Against All Odds: Turning Stone Resort’s Ray Halbritter

While Tiger Woods and an elite group of players will compete this week at the Bridgestone Invitational held at Firestone Country Club, PGA Tour regulars will tee it up at the Turning Stone Resort Championship in upstate New York.

Much has been made of the fact that Ray Halbritter, the Oneida Indian Nation representative and resort CEO, has granted himself a sponsor’s exemption to the event. Various golf media pundits have taken Halbritter to task for giving himself a free pass to an event he created and to which he has pledged a $4 million purse, this despite the fact that most of the world’s top players will be miles away at the WGC tournament in Ohio.

While some have been complained that Halbritter is depriving a needy Tour pro of the opportunity to compete at Turning Stone—boo-hoo!–I have an entirely different perspective. Halbritter, 60, passed his PGA Playing Ability Test in Florida last fall. That makes him an apprentice PGA professional. Not bad for a guy who carried a 16 handicap in 1999, the year he brought in Rick Smith to build Shenahdoah, the resort’s first golf course. (Smith, a well-known instructor, has helped the Oneida chief with his game over the years).

Ray Halbritter, CEO of Turning Stone

Halbritter later hired Robert Trent Jones, Jr. to create Kaluhyat, a firebreather with a slope rating of 150 from the back tees that rivals Bethpage Black as the toughest course in the state. But Turning Stone’s finest course is Atunyote, a Tom Fazio-designed gem where the pros (and Halbritter) will play this week. Given free rein on a gently rolling tract of land a few miles from the main resort complex, Fazio crafted a lovely parkland spread with vast open spaces and numerous water features, including lakes, streams and small waterfalls trimmed with large slabs of local sandstone. Anchored by its own New England-style clubhouse and practice center, Atunyote, groomed to perfection, has the feel of an exclusive club in its own park-like setting.

Proud as he is of the resort’s courses, even Halbritter would admit that golf is a very small part of the tribe and its place in American history.

The Oneida Indians, one of the original members of the Iroquois Confederacy, supported the colonies in their struggle for independence from England, fighting with valor at several major battles during the Revolutionary War. In their finest hour, the Oneidas carried 600 bushels of corn 400 miles on their backs to George Washington’s starving troops in Valley Forge in the brutal winter of 1777-78, staving off disaster. And though the federal government, through the landmark Treaty of Canandaigua (1794), gave the Oneida people special protections for their lands in return for their loyalty and courage, unscrupulous “treaties” orchestrated by New York State defrauded the tribe of their ancestral lands.

Despite the depredations of the past 200 years–the tribe at one point was reduced to living in dilapidated housing on a 32-acre “territory” with no water or septic system–the Oneida Nation, with Halbritter at the helm, survived and even prospered, creating a wealth of opportunities for themselves and for the central New York region.

At the time I visited Turning Stone last May, the resort had finally, after 9,000 unsuccessful applications, secured a liquor license. Clearly the state government has it out for the federally recognized Nation. The Oneidas were permitted to have a basic supply of liquor in its bars and restaurants, but the booze had to be carted off the premises at the end of each day.

Halbritter, in a speech to a small group of supporters, was alternately happy about the approval but bitter about the interminable delay. In the end, the tribe found a middleman acceptable to the policymakers in Albany to finally put an end to the ceaseless carting to-and-fro. But as Halbritter pointed out, the 1,100-member Nation has grown into the area’s largest employer, providing jobs for over 5,000 people. The tribe has spent hundreds of millions of dollars since 2003 to expand and improve its facilities. The resort’s housing-free, nature-blended golf courses are the centerpiece of a destination that ranks as one of the top five tourist attractions in the Empire State, attracting nearly five million visitors annually. As a native New Yorker, I can tell you with authority that the state legislature displays no such competence.

A typical water feature at Atunyote

In sum, the Oneida Nation and Ray the two-handicapper have suffered many indignities at the hands of the New York State government dating back more than 200 years, this despite the fact that Washington himself signed the Treaty of Canandaiga. (Halbritter references the document incessantly).

Personally, I was rooting for Halbritter to make the cut in an event he has fostered and financed. Even if he’s gone after 36 holes, I figured this true survivor will have made his point.

And then today I read this statement by Halbritter posted on the Turning Stone website:

“My intention in qualifying to be eligible to play in our Turning Stone Resort Championship was to participate in a competitive opportunity which any golfer would enjoy. In addition, given the responsibilities of my position as I mentioned in some interviews on the exemption issue, I wanted to use the platform afforded by our event to show the public, particularly American Indian youth, what can be accomplished by someone with a challenging background who puts his mind and heart into it. My goal was to celebrate, not detract from, our wonderful tournament, its players and fans. The focus this week should be on the great game of golf and enjoying the exciting competition on the course. I do not want my participation to distract from our Championship and the talented professionals who have chosen to compete here. So, I have decided to withdraw from my place in the field and to award it to another golfer to play this week. I hope our golf community will join me in celebrating a terrific week of golf and all of the fun and festivities which our team has worked so hard to present for them here at Turning Stone.”

Even with the rather large chip Halbritter carries on his shoulder, the wise chief had the good sense to exercise diplomacy when it mattered most. Somewhere, George Washington  is smiling.   Read more »

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