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Golf / By Jay Skurski: BDGA struggling amid change

It’s a time of transition for the Buffalo District Golf Association – in more ways than one.

Executive Director Tom Sprague will step down at the end of the season, and thus is sharing duties this summer with his eventual successor, Mark Rydza.

The change comes at a time when the BDGA is struggling to make ends meet financially.

“It’s fallen on hard times,” Rydza said last week in a wide-ranging interview with The Buffalo News. “We’re not getting the participation in the tournaments that we used to have in the past.”

Participation has also dwindled among local courses – of which there are 86 in an area that stretches from the Pennsylvania border east to Attica and north into Southern Ontario. Rydza said 18 of those courses have chosen not to (or forgotten to) pay the annual membership to the BDGA, which is $300 for larger courses or clubs and $150 for nine-hole courses or clubs with fewer than 100 members.

In recent years, the district has also faced an increasingly difficult time securing courses for its events. This year, the premier event on the schedule, the men’s individual championship, was supposed to be at Transit Valley Country Club, until the course backed out and left Sprague and Rydza searching. Eventually, Niagara Frontier Country Club stepped up and will host the three-day event from Aug. 13-15.

The BDGA tries to keep entrance fees for participants in its tournaments as low as possible. That means it may not be able to offer as much money to a course as another tournament can.

“There is competition out there,” Rydza said. “We can’t promise them the same amount of money for taking over their course for a day.

“Let’s face it: Money is tight. Even for a course to spend $300 to join, if they don’t feel there is anything in it for them, then they’re not going to do it. That’s why it’s important for them to understand that there is a lot of value for them.”

To do that starts with knowing exactly what the BDGA is and what it does. Commissioned in 1921 by the United States Golf Association, the Buffalo District is the go-between for local amateur golfers and the USGA.

“There is a regional association in Philadelphia that’s older than us, but we may be the second-oldest golf association in the country,” Rydza said.

There are two major tasks of the BDGA. The first is rating courses, which the USGA requires to be done every 10 years, but can be performed more often when courses make major changes. Courses which have joined the BDGA get rated for free; otherwise the fee to do so is more than $1,000.

The second is providing a handicap service for members. Since 2003, that’s meant using the USGA’s Golf Handicap and Information Network, or GHIN.

Rydza believes that educating local golfers on what the BDGA’s role is will be crucial to the association’s future.

“The big perception out there is that the Buffalo District Golf Association is for the so-called ‘elite golfer.’ That’s not true at all,” he said. “We really need to get rid of that. We want to get the word out there that it’s for everybody. We have tournaments for all handicap levels of golfers.”

For the first time this season, the BDGA is hosting a Class B and Class C championship tournament. Open to district members with handicaps ranging from 10 to 19 for Class B and 20 and up for Class C, the inaugural tournament will be held June 29 at Shelridge Country Club. The Senior (50 and older) Net Championship (Sept. 1 at Wanakah) and annual Scholarship Tournament (Aug. 31 at Lockport Town & Country Club), which is a four-person scramble, are also BDGA events open to everyone.

“Obviously, our elite event is our men’s individual championship,” Rydza said of the annual tournament in August that unofficially crowns Western New York’s top amateur player. “But there is something for everybody out there.”

To participate in a BDGA event, a golfer must be a member at a course or club (public or private does not matter) that has joined the BDGA. The New York State Golf Association also offers “eClubs” that provide associate membership and thus eligibility to BDGA events. If a golfer isn’t sure if he’s part of the BDGA, he can call the district office at 632-0151 to get clarification.

“If you’re a member of a club that joins us, then you’re a member of the Buffalo District Golf Association,” Rydza said. “We’re here to help out amateur golfers in any way we can.”

Increasing participation across all levels of golfers is Rydza’s short-term goal, but the biggest key to sustaining the BDGA’s long-term viability is boosting its junior program, which Rydza calls the association’s “main focus.”

