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Top player in WNY wide open

With Jake Katz in Florida pursuing a professional career, the stage is clear for someone new to assume the title of best area amateur golfer.

The list of contenders starts with Katz's primary rival last season, Matt Stasiak. The Clarence High School product finished second to Katz in both the Buffalo District Golf Association's Men's Individual and Match Play championships.

"Last year was definitely one that I learned a lot," Stasiak said. "Jake was playing on another level, and I feel this summer, the sky's the limit."

Stasiak has worked all winter with local instructor Gary Battistoni. He has also worked daily on his putting, which he felt let him down at times last summer.

Another local who should be right there with Stasiak is Chris Covelli, who was the third player in the final threesome at the Men's Individual. Covelli and Stasiak tied for second place behind Katz.

Covelli has been in the gym six times a week in preparation for the season.

"I've been practicing six days a week since November," he said, "really working on the physical side of it."

Covelli, who attended Florida Gulf Coast University, is spending the week in Naples with his former college coach and current swing instructor, Dr. Jim Suttie.

Suttie is one of the most respected golf instructors in the country, mentoring PGA Tour players like Mark Wilson and George McNeill.

"I'm hoping he'll give me a couple swing cues that I can work on the next couple months to really get me ready for the season," Covelli said.

The last player to win a BDGA points title other than Katz was Raman Luthra, in 2009. Luthra, as always, should also be in the mix this season.

"With Jake gone, it should really open things up for a lot of golfers," said BDGA executive director Tom Sprague. "There's a lot of talented players."

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Speaking of Katz, he's in the process of rebuilding his swing. After reaching the second stage of Q-School in December, Katz played in a couple of minitour events.

Lately, he has been focused on making his new swing work.

"I reworked everything," he said. "There's literally not one thing I was doing before that I'm doing now to make the ball go straight, so I've been practicing like a dog trying to make it come full circle."

Katz, who's working with long-time Western New York pro Vince Puglia in Florida, will next try to get through Monday qualifiers for a couple of Nationwide Tour events -- the South Georgia Classic and Stadion Classic, which take place in Georgia later this month and early next month.

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The BDGA will add a new tournament to its schedule this summer -- the Tournament of Champions -- which will be held May 22 at Fox Valley.

The tournament will be open to club champions (men and women) at any course that's part of the BDGA, as well as winners in BDGA points events last season.

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Chances are, you've already got a round in this season.

Those amazing 80-degree days last month were met with almost mischievous smiles by local golf directors.

"Our average opening date is April 11," said Diamond Hawk's Fred Zillner, "this year, we were open March 14."

Diamond Hawk had 260 golfers that first day, an absolute bonus for the courses's yearly bottom line. The story's much the same for other area courses that were ready when the warm weather hit.

"We're looking at having a seven-month, almost eight-month season," Zillner said. "It's really amazing."

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Porter Cup Tournament Director Steve Denn has sent out early invitations for the 2012 tournament, which will be held July 18-21 at Niagara Falls Country Club. The tournament's already got one big confirmation in defending champion Patrick Rodgers, the Stanford freshman who won last year as a 19-year-old.

Rodgers started his college season off with a bang, winning the Fighting Illini Invitational last September to become the first Stanford player to win his first collegiate tournament since Tiger Woods did it 18 years ago.

e-mail: jskurski@buffnews.com