Gannon University freshman David Patronik was practicing following the second round of the NCAA Division II Super Regional earlier this month when the clouds started overlapping, creating ominous formations the likes of which he'd never seen. The skies in Bolivar, Mo., began to darken. The temperature plummeted 20 degrees. Patronik hightailed it back to the safety of his hotel.
But there really was no adequate protection for what was coming his way. Hotel guests were huddled into the middle of the structure, the safest location available, and watched television reports showing a massive tornado marching toward their location.
Patronik called his father, David Sr., back in Orchard Park. Dad could hear the hail pounding off the hotel roof as they spoke. Dad could hear other guests talking on their phones to their families. He did his best to calm David over the phone as the tornado closed from 12 miles away to nine, from nine to six, and closer.
"It was," David said, "very, very scary. Out west, the storms, they just roll in. I did a lot of praying and talking to my family on the phone."
The tornado veered off its original course three miles from the hotel, destroying a nearby town. Patronik, who was a shot off the lead, had to settle himself for the final round of the competition, which had been repeatedly threatened as tornados swirled around the state.
"I told him, 'Just play it shot by shot, but if you get into contention, start managing yourself,' " David Sr. said. " 'Walk slower. Take just a little more time. Take deep, cleansing breaths.' "
David reached the 54th and final hole figuring he had to be in contention but neither knowing nor wanting to know exactly where he stood. He could see his playing partner, from Ferris State, talking with a teammate on the 18th tee. Patronik told them that if they were discussing the leader board he had no desire to be informed.
Patronik made birdie on the final hole, sinking a 10-foot putt, to finish off a round of even-par 72, and was 2-over for 54 holes. The player from Ferris State, who knew that he shared the lead, made par and lost by one.
"Finding out where you are in a tournament is not always the best thing," David said.
The victory sends Patronik to the Division II nationals beginning Tuesday in Oregon, an achievement that enhances his reputation as a golfer still fast on the rise. There's no doubt he's become one of the gems among the contingent of Western New York collegians, a group that continues to overcome restrictions of climate to excel in the college game.
Richmond University senior Kyle Hess, the reigning state amateur champion out of Nichols, and Jay Lindell, a St. Bonaventure sophomore out of Southwestern, tied for fifth in the Atlantic 10 championships. Tim Smith, a senior from St. Francis, was disqualified from the A-10 individual competition for finishing a hole after a weather siren but will be headed to the Division I nationals with conference champion Xavier.
On the horizon are Billy Hanes of St. Francis and Jeff Wolniewicz of West Seneca West, both of whom painted the future bright by qualifying for last summer's Porter Cup, a tournament second only to the U.S. Amateur in national prestige. And there's also, among others, Matt Thomas of Orchard Park, who redshirted his freshman season at Miami of Ohio.
The Patroniks have been working to bring keener focus and greater expectation to David's game ever since last year, when he shot 75 in the Section VI qualifier and, in a published interview, declared the round good enough.
David Sr., who played golf with Tom Gantress, the Western New York Public Links champ, at Buffalo State, read those words and decided it was time to have a talk. He told David that his outlook was unbecoming of a defending sectional and ECIC champion. Why was he willing to settle for what amounted to, considering his talent, mediocrity?
"I told him, 'You got to start believing in the ability you have,' " David Sr. said. " 'You're not just a good amateur golfer, you're a good amateur golfer in the country.' "
"Before every season I say something to him. I said, 'You're going to shock yourself this season.' But you're not going to shock me."
The prophecy came true when David held with the nation's best amateurs at the Porter Cup, shooting rounds of 72-71-71-70. Bogeys on the final two holes dropped him into a tie for 30th, two shots away from a top-20 finish and an automatic invite to this year's event.
But Patronik's freshman year at Gannon amounted to a mission to prove he belongs in tournaments of national stature. He was named all-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference performer as well as the GLIAC freshman of the year. And now he heads off to the Division II nationals, eager to see what he can accomplish.
"I've come a long way in this game and I'm just trying to see how far I can get," David said. "If I can play my game and focus, I can go pretty deep in the tournament."
Applications for the Porter Cup qualifying tournament, open to the first 90 entrants with a verifiable handicap of 3 or less, are available by calling Dena Armstrong, tournament director, at 284-0431, or at the Web site www.portercup.com. The qualifier will be held July 7 at Niagara Falls Country Club, with a rain date of July 14. The entry fee is $140 and includes one practice round. Entries close July 1.
The field for the Telus Skins Game is complete. Constituting the foursome will be Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh, John Daly and Ian Leggatt, the Canadian pro who scored his first PGA Tour victory last season. The event will be held June 22-24 at Royal Niagara Golf Club in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $10 Canadian for Sunday (a celebrity tourney, no participating pros), $80 for Monday and $90 for Tuesday. They're available through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.ca).
Information on the New York State Junior Golf Tour can be obtained by calling Rick Zurak at 636-9738, or via the Web site www.halfpricegolf.com. The events are open to boys and girls 18 and under, although ability requirements are in place for those under 10.
What did I write in the golf preview? Players get 15 minutes to search for a lost ball? No. No. No. It's five minutes. Fifteen minutes is what I should have taken to hunt down my copy of the rule book. But still, no matter what the rules say, keep play moving by limiting the hunt for a ball to no more than 3.