Yep, you got it right. The first BuffaloGolfer.Com interview with an area political figure and we break the bank (figuratively) with Mr. South Park, Mark Poloncarz. County Eexecutive Poloncarz is a long-standing member of a certain 9-hole course wrapped around a certain botanical garden, near a certain basilica. In this quick nine, our guest of honor reflects on the state of golf in his life and in Erie County.
1. How did you get started in golf? (Don’t talk about South Park yet-that’s question #2.)
I was the kind of kid who played every sport, especially in the summer: baseball, tennis, street hockey, football, you name it, I played it. When I was 12 or so my friend Mike Griesinger’s father used to let us hit some of his old clubs and balls in a field next to our playground. We created a myriad of holes in that field, and got adventurous and started teeing off next to, and then over railroad tracks adjacent to the field to liven things up. About the same time my father started playing the game and he told me when I was good enough to not embarrass myself he would take me out to a real course. The next Spring my dad took me out to play 9 holes at South Park. I shot a 55 and must not have embarrassed myself too much as he brought me back a week later. Ironically, Mike Griesinger’s dad Chuck is now one of my regular golfing buddies.
2. You are a long-standing member at South Park in south Buffalo. Tell us what is special about that course and its membership, and why you have remained.
It is home for me. Not because it is the first course I played but it’s a great little gem with a fantastic, unpretentious bunch of members I have known for much of my life. South Park sits on land formerly owned by Lackawanna, so most Lackawanna golfers have played there. The course is not long but it is one of the prettiest courses in the area as it sits right in the middle of Frederick Law Olmsted’s nationally recognized arboretum and its conditions have dramatically improved over the past 10 years.
And for a short course it is not an easy course to score on if your game is a bit off. There is plenty of water, out-of-bounds and trees to drive up your score, as well as a number of greens that are not easy. The par 3 150 yard 4th hole was always a great hole with the expanse of South Park Lake to cross and out-of-bounds immediately behind the green, and made even better with the building of a new tee a few years ago stretching the yardage to 175. I think it is one of the best holes in WNY. The 270 yard par 4 5th hole has decided many a club championship as you can make an eagle or a double bogey 6 or worse on it as there is out-of-bounds down the entire right side and water down the entire left (I know from experience how this hole can decide a tourney: I won 1 club championship because of this hole and lost a few more because of it). The 6th hole is a challenging dogleg par 4 of about 430 yards with one of the most difficult greens in the area as it is an upside down bowl: get on the wrong side of the green and it is a 3 putt. So the course has its challenges.
In today’s usual 5 hour plus round it is also nice to play 9 holes of golf in 1.5 to 2 hours, which you can do at South Park, and I can be on the tee in less than 10 minutes after leaving my office. Finally, the members are all good people. We have folks from all walks of life who are there to enjoy the game of golf and that makes for a great experience. I might join another club someday (I used to be a member at Cazenovia as well) but I will always be a member at South Park.
3. Have you a favorite course that you’ve played locally or on a golf trip? Tell us about it and why it is a favorite.
I’ve been lucky to play some really great courses. My favorite courses are traditional tree lined championship quality venues. I don’t have 1 favorite course I’ve played but actually 2: Oak Hill CC (East) and Bethpage Black GC. Both are made from the same mold: long, hilly courses where great ball striking is rewarded but if you are not on your game you could shoot a really bad round. Bethpage is a brute but I love it. I have shot some low under par rounds in my day but one of the best rounds I ever played was a 6 over par 78 from the tips of Bethpage Black when the rough was high. After 9 holes I was even par and had dreams of breaking par, but the back nine caught up with me. Still it was a fun round and I look forward to going back. Too bad we don’t have at least 1 state course in WNY as good as any of the courses in the Bethpage complex. Oak Hill is Oak Hill. Nothing more needs to be said.
4. The 100th anniversary of the only US Open played in Buffalo is this year. The former Country Club of Buffalo course is now a county course, Grover Cleveland. Have you (fingers crossed) any type of commemoration planned? We know a bunch of guys with hickories and period clothing!
While I cannot reveal all the details yet, we will be announcing very soon an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Open. Without revealing too much, my plan is to have the county host a 36 hole event at Grover on July 7 and 8, which hopefully will attract many of the better men and women players in the community. More information on this will be released very soon!
5. How does golf fit into the county’s plans for the next four years? As the owner of Elma Meadows and Grover Cleveland, the county provides 36 holes of interesting golf to county residents.
In today’s day of tight budgets it will be difficult to invest in the courses as I would like, but I have spoken to Parks Commissioner Troy Schinzel and course superintendent Kim Decker on what it will take to improve the golfing experience for all at our 2 courses. Elma Meadows is a wonderful track that needs to improve its conditions. The largest investment Elma requires is a watering system. That might not be attainable in the short term, but there are other ways we can improve the quality of the course, including addressing drainage issues with the first hole (which we will be working on this year), having multiple tee markers for various skill levels and improving the often snail like pace of play.
