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Junior Masters forges lifelong friendships off the course; Wettlaufer, inaugural winner, reminisces on ‘53 victory

Ward Wettlaufer hasn't played a round of golf in a year and a half because his back is bothering him, but other than that, his health and mind are good.

No way he's forgotten about the International Junior Masters tournament, the oldest international junior golf invitational in North America, held annually at East Aurora Country Club.

As the tournament heads into its 60th year of competition Tuesday, Wettlaufer remembers becoming the inaugural champion back in 1953, when the Eisenhowers were getting settled in the White House and the boys were still in Korea.

He recalls beating Gene Piowar of South Park in the final round of match play, 3 and 2, and there's one hole he remembers vividly.

He's 17 years old and one-up in the match, standing 60, maybe 70 yards out on a par-5 hole of East Aurora's then nine-hole course. He hits over a 60-degree embankment in front of the green and sinks a putt for birdie when Piowar skulls his wedge and hits a line drive toward the green. The ball strikes the embankment and ricochets high into the air before landing inches from cup. He could have blown it into the hole.

"I can remember that one like it was yesterday," Wettlaufer, now 76, said from his car in Naples, Fla. this week. "When you're a young kid and somebody does that, you go, ‘Oh my golly.' "

After graduating from Nichols, Wettlaufer continued on in high-level golf as an amateur. He played in a group with Byron Nelson at the Masters – "What a wonderful person he was … really a fine gentleman" – and was on the victorious 1959 Walker Cup team along with a 19-year-old Jack Nicklaus, back when the Golden Bear was just a gilded cub.

But the difference between Wettlaufer and the best of the boys who will be playing this year is that Wettlaufer never went pro. Most contestants today are invited to the event on the strength of their résumés, and with an age cutoff of 18, that requires current players to be living and breathing golf as a career.

"I was never a professional. I seriously considered it, but I really searched my soul," Wettlaufer said. "I wanted to be in business. I was fortunate enough to have a good education and had an opportunity to go into a family business, which I entered and spent a lot of time in over the years."

Rhyne Jones, last year's champion, isn't attending this year because he'll be playing an event in California in front of college scouts he hopes to impress. For him, golf is a ticket to an education – and maybe more.

Paul O'Brien, who helps run the event, said one quarter of the field is returning players.

"Last year the field was a little bit older, and so we lost many to graduation," he said. "So the field this year is younger, but I think it's a better field."

Expected to be among the leaders of the pack is Zach Arrington of Birmingham, Ala., who comes highly recommended to the IJM committee from a teaching pro down south. Matt LeMay of Ontario was a medalist last year and is expected to do well, as is Calvin Beckwith from Saratoga.

Several local players should also be in the mix, including James Blackwell of St. Joe's, Greg Sibick from Williamsville South and Chandler Kraska of Eden. Andrew Romano of Depew, who was Section VI's highest finisher at the state tournament earlier this month, is playing as well.

This year's field will also include two 13-year-olds, the first time that's ever happened, according to O'Brien.

"The top [age limit] is a hard, fast rule. On the lower end, if we find an individual who can play and compete in the tournament, we'll invite him," O'Brien said. "But it's rare to find a 13-year-old."

Jake Milanowski of Georgia is one of the boys in the field who recently became a teenager, but O'Brien assures "the kid can play." He said Milanowski was in the area last week and shot 68-71 in two rounds at Wellsville.

Players from all over the world come to Buffalo for this event – expect a good contingent from Colombia – and have gone on to have successful pro careers. Jim Furyk, fourth at the U.S. Open last weekend, played the tournament as boy, as did Rory Sabbatini, Camilo Villegas, Trevor Immelmen and Matthew Every.

A dinner Saturday night celebrated 60 years of the IJM at East Aurora, honored past chairmen and champions and featured letters and videos from past players from all over the world who couldn't make it back.

The boys have a practice round Monday before medal play opens Tuesday.

Qualification continues Wednesday morning before the top 32 players are filtered into the championship flight of bracket play, which starts that afternoon. Match play elimination continues Thursday, with the semis and finals coming Friday. Admission is free.

Wettlaufer's only advice for the boys this week is to have fun. The friends the boys will make early in their golf careers will stay with them. Jack Nicklaus wasn't just some guy Wettlaufer knew once who went on to become famous. They were friends on and off the course and stayed friends after golf. They stood up in each other's weddings.

"One of the things I think about a great deal with respect to golf is all the wonderful people I have met throughout playing golf all over the world and the friendships that have resulted from those early golf experiences," Wettlaufer said.

As proof, Wettlaufer said after hanging up the phone he was going to pack for a trip across the state to spend time with a friend he met through golf – 50 years ago.

"The friendships these youngsters will develop over the years are life-lasting," he said. "They're wonderful."