Anthony Delisanti has been blessed with a lifetime of golfing mentors. His grandfather, Anthony Ascioti, bought him a set of golf clubs on his first birthday. His father, David, was the long-time golf coach at Williamsville East.
Jim Furlong, head pro at Willowbrook Golf Course in Lockport, has been working with Anthony for 10 years. Jim Mohan, a top area player who coached with Delisanti, has been a reliable source of insight. Lately, Mohan has been giving him books on golf’s mental side.
Delisanti’s eyes widened when I mentioned “Golf is Not a Game of Perfect,” the classic by Dr. Bob Rotella.
“I know about that book,” he said. “I have it at home.”
Rotella says golfers need to emphasize the sport’s essential joys. You shouldn’t allow yourself to be tortured by the game’s inevitable pitfalls. You need to leave your mistakes behind and learn to love the challenge of every shot, no matter how daunting.
Delisanti has come to embrace the notion that golf is a game to be loved, but never fully mastered. Part of the game’s endless allure is that you continue to chase the elusive holy grail of golfing perfection.
“That’s the game,” Delisanti said Wednesday at Willowbrook, where he was working with the club’s junior program. “There’s always something you can make better. That’s why everyone loves it. You’re never going to play a perfect round. But you want to, and I love trying to play the perfect round.”
Delisanti, who recently turned 18, has done remarkably well in the quest. He was a four-time Niagara Frontier League champion at Niagara Wheatfield, which won 120 matches and had a 99-match winning streak during his high school career.
Last month, Delisanti won the Section VI individual title by five shots. A year ago, at 17, he became the youngest player to win the Buffalo District Golf Association’s individual championship in the event’s 98-year history.
On Saturday, he defended his BDGA individual title with a 36-hole total of 10-under par at Glen Oak Golf course. The third and final round was washed out by rain, giving Delisanti a three-shot win over Buffalo’s Ryan Hart, the 19-year-old son of former PGA touring pro Dudley Hart.
Delisanti became the 13th player — and naturally, the youngest — to win consecutive titles in the BDGA event, which began in 1921 and determines Western New York’s amateur champion.
The 2020 BDGA win earned Delisanti an automatic berth in this week’s Porter Cup, one of the most prestigious amateur tournaments in golf. Anthony has been attending the event at the Niagara Falls Country Club since he was a little boy, dreaming of one day being good enough to play in it.
“We would go every year, at least for one day,” he said. “I remember watching Patrick Rodgers win it (in 2012). We followed him all day in the final round. Then to see him on the Tour, it’s pretty cool.”
Delisanti was 9 years old. That was around the time when his father switched his home course from Tan Tara to Willowbrook. Furlong had recently moved there after serving as Diamond Hawk’s first pro. He began coaching Anthony and knew right away that he had a special talent on his hands.
“He was about 8,” Furlong recalled. “I walked up and said, ‘Can you make it do this?’” Furlong made a right-to-left gesture. “And he walked up and made it do this.”
At 8 years old, Delisanti had an instinctive sense of how to draw the ball.
“Yeah. Very natural,” Furlong said. “I’m not overselling anything. I’m telling you, he was 8. I said, ‘This is an athlete, not just a golfer.’ I see them out there. Just imitate this, and they do it. Then you’ve got something to really work with.”
Athletic talent is one thing. Having the work ethic to summon its full potential is another, and it’s very rare.
“I had one other kid in 31 years who I’ve seen work as hard as him,” Furlong said. “That kid was up in Maine and he won three Maine amateurs and then he went to sell insurance. So yeah, the work ethic is definitely there, every day.”
Golf can be a challenge for any young athlete, who is learning to deal with failure and ego. You’re competing not just with the golf course, but your childish emotions. It wasn’t always easy for Anthony when he was younger.
“There were times when he would flip out,” David Delisanti said. “He would be very upset and we’d have to take the clubs away for a couple of days to re-ground him.
“That’s a tool my wife (Kathleen) and I used. When he lost his mind when he was younger and didn’t handle a bad round or coming in second or third or whatever, we always took his clubs and hung them up on a hook in the garage. They sat there for a couple of days until we saw something that he did to earn them back.”
Anthony, whose brother, R.J., is a rising sophomore golfer at Niagara Wheatfield, soon learned to harness his emotions. He realized that his golf talent was a gift, one that needed to be respected. Humility was part of the deal. Accepting failure was part of growing up and getting better.
“It’s a humbling game, for sure,” he said. “There’s highs and lows all the time. I started to figure out quick that you can’t hit every shot the exact way you want to. You have to figure it out.”
David Delisanti said his son’s mentors reminded him that playing golf was a privilege. He wanted Anthony to play other sports, where he could learn to love the competition even when he wasn’t the best player.
He played baseball until high school and played three years on Niagara Wheatfield’s hockey team, where he was captain. His hockey coaches saw him as a natural leader, someone who elevated the people around him.
