Golf coaches, like school teachers, are often invisible until needed. In the case of Nate Leary, he’s both and more. The current director of ECIC (Erie County Interscholastic Conference) and Section VI of the NYSPHSAA (New York State Public High School Athletic Association) boys golf, Leary is also a devoted student of the game, especially the elusive putting stroke. He took time before things get busy in the spring to answer our usual spate of questions. Have a look. And if you like what he has to say, give him a follow. He’s on Twitter.
1. Introduce yourself, tell us how you got started in golf, and what your present capacity is in golf in western New York.
My name is Nate Leary. I’m a music teacher at Orchard Park HS since 2003. I’ve been in public education for 15 years. How did I get started in golf? When I lived in Getzville once upon a time, I was fortunate to be a member at Westwood Country Club from 2004-2007. Prior to that I basically picked up the game playing at Audubon GC beginning around the year 2000. The muni-pass was dirt cheap and I made some really great friends in my time there. There was a group of guys who typically showed up to play around the same time I did, which was usually summer evenings – the best time to golf! On many evenings, we’d end up finishing our round as a group of 5 or 6. It was good fun. Anyway, by the time 2005 rolled around, my handicap index was 4.3 which came after I logged a lot of rounds, practice sessions and lessons. My first golf instructor was Keith Zahner who I still work with today. In 2005, I qualified for the NYSGA Men’s Amateur (T12) at Crag Burn, and as an alternate in 2006 (Brierwood). At the ’05 State Amateur, I finished T135 (77-87). I can tell you a few details about the first round, but the second round seems to have slipped from my memory.. Anyway, when I qualified at Crag Burn back in 2005, now OP alumni Corey Johnson and Jeremy Wabick were also in the field. They qualified T5 , T16 respectively. I had no idea at the time, that I would be taking over for their golf coach at OP, Dan Elvin. Kind of crazy when I think about it.
So, how did I become the OP Varsity Golf Coach?
Prior to the beginning of the 2007 school year, I noticed that the Varsity Golf Coach position was posted in my district. I spoke with our Athletic Director at the time, Jim Trampert and after discussing the position, I thought that’d be something I’d really like to pursue. Long story short, I went through the process and here I sit at the tail end of my 9th season as the OP Varsity Golf Coach with a career 79-9 ECIC Regular Season win/loss record, 6 Division Champion Titles, 4 ECIC League Championships (2008, 2013, 2014, 2015), 4 seasons with an OP Player(s) attending States, and a current ECIC divisional winning streak of 32-0. I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention that I have a terrific assistant coach and friend, Dr. Michael Boyczuk who has been a volunteer assistant back into the Elvin days. He’s a plus handicap out of Crag Burn and has been a huge source of help and encouragement to our players each year. If people knew how many extra “hoops”, certifications and fees he has to maintain annually just to be allowed to volunteer as a coach, you would then know he’s in it for the kids.
Tell us about your beginnings as the Section VI and ECIC Chairman?
My first year serving as the Section VI Boy’s Golf Chairman was the 2010-11 school year. My first year as the ECIC Boy’s Golf League Chairman was the 2012-13 school year. Honestly, it has all been a “blur”. I vaguely remember sitting at Sectionals in May 2010 when the former chairman, Kevin Rice (Silver Creek) announced he was stepping down. Similar story for ECIC when Rick Wargala announced he was stepping down at our 2011 ECIC League Championship. I’ve put a lot of thought into how our players experience competitive Public HS Golf from fall to spring. In the fall, it’s ECIC League play and in the spring it’s Sectionals and States. Our golf programs owe a lot to both former chairmen for their service and dedication. When they decided it was time to “pass the torch”, I felt compelled to step up and continue what they started. I serve in this capacity because I care about the sport and the way our kids experience it – just like Kevin and Rick did. I’m always sure to remind my own players just how special it is to be able to play competitive golf for their school. I hope it’s a positive experience that they’ll always look back on with great memories.
2. As a coach, what are your expectations for your players, in golf and in life?
As you and your readers are fully aware – golf is a lot of fun. At OP, we try to show our players that there’s even more fun waiting for them on the golf course which comes through hard work and preparation. There are no short cuts, especially in golf, as in life. Natural talent will only take a player so far. Hard work and commitment can’t be faked on the golf course, especially under pressure – that’s one of the great things about golf, it teaches a lot of great lessons that translate to life. You definitely get what you put into it and still, there are no guarantees. In golf, sometimes the work doesn’t pay off immediately and in fact, one may get worse before they get better, so the game teaches patience and perseverance. The reward however, is extremely satisfying when we begin to see the fruits of hard work and commitment. When kids make a solid connection between hard work and success – everyone wins. In most cases, the top players in ECIC and Section VI are ones that are doing the work behind the scenes when they aren’t necessarily with their peers on the golf course: they are putting the time in doing solo range work, going to the domes during the winter, working on their short games (chipping, putting), lessons, fitness, nutrition, etc. – all year long. There has to be a balance of course, between school and family, etc. but having a goal in mind and a plan to get there is requisite to becoming a better player, in golf and in life.