Known as the Interclub program, the BDGA sets up a league each summer that pits four sub-junior (ages 16 and under) and junior (17 and 18, not yet in college) golfers on a team. Each week, that team plays another from a different course or club, similar to a high school match. There are four divisions of teams, and a championship at the end of summer.

The program, which has been around since the 1960s, does not charge participants, making it unique to the BDGA.

“That’s pretty nice,” Rydza said. “There aren’t a whole lot of other golf associations around the country that do something like this. We’re pretty proud of it, so we want to maintain that philosophy.”

The BDGA also hosts match-play and individual championships for boys, and three junior girls tournaments.

Participation in those events has also “dropped a little bit,” according to Rydza.

“We’ve had some courses not participate that used to,” he said. “That’s something I’d like to see get going a little bit stronger.

“Clubs have to remember that junior golfers are the future of the game. All courses should have strong junior programs. These young people will be the members of our courses. If kids don’t get interested in the game now, we won’t have enough golfers 10, 15, 20 years down the road to keep courses afloat.”

To that end, Rydza made a recruitment visit of sorts to the Section VI Tournament last week, encouraging coaches to volunteer as Interclub coordinators.

“That would take some of the burden off the pro at the course and coaches could work with their kids over the summer,” he said.

The BDGA has run a junior scholarship program since 1976. Over that time, it has awarded more than $400,000 to nearly 300 scholarship recipients.

Funding for that, however, is also running dry. The district used to award $5,000 in scholarships per year, but that number has dropped to $1,000. Rydza would like to restore that $5,000 in the form of five $1,000 scholarships.

“We’re really pushing strong to try to get some sponsorships,” Rydza said. “We’d love to find a major sponsor to help us out. That way we can call it the ‘XYZ Company’ scholarship and tournament.”

Rydza, 57, retired last year after 26 years as a math teacher at Royalton-Hartland High School, where he also coached the varsity boys basketball and golf teams.

He got to know Sprague, who spent three decades coaching the Sweet Home boys golf team, over the years and after a few lunches last fall, they started working together. Rydza is using this as a transition year, with Sprague “teaching me the ropes.”

The job does not promise to be an easy one.

“The rich tradition of the BDGA is at stake,” Rydza said. “We’re asking the Western New York golf community to rally behind the BDGA to make it the strong, highly-participated-in organization that it once was.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the BDGA can visit its website, buffdga.org. Rydza said he’s also willing to give a tour of the Western New York PGA Hall of Fame, which is located at 8265 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, where the BDGA is headquartered. Those interested are asked to call 632-0151 to set up a time to visit.

Chip-ins

• Maren Cipolla of Lewiston finished in eighth place in the girls division of the Future Collegians World Tour 2015 Tour Championship on Monday. Cipolla carded rounds of 73-72-78 for an 11-over 227 total at PGA National’s Fazio course in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. She finished six shots behind Indonesia’s Chiara Arya.

• Local qualifying for the 115th U.S. Open is complete. There were five local qualifiers held in New York, but no players from Western New York were able to advance to sectional qualifying June 5 – otherwise known as “Golf’s Longest Day.”

Silver Creek native Jamie Miller tied for 38th by shooting a 5-over 76 in a local qualifier at Elmwood Country Club in White Plains. Cheektowaga’s Nick Ambrose (4-over 75) , Niagara Falls’ Stosh Kajfasz (75), Grand Island’s Kevin Borowicz (7-over 78) and East Amherst’s Carlisle Rainey (9-over 80) all missed the cut at the local qualifier May 15 at Mendon Golf Club. Lastly, East Amherst’s Danny Yustin shot 87 in the local qualifier May 20 at Timber Banks Golf Club in Baldwinsville.

At the Mendon qualifier, Pittsford’s Gavin Hall blitzed the field with a round of 8-under 63.

• Local golf news of note is welcome at the email address below.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com