Sullivan: Fond memories linger at Cazenovia Park, a hot spot for area golf pros

Jerry Sullivan

Ed Pfister has a lot of stories to tell. You know how most golfers like to gamble on the course? He took it quite literally as a boy in the ’50s.

“When I was 12 or 13, we used to have poker and craps games on the eighth fairway at Caz Park,” Pfister recalled. “Right in the middle of the fairway, there’s a little hill. Right on top of it there was a pear tree, and we gambled under it every day. That’s the only reason I went there.

“The cops would come by all the time. We’d just scatter. They’d pull the car up right next to the card game. It was only 40-50 feet from Potter Road.”

Well, Pfister lost his share of money to the older guys in those card and dice games. He soon realized there was a better outlet for his competitive urges. “I said, ‘The hell with this. I’m going to start practicing. I can beat these guys on the golf course.”

Pfister got very good, and very fast, and before long he was one of the best junior golfers in Western New York. Cazenovia Park, the nine-hole course in South Buffalo near the West Seneca border, became his boyhood sanctuary, the place where he found his purpose and passion in life. 

“You got it,” Pfister said. “I’ll tell you what. When I was a kid, my father threw me a wrench. I threw it back at him. He said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I said, ‘I thought you wanted to play catch.’ I didn’t want to work.

“When I was 19, I was driving a truck for my uncle. I made a delivery at the Wanakah Grille in Hamburg. There was a guy standing at the bar. This was about 12 o’clock in the afternoon. He looked at me and said, ‘I know you.’ I said, ‘I know you, too’. He said, ‘Hey, they’re opening up the Bethlehem Management Club and need an assistant.”

So Pfister got the job at Bethlehem, which later became Brierwood. Thus began his long, successful career as a golf pro, which included a long stint at East Aurora Country Club. That’s where he son, E.J. Pfister — who was NCAA champion at Oklahoma State — learned the game. E.J., who great up playing at East Aurora, is now a golf pro in Oklahoma. 

It became a familiar story over the years: A kid taking up the game of golf at Caz Park, being taken under the wing of the men who played there, learning the game in the old Junior and Boys Program, and making a life in the sport. Many, like Pfister, became golf pros themselves. Pfister has two brothers who started at Caz and became pros. 

Jim Furlong and Dan Antonucci were fixtures at Caz as teenagers. Both became pros. Furlong was the original pro at Diamond Hawk and he’s now at Willowbrook. Antonucci got his start at Lancaster, spent time under Lonnie Nielsen at Crag Burn, then became head pro at Niagara Frontier.

“I’ve been the head pro for 30 years,” Antonucci said, “and I’m the Western New York PGA president right now. It all grew from that junior program at Cazenovia Golf Club.”

John Boss, another Caz Kid, grew up a block away from Antonucci in West Seneca. They’d ride bikes to the course together. Boss is head pro at Niagara Falls CC, where they’re preparing for another Porter Cup. Boss went to Niagara Falls CC in 1988, after serving as an assistant pro at Riviera in Dayton Beach, Fla., for his brother — who, yes, started at Caz Park and worked for a time for Ed Pfister at South Shore.

Dan Lucas, who owned the Airport Driving Range for 40 years, came out of the Caz Park junior program. So did Don Doctor, who won two Buffalo District titles and a Junior Masters at East Aurora. Chris Kulinski, the former head pro at East Aurora who now works for the PGA as an employment consultant, played at Caz Park for West Seneca East in the 1990s.

“I think it’s really, really unique that this little nine-hole city course produced this many pros at different golf courses in the area,” said John Burns, a former ‘Caz Kid’ who is now golf coach at Williamsville North and a member of the Buffalo District Golf Association executive board.

“We talk about growing the game,” Burns said. “But if you have these cheap little nine-hole city courses or mom and pop rural courses where kids can play cheap and play all day long, that’s the key.”

Cheap? Burns said a city kid could buy a $3 pass that allowed you to play Caz Park, South Park or Delaware all summer long.

“They gave you this little pin or button and you put it on your shirt of golf bag,” Burns said. “You got them at City Hall and you could play Monday through Friday. You couldn’t tee off until after 10 in the morning, so you didn’t interrupt the early guys or seniors and you could play nine holes.”

The grownups looked out for the kids in those days. Jim Hillery, who coached Timon’s golf team and was a long-time basketball official, was the head starter (his grandson is now in Furlong’s junior program at Willowbrook). Mary McParlin and Donna Gasuik were starters, too. They might look the other way if a kid wanted to play extra holes.

John Burns

If a kid didn’t have enough money for a hot dog or Coke, one of the regulars would give them money. Some parents would drop their children off at Caz early in the morning and pick them up later in the afternoon, knowing they were being looked after by the adults at Caz Park.

