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Amateur golfing great H. Ward Wettlaufer dies at age 80

H. Ward Wettlaufer, one of the best amateur golfers in Buffalo sports history, died March 31 at his home in Naples, Fla. He was 80.

Elected to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1995, Wettlaufer was one of the country’s leading amateur players in the 1950s and 1960s. As a youngster he won the International Junior Masters at the East Aurora Country Club in 1953, then moved on to success against adult competition. He first gained national attention when he won the Tam O’Shanter World Amateur in Chicago and the Bermuda Amateur in 1956.

As a sophomore at Hamilton College that year, Wettlaufer more than held his own with collegiate golfers from the Big Ten, South and West Coast. He was the 1956 NCAA tournament runner-up to Rick Jones of Ohio State. He was a first team All-America selection in 1958 and 1959.

In 1958 and 1959 he won the prestigious Eastern Amateur. He was the low amateur in the 1956 Canadian Open, a quarterfinalist in the 1956 Western Amateur and reached the semifinals of the 1958 U.S. Amateur. Twice he earned an invitation to the Masters (1959 and 1961) and played in two U.S. Opens.

The team of amateurs the U.S. sent to face Great Britain and Ireland in Muirfield, Scotland, in 1959 has been called the best USA Walker Cup team ever. It included future pros Jack Nicklaus and Tommy Aaron, well-known amateurs Deane Beman, Harvie Ward and Charlie Coe – and Wettlaufer.

That U.S. team won, 9-3, with Nicklaus leading the way, but Wettlaufer was unbeaten in his two matches.

“… 23-year-old H. Ward Wettlaufer, a beefy Buffalo, N.Y. native out of Hamilton College … was sensational in his only Cup appearance,” wrote Kaye Kessler, who chronicled much of Nicklaus’ career for the Columbus Dispatch.

Through that experience and others where their amateur careers crossed paths, Wettlaufer and Nicklaus developed a longstanding friendship. They served in each other’s wedding.

Locally, Wettlaufer’s rivalry with another young collegiate golfer, John Konsek, was big news. Konsek, who played at Purdue and went on to a career in medicine, often had the upper hand in their rivalry. In 1960, however, Wettlaufer beat Konsek by a stroke to win the second annual Porter Cup tournament at the Niagara Falls Country Club. Wettlaufer, who played out of the Country Club of Buffalo, took the lead on the 65th hole and held on for a 282. Konsek, of Brookfield CC, shot 283.

Konsek won the Porter Cup the next year and Wettlaufer tied for 10th.

Wettlaufer was third in 1963, tied for 11th in 1964 before winning his second Porter Cup in 1965, shooting what was then a record 268, 12 under par. He shot rounds of 66, 65 and 65 before a closing 72, winning by seven strokes. He tied for fourth in 1966. By then Wettlaufer had moved to Atlanta where he ran the family printing supplies business.

He won the 1966 North and South Amateur, the Georgia State Amateur and the Atlanta Open. He was still an active golfer in his 50s and 60s and winning senior tournaments. In 1996 he was named U.S. Senior Amateur Man of the Year and ranked in the top 10 among senior golfers 10 times.

A Country Club of Buffalo champion 22 times over five decades from the 1950s to the 1990s, the flags at the CCB flew at half staff in memory of and in tribute to Wettlaufer on Tuesday.

“He was an all-around good guy and a good father,” his widow, Tracy, said Tuesday. “He not only taught golf well to his sons, he taught them good sportsmanship and business acumen.”

Besides his wife, Wettlaufer is survived by three children and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held in the Buffalo area this summer.

email: mnorthrop@buffnews.com