Ward Wettlaufer was one of the more accomplished amateur golfers Western New York ever has produced. He won the World Amateur. He captured the Eastern Amateur and the Porter Cup twice each. He played alongside long-time buddy Jack Nicklaus on the U.S. Walker Cup team. He competed in three Masters and two U.S. Opens.
Few of Wettlaufer's contemporaries could match his explosive tee shots and magnetized putts. Fewer still rivaled his bursting potential. Golf was Wettlaufer's world, and the ball rested comfortably in the palm of his hand.
George Smith, former pro at the Country Club of Buffalo, envisioned superstar status for this mechanically sound, self-driven prototype of success.
"Ward has a tremendous desire to win, and a lot of energy," Smith said. "And it won't be long before thousands of people all over the country know it. He has the greatest potential of any 20-year-old golfer I have ever seen or heard of from other pros."
Here we are, 35 years later.
Not everyone poses the question. Members at the CCB count Wettlaufer's name 17 times on the club championship plaque.
"I'm a very competitive person," Wettlaufer acknowledged. "And I like to be out in competition and test myself."
Wettlaufer is all business on the course and all business off the course. And that's where the divisive conflict arose. The CCB was his introduction to the links, and the affluent membership was his link to business. Next to the silver spoon sat a fork in the road representing one of life's majors: the career decision.
"I came very close to turning pro," Wettlaufer said. "I very seriously considered it. I went through that decision-making process twice, once before I was married and once after I was married. I had the opportunity to go into business or play professional golf.
"In my heart's heart, I wanted to be a businessman, as opposed to a professional golfer. I think it was in my blood. My father was a successful businessman, and many of the people I had been around over the years were successful businessmen. I think business was more in my blood than being a professional golfer."
There are no more rungs. Wettlaufer whisked up the corporate ladder from regional sales manager to sales manager to president to chairman and chief executive officer of the Wilsolite Corp., the graphic arts supply company founded by his father. Wettlaufer has diversified as well. One side business, Golf Supplies Inc., is situated alongside Wilsolite on the 1800 block of Niagara Street.
"I have a very strong entrepreneurial urge," Wettlaufer said. "I like to start enterprises, get them up and running, then turn them over to somebody and have them run them."
Delegation begets freedom and freedom begets new initiatives.
"I have some time to play golf now," Wettlaufer concluded.
More so, time to recapture, refine and conceivably compete at a national level. There were two senior amateur tournaments scheduled within weeks of Wettlaufer's 55th birthday, the minimum age for seniors events. Those tournaments became his motivation.
"You have to work yourself up both physically and mentally, through hitting balls and playing some money games," Wettlaufer said. "It doesn't have to be for a lot of money. I don't play for a lot of money -- but for going out and playing with other good players and really working at it."
Early in November, six days after birthday No. 55, Wettlaufer competed in the Wild Dunes Senior Invitational, an amateur event at Charleston, S.C. A week later, he entered the Society of Seniors Tournament in Hilton Head, S.C. He challenged himself to a top-three finish in either event.
"I felt that I prepared quite well," Wettlaufer said. "Any good player, you have to prepare in advance . . . you really have to dedicate your mind to it. I couldn't be up there and be involved in business, then run down to the tournament, tee it up and go. No way. I wouldn't be prepared at all.
"So I went down to Florida for about a week, and then I went over to Orlando and spent two days at Lake Nona and took another lesson from the fellow I worked with in June. And then I drove up to Charleston and was there a couple of days for practice rounds. I played the golf course twice, then I felt like I was ready. If you're ready mentally, you're ready. I'd been working my game, and I think mentally I was prepared to at least be in the top three."
Wettlaufer won at Wild Dunes by six shots, opening with a 2-under par 70 en route to a 54-hole total of 5-over 219. His closest competitor, Clarence Moore of Winnsboro, S.C., backpedaled violently, soaring to a final-day 81 in 40-mph winds. The two had stood tied on the 10th tee.
"There was a lot of pressure," Wettlaufer said. "It's the first tournament; I was playing well. When you get in the heat of battle, you want to win. The old competitive juices started flowing."
Wettlaufer surfed the adrenaline wave through three rounds of the Society of Seniors Tournament. The lead was his starting the final round. But golf is a rigorous teacher that force-feeds lessons in humility.
The 1959 Masters taught Wettlaufer the importance of measuring yardages. He hit greens methodically at Augusta that year, but often left himself a three-putt -- and once a disgusting four-putt -- from the hole.
At the '59 Masters, Wettlaufer was underprepared. At the 1990 Society of Seniors, he was overprepared. His late lead dissipated into a tie for second place.
"I led it for three days, and the last day both my long game and short game let me down," Wettlaufer said. "I think I was maybe overtraining or let down, because the concentration just wasn't there. I should have taken a day off in between the two tournaments. I think I played every day for a month, which is too much. You learn from your mistakes."
The circle has come full. Almost without exception, professional sports are young people's games. But the birth of the Senior's Tour has made golf an exception. Wettlaufer again is confronted by the possibility of turning pro.
"I don't think so," he said, "unless I really got playing well. I'm three to four shots a round away from that."
Indeed, it's a large gap that separates Wettlaufer from Trevino, Rodriguez and Player.
"It would take a lot of dedication," Wettlaufer said. "When you decide you're going to do something like that, you can't do it halfway. I'd have to really go out there and dedicate two, three, four, five years to it. It would have to be a full-time job. And I don't know if I'm really ready to do that. The family is still reasonably young."
The businessman gives pause.
"But If I got my game where I'm able to shoot, let's say 67 to 71 anytime I teed it up, just for fun, then I might consider it. Because there is a lot of money out there."