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Golf elders ?in a ‘League'?of their own

It was 1965, the summer after Jack Rade's junior year of college. Rade had worked the overnight shift at Bethlehem Steel. He strolled through Gate 4 and saw Dick Terry, one of the old Wanakah golfers, sitting in a car outside Gate 4. "Mr. Terry!" Rade said.

"Jackie, get in the car," Terry said.

Rade, who generally hitchhiked home, figured someone had sent Terry to give him a ride. The next thing he knew, they were taking the Blasdell exit to Interstate Route 90. He asked where they were going.

"Oak Hill," Terry said. "You're playing in The League."

Rade protested. He had been up all night. No problem, Terry said. You can play. Clubs? Terry had stopped by Wanakah to get them. Clothes? In the back seat. Terry had stopped by Jack's house and his mother had given him enough clothes for three days in Rochester.

That was Rade's initiation into The League of the Iroquois. Every year at this time, while the country is riveted by the U.S. Open, golfers from four upstate New York clubs - Wanakah (Buffalo), Oak Hill (Rochester), Bellevue (Syracuse) and Yahnundasis (Utica) - gather for the oldest continously played amateur league in the world.

"The League" is a Ryder Cup style tournament, three rounds spread over two days amid the revelry you'd expect from men who travel once a year for play and diversion. The great sports writer, Grantland Rice, once acknowleged The League as the world's oldest, a contest uninterrupted by two world wars and two financial panics.

This week is the 100th meeting of The League, the brainchild of Dr. Arthur Grant of Yahnundasis, who pitched ?the idea in 1912. When the four clubs met in Rochester in 1913, one of the Oak Hill members pointed out that all the clubs occupied land of the Six Nation Indian tribes that made up the League of the Iroquois.

Thus the name, and the native headdresses that the leaders of the four golf clubs wore during ?Wednesday's opening powwow at Wanakah, south of Buffalo along Lake Erie. The League rotates from club to club, based on the order of the sun, with Wanakah the westernmost site. Next year, it's back to Yahnundasis in Utica.

The sun was setting in the West when a group of native Americans presided over the raising of the Iroqouis Nation flag. Norm Jimerson, a member of the Onondagas and a U.S. air force veteran, praised the Creator in the native tongue. He called the bugler to sound the call, the U.S. anthem was sung, and the 100th League was under way.

Rade, who moved to Syracuse as a young man and plays for Bellevue, welcomed the other clubs and pointed out that Sam Snead and Ben Hogan were also born in 1912, 100 years ago. A golfer from one of the rival clubs reminded him that Byron Nelson was born in 1912, too.

Nothing like a little one-upmanship to set the tone. They're serious about the competition, to be sure. Oak Hill, which has the most members and one of the most prestigious courses in golf, has won the last two. Wanakah hasn't won since 2008, its only win in the new millennium.

But anyone who has played in The League will tell you it's not mainly about the competition, but the camaraderie. The original League of the Iroquois was formed four centuries ago in the name of friendship and conviviality. The golfers are true to that founding spirit.

"The basic tenets are friendship and fellowship," said Tom Quatroche, still a 3-handicap at age 75. Quatroche had played in The League for 40 years. His favorite is still the first one, in 1972, when play was disrupted by a hurricane.

"When we go to other clubs, we're meeting our old friends," said Sal Piccillo, a League Hall of Fame who served for decades as historian. "Yes, we are out there competing, but in friendship. We all want to win, but when we lose, we're losing to a friend."

Golf connects families across the generations. The League has been filled with father-son combinations. It gets passed along. Gordon Gannon Jr. has been playing in it for 58 years. His father, Gordon Sr., played. He'll proudly show you the plaque on the wall from Wanakah's win in 1984, with the two Gannons' names listed side by side.

"I have an old friend, a dentist in Rochester, who plays," Gannon said. "He's had serious medical problems, unfortunately. He called me and said, ‘I'm cured, and I'm coming up there to kick your [behind]!' I said, ‘We'll see about that.'"

Gannon, 79 and still a practicing lawyer, still plays in the Warriors, or scratch seniors. Laughing, he says he's a 14 from the yellow tees. There are three classes in the league: Warriors, Warrior seniors, and Braves, the handicap division.

The League was scratch for half a century. There were only eight players per club for awhile. But some lesser golfers complained about a small, exclusive group taking over the clubs for a few days. So a handicap division was added in the Sixties.

"That's the best thing that ever happened," Rade said. "They can't believe how much fun this is, and it's real competition, which they don't get a chance to play."

Now the event reflects the true spirit of golf, which is essentially a vehicle for people to get together and unwind socially.

"It's this, being with the guys," said Oak Hill captain Peter Clement, gesturing to his pals from Wanakah across the table. Clements has played in The League since 1995. "That's mostly what it's about, hanging around the other team."

Wanakah's Paul Fuzak is this year's Sachem, or presiding officer of The League. In 1976, Fuzak was captain of the first St. Lawrence football team to win an NCAA tournament game. He grew up around Wanakah. His dad was a member, same as Rade. In 1979, he got a call around midnight, telling him to be at the course at 7:30. They needed him for the league. He showed up and got crushed. He's been a regular ever since.
Fuzak and Rade were instrumental in pumping up interest in the league a decade or so ago. Older players were fading out. Younger guys didn't seem enthusiastic enough. The economy was tough, and a lot of players didn't want to travel. There was even talk that The League would expire before 100.

"It'll never happen when we're involved," Fuzak said.

"Not while we're alive," Rade said. "We're just not going to let it down. I told people, ‘We'll get there.'"

Rade has been hooked ever since that day 47 years ago, when he showed up without sleep at Oak Hill and shot 75 on the East Course to win his match. Jack Ahern, the captain and Wanakah legend, sent him back out that afternoon. Rade shot 92.

"Well, son, you learned a lesson," Ahern told him. "Golf is a fickle game."

"Can I go to bed now?" Rade asked.

"Well, there is a cocktail party," Ahern said.

"Oh, OK," Rade replied. "I'll be there.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com