From up here, there's no easy shot for these golfers

The sight of the small wooden platform perched above the abyss gave Howard Cohen a sudden case of the willies.

"I'm actually very scared right now," he confided as he clutched a duffel bag full of thrift store golf clubs. "It gives me a little bit of acrophobia looking over the edge."

The Redondo Beach resident might have been forgiven for having second thoughts. Standing atop 7,200-foot Socorro Peak -- with a vertiginous view of the Rio Grande Valley -- he was about to participate in one of the world's weirder sporting events.

One of eight players in the annual Elfego Baca Golf Shoot, Cohen had journeyed all the way up here to test his mettle under decidedly extreme conditions. It was much too late to back out now.

Each golfer teed off from the platform, aiming for the competition's only hole (really a 50-foot diameter circle) about three miles distant and 2,600 feet lower in elevation. The balls rapidly curved out of sight. The players gingerly descended, sliding and scrambling down the steep, boulder-strewn mountainside to find their ball and line up the next shot.

Golfers have been playing the Elfego Baca tournament (named for a sheriff who famously survived a siege in which his adversaries fired off 1,000 rounds of ammunition) since 1960. Through the years it has inspired awe and bemusement in equal measure.

For one thing, conditions can be brutal. Players look out for rattlesnakes and mountain lions as they dodge spear-like yucca blades, cholla and prickly pear cactus, old mine shafts and hundred-foot cliffs. Temperatures can reach the upper 90s.

The peak looms over the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, the event's sponsor. Off limits most of the year, the mountain sits within the 40-square-mile range of the school's Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center, where scientists fire antitank missiles and use high explosives to simulate terrorist bombings.

"We have a blast up here," deadpanned Van Romero, New Mexico Tech's vice president for research and economic development. He often hosts crews from Discovery Channel's "MythBusters," who come out to blow things up on camera.

Smoke from raging Arizona wildfires hung on the horizon, but everyone was cheerful as they gathered for breakfast burritos at New Mexico Tech on a recent Saturday before jumping into SUVs to ride a bumpy dirt road up the mountain.

Dennis Walsh, last year's winner, carried a pack full of Gatorade. Goateed and solidly built, he can hit a golf ball 320 yards, but Walsh gave a shout-out to his team of radio-equipped spotters (each player has three). "You have to have great spotters -- guys who can find your golf ball," he said.

Others local returnees included Jesse Taylor, who often places among the top finishers, and frequent runner-up Scott Jameson. At 64, Gerald O'Connell, a trim, blue-eyed Irishman, described himself as "the old bull" of the group.

Most players carried two clubs. Staggering down the slope, Cohen soon realized his overladen duffel might be a liability. "It's a little too heavy, probably," he wheezed. The radio talk show host and self-described extreme travel junkie had paid the $100 entry fee after reading about the event in an airline magazine.

While the sun climbed higher, veteran players set whisk brooms (or in Walsh's case, a carpet square) atop rocks to provide a flat spot for their tees, zigzagging long line drives around a huge basalt outcropping and over a precipice toward the desert floor.

The players continued along a gravel road through dense creosote brush and mesquite toward their goal, still a couple of miles away. Each lost ball -- a real possibility even with the best spotters -- counted as a penalty stroke.

One golfer gave up after the soles of his shoes peeled off, Romero reported. A parched-looking Dan Bleasdale, of Carefree, Ariz., staggered in seven hours after teeing off, having taken 34 strokes. Walsh claimed the $750 first prize and crystal trophy after shooting a 15, the same as last year.

As everyone gathered later for lunch and soft drinks, O'Connell, his features ruddy from the sun, was exhilarated, even though he shot a 32.

"I loved it," he said. "I'd do it again tomorrow."

Haederle writes for The Times.

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