Frank Garcia was 11 years old when he discovered his passion for golf.
Walking from his home on 37th Street and Simmons Drive, through St. Joseph’s Cemetery and the gully of Hyde Park’s Red Nine, Garcia and his friends would collect lost golf balls on their way to playing 18 holes. On weekends, when youths could not play the course, Garcia spent full days at the practice area by the ice pavilion. “The first couple times, my father thought I got kidnapped,” he said.
By the time he was 16, Garcia was good enough to win the Hyde Park men’s championship.
Garcia went on to play college golf, qualified for the Porter Cup and a couple Canadian professional tournaments and become a PGA teaching professional. He’s visited many of the country’s premier courses. At last weekend’s PGA Championship in Rochester, Garcia tended to the practice range areas, interacting with some of the world’s top players.
Two days later, Garcia returned to Hyde Park Golf Course and stoked his passion for the game.
“Coming back here, I get goose bumps,” said Garcia, 57, now an assistant professional at Niagara Frontier Country Club. “Hyde Park will always be home to me”
Garcia was honored Tuesday as part of the 36th City of Niagara Falls Kids Junior Golf Tournament. Two weeks earlier, the 2009 Western New York Professional Golf Association Teaching Professional of the Year gave a free clinic to many of the young golfers that would be playing in the tournament.
Inspired by the experience, Garcia said he plans to continue offering free clinics at Hyde Park annually. “It’s an honor for me to come and help the kids out,” he said. “You never know what a golf club and a little bit of motivation can do.”
Garcia came of age before the Hyde Park Juniors Championship was created, but he is remembered as one of the best young players in the city’s history.
“He was always as good of a player as there was. Nobody played the game better, from tee to green,” tournament founder Ken Ruggiero recalled.
“He was a very competitive, aggressive person. He did his own thing. He was a tough cookie, but you knew where he came from and you had to like him because he was a square shooter. As he got older, he got very spiritual and he sort of changed his life and became somebody who was more interested in what other people were doing with their lives and how he could help them than in his own life.”
Garcia told the young golfers to take advantage of a game that allowed them to play alongside older generations.
“It’s something I didn’t realize then but I realize more now, how much knowledge I gained from all of the men who were willing to share it,” he said. “There were a bunch of wonderful golfers that played here. Guys that spent their whole life playing golf. It was like holy ground. If you didn’t replace a divot, they’d eat your lunch. So you learned young to rake the bunker and do all the stuff you’re supposed to do.”
For the Juniors Championships, Hyde Park closes its main 18-hole layout for the morning, spruces up the historic but seldom played Red Nine, solicits food and prize donations from local businesses, and invites youths ages 7 to 17 from all locales to play for a $5 entry fee. This year, 107 players participated.
“A lot of these kids that come out here have probably never held a golf club before,” said John Caso, deputy director of public works and tournament coordinator. “When they are done, they say to their mom and dads, ‘I want to play. I want a set of clubs.’ And before you know it, they are playing nine holes, twice per week.”
Mayor Paul Dyster said, “It’s a great opportunity for our youth to come out and be exposed to a sport that, as Frank Garcia said, you can play as a youngster, you can play at middle age, you can play as a senior citizen, and you can play together.”
“And we’re proud that it gives us an opportunity to show off our Hyde Park Golf Course. We continue to make improvements here, and we are a looking at a series of additional improvements.”
The tournament was born from youth clinics Ruggiero gave when he was the city’s supervisor of recreation. “When the clinics were over, these kids were so juiced up about golf that I decided we needed to have some sort of piece de resistance to the clinics,” he said. “Not one public golf course had junior golf tournaments. Private clubs did. But public courses, I think we were 15 or 20 years before another one did it.”
Last summer, Dyster gave a proclamation recognizing Ruggiero as the founder of the tournament.
“It’s without a doubt, hands down, the proudest thing I’ve ever done,” Ruggiero said. “Golf is a great sport. It brings kids together. I see kids out here that don’t know each other in the morning putting their arms around each other at the end of the day, and I think, “Oh my, what have you done?” God is going to reward me for this, I’m sure.”
The winners of this year’s tournament were: Boys, 15-17 – David Yarger; Girls, 11-14 – Mikah McDonnell; Boys, 11-14 – Shane Helbig; Girls, 7-10 – Brianna Scazzafava; Boys 7-10,– Andrew Messalle.