The Diamond Hawk golf course has had one owner in its fifteen-plus years of existence. In 2021, Sam Tadio sold his interests to a group headed by Don Papaj, a lifelong western New York resident. Papaj made two excellent decisions right off the bat: he kept his general manager and course superintendent in place. This continuity will help Diamond Hawk transition seamlessly, from one ownership team to the another. We had a chance to engage Mr. Papaj (pronounced PAP-idge) in a nine-question interview, and he was refreshing and forthcoming with his answers. Enjoy a quick nine with Don Papaj, on the future of the Diamond Hawk golf course, in Cheektowaga, NY.
- Tell us a bit about yourself, as pre-Diamond Hawk golf course owner.
I’m a lifelong Buffalonian and am married with 2 daughters and 3 grandchildren which my life revolves around. Professionally, I’m the owner and president of a marketing services firm in Buffalo called Marketing Tech.
My career has been in marketing and printing and have had the good fortune of owning two successful businesses and had a couple successful stints in the corporate world with Fortune 500 companies.
- What encouraged you to consider owning a golf course, and what challenges did you face in the process?
I didn’t start golfing until I was about 50 years old. I met up with some old school friends who twisted my arm to go out golfing and join a league with them. Maybe one of the most humbling things I’ve ever done!
I really enjoy playing but, to me, it’s as much about comradery and the social aspects of it as it is the game itself. I’ve been playing with friends at Diamond Hawk for several years and really fell in love with the place. It’s rare to find such a nice course with a great clubhouse and bar that’s open to the public and located right in the heart of everything.
I got to know Fred Zillner, the GM of Diamond Hawk, and would have conversations with him about what could be done with the place as the previous owners wanted to sell and retire. The thought of taking this beautiful place and adding to the bar, restaurant and activities is truly exciting!
There were, and still are, many challenges. I really like technology so researching better ways of doing things and adding things such as a mobile app, new website with easy tee time reservations, better marketing methods, better point-of-sale and computer systems, high-tech carts and so on has been fun but very challenging as we need to be up and running with everything soon. It’s exciting to see it all unfold.
The other challenge is the restaurant end. We know we want to really cater to our golfers and provide better food and service as well as make it inviting to non-golfers. We’re putting the final details on new offerings including great BBQ, music, and different things such as liquor sales in the bar, clubhouse, and beverage cart to ensure our guests are catered to and we pull in the crowds needed to offer a great experience.
- What makes Diamond Hawk a special place, so special that you would commit to assuming ownership?
Again, it’s the facility itself. The founding owners really put a lot of thought and investment in creating such a beautiful place. It’s so cool that you can be at our facility right down the street from the airport and feel like you’re totally away from the rat race.
As we started digging into everything that is built into this facility, we realized just how unique it is. Amenities such as our 8-acre practice area which includes the driving range, bunker, chipping and putting greens and things like men’s and women’s locker rooms with lockers and showers make it one of the best facilities in the area. The course itself has things such as a computer monitored 1300 head 3-row sprinkler irrigation system that allows it to be country club quality.
Of course, having such a beautiful bar / restaurant where we can have great tournaments and events really puts it over the top.
I love that we can be open to the public and provide high-end amenities without the expense and stuffiness of many country clubs. It’s a cool place that’s going to be a lot of fun!
- Tell us about your plans for the restaurant portion of the enterprise.
My partners and I have spent a lot of time researching how we want the restaurant and bar to operate. We know we want great service and quality for the golfers as well as provide an exciting destination for non-golfers. It needs to be really good and a lot of fun!
I can’t let the cat out of the bag just yet, but we are working with a well-known BBQ person to bring in smokers and provide outstanding, fun food. We’re doing things like adding quick preordering through the cart GPS’s and a mobile app to improve service. Fun things such as more pub style tables, games such as Golden Tee and darts and live music are all in the works.
We are also setting up the kitchen, staff, and facility to accommodate large groups for tournaments and events. Right now, it’s all about how to make it better and more fun for all.
- It truly takes a team to make a golf course hum. Might you tell us about the people who will work with you, to ensure Diamond Hawk’s success?
This is where I’m extremely fortunate. I have great partners that all share the same vision in creating an outstanding atmosphere. It’s myself, Paul Pittner, Rick Keil and Mike Longo as the primary owners and board managers and every one of us brings unique experience that lends itself well to this business.
Fred Zillner is our general manager and we’re very fortunate to have him. Fred has been in the golf industry for 40 years as a pro and as an owner and manager of various courses and clubhouses and brings outstanding experience and knowledge. Having said that, his best attribute may be his people and management skills. He is a joy to work with and an integral part of our team.
We also have retained Scott Dunbar who has been the superintendent of Diamond Hawk since day one. He’s a pro’s pro in the world of course maintenance and a great guy to work with. The course has been his baby and he’s the reason the course is in such great condition.
In addition, we get a lot of help from our family and friends and other business associates. When you say it’s a team effort you’re not kidding! I could write a book on all the people that have been of help to us.
- There is a brand-new logo in your Twitter and Facebook spaces. What prompted the change, and what can you tell us about the design?
The logo was created by a couple of our graphic designers at Marketing Tech. We wanted something strong, unique, and very custom. This is going to sound funny, but I kept picturing a 70’s Trans Am with the awesome bird graphics on the hood like you saw in Smokey & The Bandit and we created the logo around that concept. I can’t wait to get our new carts in as my company, Marketing Tech, prints custom vinyl graphics and we plan on putting our hawk logo on the hoods of the cart Trans Am style!
- In addition to the course, you have a sizable practice facility. Will course and practice area receive any alterations or upgrades?
The first thing we’ve done is invest in a brand-new fleet of Toro mowing equipment and accessories and are researching different fertilization methods to improve the quality of turf. Fortunately, the course is already in great shape and these are just enhancements.
Maintenance has already begun on tree trimming, fertilization, trap quality and much more.
The practice area putting green and practice trap are getting extra attention and we plan on monitoring the practice area to see what further changes can be made to everyone is able to utilize the area without wait time.
- We know that league play and attraction of junior golfers are the lifeblood of a healthy public course. Can you address each of those, and what we can expect from the newDiamond Hawk?
We understand the importance of providing programs and facility access to young players and have already started implementing some programs. Classes and Junior Clinics with the Town of Cheektowaga are being implemented and the Maryvale High School Golf Team will be using our facility. Discussions with some area colleges to have them at our facility is taking place and we hope to make this a big part of the many community efforts we want to implement.
- What question haven’t we asked, that you would love to answer? Ask it and answer it, please. Thank you for your time.
Q: What were the biggest investments right out of the gate?
A: There’s a lot. Of course, there was the purchase of the business itself. Our first large purchases are a brand-new fleet of lithium electric golf carts and high-end Toro mowing equipment and accessories. That alone was over $700K but we know the carts are huge part of the experience and keeping the course in fantastic shape is of utmost importance.
After that, there’s been all the things that go along with a business of this magnitude. Everything from new computers and software to restaurant equipment upgrades have been on the table. Small things such as wi-fi hotspots and easy tee-time reservation software is being added regularly to ensure the best experience possible. It’s worth every penny to get this to be a first-class, fun place to be!