3. Your team has the good fortune to play and practice at a local, private club. How does that opportunity impact a high school program?
It’s huge. In addition the OPCC Board choosing to give back to the community by allowing the OPHS Varsity Golf team to play and practice at their course, we enjoy a great deal of support from the OPCC professionals, maintenance staff and the members in general. The late Randall Shaw (former OPCC Head Professional) and his staff were/are so supportive of myself and the team each and every year. Randy’s support of youth golf at OPCC was amazing, he will be missed. In regards to our team make up, in most years, at least half or more of our roster are members at OPCC already. This, as you might imagine is highly beneficial to the quality of our program and also speaks highly of the junior programs at OPCC, The First Tee of WNY (based at Harvest Hill in OP), etc.
4. Let’s switch gears to your role as league and section coordinator. How did you get so lucky?
You have a way with words, lol. Actually, it’s very rewarding and I have the pleasure to work with great coaches and student athletes all year long. We have extremely dedicated and committed coaches in Section VI who make what I do so much easier and enjoyable. I felt that I could make a positive impact on Boy’s Golf and the timing was right for me to step in and contribute. I hope Sectionals is an event that the coaches and players look forward to attending each year.
5. What are the challenges that a coordinator manages, that players, parents and even coaches aren’t aware of?
In a very general sense – it’s very small windows of time to coordinate lots of players (and parents), their coaches, school districts and administrators to be on the same page so we can all play organized competitive golf. Each year, we do our best to ensure that the structure of our competitions is transparent and in place, well organized, and as efficient as possible to allow our players to compete fairly and equitably. I coordinate ECIC league play keeping daily records/stats, my League Championship (ECIC), our Sectional Championship and coordinate the State Team for Section VI in June. Without getting into a lot of boring details, this entails a lot of detailed behind the scenes tasks that have a direct affect on the experience of our players, parents, schools and administrators each and every year. I could probably do a lot less and still coordinate what I need to but that’s just not how I’m wired or want to do things as I serve in this capacity.
To be perfectly honest, I’m still a little intimidated by my responsibilities because I know that what I do (or don’t do), has a direct impact on the experiences of the coaches and players I serve. How can I make ECIC and Section VI Boy’s Golf as exciting and rewarding for our players and coaches to be a part of each and every year? I suppose a large part of that is efficient communication and organization. Like a lot of things I end up getting involved with, status quo is usually never enough. For better or worse, those close to me will tell you that I tend to have an “all or nothing” personality. My website section6golf.com started off as a little iWeb project six years ago. I learn a little more about building websites each year. I intend for it to be an informational website personalized to our players and coaches. It has proved to be a very effective communication tool based on my traffic stats during the golf seasons.
6. You bring nine state qualifiers together each spring for a trip to the NYSPHSAA championships. How do you bring them together to compete as a team in an individual sport?
This is not as difficult to do as it may seem. First, one has to understand how special it is for these 9 players to advance to states to represent Section VI. In ALL of NYS, there are approximately 570 Public HS Boy’s Golf Teams. There are over 8,000 Boy’s Golf Participants in NYSPHSAA. These (9) Boy’s represent 1/10 of 1% of all Public HS Golfers in New York State. There are 11 Sections in NYSPHSAA. The field is 99 players (9 from each section). The 99 State Team Players in the field represent the top 1% of Public HS Golfers in New York State. These guys are excited (and rightfully so) to head to Cornell and I can tell you the weekend of golf, competition, camaraderie, food and fun will be a positive experience they will never forget. There’s something about golf, that brings people together, regardless of where you are from.
Secondly, not to “toot my own horn”, but the experience from Sectionals to States could go like this: Congrats, you made states. Here’s a certificate, please show up at Cornell in a few weekends, bring your clubs, if you have any questions, here’s my number. That’s not how we do it however. I make sure that in addition to the entire field receiving certificates and bag tags just for making it to Sectionals, that the 9 state qualifiers also receive plaques and that they attend states with team shirts for both day’s of competition, they receive a box of balls (same as the one they play) for the weekend – everything get’s planned out so all they have to do is focus on playing golf and enjoying the weekend. This is achieved through the support we receive from Section VI Athletics, our annual Boy’s Golf Sponsors and donations. I’ve found that our WNY Community just needs to be asked to support these guys and most, if not all are very happy to do so. It’s a huge accomplishment to go to states and that’s how we treat it.
