because that is what we do. And we get good players, too. You can have a wide range of ability and come out here and have fun. That is not really necessarily true with all courses."

As new courses have popped up in Northern New Mexico, more out-of-state players are traveling here. In the decade since Marty opened, Nettles said, 108 additional holes have become available in the region, including Towa and Black Mesa, operated on Indian pueblos, and Paa-Ko, a 27 hole course off N.M. 14.

"It's starting to become a little bit of a golf destination. It's got several really nice courses, and compared to some of the surrounding places — Phoenix and Scottsdale and Tucson — it's still very reasonable, cost-wise, to play here. People are starting to find out about that," said Nettles.

Even though vacationers come to play private courses including those with adjacent hotels, they might also end up at the city course, Nettles said. A quick cost comparison with other courses shows its economy. For example, 18 rounds at Marty costs about $45 compared to $71 at Towa.

How it came to be

The story of the city golf course goes way back. Maurice Bonal is a good one to tell it. He was a city councilor in 1978 when several city residents began promoting the venture.

He learned to play golf when he was on the East Coast serving in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. When he returned home, he found the possibility of continuing his new hobby difficult. The Santa Fe Country Club had been around since the 1940s, but was too expensive, he said.

Years later, Mayor Sam Pick tapped Bonal to lead a citizen advisory committee to study the possibility of building a municipal golf course. He is still chairman of the group that helps administer the sports facilities.

In 1991, city councilors gave conceptual approval to buy land from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a municipal recreation complex west of N.M. 599 that would offer golf and other sports. After some waffling, they hired a consultant to study the idea and in 1996 voted on a financing plan that would have the city borrow $20 million for the project.

The course opened in August 1998, and officials named it in honor of a promising young golfer who died of cancer near the time it was completed.

By its second year, play peaked at 52,904 rounds. Then the number started to fall as other courses opened in the region. Golf suffered other blows when drought made its courses an unpopular use of water, even the "dirty" effluent water. Last year, rounds totaled 41,220. Those numbers don't reflect use of the soccer, softball and rugby fields at the MRC.

"The whole concept was to have a recreation complex. We made golf affordable to those who could not afford it before. ... You just can't look at the golf component. You have to look at the whole aspect of recreation out there. I call it 1,200 acres of fun and sun," he said.

More than 800 children participate in the American Youth Soccer League, which plays at the MRC. Another popular activity is adult softball. Over 100 teams with 10 to 12 players each who are part of Santa Fe Softball association play weekly and in tournaments during peak season, according to Manny Griego, the director.

Griego said rising costs for participation and the economic outlook appear to have an effect on the number of teams and players, which has dropped in recent years. Still, he estimates between 3,000 and 4,000 area residents visit the recreation complex on a typical weekend. "There's always a big cheering section," he said.

What's next?

The future of the golf course and the recreation complex hinges on a variety of factors including the economic outlook. But even dreary predictions about shrinking "disposable incomes" could mean families decide to stay in the region instead of taking lavish fly-away vacations.

City councilors don't appear to have the recreation complex in their sights for pending budget cuts. The Finance Committee looked into changing how the fields are managed, but no major changes are on the table.

"This is one example of where we go above and beyond what the basic services really are and the question I think is valid. Could we be meeting other priorities and other demands with that money? Probably yes," said Councilor Miguel Chavez. "But other councils have made those decisions, and all we can do is ride it out for the payoff."

Contact Julie Ann Grimm at 986-3017 or jgrimm@sfnewmexican.com.

MUNICIPAL RECREATION COMPLEX USERS

• Adult Softball League — 117 teams

• Adult Baseball League — 10 teams

• Capital High School baseball team

• Santa Fe High School softball team

• Santa Fe Prep baseball team

• Monte del Sol baseball team

• Youth Baseball

• St. Michael's High School soccer — junior varsity girls/boys teams

• Monte del Sol soccer —girls/boys teams

• Santa Fe Waldorf soccer — girls/boys teams

• Liga Hispana —16 teams

• Santa Fe Adult Soccer League — 15 teams

• American Youth Soccer Organization — about 721 youth soccer players

• Adult rugby —16 players

• Youth rugby — 53 children

Source: City of Santa Fe

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