PGA play begins in Indian country

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Professional golfers hit the links at Atunyote

VERONA, N.Y. - The Oneida Indian Nation, which owns Four Directions Media, the parent company of Indian Country Today, has again broken new ground. By hosting the inaugural Turning Stone Resort Championship at its Atunyote Golf Club, which began play on Sept. 20, OIN becomes the first Indian nation to sponsor and host a major professional golfing event. This represents a coup not only for the Oneidas, but for Indian country as a whole.

Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, the driving force in positioning Turning Stone as a complete destination resort that happens to contain a casino, told ICT that hosting the new PGA Tour event will create a vehicle for what he hopes will be improved communication with the surrounding community.

''We're able to present an aspect of our people to the world in a way that represents what we desire - good relations and a beneficial existence,'' Halbritter said. ''In our culture, we're taught to do our best in life. It's not about us as individuals - we're part of creation.''

One significant part of that communication is the champion's sterling silver trophy. Based on a 20-foot sculpture titled ''Allies in War, Partners in Peace'' by Utah artist Edward Hlavka, the award features George Washington, Oneida Chief Oskanondohna, and Oneida woman Polly Cooper, who led a delegation of Oneidas that delivered food to Washington's Continental Army at Valley Forge during the brutal winter of 1777.

Cooper's story, and the Oneida Nation's alliance with the then-fledgling United States, illustrates the Oneidas' contribution to American freedom, a gift often overlooked and omitted from the history books. The original sculpture is now on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Atunyote

That sense of unity with the environment is readily apparent, so much so that Audobon International has certified Atunyote, which means ''eagle'' in the Oneida language, as an environmentally friendly course, the only such course on the PGA Tour.

Halbritter told ICT that in building Atunyote, the Nation sought to create a golfing experience of the highest quality, with great attention to detail and care.

In terms of both playing conditions and sheer scenic beauty, Atunyote rivals any other course currently hosting a PGA event and has garnered high praise from golfers and golfing publications alike. Renowned course architect Tom Fazio designed Atunyote, giving it a healthy dose of water hazards, deep bunkers, narrow fairways and quick greens to challenge top players.

Giving back

Philanthropy, a natural outgrowth of the general spirit of generosity among the Oneida and the Haudenosaunee as a whole, plays a vital role in the tournament. All net proceeds of the Turning Stone Resort Championship will benefit charitable organizations operating in Central New York and across the country.

''This is about being an example - and living the example,'' Halbritter said. ''Not just watching and witnessing, but living it.'' He added that approximately $250,000 has so far been raised for charity.

The idea of giving to the community is important to Halbritter and OIN. As its casino and other business ventures have succeeded, OIN has faced considerable backlash and outright hostility from state and local politicians and ''citizens' groups.'' Most of these folks bemoan the fact that OIN, citing its treaty relationship with the federal government, refuses to collect state taxes.

''The tax issue is a principle,'' Halbritter said. ''It's not about our ability to pay. People don't like it. This is an economically depressed area and lawyers twist words and politicians refuse to work cooperatively.''

PGA estimates say that a tournament like Turning Stone can have an economic impact of $25 million to $50 million on the surrounding community. Yet, Halbritter said, while OIN has created 5,000 jobs and brought the PGA to Central New York, local leaders fail to create economic development of any type.

''All you hear is that the Oneida Nation isn't paying taxes,'' Halbritter said. ''We look to the future. We hope someday there will be a better relationship between our people and those who came from overseas.''

Day one

After the first day of play at Atunyote on Sept. 20, two players - Chad Campbell and Jeff Gove - were tied for the lead at -7. Notah Begay III, Navajo, finished the day at +1. He had a chance to break even but just missed a putt on his final hole to finish one over par for the first round.

Begay has been member of the PGA Tour for the past eight seasons. A former teammate and roommate of golfing great Tiger Woods at Stanford University, Begay has assumed an ambassadorial role in promoting the Turning Stone tournament, lobbying his golfing colleagues to give the new tour event a try. While Woods is not playing at Atunyote, many of the world's other top golfers are taking part.

''Notah is very intelligent and articulate,'' Halbritter said. ''He's a true gentleman and a professional. We're delighted to have a man of his caliber helping us.''