An invitation to host its prestigious spring season-opening women’s tournament outside the United States for the first time, combined with scheduling conflicts with the men’s golf team at the traditional site of the event, put the flavor of gato montés (Spanish for wildcat) into the 2009 Arizona Wildcat Invitational as it made its maiden foray into Mexico. The Invitational, which has been held for more than 20 years and is one of the longest-running women’s tournaments in the country, had been played at either Randolph Golf Course or Arizona National Golf Club, which had been the site of the event for the last 10 years. Both are in Tucson, home of the University of Arizona. But more than a year ago, the AGA approached Shelly Haywood, head coach of the U of A women’s golf team, with an opportunity to take advantage of an offer from one of the association’s new sponors, Mayan Palace in Puerto Penasco, Mexico, to use their new Peninsula De Cortes course because of the problem she was having in solidifying a site for the 2009 event. Haywood figured it was time to take flight — or in this case, a bus — and head for a potential sea of birdies down by the Sea of Cortez. “We had a unique opportunity,” said Haywood, now in her second year as head coach. “They contacted us and wanted to promote their golf course. We were going back and forth on dates with Arizona National and there was conflict on some dates because we share the course with the men’s team. The men’s tournament moved some dates back, which fell in with our dates. Scheduling both men’s and women’s university tournaments in the same month gets a little scary. It was just one of those things that worked out where the Mayan Golf Group offered to have us and show us a little bit of what it was about down there.” The Invitational, held in late February, included 17 teams, including nine of the top 25 in the nation (according to the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index at the time). It was led by top-ranked Arizona State; No. 2 Southern California, the defending NCAA champion;No. 3 UCLA; 6th-ranked Oklahoma State; No. 8 Duke and 24th-ranked Arizona. It was a tournament that was more loaded than an overstuffed chimichanga.
But planning a tournament is one thing. Planning it in another country is another, even if that country is so close to your border. Safely transporting 17 golf teams flying into two different airports, Tucson and Phoenix, and entering Mexico at the facing border towns of Sonoyta, Mexico, and Lukeville, Ariz., on three different charter buses is challenging, as Haywood admits. “The resort is very secure. It’s very private,” said Haywood. “They have two security gates that you have to pass through before you even get to the resort.The security there is fantastic.” Extra security on the buses and at the hotel provided peace of mind for players, coaches and parents. A police escort accompanied the buses from the border to the resort, then back to the U.S. The border patrol expedited the process of returning into Arizona. Haywood said the tournament “was better than I could ever have imagined.” “I’ve had so many players and coaches call me and e-mail me and tell it’s the best tournament they’ve ever played in,” she said. “Nothing was left unturned. Every little detail was taken care of. All the transportation. All the security. Rooms. Bags. Even down to the awards ceremony. I have never been a part of an event in college where it was run so well. Everything was first class.”
Melissa Luellen, the Arizona State head coach, called the tournament “outstanding” and said the Sun Devils would return if it were to be held there again.
“The Mayan Palace hotel was wonderful. It was all inclusive,” said Luellen.“The golf course (designed by Jack Nicklaus and his son, Jack II) was in impeccable condition.You have six holes that are oceanside.The field was great.The food was great.”
In his welcoming remarks, Mayan Palace general manager Manuel Alcocer noted how excited the facility and all of Sonora was to be able to share the event with its northern neighbor.“The Sonoran government was completely supportive, recognizing that Arizona golf and Sonora mutually benefit from this golf liaison through the Arizona Golf Association.”
Besides the tournament itself, this year’s Wildcat Invitational was all about opportunity. There was the opportunity for the Mayan Palace and the Peninsula Golf Club to strut its stuff and benefit from the exposure of the tournament. There was an opportunity for players to remove some early-season rust off their games in a warm climate. There was also the opportunity for the U of A’s two players from Mexico City, freshman Margarita Ramos and sophomore Alejandra Llaneza, to play in their native land.
“They were so excited to be in their home country and so proud,” said Haywood. “You could see on their faces how proud they were.” There also was the opportunity for the teams to give back to the game by holding a golf clinic for area children the day before the Invitational began. Approximately 50 kids from nearby elementary schools attended the clinic, having been chosen on the basis of having good grades or demonstrating community service. (Inviting high schoolers would have been a violation of NCAA recruiting rules.)
By using Spanish-speaking players from the teams to talk to the children, the clinic’s message was delivered in a language they understood: Amor por el juego. Love of the game. Players showed the children how to hit the ball and also held a trick shot exhibition. Unlike other tournaments, where players usually receive tee prizes like watches, sunglasses, duffle bags, etc., this time it was the children who were on the receiving end. Nike Golf donated 16 sets of junior golf clubs, with bags, to the golf course.And in a donation that Haywood called “amazing,” the club gave the attending children a one-year membership to play at the resort for free. “It brought tears to people’s eyes. It was the coolest thing ever,” said Haywood.“That was the highlight of my week.
“I challenged my fellow coaches that we need to do the same thing in our communities,” added Haywood. “Instead of always getting something, we need to give back to our communities in some way.” Clearly the Wildcat Invitational’s excursion to Mexico was un gran éxito — a huge success. But it still remains uncertain if or when it will be played there again.
“Going back to this place is a very high possibility,” says Haywood. “I just don’t know when. I don’t know if it will be next year or every two years or three years.We’ll see.”