“Jim Hillery kind of ran the show over there,” Furlong said. “When you were a new kid, he would pair you up with a couple of the old-timers. He would look right at you and go, ‘All right, kid. You got two rules today: Keep up and shut up. And then I’m going to get a report when you’re all done.’

“Then, after he got a good report, you were kind of cleared for takeoff. It was a great program. The adults really watched out for the kids.”

The Caz junior program was thriving in those days. Antonucci said there were weekly putting and chipping contests, with the winners getting cherished Maxfli Blue Max balls. He said competition for the inter-club team was intense; there were about 30 kids who could shoot in the 30’s for nine.

Furlong said the inter-club tourneys got the Caz kids a chance to play on the country club courses. He said Caz was in a southern division back then with Wanakah, Orchard Park and Bethlehem Management.

“We used to kick their asses,” Furlong said. “They didn’t like it, because they didn’t want to have to come to lowly poor Caz, and there was a boatload of really good players at Caz. They didn’t want us showing up, we’ll put it that way.”

You learned to love the game, and to play it the right way. Furlong said the old-timers took their golf seriously and paid it forward to the youngsters.

“They weren’t going to let anybody mess around,” he said. “You learned right from the beginning: Rake your bunkers, fix your ball marks, fix two ball marks, play quick, shake hands when you get done no matter what happens.”

And you did not cheat. “Oh God, no. Oh, if you’re a cheater at that place, you should just paint a scarlet letter on him,” Furlong said.

“I owe my whole career to that junior program,” Antonucci said, “because they had great guys running it — like Bill Shank, George Falkenbach, Ray Ethridge. “The junior program really lit my fire to love golf. We had such a good amount of kids and good players, it just made you better because you’re playing against good competition.

“The adults were teaching us, mentoring us. They were bringing up the next generation of golfers to keep the game healthy and going. I try to do that now with my junior kids at Niagara Frontier. A lot of the things I learned back in my junior golf days I implemented here.”

They had a prominent Pro-Am tourney at Caz in those days. Pfister, by now an established pro, would arrange for a lot of the local pros to compete. The junior players caddied for the event.

“As a kid, we’d caddy and say, ‘They’re playing for a thousand dollars! Oh, my God,’” Boss recalled with a laugh. “They would have clinics for the kids every week in the summer and they’d get the local pros to come out and teach us. You’d think, ‘Wow!’.”

For Furlong, there was one local pro who had the greatest ‘Wow’ factor. That was the guy who used to shoot craps on the eighth fairway: Ed Pfister.

“So there’d be three or four guys there to teach,” Furlong said. “You’d get in lines. I would wait two hours to get in Ed Pfister’s line. I didn’t care if somebody else was open. He was the man back in the day. To get a lesson from him, even for five minutes, I wasn’t going to get that anywhere else.”

Kulinski was a generation after the Furlong-Antonucci gang. He played high school golf matches for West Seneca East at Caz Park. But he and his teammates knew the history, that Caz was a place that nurtured a love for the game.

“One hundred percent. It still does to this day,” said Kulinski, who credits Tim Fries with inspiring him in his golf career. “It was the golf at Caz, and it was for purists. You were out there playing, having fun, talking to people. There was no froufrou, it was just about the camaraderie. That’s what trapped us all. That’s why we all fell in love with it.”

The love lingers on at Caz, where many of the current senior members have played there for half a century or more. There’s great pride in the little course they affectionately call South Buffalo Country Club.

“There’s so much pride here,” said Mike Wachowicz, the site supervisor at Caz. There’s a lot of guys who have been here 30, 40, 50, 60 years. I have a yearbook here from the 50th anniversary from 1979. When they had the Pro-Ams here, the people would line the fairways. They had galleries. Hundreds and hundreds of people would come here just to watch.

“They have a men’s club here. They have a Cazenovia women’s club. They’ve got 120 seniors and most of those guys have been golfing here for 40, 50 years. Last year they weren’t able to run the junior program because of Covid. But they’re bringing it back this year. 

“No, it’s nothing like it used to be. But this little golf course is the country club for the guys in South Buffalo.”

Caz Park was a civic treasure for kids back in the day, a gift. Ed Pfister has fond memories, like all the older players. He says it basically saved him. “I don’t know what I would have done without it,” said Pfister, who at 83 still teaches and had a hole-in-one last week at Elkdale. “I really mean it. I can’t tell you how thankful I am to have been brought up there. I know my brothers feel the same way.

“The men who played with me back then were great guys,” Pfister said. “I wish I could thank them somehow. But it was more than 60 years ago. I think back to when I was a kid. I still make a donation to Caz every year. I give them a gross of Titleists. I have ‘Caz Junior’ written on them.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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