Thirdly, the boy’s that go to states each year are also highly involved in tournament golf over the summer in addition to their school seasons. This should not come as any surprise. These events may include BDGA Interclub, WNYPGA Junior Tour, various nationally ranked events/qualifiers, BDGA Junior/Men’s qualifiers, NYSGA Junior/Men’s qualifiers, AGJA, IJGA, etc. My point is they are ALL playing competitive golf with regularity which is very much different than playing casual golf at one’s home course. I say all of this because these boy’s tend to know each other even though they are most times from different schools. They do see each other quite a bit over the summers and if you are a golfer you know that you tend to get to know someone well after spending 4-5 hours on the golf course with someone. By the time Sectionals comes around, they are all familiar with each other in most cases.
I, in conjunction with the player’s coaches work hard to make sure the boy’s are focused and prepared for states. Much of this has to do with the coach communicating to the player what’s expected, setting goals and continuing to do the things they’ve done all year to help make that player successful. When I take the team to Cornell, I just want the boy’s to be concerned with having fun and playing good golf – preparation. For our better players, most of them have private swing coaches so our top coaches in Section VI understand that being a good HS coach is not about making swing changes at this stage in the game, but helping player’s manage their time wisely and giving them opportunities to succeed and work on the parts of their game that need the most improvement.
7. Shifting gears again to your own game. How is it these days and what goals do you have for the coming years?
I’ve never gotten back to where I was in 2005 but it hasn’t stopped me from trying. I have difficulty even remembering what it was like being consistently “pretty good” lol. It just hasn’t been as important to me or realistic to expect a certain level of play in quite a while. As life changes, priorities and responsibilities change. One thing that hasn’t changed is my love for the game however, that’s always been there. I’m now just starting to be able to dedicate more time to the enjoyment of the game. I’d say I’m probably around an 7-8 handicap right now. I’ll start logging rounds again this summer and will re-establish a GHIN Index. I hope to be able to enter in a NYSGA or BDGA qualifier at some point in the near future as well. My wrists have been “tweaky” lately and I’m seeing a specialist at the end of the month about them. It sucks getting old lol. I had a right wrist sprain at the tail end of the season last year which ended the season for me. Being able to get out and play pain free golf with my family in the spring may be a win let alone getting back to competitive golf. We’ll see. I’m expecting a set of old irons (Mizuno MP-32) to come back to me soon. I sent them off to get re-grooved and refinished. I hope to enjoy them like I did in years past. You’ll probably see pics on my twitter feed when I get them.
8. What part of your game are you most adept at, and what have you learned from developing it?
Adept is a unique term. It would imply consistency and proficiency – neither of which I’d use to describe my game currently. Wanna play for post round drinks lol? Actually I know your game a bit, so you’ll have to give me strokes… To answer your question, I did spend quite a bit of time practicing putting last year and it had an immediate impact on my scoring – go figure lol. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a good putter, but I am better than I once was. Being a golf coach, short game is one area of the game that can have a huge impact on your team’s success so, although I’m constantly curious about all parts of the game, I’m especially curious about putting. I’ve spent more time researching, studying and practicing putting – more than the “average bear”, last year. Don’t ask me for the “secret” because if I had it I’d be a millionaire by now. I can however discuss the concept of shoulder plane and how it may or may not correlate to putter path and face angle – stuff like that lol. I don’t have hands like some of these amazing state team golfers have, so anything I can learn to make putting simple and manipulation free, the better I seem to putt. I’ve discovered I really enjoy practicing with the flat stick. Some people hate it but I can get lost on a putting green for hours just having fun putting. Over the summer months, you can usually find me on a putting green somewhere in WNY over the summer. My favorite public course putting green is at Seneca Hickory Stick. It’s always very well groomed and you can find just about any type of putt to practice there. If it’s raining, I’m practicing at home. If I have a few hours to get away, but not enough time to play, guess what I’m likely doing lol? I get a lot of satisfaction seeing the practice time I spend around the green paying dividends in my casual outings on the golf course. Poor ball striking is no fun but successfully salvaging a round with your wedge and putter is an incredibly rewarding experience. Anyway, it’s a constant process but as I get older, I’ve found I’m becoming more efficient with time management and what I choose to work on when I make time to practice.
9. What question haven’t we asked, that you wish we would have? Ask it and answer it, please.
How much longer do you see yourself as the Section VI and/or ECIC Chairman?
Well, since you asked lol, I don’t know. The Section VI Director used to ask me if I was ready to do it all again next year and I’d always respond with, “as long as it continues to be fun”. Well, it’s still fun. I’d imagine there will come a day when some new enthusiastic coaches will want to take this to the next level or a different direction. I won’t stand in the way of progress and will help in any way I can if it means that Section VI Boy’s Golf becomes an even better experience for our boys.