There was a time that I worried about the future of professional golf on the southern tier of upstate New York.
Sure, the PGA Tour had a long history at En-Joie Golf Course in Endicott, with a tour stop that started in 1971 as the Broome County Open. It changed its name to the much-catchier B.C. Open the very next year (thank you, B.C. comic strip creator Johnny Hart, born and raised in Endicott). It drew some top-tier pros to play the old-school, public course until 2005.
For decades, I headed my car south from Central New York to witness the fun. It became an annual tradition.
Slowly and surely, I became friendly with the pro who shared my alma mater.
Fellow University of Maryland Terrapin Fred Funk was personable from the start. Following him every round, I got to know his dad, Stan. We stood together behind the fourth green one year and cheered Fred’s hole-in-one. Fred had many, but that was the first one Stan got to witness. We marched around the course together the day Fred shot his incredible round of 61. We watched Fred win the tournament in 1996. Stan would invited me along in the player’s van to ride up to the range and watch Fred practice. He took me along to eat lunch with Fred in the mobile eatery that followed the tour, affectionately known as the Caddy Shack.
Tears came to my eyes when I heard that Stan had passed.
I was told the bad news by Mark Long, who had become Fred’s caddy. Long was another fellow Terp. He displayed a big personality and a great memory for faces. Whether I saw him along the ropes at the TPC at Avenel in Maryland or Atunyote at Turning Stone, he quickly placed my face, recalled my name and brought up Maryland football.
I made friends with the Barber family. Ken and Cindy hosted Fred, his caddy, and other golfers in their big home. In that yearly four-day visit, I watched their lovely children grow up.
Fred had found himself a host family that would become true friends with he and his wife, Sharon, as well as their son, Taylor.
(Yes, when Mark Long decided to trade in his caddy bib to concentrate on his business of charting golf course yardage books, either Sharon or Taylor would take on the task of lugging Fred’s clubs.)
Looking around, I noticed that many of the golfers had established similar ties with southern tier families.
The B.C. Open was truly a community event, where the line blurred between being a fan and a friend.
But it was still the little tournament on tour. The purse was high in regular-folk terms, but low on the PGA Tour scale. It was given the slot opposite the British Open, which meant the top golfers on the tour would be playing on the other side of the ocean. Then, in 2006, off-season flooding ravaged En-Joie. The folks at Turning Stone quickly stepped in to host the event that year. Hosted by the Oneida Indian Nation, the B.C. Open that year had its biggest purse, a robust $3 million.
The PGA regular tour made Turning Stone’s Atunyote course its upstate stop thereafter, as the Turning Stone Resort Championship became the centerpiece of the tour’s Fall Finish stretch, the eye-popping purse of $6 million. The Fed Ex Cup playoffs then pushed its timing to after the Tour Championship, chilly autumn golf in Central New York. That changed in 2010, but the August date was in that position familiar to the B.C. Open folks. It was an alternate event, this time opposite the World Golf Championship at Firestone in Akron, Ohio.
A better date from the PGA Tour was not forthcoming, and 2010 was the last year for the Turning Stone stop.
By then, though, the PGA folks were back to En-Joie. In 2007, Endicott became the host city for a Champions Tour stop, the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open.
I went Friday, solo, and Sunday, with my dear wife Karen.
We followed Fred Funk, with wife Sharon carrying his bag. We talked with Ken and Cindy Barber, and smiled at daughter Kayla’s cute toddler, last seen giggling his way up an empty fairway with grandparents and parents ready with his stroller.
Fred shot his second-straight five-under round Sunday, to move into the top ten after a one-under start on Friday had placed him in the middle of the field.
En-Joie was every bit as hopping as those days when it was the younger PGA crowd swinging the clubs. In fact, so much time has passed that many of the 50-and-over players on the Champions Tour are the very same guys who played the B.C. Open. On Friday night, the organizers put country star Tim McGraw on a stage flanking the 18th green. The crowd estimate was 25,000. Friday tickets were priced at $40.
Nice. Important for the finances.
But the most charming moment for me came Sunday afternoon (ticket price, $25, by the way) as families followed their favorite golfers. They rooted like they were friends.
I have no worries about pro golf on the southern tier of upstate New York. The Dick’s Sporting Goods Open does it right.
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Nicely done as usual, Mark … a refreshing and timely view of the humanity in sports on the day after the Sox-Yankees circus.