It was 1894. Golf was still in its infancy in this country, a sporting curiosity that was just beginning to pique the national imagination. The first 18-hole U.S. course had been constructed out in Chicago just two years before.
Two members of the Country Club of Buffalo, John Glenny and Dr. Charles Cary, decided it was time to get in the game. They called on Dr. Harry Grant, a Canadian who was a member at the Niagara on the Lake course, the oldest on the continent.
Grant traveled to CCB, which was then located at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Nottingham Terrace in the city. The three men grabbed clubs, balls and an empty tomato can and walked about 220 yards south into Delaware Park, to what would one day be the grassy triangle outside the Buffalo History Museum.
They dug a hole, twisted the tomato can into the ground, and began to hit balls toward the target. Whatever you called it, a cup or a can, it’s believed to be the first golf hole ever played in Western New York.
Golf took off like a majestic tee shot after that. History is fuzzy. But Alan Bozer, an attorney who serves on the board of trustees of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, says you can trace much of our golf history to that moment.
In a few years, CCB moved to Bailey and Main, which later became Grover Cleveland. The Park Country Club took its place in Delaware Park before moving to Sheridan. In 1926, CCB moved again to its current location on Youngs Road. Oh, and Orchard Park CC actually got its start in Delaware Park.
“So as a result of that first golf hole in 1894, you have five clubs created,” Bozer said.
That’s quite a golfing legacy, one that Bozer felt should be properly acknowledged. So on Thursday evening, the Conservancy will celebrate the park’s golf history with a cocktail party and fundraiser at the Buffalo History Museum. On Friday, the ninth annual Olmsted Open will be held on the Delaware Park course.
County Executive Mark Poloncarz, an avid and accomplished golfer, will decree a “120 Years of Golf in Delaware Park” day.
At some point, the participants will head out to the equestrian “Centaur” sculpture – the approximate site of the original hole in 1894 – and take a few whacks.
“We’re going to put a tomato can in the ground exactly as close as we can get it to where that first hole was,” said Thomas Herrera-Mishler, “and we’re going to try to knock some balls into it. It’s going to be 1890s golf, so the grass is going to be pretty rough.”
No one will ever confuse Delaware Park with Augusta or Pebble Beach. But it deserves to be celebrated now and then. Golf is a country club sport, but it’s a sport of the people, and it’s good for the city to maintain three courses – Delaware, Cazenovia and South Park – that serve as an affordable outlet for golfers.
Herrera-Mishler didn’t come here for the golf courses, though he enjoys the game. A landscape architect and regional planner by trade, he came to Buffalo because of the Olmsted Parks, an elaborate network of parks and parkways designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 19th century.
The golf courses generate revenue and attract people who might not otherwise visit the parks, which are part of the largest Olmsted system in the nation. Getting to run the parks was the job of a lifetime for Herrera-Mishler, who took over in 2008. As director of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, he had been in charge of a 36-acre Olmsted landscape in Boston. Here, he’s in charge of 1,200 acres.
“For me, the big attraction is a city-wide park system that serves everyone in the region,” he said. “So if we’re successful taking care of these parks, parkways and golf courses, the whole city looks better. We’re sort of dressed for success now as a city, because all of the parks look so great.”
Mishler-Herrera says property values in the neighborhood around Delaware Park have risen by 76 percent over the past six years. Walk around the park and you’ll get a sense of a vibrant, thriving community.
Stop by Monday morning and you’ll see a bunch of young golfers, many of them minorities. They’re with Buffalo Inter-City Golf (B.I.G.), which has been teaching kids how to play golf and incorporating the sport into their academic lives for more than two decades.
Randy Edwards has been working with B.I.G. since the late Hank Williams Jr. started the program in 1993. B.I.G. has worked with more than 1,000 kids over the years. Edwards, who has lived his entire 65 years in the city, said 25 percent of the kids have gone on to college, some to play golf.
“It’s huge,” Edwards said of Delaware Park’s long golfing tradition. “It’s fantastic for golf, a place where people within the community can play at a very low cost. The beauty is that it’s a park, our central park. There’s a lot of pride associated with that.”
This past spring, B.I.G. held its first fundraiser in Delaware Park. Edwards said they did it on Father’s Day, to celebrate fatherhood and the importance of men taking responsibility as parents and leaders. He said the community support was terrific.
“We had sponsors’ signs on every hole, like they would at any country club,” Edwards said. “The normal people who play Delaware would stop and say how nice it was that people remember this park and support the kids.”
That’s what Mishler and the Conservancy are looking to cultivate, a renewed appreciation for the Olmsted Parks as a civic treasure, a network of golf courses and parks and parkways that connect people and also connect Buffalo to its past.
“If you think about it, the parks and parkways are this green ribbon that threads its way through the entire city, connecting all our major educational and cultural institutions.,” he said.
As always, money is an issue. The Conservancy gets $1.2 million a year in cash subsidies from the city to maintain the parks. Counting “in-kind” services, the city provides roughly $2 million.
“The city gives us half and we raise the other half from our friends who believe great parks are part of a great city,” Herrera-Mishler said.
Some people actually believe parks are more vital than football stadiums. It’s a shame that governments can throw tens of millions at an NFL franchise, while the parks go begging for money. I guess Olmsted’s vision doesn’t provide quite as great a “psychic” benefit as the Bills.