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Golf’s rewards and challenges hook Buffalo’s pro athletes

It was the eve of training camp last summer, but Buffalo Bills Eric Wood and Kyle Williams didn’t quite have their minds on football just yet.

After checking into their dorms at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, Wood and Williams hurried down the road to Oak Hill’s fabled East Course, where one last round of golf awaited before the summer grind really got going.

“I grew up playing golf,” Wood said. “I probably started when I was 10 or so. I quit through high school and college – didn’t really have the time or resources to play. When I got into the NFL, I kind of got back into it. A lot of guys on the team played, and it gave us something to do during OTAs when we were up in Buffalo and just working out in the morning and then were free the rest of the day.

“Now I play as much as I can. It’s probably my favorite hobby.”

Wood and Williams headline the list of professional athletes in Buffalo who play the game.

“I think what keeps me coming back is how challenging it is,” Wood said. “You’re always trying to improve something. There’s never a time you’re satisfied with your game. In that regard, it kind of relates to football, where you’re constantly striving to get better as well.”

Williams, who could not be reached for this story, got the best of Wood during their round at Oak Hill, which isn’t a huge surprise. The plus-0.4 handicapper is a member at Squire Creek in Louisiana, according to Golf Digest, which ranks the defensive tackle fourth among active NFL players and tied for seventh overall on its list of the top 100 professional athletes who play golf.

That gives Wood, a 9-handicap who is a member at Wanakah Country Club, something to shoot for.

“I take it serious,” he said. “I like to play fairly competitive against guys. … I always said when I first started playing I wanted to get down to single digits. Now that I’m a 9 – I think the lowest I was was an 8 – I want to get down to close to a 5. You’re always constantly trying to get better.”

Wood’s trip to Oak Hill was his last of the golf year.

“I don’t play at all during the season,” he said. “I’ll play once right before training camp, then just kind of call it quits on golf for the rest of the season. A lot of times, I’m too sore, but I also want to be completely bought in on football that time of year.”

As a result, Wood’s game can be erratic at the start.

“January, February and March, usually I’m spraying my driver a little bit, but toward the end of the summer, a lot of times my driver will be the strength,” he said. “It comes and goes. The strength one day might be a weakness the next. I’ve been hitting my irons pretty well lately.”

As one might imagine, professional athletes are wired a little differently than the rest of us. Their competitive nature helped get them to where they are, but isn’t easily shut off. That’s why the stories of Michael Jordan’s massive wagers on the golf course are so legendary.

For Wood, learning to use golf as a way to relax took time.

“That requires you to not take yourself too serious on the course, or else it can become pretty stressful,” he said. “Golf’s tough. It seems so easy − it looks so easy, but there are so many aspects of it that are challenging − especially for a bigger guy. In order for it to be a stress decompresser, you definitely can’t take yourself too serious, which I’ve learned and grown to be able to do on the course.

“It definitely can be a humbling game, because you have good days and bad days just like anything else. Sometimes you just keep fighting it and that can be very frustrating.”

There is a lesson there that he says translates to football.

“I think everything correlates in life. Since football’s my job, it all kind of comes back to that,” said Wood. “As you mature, I know I’ve become a lot less of a hot head on the field, which coaches have always kind of encouraged me to do, especially at the center position. I’m constantly practicing that in life, so practicing that on the golf course is good for football.”

Wood picked up the game on his own, taking lessons at a course close to his hometown of Cincinnati. That was the start of what has become a passion.

“It’s a game you can continue to play as you get older,” he said. “It’s not something you’re eventually going to have to leave behind you.”

Of course, golf isn’t for everyone. During the Bills’ trip to Jim Kelly’s Celebrity Golf Classic at Terry Hills last year, video of former running back Boobie Dixon trying to hit a drive − and very, very poorly − went viral.

“Kyle’s the best,” Wood said, listing off his power rankings of teammates. Former Bills wide receiver Chris “Hogan’s pretty good. I don’t know how many times he’s beaten me, but he can hit it farther than anybody I’ve ever played with. He’s really good. He’s fairly good I should say. Nick O’Leary I hear is a pretty good stick, too.”

That stands to reason, given that his grandfather, Jack Nicklaus, is the greatest player of all time, right?

“True,” Wood said. “That probably almost deters him from wanting to play a little bit.”

So who else among Buffalo’s professional sports scene has a passion for hitting the links?

Brian Gionta

The Sabres’ captain started playing in the fifth grade, utilizing a junior golf membership at Lake Shore Country Club in Rochester.

“Me and my buddy would ride our bikes after school and play a round,” he said. “So I grew up with it. I absolutely love it.”

Gionta, a member at Brook-Lea Country Club in Rochester who counts the East Course as his personal favorite, said his handicap is somewhere between a 10 and 12.

“Now that I have three kids, I’m not able to play it as much as I’d like to,” he said. “I used to play three times a week in the summers, but it’s dwindled considerably now with the kids.”

