Two things have come to be expected at the Navajo Trail Open golf tournament: tough greens and exciting finishes, and the 57th installment of the three-day, 54-hole golf tournament this weekend at Hillcrest Golf Club in Durango doesn’t look to break from the trend.
Two years ago, Albuquerque’s Wil Collins held off protégé Sam Saunders in the third and final round for the title, and last year, Jere Pelletier needed three playoff holes to best Calum Hill for the crown.
There won’t be a repeat champion at this year’s tournament, as Pelletier is not in the field, and there are only 15 players from last year’s professional field back, which leaves the tournament door open for several players.
“Some of these guys I don’t know, and we’re just going to have to wait and see,” Hillcrest head golf professional John Vickers said. “The first round, typically, you kind of get a feel for (who will contend). Very rarely does someone come from behind.
“The greens are quick but fair right now. If they get quicker, they’ll start getting a little unfair.”
This year’s professional field will feature 39 pros after Matt McClung withdrew as a result of his asthma and the smoke from the 416 Fire burning north of town. Vickers and Hillcrest reached out to a handful of players on the wait list for the NTO, but they had not gotten a commitment from anyone.
The winner of the pro tournament will take home $5,500 in prize money, with $3,500 going to the runner-up and $2,500 to third place.
The course will play a little short of 7,100 yards for the tournament, and players will see all the challenges the par-71 track at Hillcrest is known for.
“You hit good shots and you think the course is really easy, and the second you get out of position, it becomes a grind to find a way to save par on a hole, and sometimes you try to save bogey,” said Collins, who shot a 7-under 64 during Thursday’s pro-am.
“It’s kind of a good course to play the week of the U.S. Open because it really tests your mind. It wears you out and you have to stay patient. You can’t really try to force anything out here.”
Along with Pelletier, Hill is out of this year’s field, as the Scot is playing in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills this weekend in Southampton, New York. Hill was on the first page of the leaderboard before back-to-back double bogeys on Nos. 14 and 15 had him finish at 5-over par for the first round.
The top returner from last year is Durango’s Tom Kalinowski, who finished tied for third with Steven Kupcho at 3-under 207, one shot out of the playoff with Hill and Pelletier.
“It’s funny. I remembered it when I was on 18, I missed a four-footer straight up the hill to lose by one,” said Kalinowski, who shot 65 in the pro-am. “It still sits with me a little bit, but I always have fun playing this tournament.”
Dusty Fielding, who set the course record at 61 on his way to the 2015 NTO title, is more than capable of making a charge this year. Also poised to make a run this weekend is Justin Keiley, who played college golf at Brigham Young University and is coming off a four-shot victory at the Provo Open last weekend at East Bay Golf Course in Provo, Utah.
Another highlight in this year’s field is Andrew Buckle, who tied for fifth last year, along with Collins, Saunders and Derek Tolan, a two-time Colorado Open champion from Highlands Ranch who qualified for the 2002 U.S. Open at the age of 16 and played collegiately at the University of Colorado.
“I haven’t been here in a long time, and I forgot how diabolical the greens are,” said Tolan, who hasn’t played the NTO since 2011. “It’s pretty much going to play as hard as they want to make it with the greens, and they can put the pins in some tough positions. But the course is in good shape and it’s a fun golf course. You can make some birdies, but if you get carried away, you can definitely get tossed around.
“Physically, I’m playing well, I just haven’t been getting anything done. It’s kind of a crap shoot and my expectations are pretty low. I’m more trying to enjoy playing competitive golf. I could play great or mediocre, I’m just not sure.”
The weekend’s forecast will also bring its own challenges to the tournament. Friday’s forecast calls for warm weather with winds of 10-15 mph, but heavy rain is scheduled to hit Saturday, with 1-2 inches expected and a high of about 60 degrees.
The Saturday rain is expected to carry into Sunday, with temperatures moving up to about 70 degrees.
“There’s a lot of rain in the forecast, and we don’t have any plans for it, just play it by ear,” Vickers said. “There’s a distinct possibility it will affect Saturday’s play in some way, shape or form. Whether it’s shortening the tournament, we don’t know. If it rains all day, and as hard as it’s forecasted for, we’d love to have it for obvious reasons, but from the tournament’s perspective, I’ve been here 13 years and I’ve never lost a day of the NTO to weather – and I hope it’s not on my last year.”
The wet conditions could make the course play easier, as the moisture will soften and slow the greens. But the soft greens could make it much harder for players to control the spin on approach shots, which could lead to longer putts on the sloping greens.
Aside from McClung’s withdraw, players didn’t have much of an issue with smoke in the area during Thursday’s pro-am. Some players said they had concerns about the conditions, but once the wind began to pick up in the late morning, the smoke blew out and it wasn’t a problem.
The difference between the smoke conditions from Thursday to Friday will again be determined when the wind clears the smoke, but with the first tee times Friday scheduled to head out at 7 a.m., and the wind not expected to pick up until about 11 a.m., conditions could be much different.
“When I drove in, it looked bad,” said Collins, who teed off at 10:30 a.m. for the pro-am. “I live in Albuquerque, and when I drove up, I said, ‘Wow, they weren’t exaggerating.’ But we caught the wind in the right direction for most of the round and it blew it all out of here.
“Forest fires are tragic. One of my good friends, an old caddie, was a hotshot and a firefighter for years, and my brother-in-law has actually been out here on a food truck helping feed the guys. Fires are tough and it’s kind of sad, but it’s nature.”
Friday’s first round will get underway with tee times starting at 7 a.m. for the amateur field, with the pros hitting the course beginning at 12:30 p.m. Pros are scheduled to begin play at 7:24 a.m. Saturday and then are scheduled for an afternoon finish Sunday.