By Joan Liess
In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single basketball game and Walter Cronkite became the face of CBS Evening News.
That same year, 41 visionary businessmen and professionals in Tucson pledged to inspire local youngsters to achieve their own greatness through participation in sports.
Tucson had more than doubled its population in just three years – from 107,000 in 1959 to 223,000 in 1962 – when this as-yet-to-be-named civic group was born.
It was patterned after the successful Phoenix Thunderbirds, which sponsored the Phoenix Open golf tournament as its major fundraiser. Tucson’s counterpart tournament was in financial trouble, so “saving the Tucson Open was part of the discussion from the very beginning,” said Fred Boice, one of the group’s charter members, and later on its first Tucson Open tournament chairman.
Corralled by developer, philanthropist and sports enthusiast Roy P. Drachman, the men hammered out the details in a series of informal meetings.
“We particularly wanted to do something to help the struggling athletic programs at the University of Arizona,” recalled Tom Chandler, another charter member.
The Tucson Conquistadores first official meeting was on Oct. 22, 1962, at the El Conquistador Hotel on Broadway. Drachman was elected president and members also planned their first fundraiser – a Sports Award Banquet slated for the week of the Tucson Open early the following year.
While the celebrity-rich banquet was an acclaimed success, the Conquistadores were focused on obtaining sponsorship of the 20-year old Tucson Open from the Tucson Golf Association. After struggling for 11 years to make a financial success of the Tucson Open, the TGA turned over control of the tournament to the Conquistadores in late 1965.
“We just wanted to ensure the tournament stayed in Tucson. It contributed so much to tourism and our business environment – and had great potential to raise money for our youngsters,” Boice said.
Conquistadores hustled to sell ticket packages and prepare what is now the Omni Tucson National Resort for the big event. Everyone was expected to contribute. “If you didn’t work, you didn’t last,” said Burr Udall, the 1966 Pro-Am chairman. He literally put his money where his mouth was. He not only helped stake the course, but bought his own tournament ticket. He recalled being told, “You’re going to wear a coat and tie, and buy a ticket. You don’t get in free.”
Reversing the tournament’s history of annual losses, the Conquistadores’ first Tucson Open was immediately hailed as a boon to the city. “The tournament was so well run that the group can look ahead on their sponsorship of the Tucson Open as a permanent thing of great benefit to the community,” wrote Arizona Daily Star columnist Abe Chanin in 1966.
Chanin’s prediction proved true. These guys are good.
Over the course of 50 years the Conquistadores have hosted 32 Sports Award Banquets, five professional tennis tournaments, five LPGA golf tournaments and 46 PGA TOUR golf events.
Proceeds have netted $25 million for youth athletic programs. The local economy has clearly benefitted, too.
“Professional golf was then and is now one of Tucson’s greatest assets,” Boice said. Charter member and 1971 tournament chairman Chuck Pettis echoed the importance of PGA TOUR golf in promoting Tucson. “We scrambled to get on TV, and stay on TV.”
Surely, one of the proudest moments for the Conquistadores came on Sunday during the 2012 Accenture Match Play Championship – when NBC aired a special devoted to the Conquistadores.
Reporter Jimmy Roberts spotlighted the organization’s history, detailing the Conquistadores’ contributions to Tucson’s golf legacy and to the city’s young athletes. Charter member Buck O’Rielly was interviewed, and the golden helmet once again made an appearance in videos showing past winners of the Tucson Open. Roberts sat on the NBC set with native Tucsonan and honorary Conquistador host Dan Hicks and Hall of Fame golfer Johnny Miller, who had worn the helmet four times.
The NBC tribute to the Conquistadores showed the nation how a handful of men with a clear and noble mission can positively affect their community while championing a sport they love.
“It’s been really pretty special. Looking at what it’s turned into today and how these guys have taken it up to the next level beyond anybody’s expectations, it’s just mind boggling what they’re doing,” said John Carter, who had been the tournament chairmen some three decades earlier. “The kids are all going to be well taken care of. This thing is going to continue to perpetuate and grow.”