Three of Golf Digest’s top 10 players among professional athletes are hockey players, including Bruins defenseman John-Michael Liles (No. 3 with a handicap of +1.6), Islanders right-winger Cal Clutterbuck (tied for fifth, +0.6) and Sharks forward Joe Pavelski (tied for seventh, +0.4).

That’s not much of a surprise given that the physics of a slap shot and golf swing share some similarities.

“It’s a natural thing, the rotation and stuff,” Gionta said. “I think at times you try to hit it too hard instead of slowing down and use a little better pace, but for sure, it’s the same rotation, same everything.”

As for what he carries over from golf to hockey, Gionta said having a short memory is critical to both sports.

“You make a mistake or a bad play on the ice, you’ve got to forget about it and refocus,” he said. “It’s the same in golf. If you have a bad hole or a bad shot, you have to be mentally strong to recover.”

Zach Bogosian

Like Gionta, the Sabres’ defenseman learned the game at a young age, but has had some gaps in his playing career.

“I got into it at a young age, then hockey got pretty crazy for a while, and I was playing three sports at the time, so golf maybe was on the back burner a little bit,” he said. I picked it back up more than usual after my first year as a pro. Played for a few years, then I got a wrist injury, so I took two years off. I got back into it last summer and I love it.”

After being traded to the Sabres from Winnipeg last season, Bogosian settled in East Amherst, near Glen Oak. He plays most of his rounds there, estimating he got out three or four times a week last summer.

“You’re training and getting ready for the next season, but also relaxing a little bit and trying to wind down,” he said. “I golf as much as possible. … Go train at the rink in the morning, then go right to the course. Playing golf with your buddies, your teammates, you can’t help but have a lot of laughs and a good time.”

Like Gionta, however, Bogosian is preparing for life, and golf, in the PB Era. Post Baby. His wife, former professional soccer player Bianca D’Agostino, is expecting in May.

“My golf game might take a hit for a little while,” said Bogosian, who said he can shoot in the high 70s or low 80s.

“I like the challenge when you’re playing well and you have a bad hole and you respond with a good hole,” he said. “It’s every once in a while when you have bad holes back-to-back-to back, that’s the real challenge. It’s fun, it’s a relaxing game but also stressful at times. It clears your mind from hockey.”

Frequent playing partners for Bogosian are teammates Nic Deslauriers and Cody McCormick.

“Some tough guys out there on the ice, but on the golf course, they can’t beat anyone up, so it’s funny to see them out there,” said Bogosian, who counts Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta as one of his favorite courses.

Matt Moulson

The Sabres’ forward is relatively new to the game, getting serious about it during the shortened 2012-13 season.

“I fell in love with the game in terms of how challenging it is,” he said. “You can never truly master it. It’s always fun to try to improve.”

Moulson, a member of the Stanwich Club in Connecticut, has proved a quick study, with a handicap hovering around 9. He’s also a PGA Tour fanatic.When The Barclays was held at Bethpage State Park in 2012, Moulson walked inside the ropes with Rickie Fowler for a round.

“He showed a couple things to me in between holes and I had a chance to speak with him for a while after his round, so that was a lot of fun,” Moulson said. That was “probably one of the best sporting events I’ve been to as a fan in my life, to follow inside the ropes.”

Annmarie Cellino

The Buffalo Beauts’ forward played at East Aurora Country Club growing up, where her parents had a membership. From there, she was a charter member of the inaugural girls golf team at The Nichols School in the early 2000s.

“It really was a more of a way to get out of gym class for spring semester,” Cellino said with a laugh.

It wasn’t until after her college hockey career at Middlebury ended that Cellino started to play more golf.

It helps when your parents buy a course, which is what happened when Ross Cellino purchased Harvest Hill in 2012.

“Now I play quite often,” she said.

A 16 handicap – “from the men’s tees” – she plays at least a couple of times a week. Two summers ago, she would play just about every morning before studying for the bar exam.

“It’s challenging. I can go and have a really great day, and then I’m obsessed with golf and want to play it every second of every day,” she said. “And then you can go and have a terrible day and hate it. I like that there’s fluctuation. I like that you can always get better.”

Remember the putter Adam Sandler used in his golf classic “Happy Gilmore?” That was Cellino for a while.

“I’ve actually tried putting with that!” she said. “My dad bought a Sabres hockey stick putter, so I put it in my bag and used it a little bit. One time I didn’t shoot well so I got rid of it. It was shaped just like a hockey stick.”

Cellino plays hockey left-handed, which is the same way she putts, but hits all of her other golf shots from the right side.

“I definitely think hockey influences the golf swing,” she said. “My younger sister plays both as well, and she’s a natural.”

While there may be some physical similarities, Cellino sees the mental approach to both games being different.

“When you play hockey, you have one shift and you have to move on,” she said. “When you golf and you go from one shot to the next, you’re doing that long walk and you’re like, ‘I really screwed that shot up’, or ‘that was a really great shot.’ So definitely the mental side of the golf game is a lot more challenging to drown out the bad shots from the good. Where with hockey, it’s just pretty much move on the second you get off the ice and right back on for your next shift.”