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World class golf at the Soboba Classic

SAN JACINTO, Calif. – The Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians scored a major coup by signing a four-year host agreement for the PGA Nationwide Tour.

The inaugural Soboba Classic main event was held Oct. 1 – 4 in the San Jacinto Valley where 144 golfers battled for $1 million in prizes. The Soboba Classic is just one of three tournaments on the nationwide tour that offers this amount of prize money.

Tribal bird singers, whose songs recount the creation and knowledge of the people, opened the Pro-Am held the day before the main event. More than 200 people, including tribal council member Steve Lopez, enjoyed playing with celebrity golfers who flocked to the area to be a part of this historical event.

Photo by Victoria Bomberry Ricky Fowler, a 20-year-old Navajo, teed off for his third professional outing at the Soboba Classic.

The Soboba Classic was broadcast on the Golf Channel with more than 80 million viewers tuning in.

Soboba is located in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountain Range in Southern California. It is a spectacular drive from any direction; as you make the final turn toward Soboba you hug the mountains and look out on the expansive view of the valley and Mount San Jacinto. The valley has developed substantially during the past decade. Housing subdivisions and retirement communities dot the landscape.

Robert Salgado Sr. has been the tribal chair for 33 years. This is a true moment of glory. The large flat-screen television on the wall is tuned to the Golf Channel. The golfers at Soboba have yet to tee off for the day, but Salgado looks up from time to time. He said when he was a youngster he used to walk by the country club and think, “Man, it would be beautiful to own a place like that.”

It took him 35 years to realize that dream in the ancestral land his people call the Cold Place. In the mornings he walks outside to give thanks and bless the land that has sustained his people for thousands of years. “It’s really a spiritual place.” The nearby hot springs also has special significance to the tribe. Salgado hopes that one day they will also be able to buy that land.

Five years ago, the tribe bought back the land where the country club and golf course are located as part of their economic development plan to diversify. “We want to go into other things besides just having gaming in order to be self-sufficient. We had the goal of refurbishing it to PGA caliber and this is the result of all the hard work,” Salgado said. “We want people to take a look at what Indian people have been able to accomplish. … we are self-sufficient.

“The most positive outcome for this event is to show not only us, but the surrounding community how effective our economic development is. Everyone will benefit. We don’t have the hotels, so people will be staying in the local hotels; our restaurants aren’t open 24 hours so people will be eating locally.”

The tribe restored the country club to have a nice gathering place for tribal members and the public. Hospitality is important to Salgado. The country club quickly became a local favorite in Southern California, hosting several golf tournaments a week, including Native American golf tournaments. Salgado said the ethics of the people dictate that they share the good things in life with tribal members and the surrounding community. We are the first people but we all live here together now, he said.

Local businesses profited enormously from the tournament. More than 500 people are associated with the tour itself. In an interview published in the Press Enterprise, Patty Drusky, president of the Hemet/San Jacinto Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the tournaments draw thousands of people. “Our restaurants, our gas stations, our fast food places, even our drugstores. … absolutely will reap the benefits.”

Salgado is interested in sports as a way to build character in youngsters. He said sports teach them teamwork, and to be successful you have to have teamwork and be a team player. “If it wasn’t for football and the cheerleaders, I don’t think I would have ever made it.”

For 25 years, he served as the football coach at San Jacinto Community College and continues to be an active coach at Noli School at Soboba. The school has a golf team that practices at the country club, a new opportunity for Indian youth. “It was a sport that was costly. Over the next 10 years we are going to see it really pick up. We will see more Indian kids taking up golf and tennis too.”

An inspiration for budding athletes is Ricky Fowler, a 20-year-old Navajo who made his third professional outing at the Soboba Classic. Fowler grew up and learned golf in nearby Murrieta. He attended Oklahoma State University where he had an excellent amateur career. In 2008, he won the Ben Hogan Award as college player of the year. His amateur career was capped by leading the U.S. team to a win in the Walker Cup at the Merion Golf Course in Ardmore, Pa.

At the Soboba Classic, there was a large contingent of fans wearing T-shirts with “Ricky Fowler Homeboy” on the front. A pony-tailed middle-aged fan referred to various points in Fowler’s career and made projections for the day. Eli, Drew and Ryan, three of Folwer’s high school classmates, watched intently and followed golf protocol during play, but they couldn’t hide their excitement as they cheered each shot. Fowler shot two birdies on the last hole to set a course record leaving him only one shot from the lead. His immediate goal “is to have a place to play, to have status.” On Oct. 4, Jerod Turner won the Soboba Classic, but Fowler met his goal with his fans cheering at his side.