FARMINGTON — The highest paying pro golf tournament in New Mexico is right here in Farmington. And for its 50th anniversary, the San Juan Open is welcoming back some of its greatest champions to celebrate the milestone.
"We tried to contact as many past champions as we could and invited them down. I think we're going to have like eight of them for a little dinner on Wednesday night," said Randy Kahn, the general manager of the San Juan Country Club, which hosts the event that kicks off Thursday and continues through Sunday. "Maybe for those who still play a little bit we'll get them on the golf course with some of our sponsors on Wednesday morning."
With confirmed appearances from a few past champions, Kahn is hopeful a couple more former champs will show up, too.
"I'm kind of hoping Derek (Tolan) and Clay Ogden don't make it in Wichita. They promised that if they didn't play good in the Monday qualifier on the Web.com (Tour) they're coming this way," Kahn said.
Both Tolan, the 2009 champion, and Ogden, the 2010 champion, played in the Air Capital Classic Open Qualifier on Monday for the Web.com Tour event. Both Tolan and Ogden failed to qualify after finishing outside the top 12.
Although some past champions will be at the golden anniversary, one champion will be noticeably absent. Jimmy Gunn, the defending champ, will not attempt to defend his title — but it's for a good reason.
Gunn has been playing on the Web.com Tour since making it through qualifying school in December. Through the first half of the 2014 season, Gunn has played in 11 events.
With a total purse of around $85,000 — including $17,500 going to the top professional — it is no wonder why so many players make multiple appearances at the Open, including one of the best known names in New Mexico golf, Notah Begay.
Begay, the PGA Tour's only full-blood Native American, currently serves as an analyst on the Golf Channel and is returning to the San Juan Open after skipping last year's event.
"It's great to have Notah," Kahn said, pointing to the modest gallery that follows Begay during his rounds. "We love to have him, and we're looking forward to it. He's a very nice fellow."
Kahn said Begay will be paired with Larry Lujan, who has been one of New Mexico's biggest supporters of junior and amateur golf.
Joining Begay in the field will be Zahkai Brown, who won the Navajo Trail Open by four shots this past weekend at Hillcrest Golf Club in Durango, Colo. Brown is expected to contend for the title, along with Jesse Mueller and Riley Arp, who finished second and third, respectively, in last year's San Juan Open.
Jeff Roth, the head pro at San Juan Country Club, will also return to the field this year after a top-10 finish last year.
"It's actually a pretty strong field," Kahn said. "We probably have about 15 new names that we got to just see what happens."
He added the tournament should see "some pretty good golf."
"The golf course took a little bit of a hit with winter kill, but we're recovering," he said. "Now, the golf course is in beautiful shape. The greens are just pure. Chris Heslin, he's my golf course superintendent, and he's done an outstanding job getting the golf course ready."
According to Kahn, the only issue that could cause problems for the Open is the weather. Fortunately, the weekend forecast is calling for highs in the high 80s and low 90s with no chance of rain. An even brighter sign for the golfers is the high winds that have been blowing through the Farmington area this week are expected to subside by Thursday.
"We're ready to go," Kahn said. "It's going to be some really exciting stuff and another good event coming out of the country club."