I am also thinking of switching the nines to the architect’s original intention, which will make for a great finish as the 7th, 8th and 9th holes would make a wonderful final 3 holes compared to the current set. That might also speed up the pace of play as the 10th hole would be a better start for most golfers rather than the current 1st hole which is a great hole but too difficult for most.
Grover Cleveland had a watering system installed within the past decade and it has dramatically improved the course’s conditions. My goal will be to improve the little things that make the experience more enjoyable: resolve drainage problems, make sure bunkers are properly raked, speed up the pace of play. Fixing little things like that will make a difference.
One thing we will not be doing that the former administration was going to implement is the use of 6 inch cups rather than the uniform 4 ¼ inch cups. The county actually spent hundreds of dollars on 6 inch cups and the cup cutter devices. I have no idea why this decision was made, but all county courses will be following USGA rules (ensuring rounds played at Grover and Elma are legitimate for USGA handicap purposes) and those cups and cup cutters will be sold for scrap metal in all likelihood. It was a silly idea but unfortunately one that wasted tax dollars.
6. Dream with us a bit. What piece of undeveloped or underdeveloped land within Erie County could house a world-class golf course?
As Lackawanna is my hometown, I have a soft spot for the old Bethlehem Steel site. It is one of the few undeveloped sites large enough to develop a high quality course. Depending on a routing, areas near the Lake Erie edge could be used for the course. Unfortunately the environmental issues probably preclude that from happening. The other spot is the outer harbor land owned by the NFTA. I am not sure if there is enough acreage to develop an 18 hole course, but if so it would be a great addition to our waterfront and a stern test when the ever present winds blow off the lake.
7. Let’s talk equipment for a moment. What clubs and ball are you currently playing and how do you truly feel about them.
I made custom clubs in the past and repaired/reshafted many clubs over the years so I am very particular with my clubs now. Here are my current sticks:
Driver: Ping G20, 10.5 , Stiff shaft. I demoed many different manufacturers’ drivers and shaft combinations before settling on this. Ironically the stock shaft worked best at achieving the desired launch angle and spin rate. I never used a Ping driver before but this club exudes confidence as it goes straight, high and long.
3 wood: Taylor Made Burner 15° (2007 model), Stiff shaft. This is my favorite club in the bag. I can hit it 260 and maneuver it well. I played my best round at Crag Burn using only this club, not a driver, off every par 4 and 5 and hit almost every fairway. This isn’t going anywhere unless I find the perfect 3 wood.
2 Hybrid: Hogan Edge, Stiff Shaft. It is probably the next club to be pulled out of the bag, probably to a 5 wood.
3-PW: Wilson Staff FG Tour V2 Irons, KBS Tour Stiff shafts. I love these new irons. I can move them either way, they are very consistent and have a wonderful feel as they are forged. Wilson is making some great clubs today and I would stack these up against any other irons on tour. I might take the 3 iron out and replace with a hybrid but otherwise love these clubs.
Gap Wedge: Mizuno MP 52° Stiff shaft. I used to carry a lob wedge but my distance difference between the pitching and sand wedge was too great, 130 and 105 respectively, so I removed the lob and added the gap wedge.
Sand Wedge: Cleveland CG 12 56° Wedge shaft.
Putter: Odyssey White Hot XG 330 Mallet. I don’t switch putters often. I probably have used no more than 4 putters during the past 20 years. This one went in my bag 2 years ago and should be there for a long time as I putt well with it.
Balls: I am not beholden to one brand over others. Last year I finished the season playing a Srixon Z Star, which is a nice ball, though I played with a Bridgestone B330 and E5 as well. The Pro V1s are nice but there are many balls out there that are just as good but cost less.
8. Moving over to lessons and practice, what is your most important swing thought and (being as busy as you are) how do you keep your game together when you don’t have time to practice?
Tempo is my main swing thought. I was lucky to receive free golf lessons from the Lackawanna HS golf coach Ed Kazcor when I was on the team and my swing hasn’t changed much since then. I have a longer swing and often go past parallel which is OK as long as I keep my tempo in check. However, if I get a bit fast then the ball can go anywhere. So I think about my tempo and hitting down and through the ball when I play.
I don’t have much time to play or practice so when I get a chance I generally play. If I have no more than a free hour I will work on my short game. That is the easiest way to reduce strokes by getting up and down for par. I am a pretty good putter so I while I will work on that for about 15 minutes, the rest of the time is dedicated to chipping and pitching the ball and trying to get up and down.
9. What question on golf haven’t we asked, that you would love to answer? Ask the question and answer it.
What course haven’t you played that you hope to play someday?
Augusta National GC. Maybe if I am lucky I will have a chance to play it someday. If not I will just sit back and enjoy the Masters like everyone else.