“But he was one of those quiet leaders,” David said. “He wasn’t one of those guys who came in the locker room and was a rah-rah guy. He was always even keel. Even when he was 14 or 15, when most kids are in that rebellious stage, he knew right from wrong.”
Tim Codd, the Niagara Wheatfield golf coach, put Delisanti on the varsity when he was in sixth grade. The district had planned to eliminate golf, so Codd wanted to give him experience. Golf was reinstated, so Anthony was manager as a sixth-grader. He was a regular the next year and a captain a couple of years later.
“It wasn’t so much because he was one of the better players,” David said. “Tim had recognized what Anthony brought to the team. He always knew it was team first.”
In January of his junior year, Delisanti broke his leg in a hockey game against Clarence. On the ride home from the hospital, at around 11 p.m., he sat in the back of his father’s truck and called each of his Niagara Wheatfield teammates to update his condition and let them know he would be at every game and practice the rest of the season.
“And he was,” David said. “He never abandoned his teammates. They were 0-12 at the time. They lost every game that year. They were 0-20.
“A lot of kids thought he wasn’t going to play his senior year. But I knew he wasn’t going to get carried off the ice for his last shift with a broken leg. He was going to play. Sure enough, he played and had a good senior season.”
In late August, Delisanti will head to Valparaiso University in Indiana for his freshman year of college. He plans to study kinesiology and will play on the Valpo golf team under head coach David Gring, who is entering his 11th season.
Delisanti, who was in the top six percent of his high school class and a member of the National Honor Society, said academics were a key to his decision to attend Valpo, and he called it the right choice for him.
But in a more perfect world, he might have wound up in a higher college conference, perhaps in the South.
“I think he was a victim of the Covid circumstances,” David Delisanti said. Pandemic restrictions prevented coaches from recruiting in the usual fashion. Face-to-face visits were limited. Much of the process was by Zoom or phone.
“He could have had other opportunities,” David said. “But the coach at Valpo is an incredible person, and he generally cares about the student-athlete. That was the impression my wife and I got from him.”
Delisanti will be higher on the pecking order at Valpo, a Missouri Valley school, than at some SEC powerhouse. (Incidentally, Valpo athletic director Mark LaBarbera is a North Tonawanda High grad and was happy to see an Niagara Frontier League athlete come to the university.)
Dad says Anthony will have four years to find out where he stands in the highly competitive world of golf. Earlier this month was a promising sign. Delisanti finished sixth at the Monroe Invitational in Pittsford, a top amateur event that dates to 1937. He shot a 5-under par 275, finishing seven shots behind C.J. Easley of Auburn University.
Delisanti was the second-youngest player in a field populated by players from some of the top college programs in America, like Georgia, Georgia Tech, Auburn, Stanford and Florida, plus some of the world’s top amateurs from Australia and Canada.
During the practice round, Delisanti texted his father, “Dad, this is big-time.”
“It wasn’t like he was in awe,” David Delisanti said. “I think he just recognized that it was a legitimate field of Division I college golfers. From the time I walked on the property at Monroe and looked him in the eye, I felt he was comfortable and did not feel intimidated at all.”
That was welcome news for Gring, who followed the event on-line and called Anthony after every round to congratulate him.
“It was thrilling,” Gring said. “It was such a strong field and there’s such a great history with that tournament. I was really proud of him. It’s just a great confidence booster for him and his game.”
The strong showing at Monroe could augur well for Delisanti at the Porter Cup, where he’ll face an even tougher field of top amateurs — with his coach, Mohan, as his caddie. Delisanti isn’t not going there to be some sympathetic local also-ran.
“I’m always looking to compete,” he said. “I love competition. Golf’s a grinding game. There’s days when you’re not going to have your best stuff. Basically, you’re practicing to make your bad days better.
“That’s what I try to do every day. The better your bad days are, the better your good days will be.”
That sounds like a young man who has grown wise to the ways of golf — aware of the equanimity, intelligence and hard work required to succeed at the top levels.
Delisanti realizes that Buffalo hasn’t produced a PGA touring pro in ages. Gifted players have discovered how incredibly competitive it is, and how difficult it can be to even make a Korn Ferry event. The harsh Buffalo weather only makes it harder.
Maybe Anthony will be the one. Joe Mack recently became the first area baseball player to be drafted in the first round in 43 years. At some point, a golfer will break through.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m not really even thinking about it right now,” Delisanti said. “I’m just focusing on the next tournament, taking it one step at a time. One step at a time.”
There’s no point in looking that far ahead. Golf is a humbling obsession. As soon as you think you have it figured out, it puts you in your place. No, it’s not a game of perfect.
But if you accept that, if you embrace the challenge and the pursuit of that unachievable perfect round, there’s no telling how far you might go.
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.