Kulpa dreams of a “golf Mecca” in central Amherst

Local News

AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB)–Brian Kulpa laughed out loud at the notion that he could be considered a jock. 

“No, I’m not,” the Amherst town supervisor said in a recent interview at the town hall. “I played a lot of different sports when I was a kid. I wasn’t great at anything, but I tried everything. I’m a fan of sports.

“I love it. I’m competitive. So I like the competitive angle.”

Kulpa said he’ll always have a soft spot for Major League Baseball, though he’s grown disillusioned with major pro sports. The town’s college programs at UB, his alma mater, and Daemen are his new passions. He helps coach two youth baseball teams.

Son Zachary, 13, is a good ballplayer. His 9-year-old daughter, Suzanne, is the only girl on her baseball team (he also has a 2-year-old). There’s nothing quite so gratifying as watching kids develop their skills while experiencing the sheer joy of participating in sports.

That’s why Kulpa, who generally shoots in the 90s, is so passionate about golf. He grew up in Tonawanda and played with his father and grandfather. He took lessons as a kid in the town. He remembers hitting balls into a landfill near Sheridan. 

“I grew up playing mostly Grover Cleveland, though,” Kulpa said. “My kids took First Tee there and they played Brighton. My kids are better than I am already because they started younger and committed to it.

“It’s a wonderful game. It’s inter-generational.”

Kulpa, who was Williamsville mayor before his election as supervisor in 2017, has long believed that golf could be more wonderful for townspeople. He says Amherst, which has more residents than Albany and is fast approaching Syracuse in population, needs a better municipal golf experience.

“I want something good in Amherst,” he said. “I’ll be honest. I’m not enamored by Audubon. It’s not a course I particular like.”

Most golfers in the Northtowns would tell you Tonawanda has the better courses. Sheridan is considered by many to be the best municipal course around. Brighton is solid, if less esteemed by the more accomplished players.

“If I’m going to go play, I’d rather play Brighton or Sheridan,” Kulpa said. “Sheridan is an A course, Brighton a B for a town. Those are both better municipal courses than what we have here.” 

Kulpa said the town simply hasn’t made golf — or amateur sports in general — a priority over the years. He was determined to change that when he became supervisor three years ago, and golf it at the heart of the “Amherst Central Park” concept he’s been pushing for the town.

“We have an opportunity to turn Amherst into a little bit of a golf Mecca in the area,” he said. 

His plan has been called “pie in the sky” and a giveaway to developers. But Kulpa has reimagined the center of the town — where the Audubon 18- and 9-hole courses now sit — as a hub for leisure activity in Amherst, with golf at the center.

The project dates to 2012, when the Westwood Country Club closed. The town has been dickering for years about what to do with the Westwood property. But last week, the town approved a deal that could clear the way for Audubon’s redevelopment and turn Westwood in what Kulpa calls an “Olmstedian” nature park.

It’s a lot to contemplate, but for golf fans — and sports fans overall — it’s an exciting prospect: Kulpa wants Amherst Central Park to be a recreational destination, a reimagined public space with golf at its center. 

For the last month or so, a golf task force has been meeting remotely to discuss the plans for town golf. They’ve talked  about a better 18-hole course, a new 9-hole course at Audubon, a Top Golf complex and a short course modeled on Scotland’s pitch ’n putt courses, among other things. 

“It’s always been that no one’s had a vision,” said Dick Duquin, the head of the golf task force. “So what’s our vision for golf? I’m in agreement with everybody out there who says we need to have an 18-hole course that provides golf for people who want to play what they consider ‘real golf’. 

“But at the same time, I’m sort of buying into Brian’s vision that the percentage of golfers in Amherst that have to play an 18-hole course is not that high.”

So there are two distinct pieces to the golf vision. One is turning the Audubon site into a family-oriented golf experience that would cater to people who like playing, but don’t necessarily have the four-plus hours to do it.

Kulpa’s plan calls for keeping the existing par-3 Audubon course across Maple Road, but having a real commitment to maintaining it. Top Golf would be located across the road, with a new 9-hole course alongside it — the sort of modern 9-holer that golf legend Jack Nicklaus likes to design.

Top Golf is an intriguing idea. It’s basically a driving range where golfers hit micro-chipped balls from elevated bays to large outdoor targets in the outfield. You accumulate points based on accuracy. You can also eat, drink and watch sports on TV between shots. 

This seems like an activity that would appeal to Buffalo folks. The driving areas have radiant heaters above the mats, too. So you can play in the winter. Top Golf has more than 50 locations in the U.S., including such northern cities as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago. Why not Buffalo? 

