Native American Reyes Found His Golf Passion in Pasture September 9, 2016 | Elverson, Pa. By David Shefter, USGA

Sergio Reyes honed his love for golf on Native-American reservation land that later became the Barona Creek Golf Resort in California. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Sergio Reyes was cleaning out his grandfather’s shed one afternoon 24 years ago and came upon a life-changing discovery. A bright orange leather golf bag with an old set of blade irons was tucked away in a corner. At the time, golf had never been a consideration for the then-16-year-old Reyes, who primarily played baseball and football.

Piqued by his discovery, Reyes had his grandfather, Ben Romero, show him how to play. Romero had once been a scratch player and he showed his young prodigy the basic fundamentals – stance, grip, swing – and soon Reyes was hitting balls on the Barona Band of Indians Reservation in Lakeside, Calif., about 30 miles northeast of San Diego.

“We raised cattle out there,” said Reyes. “It was a ranch.”

That “cow pasture” has since become the Barona Creek Golf Club and the teen who once honed his skills on that ranch is now a four-time club champion and two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier.

Reyes, 40, is competing in his second USGA championship this week at Stonewall, following his initial appearance six years ago at Atlantic Golf Club in Bridgehampton, N.Y., where he missed the match-play cut.

Growing up Reyes was like most of his friends. He never envisioned picking up a golf club. “It just wasn’t cool,” he said.

The game wasn’t popular within the Barona Tribe despite the fact Reyes’ grandfather was an accomplished player in the 1950s who competed in local amateur events.

“It was tough to scrape money together to play in the local stuff,” said Reyes of his grandfather’s competitive career. “He had a couple of kids and a family. That’s what stopped him from getting to the next level.”

But when Reyes found those clubs, Romero pulled out Ben Hogan’s popular “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf” and became Reyes’ instructor. To this day, Reyes has never seen another swing coach. For nearly a year, Reyes hit balls with his grandfather on the ranch, using what they could for targets, until they gravitated to an area driving range.

Reyes fell so hard for the game that he quit baseball and began playing on the golf team at El Capitan High as a senior, often shooting in the high 30s during the nine-hole matches. Because of his late start, he didn’t pursue trying to walk on the San Diego State University golf team. His love for golf, however, never waned after graduation.

Today Reyes serves as a tribal council member for the Baron Band of Mission Indians. The council oversees health and housing programs as well as a police and fire department for the tribe of roughly 550. The reservation, established in 1932, now features a golf course, hotel and casino and hosted the 2007 Nationwide Tour (now Web.com) Championship. .

“Everything is self-contained,” said Reyes.

Between his family, which includes wife Melissa and three daughters ages 10, 8 and 5, and work, Reyes can squeeze in rounds on the weekends as well as participate in Southern California Golf Association events. He certainly is one of the most successful players in the tribe and would love to see more Barona members take up the game. He said between 25 to 35 percent of the tribe and only a handful can play at his level.

“The younger guys hit the ball a mile … but it’s not something they want to dedicate time to,” he said. “The difficult thing for natives is to leave the area they are comfortable with. There are a lot of guys at Barona Creek who don’t touch a club for a month and can go out and shoot 68. They just don’t take the game seriously. These guys, if they put the time into it, could be doing something special [in the game].”

Certainly Notah Begay, a member of the Navajo tribe who was a member of the 1989 USA Walker Cup Team before becoming a successful PGA Tour player and now Golf Channel/NBC analyst, is a beacon for Native Americans. Begay made an appearance at Barona Creek shortly after the course opened in 2001 and took turns playing with local tribal members, including Reyes.

Despite his first-round 79 on the Old Course, Reyes is excited to represent his tribe this week, and knows that many tribal members are following him online. Barona Creek’s director of golf, Don King, even surprised him on Thursday by showing up at Stonewall to caddie for him. “I was going to come out and carry [my bag] on my own, but then he texted me while I was playing my practice round on the North Course,” said Reyes.

Certainly Reyes’ grandfather would be proud of what he’s accomplished in the game. One thing Romero instilled in Reyes from the outset was that golf is an individual sport and how he performed was solely his responsibility.

“In team sports, I remember not winning and being upset or winning and being upset because I didn’t personally perform,” said Reyes. “[In golf] you can’t blame the pitcher or fielder. It’s all you. This is personally my game.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

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