“You could spend hours there,” Kulpa said. “They’re a lot of fun.”

The second, and most vital, piece of the golf plan is a better 18-hole course for the town. Audubon (which will remain open through 2021) was struggling even before it was discovered that bodies had been buried beneath the course, accelerating the attempt to find a more worthy alternative. 

“Yeah, I think we need to have a better municipal golf course,” said Duquin, a retired Kenmore teacher whose son was deputy mayor under Kulpa in Williamsville. He said the Audubon layout is fine, but it hasn’t been well-maintained over the years by a variety of private operators.

“I’m part of the men’s club there,” Duquin said. “Basically, you listen to them complain about the golf course. I’ve been playing with them for 20 years. We lost maybe 20 members of the men’s club this year who went somewhere else. They were concerned about what was going to happen to the golf course, whether it was going to be taken care of.”

Kulpa and the task force see two possible solutions: One is to buy Glen Oak, a terrific public course on Smith Road that was purchased in 2017 by Tim Fries, a former member of the PGA national board and long-time club pro at Transit Valley. 

Buying Glen Oak would be ideal for Amherst. The course is splendid and well-maintained under Fries. The Western New York branch of the PGA branch is headquartered at Glen Oak. Steve Bartkowski, the executive director, is on the Amherst golf task force. 

“I don’t know how far Tim would want me to go with this,” Kulpa said, “but I’m willing to look at the town buying the facility, and then having them operate it. I think Tim does a great job with operations. He loves the game.”

Fries declined comment at this stage of the discussions. When I talked to him in March, he said Glen Oak was “his mortgage and his retirement.” The first two years were tough, but business has been booming lately. Still, the town could eventually come with an offer that’s hard to refuse. 

Glen Oak is at the forefront of efforts to make golf more family-friendly. Fries has youth programs that would be a natural for Kulpa, who is eager to expand those options in the town. 

“Let’s get the PGA and the town fused at the hip,” Kulpa said. “We want to be a town that’s infused with the local PGA so we can offer a broad brush of programs, from beginners to First Tee. If we have to increase volume in order to do some of that, we’ve got land assets and places to do this.”

“I think the issue at Glen Oak would be traffic,” Duquin said, “the number of people who want to play,” Duquin said. “And it’ll go down in cost. If you look at a season’s pass at Audubon now, it’s a great deal. It’s probably one of the cheaper deals around.”

There’s already talk of adding an additional nine-hole course, maybe a “short course” at Glen Oak to accommodate more play. That would be a welcome boost if the town made any sort of investment there. 

Kulpa said the town would own Glen Oak in a perfect world (he rues the fact that Amherst didn’t buy it a few years ago). But he’s fascinated by the second option — redeveloping Oakwood, the town’s existing 9-hole course in the northern part of Amherst near Tonawanda Creek. 

There were plans 20 years ago to building an 18-holer in the north part of town, merging Oakwood with the Heritage Village site, near the old Amherst Museum. There’s a proposed layout for an 18-hole course, an unconventional design that appeals to the architect in Kulpa. 

Yes, it’s an ambitious buffet of ideas, one that Kulpa, 41, has envisioned from the moment he took office. It’s more than golf. The Amherst Central Park plan calls for enhanced baseball diamonds, pickle ball courts, an ice skating track, an indoor track and field facility, even cricket fields. 

“Senator Ranzenhofer got us a grant for pickle ball in the center of town — 18 courts,” Kulpa said. “I do have some ideas. These are the things that keep me awake at night dreaming.”

He dreams big. Baseball, softball, track, cricket, pickle ball, ice tracks, art festivals, outdoor walking trails and restaurants, an Olmstedian park. Why not invest in a reimagined Amherst?

“Golf is a portion of this,” Kulpa said. “It has to be. We have an opportunity to do something really great, something that’s transformational. Can you imagine?”

It seems especially ambitious during a global pandemic, with businesses shut down and people out of work and the country wondering when things will ever be normal again.

“I thought about that,” Kulpa said. “I probably have been at my desk 72 hours a week. The town’s never been busier, just dealing with the pandemic and stuff. Conceptually, how do you come out of a pandemic?

“Well, my kids are starting to play baseball. Youth sports, people on golf courses, that’s become the goal, let’s get back to some normal. We’re not going back to street festivals and big parties. But we can go back to athletics. We can go back to walks in the park and to this type of stuff. 

“So when better to dream about all the things that could be?”

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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